Dignity of Difference: How To Avoid The Clash of Civilizations (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks)
Posted Mar 8, 2003

Diversity Without Relativism: The Hebrew Humanism of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How To Avoid The Clash of Civilizations, Continuum Books, 2002

The great classical historian Arnaldo Momigliano, in his book Alien Wisdom: The Limits of Hellenization, meditates on the sense of monolingualism that set Hellenistic culture in isolation from other cultures in the Mediterranean.  According to Momigliano:

No Greek read the Upanishads, the Gathas and the Egyptian wisdom books.  It was indeed very difficult to find somebody non-Jewish reading the Bible in Greek even when it was made available in that language.  Greek remained the only language of civilization for every Greek-speaking man.  Even in the first century AD the author of the Periplus maris Erythaei cannot find a better accomplishment for a king of Ethiopia to counterbalance his notorious greed for money ֖ than his knowledge of Greek.

Momigliano sees that non-Greeks had to adopt a Greek worldview in order to participate in the universalӔ Hellenistic civilization.

The essential challenge of Western civilization has always been framed by this sense of monolingualism; a predication of a deep and rich culture that is utterly insulated and cut off from other languages and cultures.  Jose Faur, in a particularly trenchant analysis of Momiglianos text, writes the following:

Eventually, monolingualism resolves itself into a peculiar form of circular reasoning: Western thought alone is truly ғphilosophical, that is, it may evaluate all other systems but it cannot be evaluated by any other system.

Monolingualism is a co-opting of a pluralistic sense of culture and civilization into a hermetically sealed rubric of univocal thought - speech without multiple meanings, thought without divergent opinions.

This concept of absolute truth has permeated Western civilization since the age of Plato. 

Rarely has the concept of absolute truth been conceptualized in contradistinction to a religious framework.  I can think of few other books than Golden Doves With Silver Dots that have tried to analyze Western culture outside of its own hermeneutical codes and structures.  It is quite true that the movement of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and others to examine and refocus the foundations of Western civilization has permitted new ways of thinking.  But these new ways of thinking have only served to rekindle skepticism and forms of nihilism that obviate any possibility for active truths and responsibilities.

Post-modernism has done a tremendous service to breaching the walls of Platonic ԓtruth, but it has not been able to set into place an alternative epistemological system that would account for the manner in which human beings communicate with one another and create a healthy and strong society.  By and large, post-modern philosophy with its critique of foundationalism has not been linked to the concepts of modern Liberal democracy.  This cleavage between Derrida and Berlin, Barthes and Rawls, Foucault and Hayek, has been disastrous for the study of modern political theory.

It is into this void that Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, has published his new and vital work, The Dignity of Difference: How To Avoid The Clash of Civilizations.  Rabbi Sacks has read deeply into the sources of modern political thought and has created a work that examines all facets of modern life within the context of religious absolutes.

But rather than merely set religion in opposition with the modern secular world, as has been done countless numbers of times in polemical works, he looks for the ways that religion can compliment and extract the positive sense of diversity within the massive changes that have been inflicted upon our world by the traumas of globalism:

Religion can be a source of discord.  It can also be a form of conflict resolution.  We are familiar with the former; the second is far too little tried.  Yet it is here, if anywhere, that hope must lie if we are to create a human solidarity strong enough to bear the strains that lie ahead.  The great faiths must now become an active force for peace and for the justice and compassion on which peace ultimately depends.  That will require great courage, and perhaps something more than courage: a candid admission that, more than at any time in the past, we need to search Ԗ each faith in its own way for a way of living with, and acknowledging the integrity of, those who are not of our own faith.  Can we make space for difference?  Can we hear the voice of God in a language, a sensibility, a culture not our own?  Can we see the presence of God in the face of a stranger?

Sacks thus does something which is unique in the way in which religious thinkers have presented their ideas in modern times: He does not assert the finality of any religious construct, but demands the role of religion in generic terms in our lives.  Rather than proclaim the tenets of an impervious Orthodox systemology, Sacks sees that religious orthodoxies can make space for difference and diversity.

This point is key in the development of a post-9/11 world.  Religion, coupled with secular nationalism, has been at the very core of the issues that divide cultures and civilizations.  Going a step past Momigliano and Faur, and a quantum leap away from the relativism of Derrida and the deconstructionists, Sacks attempts to piece together and articulate a religious humanism that is predicated upon justice, ethics and conciliation.  In his words: ֓If religion is not part of a solution, it will certainly be part of the problem.

