What was your motive for the book To Heal a Fractured World?
“Let me explain that book. It was part of a long process that began with 9/11 and began really when the World Economic Forum was moved from Davos to New York , in the beginning of 2002, just to express solidarity with the people of New York. We came together, a group of religious leaders from around the world: imams, archbishops, rabbis and gurus. We stood at Ground Zero to pray toegether and I suddenly realized: there is a great choice ahead of us in the 21st Century. Religion is fire. Will it warm, or will it burn? That is the question. So I wrote a book that was published on the first anniversary of 9/11, called The Dignity of Difference, which was my first response.
As the years went by I realized that all the great religions were turning inward. They were becoming stronger in themselves, but less engaged in a sort of common good, and the global human project.”
Or in oecumenical projects for that matter…
“Not just oecumenical, but as citizens of a country with many different faiths. Obviously what Jews did when they came into Brittain was: they built schools to turn Jews into good English men and women. Now we build schools to turn English men and women into good Jews. So I wrote To Heal a Fractured World to turn our community outward again. It is a very strong statement of what I define as Jewish faith which I define as: to be true to your own faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith.”
In your book you state: happiness is not the absence of suffering, but the capacity to build a good life out of the broken pieces.
“Well I’ve just been rereading Tolstoy’s The death of Ivan Ilyich, which tells us this very powerfully. Ivan Ilyich is totally succesful, but he realizes his life has been completely meaningless because he hasn’t built up loving relationships, even within his own family. But we need to tell ourselves regularly.”
In Not in God’s Name you say: the Hebrew Bible is concerned with religious violence. Please explain.
“It begins with violence! Genesis chapter 4. The first two human children – the first murder. And done in the name of religion! As a result of the first human sacrifices. So the 21st Century is allowing us to open the pages of this very ancient book and see almost as if for the first time that it is talking very directly to us. But I’ve tried to say in the book that in order to relate to the Bible you need to read well beneath the surface. I’ve given readings of texts in Genesis that I think have never been given before.”
They are amazing! But not direct – it is very complicated, almost devious. I wonder why they made it so difficult?
“I’ll tell you why. I call Genesis philosophy in the narrative mode. The Greeks talked about truth as a system, and the Jews talk about truth as story. Now why do you choose story over system? I’m a philosopher, so I love the way the Greeks did things. But the trouble is: a system does not give you the capacity for multiple levels of meaning. Whereas a story you can read at one level as a child, and at a progressively deeper level as you grow up. You can’t tell a complex story about sibling rivalry and reconciliation and the fact that God’s love isn’t like our love to five-year-old kids. And yet five-year-old kids know these stories. So they’re reading them at one level but they reveal themselves over time at progressively deeper levels. I think that’s part of the nature of a story.”
The Hebrew Bible is said to contain seventy levels of meaning, is that right?
“At least! One of our rabbis said that there is one reading for every Jew. Everybody has their interpretation of the text that nobody else has. At least seventy.”
But then that means we’ve grown up as a culture?
“Genesis sets out its themes very early on. Number 1: human freedom. Evidence is the fact that humans can break their bond God’s command. Now we haven’t really arrived at full freedom yet at all, only hazardous. Second one: monogamy. There’s one man and one woman and the Garden of Eden. It took us a long time to get there. Number 3: it’s clear that if you have a religion based on freedom, slavery must be wrong. But it took the United States and a Civil War to get there. Etcetera. Those themes are set out very early on, together with warnings about religion and violence. And it’s taking us a very long time to get there.
I think every time we look at the Bible in a fundamentally new way, something remarkable happens. It’s happened in the 16th and 17th Centuries in Holland and England: you had Spinoza, you had Milton, and Locke, reading the Bible and suddenly coming out of them all those ideas that built the modern world. The moral limits of power. The social contract. Liberty of conscience. The doctrine of tolerance. And the greatest of all: human rights. Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus is a commentary on the Bible. Ditto Locke, Milton and Thomas Hobbs: they were not reading Plato and Aristotle, they were reading the Hebrew Bible.
The 21st Century is forcing us toward a new reading of the Bible. Our questions are different. Their questions emerged from the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics. We are looking at something more brutal and primitive, namely the millenial rivalry between Jews, Christians and Muslims.”
Your conclusion could be summarized in the saying from the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth. Would you agree?
“Sort of. What I would really say, is: don’t ask who is God’s favourite child. Just forget it. That’s a really bad question. It’s a question Jews, Christians and Muslims have taken to be definitional: that’s who we are. And I think it’s a very very bad way of looking at things. I say this as the eldest of four brothers. I was very conscious of the fact that I didn’t want there to be any sibling rivalry in my childhood. And I have to say, my father, bless his memory, did have favourites. And I knew how painful that was, just to see. We had to construct a relationship that was not based on whether Dad loved me more or you more. Because we knew there was nothing good going to come out of that.
Jews had been around a long time before Christianity. And Christianity comes along and says: we are the real Israel. And then Islam comes along and says: No, actually it’s us. Leaving Christianity as the middle child which is also an uncomfortable position.
All in all I think, the relationship between the three Abrahamic faiths, when you get down to bedrock, is so uncomfortable and so awkward. So I decided not to tackle it at all. I said: I’m going to wrestle with myself as a Jew, reading my holy texts, and say: guys, if this helps you, wrestle with yourself. I have not tried to do Christian theology for Christianity or Islamic theology for Muslims, I just said: guys, I’m going to do this and see if it helps you. What moved me most is that the most enthusiastic readers of the book have been Christians and Muslims. They say: here is a guy saying maybe we didn’t get it right, maybe we’ve been misreading these stories for thousands of years. I think it is important to be able to say: maybe we have not got it right, so let’s get it right from here on.”
