THE DIGNITY OF DIFFERENCE
Continuum Publishers, 2002
Reviewed by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple
Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney
British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the most elegant English-language author on Judaism in the world today. He writes prolifically and has a wide readership among both Jews and non-Jews. His writings cover internal Jewish subjects and the wider human and global problems.
His book The Dignity Of Difference comes under the topic of global problems. Subtitled How to avoid the dash of civilisations, it argues that just as religious difference played a major role in the events of September 11, so religious differences can help towards world survival.
Where we used to say we needed to narrow the gap between religions and find more common ground, Sacks argues very persuasively that we need to learn to make space for difference, discovering that there is dignity in diversity under the over-arching authority of the one creator. It is this thought – diversity under the one God that turned this book into a far more controversial work than Sacks could have imagined.
In the first printing he stated that all religions have truth and God is higher than any one religion. He was severely taken to task by some Jews (note that his critics probably had not read the actual book but relied on media reports) who accused him of apikorsut (heresy).
It’s an interesting development, of course, to see a chief rabbi crowned with the improbable title of apikoros; though Sacks would not compare himself to the Rambam, Maimonides too had his fierce enemies who wanted his grave to bear the words: “Here lies a heretic.”
And as Rabbi Norman Solomons wrote in the Jewish Chronicle: “The recent attempt to ban a book by the chief rabbi, or to force him to rewrite passages, has a long, if shameful, history.”
Writing in the Jerusalem Post, Cohn Shindler remarked that Anglo-Jewry loves such theatrics. At different times, most of Britain’s chief rabbis have said or done controversial things (admittedly, some quite injudicious) and the community has divided between those who found themselves hugely entertained by the sight of a chief rabbi being metaphorically mauled and others whose instinctive thought was, in Shindler’s words: “To rally round their beloved chief rabbi.”
Accompanied by Dayan Ehrentreu of the London Beth Din, Sacks had a meeting with some of the critics and, while presumably not resiling from his general view, agreed to reword the controversial passages in the next issue of the book.
This has now been done, and what we read in the new edition accords ultimate truth to Judaism while not denying that there are insights in other religions and constantly insisting that the other faiths and their adherents must be accorded respect – a position reflecting that of Maimonides, who in a crucial (but often censored) passage in Hilchot Melachim says that Christianity and Islam are in error, but must be respected for bringing a monotheistic influence to bear on large segments of mankind.
The controversy has probably ensured that the book would sell very widely, but it would be a pity to allow the major call of the book to go unheeded.
Stressing that religion not only helps to create conflict but also to solve it, Sacks believes that there is a dignity in difference and a moral imperative to listen to one another.
He addresses views such as those which claim that differences are bound to lead to war and the best way is to impose one single absolute truth.
But there is more than one attempt to create a universal civilisation: what happens when universal civilisations meet and dash, as happened on September 11 when global capitalism and Islam confronted one another?
Sacks urges us to go back to the Bible, which begins with the general but then moves to the particular, from all mankind to one family. There is sameness, but there is also difference. The general and the particular – the theme is played out everywhere.
In the market economy, differences either lead people to fight or to trade. From fighting, both sides lose; from trading, both sides gain. There is complexity in every aspect of human experience; the biblical paradigm teaches that the options are not just universalism and tribalism, but also the dignity of difference.
People may question some of Sacks’ views on politics, science, economics or whatever. But the book is compelling reading, and apart from the theological controversy, it may prove to be one of the most stimulating and valuable analyses of how the world can get itself out of a frightening mess.