Sacks begins his story with the great conundrum inherent in the Liberal project: Liberal democracies can create free markets and personal freedoms but they cannot instill a sense of moral permanence and obligation among its citizenry.  The capitalist free market, perhaps the great innovation of the modern economic system, a system that has triumphed over its socialist and totalitarian foes, permits the individual to exert a good deal of control over his own private world.  But capitalism is ill-equipped to redress injustice and inequity; in fact inequity is front-loaded into the system.

The liberal democracies of the West are ill-equipped to deal with such problems.  That is not because they are heartless Ԗ they are not; they care but because they have adopted mechanisms that marginalize moral conditions.  Western politics have become more procedural and managerial.  Not completely: Britain still has a National Health Service, and most Western countries have some form of welfare provision.  But increasingly, governments are reluctant to enact a vision of the common good because ֖ so libertarian thinkers argue there is little substance we can give to the idea of the good we share.  We differ too greatly.  The best that can be done is to deliver the maximum possible freedom to individuals to make their own choices, and the means best suited to this is the unfettered market where we can buy whatever lifestyle suits us, this year, this month.  Beyond the freedom to do what we like and can afford, contemporary politics and economics have little to say about the human condition.

This dilemma has been exacerbated by the seeming lack of ethical dimensions in the thought of Derrida.  Having eschewed any possibility of moral absolutes, post-modernism has unwittingly linked itself to the intolerance and moral apathy of the marketplace.  When there are no ֓right ways to live a life, then anything goes Ԗ injustice and relativism go hand in hand. 

Sacks accepts the salient value of the marketplace and modern capitalism; but he does not accept the totalizing nature of the marketplace.  He insists that ethical concerns, truly the provenance of religious thinking, break the monolingual apparatus that has been constructed by the globalist phenomenon our relations to the environment, to the poor, to the disenfranchised, must rise in import as the imbalances and imperfections of the new global marketplace take root.

To relate the myriad points of his argument, Sacks must first set out the construction of the new market-driven realities.  He examines the historical framework of the new capitalism and contrasts it in temporal terms:

In one sense, then, the world we inhabit is a logical outcome of the legacy of our ancestors, the latest stage in a journey begun millennia ago.  But there are changes in degree which become changes in kind.  The speed and scope of advances in modern communications technology have altered conditions of existence for many, perhaps most, of the world֒s six billion inhabitants.  The power of instantaneous global communication, the sheer volume of international monetary movements, the internationalization of processes and products and the ease with which jobs can be switched from country to country have meant that our interconnectedness has become more immediate, vivid and consequential than before.

What is missing from the new globalism is a language that might be able to help us account for the massive dislocation created by the new technologies; technology is a value-neutral language.  Our languages have lagged behind our material abilities to create new and sometimes frightening realities that empower us, but also serve to destabilize our inherited realities.

Sacks presents a laundry list of statistics that lay out the massive inequities that the new global economy has created for us.  The rich are richer, the poor poorer.  Medical care and other resources are lavished upon the elites while an ever-growing global underclass seethes with discontent.  Inbuilt into the economic system is an apathy towards the moral we might protect our individual concerns for a personal social ethic, but generally we seek our own good ֖ a new and totalizing universal monolingualism, a monolingualism that has been buttressed by rampant materialism and a malignant political hegemonic system (i.e., the IMF and World Bank).

Not only has the dominance of the market had a corrosive effect on the social landscape.  It has also eroded our moral vocabulary, arguably the most important resource in thinking about the future.  In one of the most influential books of recent times, After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre argued that We possess indeed simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions.  But we have і very largely, if not entirely lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.֒  The very concept of ethics (Bernard Williams called it that perculiar institutionђ) has become incoherent.  Increasingly, we have moved to talking about efficiency (how to get what you want) and therapy (how not to feel bad about what you want).  What is common to both is that they have more to do with the mentality of marketing (the stimulation and satisfaction of desire) that of morality (what ought we to desire).
In this context morality becomes an adjunct to the marketplace and has impacted the way in which we see ourselves and others.  Religion becomes an admixture of pro-market forces (what Marx once called the opiate of the massesӔ) or anti-market atavistic forces; the forces that set into motion the primitivism of Osama Bin Laden and other terrorist cadres.  These new cells, created by the failure of ethnic nationalisms to take root in the global marketplace, a world that has rejected the particularist identities of the fundamentalists, utilize the technologies and mechanisms of the new capitalism, are funded by global market enterprises, but link their cosmopolitan materialism to an outmoded religious monolingualism that eliminates pluralism and tolerance.

