Jewish leader posits ‘theology of other’ to save religion

Britain’s former chief rabbi has written that only a “theology of the other” drawn from a subtle reading of scripture can save religion.

In a new book titled “Not in God’s Name”, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks attempts to explain why religion and violence so often go hand in glove.

The explanation lies in religion’s dual nature, posited a review of the book in The Telegraph.

The three great monotheisms – Judaism, Islam and Christianity – are spiritual belief systems that encourage prayer, charity and forgiveness.

But, writes Sacks, they are also tribal identities whose “noble sentiments have often been confined to fellow believers, or at least potential fellow believers”.

Once a religion becomes an identity and builds a community, conflict will ensue.

Under Christian rule, Jews were either persecuted or allowed to live in sufferance until they converted; under Muslim rule, Jews and Christians were tolerated at various times, but treated as secondary subjects with restricted rights to worship.

The religious paradox is that while prophets and saints preach worldly detachment, the most successful religions have been attached to earthly powers.

In Sacks’s words, religions have often lusted after “power, territory and glory, things that are secular, even profane”.

The review states that it is all too easy to think that serving God means making everyone else worship as you worship.

At its most extreme, this becomes what Sacks calls “altruistic evil: evil committed in a sacred cause, in the name of high ideals”.

For Sacks, only a subtle reading of scripture can save religion.

He interprets the sibling rivalries in Genesis as a model for competition between Jews, Christians and Muslims.

God might have chosen Isaac, writes Sacks, but his brother Ishmael joined him to bury their father Abraham; Jacob might have stolen Isaac’s blessing from Esau, but the hairier brother is also blessed; Judah tried to kill his brother Joseph, but is forgiven.

This is Sacks’s “theology of the Other”: keep your own faith and identity, but acknowledge the stranger as your brother.


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