Book Review: Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence

Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence

Author: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Publisher: Schocken Books, paperback, 305 pages, including Acknowledgements, Endnotes and Bibliography

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

The Author

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, at the time this volume was published, was the award-winning author of more than 30 books. He was a frequent contributor to his own website, radio, TV, and the press around the world and taught at universities in Britain, the United States, and Israel. Rabbi Sacks received many awards for his work, including the Jerusalem Prize, and the Templeton Prize. He served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. 

Contents

This volume is made up of three parts, each containing four to six chapters. Each chapter begins with a quotation from someone, which highlights the chapter’s theme. Part One is titled Bad Faith, and includes the following chapters: 1 Altruistic Evil, 2 Violence and Identity, 3 Dualism, 4 The Scapegoat, 5 Sibling Rivalry. Part Two is titled Siblings, and includes the following chapters: 6 The Half-Brothers, 7 Wrestling with the Angel, 8 Role Reversal, 9 The Rejection of Rejection. Part Three is titled The Open Heart, and includes the following chapters: 10 The Stranger, 11 The Universality of Justice, the Particularity of Love, 12 Hard Texts, 13 Relinquishing Power, 14 Letting Go of Hate, 15 The Will to Power or the Will to Life. 

Brief Observations

Over the course of several years, I have been a frequent reader of Rabbi Sacks’s website and have listened to his talks and watched his videos. I have always found his knowledge, wisdom and insights inspiring and profound. Rabbi Sacks is indeed a most erudite scholar. This volume is one of those rare books that should not be read in haste. The contents of this volume are very profound. My experience of reading this volume was discovering fascinating insights on almost (a little hyperbole here, but not much!) every page! Rabbi Sacks had the gift of communicating complex theological, philosophical, and historical content in such a manner that inspires readers from almost every background—whether lay, clergy or academic. Sadly, Rabbi Sacks died on November 7, 2020, aged 72. 

So, to spark interest among readers of this review, I’ve chosen several insightful quotations—hoping that readers will be motivated to purchase their copy of this volume, or borrow it from the library. 

Quotations

“A society is judged by the way it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members. Life is sacred. Murder is both a crime and a sin.” (p. 4)

“A century ago Christians made up 20 per cent of the population of the Middle East. Today the figure is 4 per cent. What is happening is the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing.” (p. 7) 

“Because the world is changing faster than at any time in history, and since change disorients, it leads to a sense of loss and fear that can turn rapidly into hate.” (p. 21)

“Tomorrow’s world is born in what we teach our children today. That is what this book is about. It begins with the simplest of questions: What makes people violent in the first place?” (p. 26)

“Vast research since the events of 11 September 2001 has shown that jihadists and suicide bombers…are suffering…from what they see as the emptiness, meaninglessness, materialism and narcissism of the contemporary West and the corruption of secular regimes in the Islamic world.” (p. 42)

“Pathological dualism does three things. It makes you dehumanise and demonise your enemies. It leads you to see yourself as a victim. And it allows you to commit altruistic evil, killing in the name of the God of life, hating in the name of the God of love and practising cruelty in the name of the God of compassion.” (p. 54)

“Antisemitism is important because it illustrates more clearly than any other phenomenon the psychological and social dynamic of hate. It is, as it always has been, the first warning signal of a world order in danger of collapse. Today the Arab and Islamic world is awash with Judeophobia. An Anti-Defamation League study released in May 2014 found…that 74 per cent of those surveyed in the Middle East and North Africa held antisemitic attitudes” (p. 70)

“Our most primal instincts of bonding within the group occur when it confronts an external enemy. The hate that begins with Jews never ends with them. No free society was ever built on hate.” (p. 85) 

“Group identity need not lead to violence, but there is a mutant form, pathological dualism, that divides the world into two—our side, the children of light, and the other side, the children of darkness.” (p. 101)