So maybe Ishmael, the forefather of the Muslims, was very much loved by God, you mean?
“I can promise you he was! In the key texts of rabbinic Judaism there are many, many rabbis called Rabbi Ishmael. So obviously these rabbis knew Ishmael was loved, and this was long before Islam appeared in the world. I think we need to rescue all the signs of hope we can find, from that rabbinic rehabilitation of Ishmael all the way to Nostro Aetate and Vatican II which for me is the symbol of hope in the modern world. [The Catholic Church acknowledged what was true and holy in other religions, lt ].
What I really did not understand in that story about Abraham and Hagar and Sarah is that God said to Abraham: ‘Listen to Sarah.’ Why on Earth did he say that?
“That’s a really good question. I’ll try and answer it in the next book. I do not have an answer as yet! I continue to feel that this is not my last word on the subject. My project is a commentary on the Mosaic books, which will take me the next three years.”
I also thought about the principle in anthroposophy called Social Threefolding which says: liberty belongs only to spiritual matters, equality only belongs in courtrooms and brotherhood must be in economics. Would you agree, is this biblical?
“Wow! I never heard that before. We’ll have to do yet another book. Brilliant! I love it!”
What does it mean to be a chosen people?
“To rest secure in God’s love. Therefore I don’t need to know how He relates to anyone else.”
That means that anyone can think I am chosen?
“Let me tell you something: everyone already does. There’s not been one nation in the history of the world that did not believe itself chosen. You know John Milton wrote: ‘When God is about to reveal a new thing, He does it in the usual way, which is He reveals it to the English first.’ Then we have American Exceptionalism. The French certainly believed it, the Germans did, the Greeks in Athens knew they were the only civilized people in the world and the rest were barbarians.
What is original about Judaism is not that we thought ourselves the chosen people, but that we were such an odd chosen people! We were small, we were powerless. The Hebrew Bible hardly has a good word to say about us. Everything good that happens to the Jewish people in the Bible is because of God, and everything bad that happens is because of us. It’s the most counterintuitive chosen people of all. And God chose us to tell everyone that you don’t have to be big to be chosen, you don’t have to be righteous, you just have to accept the fact that God loves you even though other nations are bigger and more succesful than you are. And that resting secure in God’s love is the last of the three priestly blessings. May God bless you and protect you; may his face shine on you and be gracious to you, may he turn his face towards you. May he make eye contact with you! And grant you peace. The fact that he recognizes you and smiles at you and loves you is all you need to know. The second you know that, you stop comparing yourself to anyone else. That is what choseness means.
Isaiah chapter 19 says: one day God is going to choose Egypt and Syria as well as Israel, Israel’s bit enemies! Several prophets did not believe that Israel was the chosen people. I do not read the Hebrew Bible as a dismissal of everyone else. I also think God is a very demanding parent. And it’s telling us: not everyone has to be that close to him. He loves Ishmael as well, but Ishmael does not want God breathing down his neck all the time.”
There is a theory that the Palestinians are Jewish, that they were the farmers and mountain people left behind at the Great Babylonian Exile, and forcefully converted to Islam. What do you say about this endless sibling conflict?
“The single most important principle in ethics is role reversal. To think yourself into somebody else’s situation. I tell the story of the Hungarian antisemite Csanad Szegedi who discovered he was Jewish. He has now moved to Israel. It’s that role reversal we have to be able to do and I don’t see much of it yet.
Oecumene and universalism, all these wonderful high ideals, don’t really hack it when you’re in a conflict zone. And you really have to put yourself in the position of the other.
We are hardwired for empathy as you know, we have these things called mirror neurons: we can feel somebody else’s pain. But the essence of ethnic or religious conflict is that it cuts those circuits, it breaks them, so we don’t feel empathy for our enemies. And therefore we have to engage in a conscious act of role reversal. I am saying that the Bible forces us to do this, it forces us to put ourselves in the mindset of Hagar and Ishmael. Or of Esau when Jacob has taken the blessing. And so on. Joseph forces his brothers to go through the experiences that he has gone through so that they can understand what they did to him. These are not standard cases of empathy; they are empathy in extreme circumstances, where the normal empathy circuits have broken.”
First you have to build your future, you write, and only then can you revisit the past without being captured by it, you write. So the fight against poverty and advancing education is the most important work in the world?
“I feel that very strongly. A lot of people from our community have gone out to Israel to work with Palestinians to build a future for them. Building small businesses, giving them the capital to start, creating health facilities. All these practical things, which are not ideological at all, but which build a future. The single most distinctive feature of homo sapiens is that we are the only creature able to envisage a future that does not yet exist. And then to act to bring it about. In fact a group of thinkers in America has just brought out a book on this, Martin Seligmann: Homo Prospectus. We build a future.
I learned this from my long experience with Holocaust survivors. That is where I learned the importance of this.”
For thirty or forty years they were silent, working on their safety. So it takes a long time?
“It takes a long time. But the only way that the Israel-Palestinian conflict will be resolved will be moving from thinking about the past to thinking about the future. That does not mean to say we are to let go of the past; we will revisit it. But we have to park it for twenty years while we build a future. So the Palestinian children and the Israeli children can both have equal access to hope.”
[Bells ringing: he has to finish the interview. Last question.]
There are four organisations in Holland longing for you to come over to give a lecture. Would you be willing to come?
“Okay! I’ll come as soon as I possibly can, I promise. Send us an email.”