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Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Confronts Religious Violence (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) November 22, 2015: In his column titled "Finding Peace Within the Holy Texts" (dated November 17, 2015), the New York Times' conservative columnist David Brooks (born in 1961 in Toronto), who is Jewish, devoted his column recently to reviewing Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' new book NOT IN GOD'S NAME: CONFRONTING RELIGIOUS VIOLENCE (2015).

Unfortunately, the recent terrorist attacks in Paris inspired by the so-called Islamic State make Sacks' deeply informed discussion of religious violence timely.

Fortunately, Brooks accurately paraphrases certain points from Sacks' book.

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Unfortunately, Brooks makes Sacks sound like he is advancing a conventionally conservative argument that Brooks himself or some other American conservatives today might advance. Because progressives and liberals tend not to like conventionally conservative arguments, I want to suggest that progressives and liberals may want to take a look at Sacks' new book.

Toward the end of his new book, Sacks says, "Wars are won by weapons, but it takes ideas to win a peace" (pages 17 and 264). Sacks says, "This book is about one such idea: an alternative to the sibling rivalry that has been a source of fratricide and religious violence throughout history" (page 264).

As Sacks notes, wars between Catholics and Protestants raged in Europe for a century, leading to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 (pages 17 and 224). Sacks summarizes Stephen Toulmin's explanation of how the peace eventually emerged in Europe:

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"Stephen Toulmin offered the best explanation of what motivated those who sought a new way: 'Failing any effective political way of getting the sectarians to stop killing each other, was there no other possible way ahead? Might not philosophers discover, for instance, a new and more rational basis for establishing a framework of concepts and beliefs capable of achieving the agreed certainty that the sceptics had said was impossible?'" (quoted on page 244 from Toulmin's book COSMOPOLIS: THE HIDDEN AGENDA OF MODERNITY [1992, page 55]).

Toulmin here offers us a benign and positive way to see the Enlightenment, both the European Enlightenment and the American Enlightenment. Instead of using biblical texts or religious doctrines, the new approach invoked reason. As a result, the Age of Reason emerged historically as secular in spirit. (I will discuss the Enlightenment further momentarily.)

As a result of this modern secular bent, many religionists tended to take exception to the secular spirit. As Sacks notes, today radical jihadists and suicide bombers inspired by their understanding of Islam take exception, on the one hand, to the secular spirit in Muslim nations that have secular governments and, on the other hand, to the generalized secular spirit of the West. So we can say that radical jihadists and suicide bombers are doubly anti-secular -- they are against secularism.

Of course Pope Francis inveighs against secularism. But he doesn't go around blowing up people.

Of course Paris was the home of the European Enlightenment and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which is why radical jihadists and suicide bombers attacked Paris.

Because our Declaration of Independence was formulated and promulgated in Philadelphia, Philadelphia could be seen as the home of the American Enlightenment. However, from the standpoint of radical jihadists and suicide bombers, Washington, D.C. might be a more suitable symbolic target.

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Sacks himself tells us exactly how he sees his philosophical task of confronting religious violence, which he claims that "moral philosophy has failed adequately to confront. Since Plato, thinkers have explored many factor that make us moral: knowledge, habit, virtue, empathy, sympathy, rationality, intuition. Yet we saw how all these things failed in Germany in the 1930s, and not only among the masses but even among some of the greatest minds of the day" (page 179).

Now, Sacks, who was born in 1948 and raised and lives in the United Kingdom, holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Oxford University. He has more than 20 books to his credit. Basically, his new book is a philosophical treatise in moral philosophy. In his new book he sets out to contribute to the still emerging new thought that might help secure the peace against our contemporary religious violence.

I have no idea if Sacks knows Brooks or other American conservatives. However, at the present time, Sacks holds appointments at New York University and Yeshiva University in the United States and also at King's College, London.

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www.d.umn.edu/~tfarrell
Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 

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