“Long before the birth of Islam, many rabbis in the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods, from the first century CE onwards, were called Ishmael, hardly likely—indeed impossible—if Ishmael were a rejected figure in Judaism. At the core of the Bible’s value system is that cultures, like individuals, are judged by their willingness to extend care beyond the boundary of family, tribe, ethnicity and nation.” (p. 123)

“There is no need to want someone else’s blessing. We each have our own.” (p. 170)

“A master race produces monumental buildings, triumphal inscriptions and a literature of self-congratulation. Israel, to a degree unique in history, produced a literature of almost uninterrupted self-criticism.” (pp. 198-199)

“Hard texts need interpreting; without it, they lead to violence. That is why fundamentalism is so dangerous and so untraditional. It refers to many things in different contexts, but one of them is the tendency to read texts literally and apply them directly: to go straight from revelation to application without interpretation.” (p. 208)

“R. Samuel Edels said that the revelation at Sinai took place in the presence of 600,000 Israelites because the Torah can be interpreted in 600,000 different ways.” (p. 218) 

“Religion seeks truth, politics deals in power. Religion aims at unity, liberal democracy is about the mediation of conflict and respect for diversity. Religion refuses to compromise, politics is the art of compromise. Religion aspires to the ideal, politics lives in the real, the less-than-ideal. Religion is about the truths that do not change, politics is about the challenges that constantly change.” (p. 229)

“Hate harms the hated but it destroys the hater. There is no exception.” (p. 261)

“Today Jews, Christians and Muslims must stand together, in defence of humanity, the sanctity of life, religious freedom and the honour of God himself.” (p. 262)

Biblical scholars and clergy as well as laity will also appreciate Rabbi Sacks’s masterpiece interpretations of several biblical texts. 

This volume should be in every theological school, and included as a major resource in interfaith courses and dialogues. Highly recommended! 

Rabbi Lindsey bat Joseph’s address at Augustana Campus, U of A

On Tuesday of this week, I attended a talk by Rabbi Lindsey bat Joseph, titled, “Dancing on our Enemy’s Grave?: Coming to Terms With Victory and Peace,” in the chapel of Augustana Campus, the University of Alberta. The talk was organized by the Chester Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion and Public Life.

Rabbi Y. Lindsey bat Joseph is director of the Sol Mark Centre for Jewish Excellence, in Vancouver, B.C. She has been teaching for over 25 years, primarily in adult and post-secondary settings, and is currently a faculty member at Alexander College in downtown Vancouver. She has also acted as a moderator for Simon Fraser University’s Philosophers’ Café. She was ordained as a Reform Rabbi under the auspices of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Rabbi bat Joseph served as Rabbi-Educator at Temple Beth Ora of Edmonton for 11 years. She is committed to a Judaism that is inclusive, egalitarian, and creative in its approach to meeting the needs of contemporary Jews. Since moving to the West Coast, she has been involved with small Jewish communities on the B.C. Mainland and on Vancouver Island as well as teaching and studying in the Greater Vancouver Region. She holds a Bachelors Degrees in Education and in Religious Studies and Applied Ethics, a Masters Degree in Jewish Letters from the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion (Reform seminary), and a Masters degree with a major in Moral Philosophy. In 2005, she was awarded the Alberta Centennial Medal for community service. She was a contributing writer to the Jewish Lights Press Women’s Haftarah Commentary and had an article published in the Central Conference of American Rabbis Journal in August 2013.

The following are my notes from Rabbi bat Joseph’s talk, with apologies for any and all errors, omissions, etc.

Rabbi bat Joseph began by saying that one of the main impetuses for this talk was the death and aftermath of Osama bin Laden.

When terrorists are successful in killing their victims, they are portrayed by the media as rejoicing over their enemies. However, when terrorists are defeated, reactions are mixed and more ambiguous. According Rabbi bat Joseph, the reaction of governments were muted, they were not triumphant when the enemy, bin Laden was killed.

