Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. New York: Schocken, 2015. 305 pages.
Does religion cause violence? On one level, the answer would appear to be obvious, as we witness sustained religious war in the Middle East on a scale that has led some to evoke Europe’s Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century. And for some observers, the question does not need to be pursued much further. Thus the neuroscientist Sam Harris, whose 2004 book The End of Faith launched his career as an antireligious polemicist, sees a direct and inextricable link between the holy book of Islam and the violence that has been such a prominent feature of the early years of the 21st century: “If you believe anything like what the Koran says you must believe in order to escape the fires of hell, you will, at the very least, be sympathetic with the actions of Osama bin Laden.”1

As might be expected, things are not quite so simple for former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who sees the chain of causation in a somewhat different way. Sacks devotes the first part of his new book Not in God’s Name to mapping out the factors in human life that lead to violence:

Violence has nothing to do with religion as such. It has to do with identity and life in groups. Religion sustains groups more effectively than any other force. It suppresses violence within. It rises to the threat of violence from without. Most conflicts and wars have nothing to do with religion whatsoever. They are about power, territory and glory, things that are secular, even profane. But if religion can be enlisted, it will be.

Of course there is more to it than that. Group identity is more likely to lead to violence if it is reinforced by dualism, and especially what Sacks calls “pathological dualism,” a “mutant form” of group identity that “sees humanity itself as radically, ontologically divided into the unimpeachably good and the irredeemably bad.” Sacks also follows the French cultural anthropologist and literary critic René Girard in maintaining that it’s violence that causes religion rather than the other way around: “All societies generate internal conflict that can become violent and self-destructive. Therefore all societies require religion, which performs the task of ‘casting out’ the violence, deflecting it away from the group itself by placing it on an external victim, thus turning violence outwards instead of allowing it to turn destructively inwards.”

Another important factor is sibling rivalry. Girard saw the root of violence in “mimetic desire,” or wanting what someone else has because they have it. This occurs especially within families, so that sibling rivalry, Sacks writes, plays a central role in human conflict. This factor is especially germane to conflict within the Abrahamic family of religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – as these religions have a sibling relationship with one another. Of course, there has been conflict between other religions as well, but conflict between Judaism, Christianity and Islam has been especially intense and long-lasting. For Sacks, this conflict is not just a product of the emergence of the newer Abrahamic faiths, Christianity and Islam, but has its root in a central text of the oldest of them, Sacks’s (and my) own Jewish tradition.

This is the biblical book of Genesis, in which sibling rivalry is a major theme – perhaps the major theme. In generation after generation, one brother or sister is chosen over others: Abel over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Rachel over Leah, Joseph over his brothers. Each generation’s conflict plays out in a different way, from Cain’s murder of Abel to Joseph’s ultimate reconciliation with his brothers, but none comes to an easy resolution. Therefore the heart of Sacks’s book is a rereading of these stories to find more positive elements than are present on the surface. Biblical exegesis isn’t a genre that readers expect to encounter in Inroads, but please bear with me as I summarize Sacks’s reimagining of the story of Jacob and Esau. Before I do that, however, we need to step back and look at the question of how religious texts are meant to be read.

This is a crucial point of difference between Sacks on the one hand and both religious fundamentalists and antireligious polemicists like Sam Harris on the other. For the latter, the text means what it appears to mean on the surface. To try to make it mean anything else is to distort it, to bamboozle readers into making them think that religion is something other than what it is. According to Harris, to reform religion is to read Scripture in “the most acrobatic” terms.2

Another word for “acrobatic” in this context is “rabbinic.” (Other traditions have their equivalent terms as well, such as “Jesuitical”). Finding new interpretations of ancient texts is central to the rabbinic enterprise, and it proceeds from the conviction that to do so does not do violence to the text but rather deepens and enriches its meaning. “As in an Escher engraving, the text of the Torah flickers with ambiguity,” writes Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, not a rabbi because of her sex but a brilliant contemporary interpreter of the Bible. “And the reader experiences that inner shift that destabilizes the idolatrous security of meaning. Perhaps only a text that flickers in this way can maintain its power over time.”3

A common technique for finding new meaning is close reading – probing the text for the anomalous word or phrase (or even a single letter) that does not fit with existing interpretations and suggests a previously undiscovered layer of meaning. One word is enough for Sacks to cast the relationship between Jacob and Esau in a more positive light.

