Not In God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence

Pantheon Books  2015


Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is the leading public Jewish intellect of our times. His brilliant oratory, his contemporary rendering of classic Jewish thought into scintillating books, and his original interpretations of ancient texts, have cast him as a spokesperson for Judaism and Jewish values in a world gone amok. Not in God’s Name is his attempt to grapple with the current rise in violent killings based on religious beliefs. People have been killing each other for centuries in the name of religion. One might have hoped that in the twenty-first century such barbarism might have ceased. The reality that it has not ebbed but rather now resurges has generated this recent National Jewish Book Award-winning text.

Rabbi Lord Sacks is a philosopher. As such he goes on at great length to analyze the roots of religious violence. He cites great thinkers from many disciplines—philosophy, sociology, history, and psychology as well as the arts and sciences. He is well versed in a multitude of fields and all of this depth and breadth of learning is brought to bear on an analysis of the whys and wherefores of religious violence. He offers novel interpretations of Biblical texts, particularly the Joseph narratives, and has a felicitous style of writing. His vocabulary is dramatic and ebullient. The Jewish people, upon entering Israel, are described as an amphictyony—a loose federation of tribes led at times of emergency by charismatic figures known as judges.

Religion leads to violence when it consecrates hatred. After thirteen chapters analyzing the roots of religious violence, the last two chapters offer little more than standard ideals. Love your enemy, let go of the hatred in your heart, and acknowledge that only God can mete out vengeance. Wars may be won with weapons but only ideas can win a peace. Terror is idolatry. The victims are the values upon which a free society is built. Honor God’s Name by honoring His image, humankind.

The analysis is most insightful, though no practical solutions to the issues addressed are offered. Maybe that in itself is the essence of the problem. “Religiously motivated violence,” Rabbi Lord Sacks observes, “must be fought religiously as well as militarily, and with passionate intensity, for this will be one of the defining battles of the twenty-first century.”

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