In our world today, civilians are increasingly on the front lines, as they are kidnapped by terrorists. Rabbi bat Joseph said that Israel has dealt with this since 1948.

Countries and governments don’t want to negotiate with terrorists, but what about a government’s responsibility to its citizens?

According to Rabbi bat Joseph, there are two seemingly contradictory passages concerning ethical-moral approaches to the enemy in the Book of Proverbs. Proverbs 24:17, and 11:10. Proverbs 24:17 states: “Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble.” Whereas Proverbs 11:10 states: “When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices; and when the wicked perish, there is jubilation.” (Note: I am quoting from the NRSV Bible).

Rabbi bat Joseph pointed out that there is a Midrash on Jewish festivals which places limits on rejoicing in light of the suffering of one’s enemy. One example she cited was pouring wine cups only partially full in the Passover Seder, reminding the Jewish participants that the enemy Egyptians suffered from the deaths of their loved ones from the plagues and in pursuit of the Hebrew slaves during the exodus from Egypt.

In Jewish exegesis of the Proverbs eleven passage, the text is in the context of judgment and justice. Rabbi bat Joseph employed the phrase “carefully restrained joy” when justice prevails.

When Osama bin Laden was killed by the U.S. military in 2011, many in cities across the U.S.A. celebrated his death, even with fireworks. However, governments around the world, including the U.S. government had a more muted response.

In 2004, Sheik Ahmed Yassin was killed by an Israeli missile. Even though he was a well-known terrorist, his death was not celebrated with rejoicing in Israel. Jewish tradition values human life.

The Jewish principle of redeeming the captive is more difficult in today’s world. For example, today we know—and Israel has experienced this—if terrorists are released they go home to plan more attacks.

Rabbi bat Joseph, making reference to the value of a captive, cited Mishnah Gittin 4:6: “Captives may not be ransomed for more than their value, for the sake of social order.”

When a person is taken captive, it is prominent in the media. Sometimes prisoners have been exchanged in Israel for dead bodies. Israel as a country is divided on these exchanges—do they or do they not encourage more kidnapping? What is the price for doing something and for doing nothing? What is a reasonable price to pay for ransom? There are no easy answers according to Rabbi bat Joseph.

When ISIL is defeated, Jewish tradition says that we will not dance on the enemy’s grave.

Following Rabbi bat Joseph’s talk, there were several questions.

On the matter of a peaceful solution between Israelis and Palestinians, Rabbi bat Joseph said she thinks the two-state solution is the right one and will eventually bring peace. She also stated that Israel is most likely going to end up abandoning some of the settlements, since they will be part of the Palestinian state.

When peace finally comes, Rabbi bat Joseph believes that economically both Israel and Palestine will rely on each other in a similar way that Canada and the United States do now. She also noted that a similar thing happened between Germany and Israel. Today both countries are on reasonably good terms with one another economically and politically.

Book Review: “We Are Going to Pick Potatoes”

book

“We Are Going to Pick Potatoes” Norway and the Holocaust, The Untold Story

Author: Irene Levin Berman

Publisher: Hamilton Books A member of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2010

185 pages, ISBN 978-0-7618-5011-3, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

The author, Irene Levin Berman was born in Norway to Jewish parents, and her grandparents on both sides of the family immigrated to Norway from Eastern Europe—mainly Poland and Lithuania.

   The book has its beginnings in the author’s quest for her identity and realization that she too was a Holocaust survivor.

