Jan. 23rd, 2017

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Not in God's Name by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

I found this book sometimes interesting and thought-provoking, but more often I found it frustrating. I didn't read the whole thing, though I did read large chunks of it and after a certain point I started skipping around to read chunks of different chapters to sample as much of it as I could take. It's Rabbi Sacks's effort to talk about a lot of related issues involving the intersection of religion and militism, and there are so many different topics and so many different ideas and Rabbi Sacks as a moderate traditionalist is trying to navigate such a precarious middle ground that it feels like every chapter contradicts the chapter before it.

Rabbi Sacks's chief argument is, perhaps, that religious violence is not the result of particularism, of sectarian identification, but of the warring impulses of particularism and universalism. It emerges when a particular sect with its particularist ideology decides that it has the moral imperative to impose its ideology on others. He claims that this is a natural consequence of theological dualism and suggests that the Jewish form of monotheism was introduced as a competitor to this dualism, to the idea that the Other is the Enemy. Also, I think, that anti-semitism exists because of the threat this ideology poses to dualist sects.

But then he waves away the violently dualist passages in Torah in a sloppy and inconclusive chapter called "Hard Texts" in which he says that the Rabbanim always understood these violent passages as not really impelling violence (which is mostly true), but doesn't offer a compelling alternative explanation for why these passages are violent, simply claiming that people in the Biblical era were more violent and needed this violent language in their holy texts for some reason.

I wanted more from Rabbi Sacks. I made a similar argument a few years back with regards to Artscroll's choice to render 'thy two breasts' in the Song of Songs as "thy twin tablets of Law". It's fine that two thousand years of religious tradition understand this text as metaphorical, but it's important to recognize how metaphors work in Judaism. We recognize that there is something to be taught from the p'shat, the literal meaning, even though as a matter of practical halacha we don't observe the p'shat. Rabbi Sacks does not offer a convincing reason why there are Biblical exhortations to genocide, even though they are not observed, and I think it weakens his overall case for Jewish theology as uniquely suited to being an Or LaGoyim.

On the other hand, I don't know any thinkers offering better explanations for these verses. There may just not be a good answer to this question.

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