Religion thus has a tricky role to play in modern societies: Religion can unleash forces of hate and intolerance as we have seen; but without it, the moral lexicon of globalism is utterly impoverished.  This is the paradox of religious fundamentalisms; on the one hand groups like Hamas and Hezbollah and the Protestant Evagelicals provide desperately needed social services and a sense of community in a spiritually impoverished era.  They provide food for the hungry, clothes to the needy and medical services to those without insurance.  On the other hand, these movements have adopted a hard-line religious intolerance, an intolerance that was supposed to have disappeared since the days of the Enlightenment, a philosophical revolution that envisioned the end of religion as a pillar of civilization.

Sacks rightly sees a problem in the way that we have blurred the lines between religion and politics and have not understood their role in the post-Enlightenment world.

Religion and politics are different enterprises.  They arose in response to different needs: in the one case to bind people together in their commonality, in the other to mediate peaceably between their differences.  The great tragedies of the twentieth century came when politics was turned into a religion, when the nation (in the case of fascism) or system (communism) was absolutized and turned into a god.  The single greatest risk of the twenty-first century is that the opposite may occur: not when politics is religionized but when religion is politicized.

There is a dialectical interrelation between the totalizing systems: religion, smarting from its defeat at the hands of the Enlightenment philosophers, began to remodel itself along the contoured lines of the new philosophy; religion sought to make itself that very model of Enlightenment that had previously been rejected by Descartes and Spinoza.  But in this transition, religion absorbed many of the responsibilities of politics and served to sever religious man from the manner in which the new system was able to break mans chains of religious idolatry.

Sacks traces this political and religious fundamentalism back to perhaps the most controversial figure in modern thought: Plato.  Plato, along the lines of MomiglianoҒs analysis of Hellenistic monolingualism, created a system that abstracted real life from the ideal life of the philosopher-kings.  Platonic philosophy has been the metaphysical and theoretical underpinning of Western culture for thousands of years. 

It is a wondrous dream, that of Plato, and one that has never ceased to appeal to his philosophical and religious heirs: the dream of reason, a world of order set against the chaos of life, an eternity beyond the here and now.  Its single most powerful idea is that truth reality, the essence of things ֖ is universal.  How could it be otherwise?  What is true is true for everyone at all times, and the more universal a culture is, the closer to truth it comes.

It is in Platonic thought that we find the merging of difference into sameness.  Once merged with religious thought, most pointedly into the Christian synthesis of Augustine,  Platonic universalism mitigates against pluralism and tolerance.  The world is one, we must all be of the same mind, thus collapsing the multiple languages and foci of religious truth as a humanism.

It is here that Sacks presents the model of Judaism as a counter to Platonism:

Against Plato and his followers, the Bible argues that universalism is the first, not the last, phase in the growth of the moral imagination.  The world of the first eleven chapters of Genesis is global, a monoculture (the whole world had one language and a common speechђ).  It is to this world that God first speaks.

This world, step-by-step, begins to break down into tribalisms.  With the failure of the universal model, Adamic civilization, the Bible fixes its sights on the Israelites, one branch of the human family.  Gods covenant with the Israelites becomes a new paradigm of civilization. 

The essential message of the book of Genesis is that universality Җ the covenant with Noah is only the context and prelude to the irreducible multiplicity of cultures, those systems of meaning by which human beings have sought to understand their relationship to one another, the world and the source of being.  Plato֒s assertion of the universality of truth is valid when applied to science and the description of what is.  It is invalid when applied to ethics, spirituality and our sense of what ought to be.  There is a difference between physis and nomos, description and prescription, nature and culture, or to put it in biblical terms ֖ between creation and revelation.  Cultures are like languages.  The world they describe is the same but the ways they do so are almost infinitely varied.

