Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/
I should be sleeping right now, but after finally completing a marathon read of a book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks entitled “Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence” (and probably an overabundance of coffee consumption) I find myself typing up this latest article. It’s interesting that I should end up reading a book that speaks in favor of religion at the same time that I was working on my own “Dear Formerly Religious Self” letter to submit to the blog that bears that name.
I had already learned from Bishop John Shelby Spong that there are ways to separate the Bible from its apparent literal interpretation and instead interpret it in ways that make it relevant in light of the knowledge that we know today. That Jesus can be “everything” without necessarily being the sole mediator between God and man.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks presents this same argument, but from a Judaic standpoint. He argues that the monotheism that entered the world through the patriarch, Abraham, was an direct contrast to the hierarchical polytheism that at once dominated the world. Egyptians, Assyrians, and so forth all had temples with that were wide at the bottom and progressively smaller towards the top, indicating a system in which a single God-king lorded over the people. The many gods that were worshiped were often portrayed as being in conflict one with another, and so the God-kings followers also saw themselves in conflict with dissenting nationalities and religions.
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, however, was said to reside “among” not merely “over” His people. He resided in the tabernacle, and yet, when King David offered to build him a temple, He is recorded as saying, “When did I ever ask any of the descendants of Israel, ‘build me a house of cedar’?” indicating that He needed no elaborate temple in order to be worshiped.
The so-called “God of the Old Testament” is often criticized for His harsh commands, such as the strict dietary and purification laws that are set forth in the Laws of Moses. Also, He is said to have encouraged genocide of some groups such as the Amalekites, and been the originator of such incredibly harsh decrees such as “If any man rebels against father or mother let him be put to death”. We see, however, a seeming contrast- or maybe more a tempering factor- to these decrees in the form of commands such as “Love the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt”.
Additionally, if the God of Abraham was so “proud” of the kings’ apparent lording over their enemies- like the Philistines- then why would he have forbidden David from building his temple? He stated that David- because his “hands were full of blood” was not to be permitted to build His temple.
Rabbi Sacks also brings to our attention the story of Jonah, who is sent by God to the Ninevites to ask them to repent. Jonah is angry and fights against going but eventually after some “convincing” he completes his errand. The people repent, and Jonah is angry. God chastises him by telling hm, “If you care about a plant which grows up in a day and perishes in a day, should I not take care for this great city that houses over 120,000 people, and much cattle?”
The Assyrians were a “pagan” people and yet the God of the Bible was showing considerable concern towards them, and in order to follow God’s example we must be the same way, instead of merely being concerned with our own affairs.
The problem, Rabbi Sacks claims, is not in our religion, but our interpretation of that religion. The problem is our human inclination to being concerned with only ourselves, and then being considerate to others only in the context of our own group. He also teaches that another facet of the problem is our inability to reconcile the two seemingly opposite aspects of God, such as his love and mercy versus his judgment. Instead, he says, the tendency is to go into Dualism, that is to think that there actually is not one sovereign ruler but rather two powers, one good and one evil that are constantly competing in the world that we live in. This combined with our “groupishness” tends to have us categorize the world into Us, who are good, and They, who are bad or under the influence of the Evil.
Thus, Sacks concludes, that whenever we stop seeing “humans, created in the image of God” and instead see “infidels” or “unsaved” or “barbarians” we are in essence losing sight of the main purpose of religion on earth.
This is not to say that abandoning any religious distinction is the answer. When everyone is forcibly made to conform into sameness, that’s when we have totalitarianism and oppression. It is rich cultural diversity that makes a nation strong and healthy. Also, if religion in itself were the problem, the areligious movements of Stalin and Hitler shouldn’t have ended up enacting the kind of horrors against humanity that they did. History, however, draws a wildly different conclusion.
Really, even though I can concede that Rabbi Sacks makes some very good points, he also makes some with which I disagree. He claims that monotheism leads to a kind of penitence and self-reflection in people that the polytheism of the past, with its emphasis on competition did not provide, and that this is necessary to the sustained morality of a people. Modern Judaism, he says, encourages people to “allow God to avenge them” thus encouraging them to not be violent and take justice into their own hands. Christianity offers similar constraints, with teachings like “Turn the other cheek’” and “Love your enemies” and “If one suffers for doing well, this is in the sight of God most worthy” or “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.
I question this idea that unless one is “penitent” or possessing of some degree of self-deprecation that they cannot partake in the so-called “holiness” that religion requires.
This is where Bishop Spong and Rabbi Sacks differ, apart from the differences they have due to coming from different religious perspectives. Bishop Spong states that in many ways scientific advancement, such as the advancement that led us to discover that the earth orbitted the sun (not the other way around) and allowed us to travel to space were crucial in redefining our perception of God. When we traveled upwards, we didn’t see any “heavenly kingdom” but rather the vast expanse of outer space. So, Bishop Spong theorized, that maybe God is not “up there” but rather living in and among us as something as very alive and yet very intangible. He theorized that further scientific discover would expand our knowledge even further still.
So in that sense, I think that just as monotheism displaced polytheism as the main way of seeing God and religion, that monotheism too will be displaced by a new and different understanding of where we come from and where we’re going. For now, maybe we do need some of the traditions that are around to bind us together and to give us a framework for our moral and political systems. Rabbi Sacks and Bishop Spong both admit that religion should be reinterpreted to fit into the times that we live in, and I do believe this needs to be the case. This doesn’t mean that it will become invalid, but rather that it will gain greater validiity as it rises to the challenges brought about by scientific development and also the tendency of people to think of themselves more as global citizens than as citizens of any one country.
UPDATE: Rabbi Sacks book is of even more urgent importance in the light of the recent attacks by radicalized Islamic terrorists in Brussels, Belgium. I feel that we need to temper military force with religious sensitivity for the times the world is facing. A Muslim young woman and her family were in the airport during the time of the attacks. These terrorists are non-discriminating in their attacks. Anyone not a part of their “tribal system” is subject to persecution and death, be they European, Arabic, African, Muslim, Christian, or Jew. This is not the time for us as Americans to elects leaders that promote xenophobia and war-mongering. We have to fight this war with force, but also with intellectualism. We need to deal with how/why some of our own citizens are so disillusioned that they are defecting to the other side. It’s easy to fight the enemy outside, but the enemy of hate inside of our own hearts is only that much more toxic.