William Saletan of Slate Magazine for the WSJ.
From Asia to Africa, Islamic militants are slaughtering fellow Muslims. In Europe, they’re fomenting anti-Semitism. Through the Internet, they’re spreading hatred and winning recruits. We can’t defeat this enemy with weapons, money or liberal platitudes. We need a man of God.
Into this role steps a most unlikely candidate: Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Britain. Mr. Sacks believes that Islamic violence, like Jewish and Christian violence, flows from a misunderstanding of sacred text. In “Not in God’s Name,” he illuminates a wiser faith and a gentler God. It’s a perceptive, poignant and beautifully written book. But its analysis of history suggests a darker conclusion: Words alone won’t pacify Islam. There will be a lot more killing.
The problem isn’t Islam: Mr. Sacks points out that Jewish and Christian scriptures have also been invoked to justify violence. It’s human nature. We’re tribal creatures. We bond with our kinsmen against outsiders. Tyrants and demagogues exploit this tribal propensity by feeding us religious doctrines that blame our suffering on enemies: infidels, Crusaders, Jews. This “pathological dualism,” as Mr. Sacks describes it, corrupts societies by deflecting internal scrutiny and impeding reform. And it dehumanizes the putative enemy, facilitating mass murder.
So why do Muslims, Christians and Jews kill one another? Because we’re sibling rivals. As children of Abraham, we claim the same holy land. Each of the three communities sees itself as the people of God. Mr. Sacks says we’re all wrong: God’s love is infinite. “To insist that being loved entails that others be unloved is to fail to understand love itself.”
ur first mistake is to read scripture literally. This, Mr. Sacks explains, is fundamentalism: “text without context, and application without interpretation.” Any zealot can choose a bloody passage and broadcast it to incite mayhem. The antidote to this naive fanaticism, according to Mr. Sacks, isn’t secularism. It’s tradition. “Religions develop rules of interpretation and structures of authority,” he explains. They debate the text’s meaning. Over centuries, they accumulate wisdom.
That’s where the rabbi comes in. Mr. Sacks doesn’t try to explain Christianity or Islam. Instead, he digs into their common source: the Hebrew Bible. He examines its tales of sibling rivalry: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel. These stories are more complex than they appear, he argues. In each case, the subtext is that God does not reject the less fortunate sibling. The Bible’s message, he concludes, is to empathize with others. In the case of Isaac and Ishmael, the implication is that Judaism and Islam are brothers.
Mr. Sacks thinks that these “counter-narratives” were planted in the text as part of a grand design. He calls Genesis a “subtle, multilayered philosophical treatise.” The sibling-rivalry stories form a “highly structured literary sequence” with an “unmistakable message.” He perceives the same master plan in a series of biblical accounts of strangers and in the decline of militarism from Genesis to Isaiah.
But the story doesn’t end there. “After the close of the biblical canon,” Mr. Sacks writes, “reflection on Israel’s destiny passed from the prophets to the sages, and from revelation to interpretation—the genre known as Midrash through which the sages filled in the many gaps in biblical narrative.” Through “interpretive leaps,” rabbis fleshed out the tale of Ishmael and made it a narrative of reconciliation. They created a back story to justify God’s destruction of Babel. From the covenant with Noah, they constructed universal laws of ethics. Above all, they toned down the violence.
In the biblical account of the Red Sea crossing, they added a divine lament for the Egyptian soldiers: “My creatures are drowning—and you wish to sing a song?” They made the justification of Joshua’s wars contingent on his offers of peace. Through such amendments, Mr. Sacks writes, “the nation of the sword had become the people of the book.”
Mr. Sacks insists that the Scripture elicited these reinterpretations. But his own exegesis belies that claim. As evidence of the Bible’s reverence for life, he quotes Genesis 9:6—”Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed”—ignoring the contradiction. He excuses Moses’ acceptance of slavery, suggesting that to forbid that practice “was too much to ask at that stage of history.”
According to Mr. Sacks, the fact that the rabbis “heard” hidden meanings in the text implies that those meanings were in the text all along. He has it backward. The wisdom isn’t in the text. It’s in the rabbis. The story of Judaism is the story of a people—and a God—growing up.
The implication is jarring. Islam is wreaking havoc not because it is inherently more violent than Judaism or Christianity but because it is younger. It has decades of self-destructive warfare ahead. Eventually, the carnage will teach Muslims what it taught Jews and Christians. We learn the hard way.
Mr. Saletan is the national correspondent at Slate.
This is total bunk. Islam has been warring with Christian Europe before the Prophet took the stage. All that he did was codify vandalism into a religion, and that was about 700 AD, so it’s been doing this for about 1700 years and has never stopped except after the Ottoman Empire took control and stopped it. Has Saletan forgotten Archimedes and the fall of Syracuse, Constantiople and Agia Sophia…the list is tremendous; but it does not suit his politics and so is all neatly thrown under the proverbial bus. Pity that Bill Gates favorite magazine, Slate, states such rubbish. He should know better.