In Sacks profoundly salient phrase: ғThis means that religious truth is not universal.  As we will see later on, this phrase is not merely a rhetorical challenge to current religious norms, it is a profoundly distressing epistemological blow to orthodoxy.

The breakthrough of this knowledge permits religion to be multilingual as opposed to monolingual.  When religion adopts a monolingualism, inherent to the codes of scientific thought Ԗ a tree is a tree after all it predicates its ethics on an morality of exclusion; you are either like us or you become an unwanted and unassimilable alien.

In this sense, the concept of the alien and its biblical resonance becomes a major factor in God֒s teaching to the Israelites.

Indeed, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is precisely the reason why the Israelites have to undergo exile and slavery prior to their birth as a nation.  They have to learn from the inside and never lose the memory of what it feels like to be an outsider, an alien, a stranger.  It is their formative experience, re-enacted every year in the drama of Passover as if to say that only those who know what it is to be slaves, understand at the core of their being why it is wrong to enslave others.  Only those who have felt the loneliness of being a stranger find it natural to identify with strangers.

The concept of the Other, one who is at the periphery of things, translates into the philosophical concept of difference, a concept which does not have to be divorced from the certainty of the religious moment (as deconstruction does), but can be elevated into a religious value in itself.

This concept of difference is hard-wired into our post-modern existence.  The idea of a central philosophical authority that controls the world and its sub-systems has been rejected.  The factors that once anchored our lives have become unhinged in a maelstrom of market choices ֖ a seemingly endless barrage of information and technologies.  This frightening emergence of multiplicity has not been matched by a concomitant updating of our social network of civic institutions:

In the past, people were able to cope with change because they had what Alvin Toffler calls personal stability zones.ђ  There were aspects of lives that did not change.  Of these, the most important were a job for life, a marriage for life and a place for life.  Not everyone had them, but they were not rare.  They gave people a sense of economic, personal and geographical continuity.  They were the familiar that gave individuals strength to cope with the unfamiliar.  Today these things are becoming ever harder to find.

Modern man has gained the opportunity to be ever freer and make opportunity for himself.  But the things that made life rich and worth living, the things that once made us happy and secure, the certainties of God and country, are fast disappearing. 

What once made relationships constitutive of personal identity and self-respect is precisely the fact that they stood outside the world of contracts and market exchange.  Family, friends, neighbors, mentors, were people to whom you were bound by moral reciprocity.  What was important is that they were there in bad times as well as good; when you needed them, not when you could pay for them.

It is Sacks contention that we are reliving the terrors of an ancient time, a time prior to the discovery that we can transcend the ills of nature by creating communities and institutions that can permit individuals to work together and maintain their hope and dignity in the face of the horrors of this world:

Against just such a backdrop, some 4,000 years ago, there emerged a different conception of human life.  It suggested that individuals are not powerless in the face of the impersonal.  We can create families, communities, even societies, around the ideals of love and fellowship and trust.  In such societies, individuals are valued not for what they own or the power they wield, but for what they are.  They are not immune to conflict or tragedy, but when these strike, the individual is not alone.

It was religion and not the marketplace that created these structures of feeling.  It is therefore the job of religion to inculcate into us a sense of what is just as opposed to what is right.  Justice, a key term in the religious lexicon, is one step above right or truth, but is beneath yet another term, compassion, that elevates our morality another step. 

Compassion links members of a society to one another in a pact of grace.  There is a layer of responsibility in this covenant that forces us to see that human beings, with their vast differences of culture, are linked by a higher truth, the truth of God (not that of Plato), that helps us to establish networks of interdependence Җ this in spite of our lack of similarity to one another. 

If religion is to succeed it must transcend what separates us rather than force all of humanity to be cast into a single mold.