   Each of the chapter titles orient readers to the themes addressed and the sense of the work’s flow and continuity. The titles are as follows: Acknowledgments—5 pages in length; Introduction: Why Norway Wasn’t Too Small (i.e. as a country with only about 1,500 to 2,000 Jews, and about 771 perished in the Nazi death camps. Some mistakenly thought the Nazis would not be interested in rounding up, arresting and deporting them to the concentration camps. The author also emphatically makes the case that even though 771 Norwegian Jews died in the Holocaust their lives were equally as valuable and important as the millions of others who also perished during World War II—one should not employ numbers to try and minimize what was done by the perpetrators, and the long-term repercussions for their surviving loved ones); 1 The Escape; 2 Refugees in Exile; 3 Those Who Came First – The Levin Family; 4 Those Who Came First – The Selikowitz Family; 5 The Family That ‘Disappeared’; 6 War and Holocaust; 7 The Silence; 8 Return from Exile; 9 Learning How To Be a Norwegian Jew; 10 Marrying a Jew; 11 Life in America; 12 The Myth about the Danish King (according to the author, he did not wear the Star of David armband in public); 13 Identity; 14 The Journey into the Past. In addition to the text, it includes several photographs—mainly of family members; as well as the Selikowitz and Levin family trees.

   For this reader, the chapter addressing the author family’s escape into Sweden, thanks to the assistance of the Norwegian underground resistance is very dramatic. The family escaped in the nick of time on November 25, 1942; the day before the Gestapo began to make mass arrests on November 26. Those Jews who were not able to leave prior to that day were all eventually deported to the concentration camps.

   In Norway, unlike Denmark who did not resist the Nazis; according to Levin Berman the nation’s police assisted the Nazis in arresting the Jews. Of course the Norwegian Jews felt betrayed by their own police for such horrendous action having tragic consequences. Levin Berman states that she was aware of only one police officer who refused to obey the Nazi order and he was subsequently shot for his defiance. The author also suggests that the situation was somewhat different in Denmark than in Norway—since in the former nation the Danes had information more in advance on the Nazi’s intentions concerning the Jews and therefore they had more time to assist them in fleeing to Sweden than did the Norwegians.

   Much of this volume is focussed on the author’s coming to terms with her family history and identity. She sees herself as having three identities inside one person. She is proud of being born in Norway and appreciates many of the cultural traditions and values of the Norwegian people—including the celebration of Constitution Day on the 17 of May, and the reading, study, translating and attending the plays of Henrik Ibsen. She is also very proud of her Jewish heritage and ancestors who were hard working and devout people; most of them ran well-respected businesses and also contributed to community organisations—including the synagogue in Oslo. Levin Berman chose to marry a Jew and to raise their children in the Jewish faith. However, she married an American Jew and by now has lived most of her adult life in America—therefore she has adjusted to the customs of American life, including the celebration of the 4 of July and Thanksgiving. Nonetheless, she made many trips back to Norway for lengthy periods of time to both vacation and provide care and support for her family there.

   In this volume, Levin Berman also provides bits and pieces of the history of the Jews in Norway. For example, Jews immigrated to Norway later than in Sweden and Denmark. It was only in 1851 that they were able to immigrate to Norway; after the “Jewish clause” in Article 2 of the Constitution was repealed. Norwegian poet, Henrik Wergeland was one of the most influential advocates campaigning to have the “Jewish clause” repealed.

   Most of the Jews in Norway settled in Oslo and Trondheim; with a few scattered in other Norwegian communities. The author’s paternal grandparents, Leib and Henriette Levin, settled in Rjukan, a small town in the middle of Norway, in Telemark county. Here grandfather was given the honour of delivering the keynote speech on the Norwegian Constitution Day of 17 May, 1914. One of his pivotal sentences in that speech reflects how Leib Levin understood his identity: “Om vi ere jøder i religion hindrer de oss ikke av vaere nordmaend i nation” (If we are Jews by religion, this does not prevent us from being Norwegian by nation). (p. 29)

   The process of this volume coming to birth in its English version is interesting. In 2008, the book was published in Norwegian, in Norway as “Vi skal plukke poteter,” Flukten fra Holocaust. (“We are going to pick potatoes,” the Escape from the Holocaust). However, the author, being gifted and trained in linguistics; and wanting to tell the story in America; undertook the task of translating her work into English.

