The Dignity of Difference

author: Jonathan Sacks
published: Sept. 13, 2011,   recorded: October 2007,   views: 3214

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In a talk that interweaves philosophy, history, religion and some classic rabbinic banter, Sir Jonathan Sacks calls for a “paradigm shift in understanding of religion” in the face of globalization, which threatens to pull the world apart in tribal and religious strife. The “three great institutions of modernity -- science, economics and politics” have failed us, and cannot answer the key questions of the 21st century, which are “Who am I” and “Why am I here,” says Sacks. With great difficulty, people increasingly confront others from different places, and develop a “politics of identity.” There is “no overarching neutral power,” says Sack, that will “make and hold peace between warring groups.”

The answer is to find a new mode of existence “that will allow fervent religious believers to live in the conscious presence of difference without violence and war.” Sacks’ travels back to the roots of culture and identity found in the Torah. We must “read the Bible again with new ears to hear a message simple and profound:” The human story begins with the world sharing one language and common speech. Inverting the order of Plato, the Bible sets the universal as a starting point. What is revolutionary about Genesis, says Sacks, is not that human beings can be in the image of God, but “that it applies to every single one of us, rich, poor, young or old,” and that after the Flood, God makes a covenant with all of humanity. These are the same sentiments that “lie behind the great foundational sentence of American political life: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ Plato would have thought that sentence stark, raving mad.”

God sends Abraham and Sarah out of their land to be holy (“which means in the Bible distinctive and set apart”) -- to teach all humanity the dignity of difference.” Each culture is different yet “each in its way echoes and reaches out to God.” Sacks offers a non-religious version of this concept to his MIT audience. The “real miracle of nature is ordered complexity,” biodiversity, made possible by the unity of a single genetic language, DNA.

“What we face in the 21st century is a battle of religious ideas,” concludes Sacks. He aims his “message of hope for a dangerous world” not at the world’s extremists, “who will not be persuaded by secular words like freedom and democracy,” but rather, at those willing to “envisage a different and more gracious future.”

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