This is the logic of our first social relationship: the interrelatedness of our economic system.  Sacks devotes a chapter showing how Judaism developed its notion of freedom as freedom from want and need.  Objecting to other systems of thought, particularly the Christian monastic ideal, which obviate the work ethic, Sacks sees that Judaism bequeathed to the world the sanctity of work:

Labor elevates man, for by it he earns his food.  What concerned the rabbis was the self-respect that came from work as against unearned income.  To eat without working was not a boon but an escape from the human condition.  Animals find sustenance; on;ly mankind creates it.  As the thirteenth-century commentator Rabbenu Bachya put it, The active participation of man in the creation of his own wealth is a sign of his spiritual greatness.ђ  Jewish law invalidates gamblers from serving as witnesses since they are not members of the productive economy.  They do not contribute to the settlement of the world.ђ

This Jewish respect for free markets and the dignity of labor further instills the concept of the dignity of difference.Ӕ  While Greek philosophy disdained the sanctity of work and the commonplace life of the laborer, elevating the life of the philosopher, a man who did not productively contribute to society, but lived off of the labor of others (thus linking Marxs Das Kapital to the parasitic culture of the modern speculator and the Judaic underpinnings of MarxҒs thought), Jewish sages continued to work in trades and professions, forcing themselves to become at one with the demands and the conflicts of the marketplace.

But the advantage of the Jewish economic ideal over its Western counterpart is that it was embedded within a larger system of ethical morality.  The cornerstone of Jewish ethics is the value of sedakah, a conception of charity that is unique to Judaism:

The two words, tzedakah and mishpat, signify different forms of justice.  Mishpat means retributive justice or the rule of law.  A free society must be governed by law, impartially administered, through which the guilty are punished, the innocent acquitted and human rights secured.  Tzedakah, by contrast, refers to distributive justice, a less procedural and more substantive idea.

Sacks then attempts to translate and explain the idea of charity in the Jewish tradition:

It is difficult to translate tzedakah because it combines in a single word two notions normally opposed to one another, namely charity and justice.  Suppose, for example, that I give someone $100.  Either he is entitled to it, or he is not.  If he is, then my act is a form of justice.  If he is not, it is an act of charity.  In English (as with the Latin terms caritas and iustitia) a gesture of charity cannot be an act of justice, nor can an act of justice be described as charity.  Tzedakah is therefore an unusual term, because it means both.

The Jewish concept of charity is therefore alien to modern Western civilization in the age of globalism.  Western culture has, as we have indicated before, drawn rather stark lines between the public and the private.  Privacy is seen as a cardinal right of Western man.  Public morality is seen as a private option.  We can choose to give charity but we are not obligated to do so.  Hence, our freedom includes the freedom to live without there is no exclusively moral guarantee that we be allowed to have the basic elements to subsist physically ֖ food, clothing, shelter, medical care and the like.

It is here that the object lesson of Judaism and other religions comes into play. 

Tzedakah is a concept for our times.  The retreat, set in motion by Reagonomics and Thatcherism, from a welfare state, together with the deregulation of financial markets throughout the world, has led to increased and increasing inequalities both in developed countries and the developing world.  The importance of tzedakah is that it does not mean charity.ђ  It is not optional, nor does it depend on the goodwill of those who give it to others.  It is a legally enforceable obligation.

It is this counterbalance that makes Sacks argument so compelling: On the one hand, he affirms his belief in the bugaboo of the organized Left, the free market.  Yet on the other hand, he affirms the primacy of a welfare system that makes sure that the wealthy elite has an obligatory stance towards the underprivileged.  This obligation is not the disinterestedness of the Welfare State as practiced in Western democracies, but is the sense of compassionate interconnectedness of the Jewish system whereby elites are able to integrate the have-nots into the system and prevent them from drowning in debt and need.

This sense of public welfare is linked to providing not merely material needs, but to ensure that the individual has access to the market through compulsory education and the acquisition of skills basic to economic independence.

It is here that Sacks examines the various technological revolutions that have undergirded the march of civilization.  We are led through the advances in communication that have allowed man to develop his culture and civilization.

These advances are the following:

1. The development of Writing
2. The development of the Alphabet
3. The development of the Printing Press
4. The development of the Global exchange of information

Writing first began back in the ancient Near East when the modes of inscription, cave drawings and the like, became too simplified to represent more complex phenomena.  Sacks sees in the development of writing, an urbanizing tendency:

The settlement of populations, the development of agriculture and the birth of complex economies with their division of labor and growth of exchange, gave writing its earliest and most immediately practical use, namely to record transactions.  But the power of the system was soon apparent.  It could do more than keep a note of who owed what to whom.  It could capture for posterity the great narratives Җ myths, cosmologies and epic histories that explained the present in terms of the past, and whose telling in oral form had been a central feature of ancient religious rituals.