Perspectives on The Dignity of Difference

The Chief Rabbi has been mildly censured by Rabbis Rakow of the Gateshead Hebrew Congregation and Rabbi Dunner of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations for suggesting in his recent book, The Dignity of Difference, that Judaism does not contain absolute truth and this view is irreconcilable with traditional Jewish teaching. The erudite rebbes, using the JC as a launch pad, respectfully asked Rabbi Sacks to repudiate his thesis and do what was honourable in their eyes and withdraw the book from circulation. There was recognition that the Chief Rabbi was motivated by a desire to reduce tension and to avoid a Kulturkampf, a growing concern among liberals, who see the divisions between the West and Islam as a clash of civilisations. Sacks, quite rightly, refused to withdraw the book or recant, but has offered to clarify the disputed references; in order to allay further criticism from the Orthodox Beth Din, he has undertaken to rewrite the key passages in a new edition. So what is the burning issue that has prompted two influential rabbis to publicise their concerns?


Critics assert that the book undermines the uniqueness of Torah because Sacks states in one passage that God has spoken to mankind in many languages; through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims. Further alleged heretical statements are that no one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth and that God has revealed his nature/purpose in the so-called revelatory religions.

Most religions based on a claim to divine revelation are jealous of their status as the best. Now if that is what irks the traditionalists, then why is it that Judaism has been less guilty of that particular arrogance than Christianity and Islam? The fact is that Jews are generally tolerant of other faiths. Originally a proselytising religion Judaism has for some time distanced itself from converting followers of other faiths, mainly because of persecution. However, I suspect it is not the existence of other faiths that has aroused the ire of the ultra-orthodox but of their perceived diminution of the singularity of Torah; it is axiomatic that Ha Shem revealed his purpose to the Children of Israel at Sinai, no ifs or buts, and for believers of immutable divine revelation, in one great dollop, it is a truth that cannot be denied; indeed, it is viewed as the most important event in the history of Mankind. To challenge this view, as a Jew, is tantamount to heresy, hence the rabbis deep concern about Sacks' statements. Presumably the corollary of this belief is the denial of authenticity of the claims of others to divine revelation. I am sure that many religionists would find this both arrogant and offensive. From my perspective I do not understand what is meant by truth in the context of claims of revelation; religious truth, whatever that means, cannot be subjected to the same processes that we employ in checking the veracity of other branches of knowledge, particularly science. I realise that some of you may question the connection I am making between truth and reality. In Bereshit, which we have started re-reading this New Year, there are references to creation. It is difficult to deny that everything we can conceive of has an origin, but whether the description in Genesis is real, in the sense of a verifiable series of events, is highly questionable. I don't intend to raise the question about the origin of God.

I am presenting a personal statement rather than a treatise on the nature of religious truth. One of Judaism great strengths is the acceptance of many paths to heaven. We tend not to preach to non-Jews, we do that to ourselves, and we prefer not to be the focus of other people's missionary zeal. There is bigotry in Judaism as there is in most faiths. I have nothing against debate but I find the claims of those who are absolutists damaging and divisive. The Talmud has an apposite story of the tree that was being hacked about with an axe. The tree is Judaism and every time the axe strikes the trunk or a branch it cuts and weakens the structure. Leave the tree alone, let it push out many branches, some will become top heavy and break and fall to the ground, others will be starved of light and became spindly and liable to snap, while others well grow and put out greenery. Our community, small as it is, contains people of diverse religious belief. We, like the greater world, have to respect each other and allow the goodness that comes from each person's contribution to enrich the whole. I would like to conclude by quoting from Rabbi Sacks: In heaven there is truth; on earth there are truths. When and if we get to heaven we will have the opportunity of checking to see if we were right after all!

Peter Beyfus

October 2002