   The phrase, “We are going to pick potatoes,” was a euphemism to tell others they were fleeing from the Nazis into neutral Sweden to live in exile until after the war. One of the conditions of being accepted in Sweden was that the Norwegian immigrants were required to find work in Sweden as soon as possible. Levin Berman’s Far (father) was able to do some very significant social work in settling the Norwegian Jewish refugees.

   Ultimately, I think it is Irene Levin Berman’s passion to tell this untold story of Norway’s Jews and the Holocaust that will surely prove beneficial to those living in the present age and for generations to come—for to honour those who perished in the Holocaust is to remember them.

   I encourage readers to visit the following website for more information concerning the book and the author here.

Book Review: The Life Worth Living

The Life Worth Living: Faith in Action

Author: Byron L. Sherwin

bsherwinPublisher: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009

165 pages, including Bibliography, ISBN 978-0-8028-6293-8, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Rabbi Dr. Sherwin is a prolific author, internationally acclaimed theologian, ethicist, and Distinguished Service Professor at Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago, and has made significant contributions to Jewish-Christian dialogues.

   This volume is addressed mainly to those interested in the realm of faith, open to further, deeper inquiry and growth in their faith and life journey; without being bogged down by technical, theological jargon.

   The work contains a preface, eleven chapters, and a bibliography. The chapter titles give readers some sense of the book’s direction, and are as follows: Where Are You? The Quest for Success; What Do You Mean? Life as Art Form; Where Is Wisdom to Be Found? The Gift of Love; Thank God; Ego Management; In Partnership with God; Ups and Downs; Exquisite Living. Each chapter begins with a story drawn from a wide variety of sources from both Jewish and Christian literature, which set the tone for the chapter’s theme. One of my favourites is chapter seven, Thank God: Once there were two little girls who were best friends. One was Christian, the other was Jewish. After Christmas, the grandfather of the Christian girl asked her: “What did your best friend get for Christmas?”

   “Oh, she’s not Christmas, Grandpa,” the little girl replied. “I am Christmas, and she is Hanukkah.” Then she paused for a moment, smiled and said, “But we’re both Thanksgiving.” (p. 94)

   The first chapter, Where Are You, is the question that God asks Adam and Eve after they have eaten the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, (Genesis 3:9). Rather than viewing this as a question however, the rabbi suggests that we look at it as a problem instead. “God is asking, What is your situation? Where are you in your life, now that you have eaten the forbidden fruit?” (p. 2) Such an awareness of where one is in life helps one to realise their responsibilities for what they have done in one’s life.

   Echoing the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, Rabbi Dr. Sherwin believes that: “For the person who loves, life is never devoid of meaning. Other moral virtues may contribute to a life of meaning—like faith, integrity, or courage—but love does more than contribute to meaning; love underlies it.” (p. 78)

   Citing the Talmud, the rabbi emphasises the destructive nature of gossip, stating that a gossiper is like a murderer, and “in effect kills three people: the one who speaks gossip, the one who hears gossip, and the one about whom the gossip is said.” (p. 137)

   Speaking of the importance of gratitude, the rabbi observes that it lifts human beings out of the ruts of self-pity and depression and allows them to be content with life.

   Addressing the matter of repentance, which in Hebrew, literally means return-teshuvah; Rabbi Dr. Sherwin speaks of it as “spiritual rehabilitation.” He suggests that it “is grounded in optimism, in hope, because it assumes the possibility of improvement. As an old myth reminds us, hope has two daughters: anger and courage—anger at the way some things are, and courage to try to change the way those things are.” (pp. 140-141)

   Overall, even if one does not always agree with Rabbi Dr. Sherwin, this work is an engaging read, chock-full of creative, insightful life-and-faith observations helpful to both clergy and laity, and giving the reader a deeper appreciation for the common heritage of Judaism and Christianity.

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