Book Reviews

“Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence” by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

“No soul was ever saved by hate. No truth was ever proved by violence. No redemption was ever brought by holy war. No religion won the admiration of the world by its capacity to inflict suffering on its enemies.” (p. 265)

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My first introduction to the writings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was his 2002 book The Dignity of Difference. I was hooked – and I continued to be impressed with his writings throughout the last decade. The former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain’s nuanced approach to the complexities of religious traditions and how they impact international relations is a breath of fresh air in a world of pundits, policy wonks, and the ever shriller tone of the 24 hour news cycle. So when I heard that he had published a new book, Not In God’s Name, I ordered it for next day delivery, in hardcover, on the spot.

To put my excitement into perspective, I almost never purchase physical books. Most of my reading material comes from my amazing public library. I can count using only my thumbs the number of books that I have bought in the last year, in hardcover, within 24 hours of knowing that they existed, and that I have read within 1 month of their release. I have books that have languished on my to-read list for decades, and that total list now numbers in the thousands. To say that I was looking forward to this book is an understatement. I came to this book with very high expectations. And I was not disappointed.

Not In God’s Name presents how ideologies which justify violence on the basis of religious belief became part of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditional narratives. Rabbi Sacks draws on his extensive knowledge of history, theology, and psychology to understand how and why traditional texts were interpreted in this way, the impact of these interpretations, and goes on to offer alternative readings that undermine the justifications for violence. To a large extent, Rabbi Sacks is writing for an educated reader – even though I am a Rabbi with a university degree in international relations, and familiar with the terminology, I still occasionally had to reach for my dictionary. However, to say that this book is intended for an academic audience would be incorrect. Balancing the formality of Sacks’ language is his ability to speak directly to the most current events. This gives Not In God’s Name a “ripped from the headlines” accessibility, which Sacks then backs up with a clarity of argument that ensures that the reader can follow along.

The book is divided into 3 sections, with the 1st expressing Sacks’ understanding of how “altruistic evil”, or the committing of horrific violent acts in the name of the common good, manifests itself in societies. In this section Sacks focuses mostly on the experience of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. While these examples certainly provide ample material for Sacks’ topic, it is very likely that readers are already familiar with the problem.

It is in the 2nd section, where Sacks mines deeply into the heart of the Biblical and Quranic narratives that the book begins to shine. The sophistication and delicacy of Sacks’ readings of these texts has the power to leave readers breathless. Breathless and wondering why these interpretations are not the ones that are best well known and taught in religious schools around the world.

The final section is a homiletic in which Sacks derives lessons from the texts that he hopes will lead others to see how the religious narratives can be used to promote a more peaceful relationship between nations and ideologies. He theorizes how the world might be different if religious leaders could promote new understandings of power. And while he does address the tremendous boundaries to doing so successfully, the book remains relentlessly hopeful. It may not be a plan for realpolitik, but it is a clarion call as a prayer.

“Not in God’s Name” is a book for anyone who has been touched by the news headlines and images that show the impact of international terrorism and wondered if there is any light out of this darkness. Rabbi Sacks offers readers an alternative paradigm that sees faith as the beacon that will lead the international community towards peace.

“Peace comes when we see our reflection in the face of God and let go of the desire to be someone else.” (p.139).

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