The twins

Jacob and Esau are twins, but Esau emerged first and so has the privileges of the eldest son. Esau is a hunter, a man of the field; Jacob “a simple man, dwelling in tents” – but not so simple when it comes to besting his virile but less quick-witted elder brother. Jacob is the favourite of the twins’ mother, Rebecca, while Esau is the favourite of their father, Isaac. This is the story of an ordinary and somewhat dysfunctional family of the second millennium BCE, but also of the line that leads to the people Israel that will establish a covenant with the God YHWH at Mount Sinai.

The climax of the story comes when Isaac is old and blind and wishes to bless his eldest son, Esau, before he dies. Rebecca has been waiting for this moment and sets up Jacob to disguise himself as Esau and obtain the blessing for himself. As soon as Isaac has blessed Jacob, the real Esau comes in, and when he and Isaac find out what has happened, they are both deeply shaken. Isaac has a blessing for Esau as well, but an apparently lesser one. Furious at Jacob’s deception, Esau threatens to kill his brother, and Rebecca saves his life by sending him off to Mesopotamia on the pretext of finding a wife.

Jacob remains in Mesopotamia for 20 years. When he returns with four wives, 12 children and much sheep and cattle, he hears that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men. Fearing the worst, he goes off by himself and camps overnight, and there he wrestles with a mysterious being, later termed an angel, who gives him a new name, Israel. Then he goes to meet with Esau, who instead of trying to kill him, embraces him. The brothers then go their separate ways.4

This is the story as people who learned a few Bible stories in their childhood generally understand it. Jacob and Esau are pitted against each other. Jacob is chosen, Esau rejected.

But Sacks sees more in the story. Central to understanding it is Jacob’s “mimetic desire.” Jacob wishes to have what Esau has, to be what Esau is. He grasps Esau’s heel as they come out of Rebecca’s womb, buys Esau’s birthright for the proverbial “mess of pottage” and then tricks Esau out of the blessing. The blessing that the blind Isaac gives to Jacob is Esau’s blessing, a blessing of wealth and power.

However, it is rarely noticed that Isaac gives Jacob a second blessing, knowing that he is Jacob, just as he is about to set out for Mesopotamia. This is a blessing of children and land, the blessing of covenant, Jacob’s blessing. But Jacob still needs to renounce the first blessing, the one intended for Esau. And he does. When the brothers meet 20 years later, Jacob offers Esau lavish gifts. Esau says, “I have an abundance, my brother; let what is yours be yours.” But Jacob persists: “Please take my blessing that has been presented to you, for God has been gracious to me, and I have everything.” The text goes on: “And he pressed him, and he took it.”

Here is Sacks’s key word. Why does Jacob say “Take my blessing”? Because, Sacks suggests, he is returning the blessing he had stolen from Esau 20 years earlier. Jacob and Esau each have their own blessing. “The choice of Jacob does not mean the rejection of Esau,” writes Sacks. And this also elucidates the nature of Jacob’s struggle with the mysterious intruder the night before. Jacob was struggling with himself. Would he continue to long to be Esau, or would he accept his own destiny? “Jacob is Jacob, heir to the covenant,” writes Sacks. “Esau is Esau, with his own heritage and blessing … Before Jacob could be at peace with Esau and with himself, he had to overcome mimetic desire, abandon sibling rivalry and learn that he was not Esau but Israel – one who wrestles with God and never lets go.”

Does it matter?

All this may be clever and creative, but does it matter? Even if the core text of sibling rivalry in the Abrahamic family can be interpreted so that it does not lead to conflict, who is listening? Islamic State militants?5 West Bank settlers? Christian fundamentalists?

