King Solomon reading the Torah, from a Parisian collection of Hebrew texts, c.1280

This article is a preview from the Autumn 2015 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

In an interview with the Today programme on 29 June, David Cameron expressed his frustration with the BBC’s treatment of the Islamic State: “I wish the BBC would stop calling it ‘Islamic State’ because it is not an Islamic state. What it is is an appalling barbarous regime that is a perversion of the religion of Islam,” he argued, continuing that “‘So-called’ or Isil is better.” A few weeks later, in a major speech on on 20 July, Cameron referred to “those moderate and reforming voices who speak for the vast majority of Muslims that want to reclaim their religion”, again implying that the Islamism was a kind of deviation from the true nature of Islam.

Cameron’s words continued a long debate that has continued since the 9/11 attacks. Is Islam a “religion of peace”? Or is Islam irredeemably committed to violence? And at the heart of this debate is the status of the Qur’an and other Islamic texts: do they really justify the brutality of Al Qaeda, ISIS and other regimes and factions? Is their interpretation of Islamic law the authentic one? Ironically, there is a commonality of interest between Islam’s fiercest opponents and its fiercest advocates in upholding a vision of the religion that is implacably opposed to everything outside itself.

At stake in this debate is a set of much broader issues surrounding the practice of interpretation. How should we read religious texts? How should texts written centuries or millennia ago guide action in the modern world? The claim that modern “fundamentalist” sects make is that their readings of religious texts reflect their “pure” meaning, unadulterated by sophistry and obfuscation. Again, some atheist critics of religion validate such readings, particularly when they disparage liberal religion as simply a hand-wringing attempt to mitigate the indefensible plain meaning of the text.

Ex-Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’s new book Not in God’s Name rejects such simplistic readings of religious texts. In fact, he goes further. His project is to directly address the violence and hatred that have been done in the name of religion in the modern world. Responding to the “difficulty” of biblical texts that can be read as justifying fundamentalist religious hate, he doesn’t just try to “interpret away” these problematic writings, but turns the issue on its head: for Sacks it is the fundamentalists who are reading the texts in non-authentic ways. As he points out:

For almost the whole of their histories, Jews, Christians and Muslims have wrestled with the meanings of their scriptures, developing in the process elaborate hermeneutic and jurisprudential systems ... Hard texts need interpreting; without it, they lead to violence. God has given us both the mandate and the responsibility to do just that.

Sacks argues that fundamentalist literalism is not just dangerous, it has traditionally been seen in Judaism as ­“heretical”. Instead, the act of patient interpretation, particular in the case of “hard” texts, is a religious duty.

That these complex practices are embedded in the fabric of Jewish, Muslim and Christian tradition will not be news to anyone who has studied them in a serious way. But such is the religious ignorance today, together with the success of fundamentalist claims to religious authenticity, that they will certainly be news to some readers.

Sacks demonstrates the value of one such tradition in his readings of sections of Genesis that form the core of the book. The aim of his project is to confront what he calls “dualism”. That is, the tendency to divide the world into pure categories of good and evil. According to Sacks, dualism is, at its heart, an attempt to deal with a world that has become impossibly complicated. In contrast, Sacks sees religion as ideally embracing this complexity and the murky tension between good and evil that runs through all humans.

One of the themes in Genesis that Sacks explores is sibling rivalry: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmail, Jacob and Esau. On the surface, the biblical approach is brutal, with one sibling chosen and the other cast out. Yet, as Sacks shows, a closer reading of the text, drawing on Midrash and other sources, shows that the unchosen one is never rejected by God and that the narrative still demonstrates compassion. Genesis in fact preaches sibling reconciliation rather than rivalry – as Jacob and Esau in the end reconcile. As Sacks argues, “The unstated but implicit message of Genesis is this: not until families can live in peace can a nation be born.” Dignity and compassion are central to this message, which is demonstrated when characters undergo trials where they are forced to see the world from the perspective of the other – as Joseph’s brothers do in Egypt.

This is an attractive message, one where the religious text can emphasise our common humanity and the necessity of respecting the dignity of the other. Sacks’s elegant prose is seductive in the way he demonstrates the possibilities of interpretation and its roots in Jewish tradition.

But Sacks’s work has its limits. He is, after all, an orthodox Jewish thinker. While he argues that the biblical text grounds respect for difference, he also emphasises its “incommensurability of the human person and of different civilisations”. Jacob/Esau, Isaac/Ishmail, Cain/Abel are irreconcilably different from each other and even if that doesn’t mean the other should be hated, it does mean that they cannot and should not be confused.

The implications of this view are profound. In an interview with the Jewish Chronicle in June 2015, Sacks argued: “I don’t think we ever really understand any other faith but our own. I know I will never really understand Christianity, and Christians will never really understand Judaism.”

Sacks’s vision appears to be of a world of distinct peoples, living in peace, but always sure of the boundaries between one another. In today’s globalised world, those boundaries are porous. Does he advocate their strengthening?

Sacks’s work as Chief Rabbi from 1991 to 2013 seems to suggest that he does. The Chief Rabbinate is an institution that does not represent Britain’s growing non-orthodox Jewish community, let alone secular Jews or even the ultra-orthodox. While he preached “inclusivism”, he rejected “pluralism”. He was not willing or able to participate in events with non-orthodox rabbis or on pluralist Jewish platforms and, in his early reign in particular, he set his face against the legitimacy of non-orthodox Judaism. Further, he showed himself to be desperately concerned with his legitimacy in the eyes of the growing ultra-orthodox minority. On one occasion, he re-edited his book The Dignity of Difference when ultra-orthodox rabbis objected to what they saw as the legitimacy it granted to non-Jewish religions.

His record in office helps us to flesh out the vision he presents in Not in God’s Name: ideally it appears to be of homogeneous religions and civilisations, strictly policed and intolerant of difference internally but respectful of it externally. While this is still an improvement on the dualistic and fundamentalist hate, at its worst this vision may simply displace hatred inwards rather than outwards.

Sacks’s critique of fundamentalism ultimately pulls its punches because he remains, like the fundamentalists, an essentialist. His vision is a liberal one, but on the conservative end of the spectrum. It’s revealing that, while he does refer to fundamentalism in all three monotheistic faiths, he is by far the most concerned about Islamism and about ­antisemitism. He is unable or unwilling to truly grasp the inroads that fundamentalist Judaism has made in Israel and elsewhere. He finds it difficult to understand power and global inequality in ways that will give bite to his ­analysis of why fundamentalism occurs.

Yet his method remains valid, and contains positive lessons even for those who are not religious. Even if the conclusions he comes to in his re-reading of Genesis are not as radical as he might claim, he does show how an appreciation for “counter-narratives” in religious texts can open them up in ways that liberate them from rigid dogma. His message that the more complex reading is the most religiously authentic can be extrapolated way beyond the sphere of religion: an appreciation of complexity and the ambiguity of meaning is a vital tool in navigating a complex and ambiguous world.

Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence is published by Schocken Books