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Rabbi Lord Sacks on Religion and Conflict in Modern World

March 29, 2017

By Jackie Ogburn

“What are we to do at this hour?”, when the far right is rising in Britain and in Europe and anti-Semitism has re-emerged, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks asked the audience at the Sanford School of Public Policy.

“The Jewish truth, how to tell the human story, begins with the bad and ends with the good,” he said. “It is a narrative of hope. But, not every narrative works for all time,” he said.  

Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth and a member of the House of Lords, delivered a Terry Sanford Distinguished Lecture at Sanford on Tuesday.  He was on campus for the Morris B. Abram Distinguished Residency.

Watch the lecture:



Current world affairs can be understood as a time when “four master narratives of the modern age have led us into an unexpected direction,” Sacks said.

The first narrative is that as rationality spread, religion would decline. For more than four centuries, knowledge, power, culture and morality have become secularized, and religion did decline.

“People believed in progress, and that is was linear and irreversible. But the 21st century is more religious than the 20th,” he said.

The second narrative is that religions that remained active would be churches, not sects, and would be accommodating to modernity. Since the 1970s, conservative churches have grown rapidly, and fundamental sects are rising in all the world’s monotheistic religions.

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  • Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

    Photo Credit: Les Todd

The third, most recent, and most rapidly refuted narrative was that we had reached “the end of history,” and that the West and its values would conquer the world.

The narrative was about globalization: that as politics and commerce became more global, people would lose their nationalism and local loyalties. Yet, today, populist parties have 30 percent support in Western nations, the highest level since the 1930s.

“This is the warning signal of all warning signals,” said Sacks.

While the Enlightenment narrative is progressive and linear, Jewish tradition allows for narratives that include digression, ever since that “journey in the wilderness when Moses lacked Google maps,” Sacks said.

He then drew parallels between the current day and the 17th century, when there was a revolt again the Catholic Church. 

“There was a revolution in information,” spurred by the invention of the printing press. Martin Luther’s principles printed on pamphlets flooded Europe and “outflanked the established power” of the church.  Today, the seat of authority is government and it is being “outflanked by global media.”

The rise of religion is in part a reaction to the “lack of the Sabbath,” and the realization that secularism doesn’t recognize that people have intrinsic worth. 

“Consumer society is not a good deal for people. It focuses on what you don’t have and is an efficient system for producing unhappiness,” he said.

The way forward is to look back to Genesis, and the two covenants that God made. The first was with Noah and all humanity, the second was with Abraham, he said. They establish “the universality of justice and the particularity of love.” Those promises point to our common humanity.

The other way forward is through education, Sacks said. 

“To defend a country, you need an army.  To defend freedom, you need education. You need the handing down of memory across the generations,” he said.

“Remember, our citadels were schools,” the rabbi said. “It is how the Jews have survived; we rest on a narrative of hope.”

During the question and answer period with the audience, Rabbi Lord Sacks addressed queries about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, creating a free society, empathy, and political correctness and safe spaces.

On the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, “the politicians have not included religious leaders,” he said. “This is the only resource that has not been tried, the one sliver of hope.”

Sacks pointed to his own experience.  He was trained as a philosopher at Oxford and Cambridge, then went to seminary in Israel. 

“When I came back, I was terrifyingly religious,” he said. His mentor, Sir Bernard Williams, was an atheist, but “he took me seriously, and challenged me on rational grounds.”

Those conversations “were one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. That was my safe space, a respectful hearing of views among two people who disagree,” he said. After that, “I could face anyone without fear.”   

“This is how to be politically correct – invite all views and celebrate differences,” Rabbi Lord Sacks said to end his remarks.

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At the end of his presentation, Rabbis Sacks addressed the idea of political correctness and "safe spaces."