Review of “Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence” by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

“Not in God’s Name:  Confronting Religious Violence” by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Review & Commentary by Yoel Magid

“The Encyclopedia of War” surveys over 1800 conflicts and finds that less than 10% had any religious component.   Stalin and Mao and Hitler, not religious men acting in God’s name, were mass murderers of tens of millions.  But knowing that doesn’t help our ability to comprehend today what we feel when confronted by Islamic jihadists who commit barbaric atrocities in the name of their God.


Although we still may not know exactly how to wage war successfully against these religious extremists today, most of us agree that we have to do something to stop the sickening violence.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks understands that weapons win wars, and that we must defeat ISIS, but as a rabbi and teacher he also understands that only ideas can win peace.  Rabbi Sacks has written a brilliant and amazing book about how to educate for peace, forgiveness and love because, as he says, tomorrow’s world is born in what we teach our children today.  Only religious education can conquer the desecration of religion by those who turn to what he calls “altruistic evil” — evil committed in the name of a sacred cause.


Rabbi Sacks begins by discussing clearly and eloquently the sources of hatred and violence from psychological, historical, philosophical and sociological perspectives.  Pathological dualism — seeing the world as a struggle between us and them, between light and dark, between good and evil — becomes, according to Sacks, both a religious and ideological base for mass murder.  By dehumanizing the other/the evil ones/the Satan/ the scapegoat/the Jew/the Christian/the Muslim, anyone can justify killing them without feeling guilt.


Since each of the major Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam considers itself the legitimate heir to Abraham’s promise, Sacks’ answer to pathological dualistic thinking comes through an analysis of sibling rivalries in Genesis — Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers.  While most of us remember these stories as unremitting, destructive conflicts between siblings fighting for parental love, Sacks’ twenty-first century rereading of these rivalries resets our focus to the end of the stories — to reconciliation and, what he calls, the “rejection of rejection”.  Isaac and Ishmael stand together at Abraham’s grave. Jacob returns to Esau what is his inheritance because after wrestling with an angel/God/himself, Jacob understands that he himself has a different kind of inheritance and future. Joseph makes his brothers go through a role reversal of being victims in order to feel slavery and fear, and what they did to their brother.  Later, Moses tells the Israelites not to look back and hate the Egyptian but rather to accept the stranger because the Israelites were strangers in Egypt.  In all the stories, hatred gives way to reconciliation.  We must not forget, but we must not let memory become unbridled hatred.


The stories are important to Jews, Christians and Muslims because all three want to see themselves as the rightful descendants of Abraham.  Sacks’ re-reading of these stories emphasizes the acceptance of diversity, that we are all related even if each one believes his/her own way is the right way.  Once you understand that sibling rivalry can be resolved by reconciliation rather than hate, you can move forward free of binding hatreds.  Once you understand that stories upon which you base your religious identity call perhaps for living together with your own tribe while accepting the legitimate existence of other tribes and children of God, you will not be able to dehumanize and kill the outsider/the other/the follower of other religions or ideologies.


This is a must-read book.  We are not going to defeat ISIS today by reading a book or simply extolling the virtues of loving one’s neighbor and justice, but we have a chance to change the future of religious fanaticism if we can get rabbis, preachers, imams, religious teachers to read and understand an extraordinarily powerful counter to the fanatic, exclusionary interpretations of religious traditions as expressed in the sibling rivalries of Genesis.


So please read “Not in God’s Name”, and go a step further if you find it as convincing as I did. Send it to fellow Jews, send it to non-believers, but most importantly send copies to someone you know who may be of a different religion, hopefully someone who is religious in some way and who can pass it on to religious leaders, teachers and friends.  In the age of social media and twitter messages that pass for intelligent discussion, we can still invite dialogue about serious books and serious issues.  Let’s convince the foundations of the world to go even further and send the book to religious leaders world-wide, and let’s ask these leaders to make sure that the book’s message reaches teachers of all religions.


Instead of just fearing future fanaticism, let’s try to make the future by disseminating good ideas to counter all the bad ones out there.  Let’s recapture religion from those who kill in God’s name and make God, and all of us, weep.


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