For Sam Harris, who can dismiss a profound and inflential theologian such as Paul Tillich as attempting “to hide the serpent lurking at the foot of every altar,” the answer is clear. Efforts such as Sacks’s lead nowhere: “If religious war is ever to become unthinkable for us, in the way that slavery and cannibalism seem poised to, it will be a matter of our having dispensed with the dogma of faith.”6 Sacks, however, maintains that the problem of religious conflict can be resolved only within a religious context. The world, he observes, is becoming more religious rather than less. This is partly because religions are very useful in the contemporary quest for identity, and partly a simple matter of demography – religious people are having more babies than secular ones. The religious conflicts that tore Europe apart in the 17th century were essentially resolved by depriving religion of power. The religious doctrines that led to these conflicts were not addressed, but “since power had been taken out of religious hands, there was little damage they could do.” However, Sacks writes,

That is no longer the case. In a world of declining superpowers, sclerotic international institutions, a swathe of failed or failing states and a Hobbesian chaos of civil and tribal wars, religious extremists are seizing power. This means that we have little choice but to re-examine the theology that leads to violent conflict in the first place. If we do not do the theological work, we will face a continuation of the terror that has marked our century thus far, for it has no other natural end.

In contrast to Harris’s vision of a world without religions, Sacks puts forward a vision of religions living with one another in mutual respect. I find Sacks’s vision more appealing, but I acknowledge that it will be just as difficult to realize as Harris’s – perhaps more difficult.

Not that Sacks’s vision is without its flaws. While he emphasizes the importance of being self-critical, he studiously avoids even the mildest criticism of the state of Israel. There is a striking example of this avoidance. “For a Jew, Christian or Muslim to make space for the Other,” he writes, “he or she would have to undergo the most profound and disorienting role reversal. A Christian would have to imagine what it would have been like to be a French or German Jew at the time of the Crusades. A Muslim would have to imagine what it would have been like to be a Jew in Baghdad in the eighth century, forced to wear a yellow badge of shame, walk the street with downcast eyes and stand and be silent in the presence of a Muslim.”

Now, would it not be appropriate for the third term in this series to be something like “A Jew would have to imagine what it would be like to be a Palestinian Muslim or Christian living under Israeli rule in the West Bank”? But no. Instead we have a sentence that is not really parallel to the first two: “A Jew would have to imagine what it would be like to be a Christian or Muslim facing the threat of death because of their faith in Syria or Iraq today.”

Another problem arises in relation to the question of where Abrahamic monotheism stands in relation to other traditions. Not in God’s Name is, essentially, a book about Abrahamic monotheism rather than about religion as such, and that is entirely legitimate. However, there are places where Sacks gives the impression that Abrahamic monotheism alone contains the resources for confronting hatred and violence. Thus, in discussing the importance of separating religion from politics, he writes, “Polytheism, with its vision of multiple forces and perennial conflict, is compatible with the sacralisation of politics. Monotheism is not.” Or: “There is a connection between monotheism and letting go of hate … When bad things happen to an individual or group, one can either ask, ‘Who did this to me?’’ or, ‘Given that this has happened, what then shall I do?’ The first is the question a dualist asks, the second is the response of a consistent monotheist.”

Abrahamic religions are the ones I am most familiar with, but the contact I have had with religions outside the Abrahamic family has suggested to me that similar issues arise, and comparable resources for dealing with them exist, in polytheistic Hinduism, nontheistic Buddhism and Western Pagan traditions, to name a few. And monotheism comes with its own issues, which Sacks acknowledges – notably the temptation to proceed from the premise that there is only one God to the conclusion that God loves only those who worship God in the same way I do.

But these weaknesses do not negate all that is humane and constructive in Sacks’s exposition. Since – despite Sam Harris – religion is not about to go away, more voices like that of Jonathan Sacks need to be heard, in all religious traditions.


1 Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), p. 117.

2 Cited in Irshad Manji, “Conflicts of Faith,” New York Times, November 8, 2015, p. BR43.

3 Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus (New York: Doubleday, 2001), p. 350.

4 The story of Jacob’s obtaining the blessing by deception is in chapter 27 of Genesis, his struggle with the mysterious intruder is in chapter 32 and his reunion with Esau is in chapter 33.

5 According to former Egyptian prosecutor Amr Abdalla, some early members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which has ties to Al Qaeda, have publicly renounced violence. These former terrorists had previously used the Qur’an as a source text for violence but are now seeing the Qur’an in a different light (lecture at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, February 1, 2016).

6 Harris, End of Faith, pp. 65, 225.