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Rabbi Sacks

Sunday, March 27, 2016 • 17 Adar II 5776

7:30 PM - 9:30 PM










The Dignity of Difference

By Alex S. Fuss


The YIJE event was planned long before the latest horrific world news - this time from Belgium – was streaming around the globe, but the attack on “infidels” at the Brussels airport and nearby metro station underscored the problem Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, most formidable Jewish scholars and leaders each, were invited to discuss.

Rabbi Sacks would elaborate on his recently completed Not in God’s Name, Confronting Religious Violence.; Rabbi Soloveichik, his esteemed colleague and friend would interview him, as he did brilliantly and with humor in 2014 on the subject of Atheism, Fundamentalism, and the Future of Faith[1]. Throw in a gala reception and a book signing, and it would be a perfect evening to consider our extremely imperfect world.

Sponsors were lined up in record time, as were registrants, and every detail – from event security to the flow of traffic, to the pre-signed book plates for sponsors – was meticulously premeditated. From Rabbi Hochberg’s opening remarks to the conclusion of the מעריב service, the evening proceeded as planned[2].

Not in God’s Name offers Rabbi Sacks’ unique perspective on the biblical theme of sibling rivalry, whose misinterpretation, he asserts, is the root cause of wars and terrorism. People traditionally read the stories of Cain & Abel, Isaac & Ismail, Jacob & Esau, and Joseph & his brothers, as God favoring (choosing) the former over the latter, whereas Rabbi Sacks interprets them as a progression that leads us to God’s model for sibling cooperation: Cain & Abel’s conflict ends in death; Isaac & Ismail’s, in reuniting at their father’s burial; Jacob & Esau’s, in embrace; and Joseph & his brothers in repentance and reuniting to form the nation of Israel.

Forming nations, or groups, with a unique culture and faith, says Sacks, is a key survival mechanism, but often leads to the characterization of those outside the formed group, because they are different, as evil and worthy of subjugation, scapegoating, and/or elimination, rather than to valuing the dignity of their differences. God chose to create a covenant with Abraham and the Jewish people to embody and embrace difference[3]. That said, Rabbi Sacks emphasizes in his book that there is no need for the three Abrahamic religions to compete for God’s love. His love is not a limited resource, but infinite, and His first covenant with Noah is universal. God merely assigns different roles to different peoples with the expectation that each group will come to empathize with, accept, learn from, and collaborate with the others.

This message of the Dignity of Difference Rabbi Sacks said he “market tested” with the leaders of many diverse student organizations he invited annually to his home in England. He found the concept resonated with them, especially with Hindus, who are watchful of Christian and Islamic proselytizing. 

Given the problem as Rabbi Sacks defined it, Rabbi Soloveichik asked him whether the solution to religious wars and terrorism is a battle of ideas or actual battles. Rabbi Sacks’ response: Wars are won by winning physical battles; peace is won by winning the battle of ideas. And when one is not hopeful he can win the battle of ideas, friendship works wonders.

The first Archbishop of Canterbury with whom Rabbi Sacks interacted was a committed supporter of the State of Israel; the second was not. Realizing this, Rabbi & Mrs. Sacks made special efforts to befriend the Archbishop, and as a result, said Rabbi Sacks, “we became very close, and everything I asked him to do for Israel he did.”

Evangelical Christians, added Rabbi Sacks, are among our strongest supporters, and we should partner with them and peaceful Muslims to combat radical Islamic terrorism and persecution, the majority of victims of which are in fact Christians and Muslims. Emphasizing that point when he met with European leaders, Rabbi Sacks told them “if Jews aren’t safe in Europe, no one is safe in Europe.”

The key to resolving the raging “sibling” disputes of our time, avows Rabbi Sacks, is to teach the appreciation of dignity of difference, which will lead to love of the stranger – not agápē, the Greek abstract notion of love, but love modeled on wholesome, intimate familial[4] relationships, sibling and parental, as we are all God’s children.

At the end of a fascinating evening – for which we are all indebted to Sharon and Avram Blumenthal, Elliot Goldofsky; Zev & Judy Berman; Fran & Yeeshai Gross; Rabbi & Karen Hochberg; Meir Mishkoff; and countless volunteers – I was left with the following thought: As Rabbi Sacks’ interpretation of the sibling rivalry stories in Genesis is, by his own admission, non-traditional, why would God make His Word so easy to misinterpret. Might not a good editor and 70 good translators have prevented a lot of bloodshed, and protected His good name?! As the People of the Book, we, the nation that dwells alone, have our work cut out for us. Thankfully, we have great leaders like Rabbi Sacks and Rabbi Soloveichik to show us the way. It was a rare privilege to spend the evening with them.




[2] As planned by the committee, that is; I myself had planned for a sit-down dinner, not hors d'oeuvres, and had unfortunately therefore skipped lunch.

[3] Rabbi Soloveichik, relying on his iPad throughout the evening, joked that Steve Jobs was the second Moses, giving the world two tablets. Perhaps we Jews taught him to Think Different.

[4] Rabbi Sacks mentioned parenthetically that he and Rabbi Soloveichik went to the Vatican and discussed with bishops the world problems of the breakdown of the family unit and the below-replacement birth rate, especially throughout Europe.

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