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Unity, Diversity, and Dialogue: A Jewish Perspective
Mar 1, 2009

While the appeal of the “dialogue of civilizations” is on the rise, its sources, functions, and consequence cause controversy within and between faith communities. Amidst these controversies, some religious leaders have attempted to clarify the religious foundations of the dialogue of civilizations. Among them is Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Britain and the Commonwealth. In his Judaism- inspired, Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, Sacks offers a framework for the dialogue of civilizations. Rather than mere tolerance and multiculturalism, he advocates what he calls the dignity of difference-an active engagement to value and cherish cultural and religious differences.

Although the dialogue of civilizations has always been laudable, modern global developments such as economic inequalities, environmental destruction, the spread of information technology, and the increasing power of civil society make dialogue critical for global peace and welfare. Facing these Herculean global challenges, economic and political solutions are not enough because they empower the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and weak, leading to the erosion of human dignity. Without a moral dimension, globalization is doomed to remain fragile. Furthermore, it can create resentment as well as a sense of injustice and anger among the poor and weak. However, conflict between the winners and losers in globalization is not inevitable. Religious leaders have the authority and responsibility to add a moral dimension to globalization by voicing “the silent cry of those who today suffer from want, hunger, disease, powerlessness, and lack of freedom” (p. 11).1 In Sacks’ account, religion is integral to global politics.

Belying Enlightenment predictions that religion would become “mute, marginal, and mild,” (p. 11) people are turning to religion across the globe, from Latin America to the Middle East, from the U.S. to China. Increasing global religiosity does not necessarily contribute to humanity’s hope for peace due to the dual nature of religions as a source of conflict and conflict resolution. In order to contribute to dialogue, harmony, and peace religions must find ways to “acknowledg[e] the integrity of those who are not of our faith.” It is their willingness to “make space for difference,” to “hear the voice of God in a language, a sensibility, a culture not our own,” or simply, their capacity to “see the presence of God in the face of a stranger.” If religious leaders fail to accommodate other religions, with the increasing salience of religion in international politics, religions will continue to be a source of discord, not harmony. Sacks is unequivocal in his contention about integrating faith into solutions to global problems: “If faith is enlisted in the cause of war, there must be an equal and opposite counter-voice in the name of peace. If religion is not part of a solution, it will certainly be part of the problem” (p. 9).

After describing the moral and political necessity of incorporating religion in global politics, Sacks answers the most thorny question facing religious mobilizations for equality, peace, and harmony: Can monotheistic traditions accommodate the dignity of followers of other monotheistic and polytheistic religions as well as non-theistic religions and philosophies? Is the unity of God compatible with the dignity of difference? Offering a Jewish perspective on monotheism, Rabbi Sacks suggests that monotheism is compatible with the diversity of religions.

Before explaining the Jewish perspective for making space for other faiths, Rabbi Sacks argues that the notion of the universality of truth and the danger of particularity (a notion he traces back to Plato’s The Republic) can have non-religious as well as religious roots. Rabbi Sacks identifies Western universalist cultures that have propagated the idea of the existence of one universal truth: ancient Greece and Rome, medieval Christianity and Islam, and the Enlightenment. In addition to these five universalizing cultures, the world is going through a sixth-global capitalism. These attempts to unify the world under one religion or culture are not compatible with the Divine Will that is revealed by the diversity and complexity of the natural and social world. Despite his criticisms of universalist cultures, Sacks claims that some universal moral truths exist as codified in the Biblical “covenant with Noah” which forms the basis of modern human rights norms. Despite the existence of these moral universals, Sacks rejects that the existence of one God requires “one faith, one truth, one way.” By creating complexity and plurality in the cosmos, God teaches a lesson on the dignity of difference.

According to Sacks, Judaism represents the best example of a monotheist accommodation of religious plurality. In contrast to the universalist monotheisms of Christianity and Islam, Judaism is a particularist monotheism that “believes in one God but not in one religion, one culture, one truth. The God of Abraham is the God of all mankind, but the faith of Abraham is not the faith of all mankind” (p. 55). One God shows His majesty and mercy through diversity in the cosmos as well as in faiths. God and religion are uncoupled. “God is universal, religions are particular” translations of God in a specific language in the form of a specific life, nation, and community of faith.

Rabbi Sacks’ account puts Abrahamic religions on equal ground. Stressing that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are religions of revelation, Sacks argues, “In the course of history God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, and Islam to Muslims. Only such a God is truly transcendental-greater not only than the natural universe but also than the spiritual universe articulated in any single faith, any specific language of human sensibility” (p. 55). However, as I explain later, Sacks revised or removed many of his statements accommodating Christianity and Islam in later editions of his book.

The dialogue of civilizations is the key to sustaining moral universals, accommodating the dignity of difference, and humanizing globalization. To this end, Sacks envisions two simultaneous dialogues with complementary functions-an interfaith dialogue and a faith–globalization dialogue. Before defining the term “dialogue,” he clears up some misconceptions about it. Dialogue is not about winning an argument or changing one’s own beliefs, but it is a “disciplined act of communicating . . . and listening.” By communicating we make our “views intelligible to someone who does not share them.” By listening we enter “into the inner world of someone whose views are opposed to” our own. In short, the aim of dialogue is not “to change one’s beliefs but make space for another deeply held belief” (p. 83). Once the space for another’s belief is created, the dignity of difference can flourish.

While interfaith dialogue should focus on finding religious justifications for the dignity of difference, faith–globalization dialogue should offer ways to enhance distributional justice in world resources. The integration of religious communities into this process is imperative because they embody the moral responsibility to alleviate the suffering of the poor and oppressed.

Among some Jewish moral responsibilities is tzedakah, which requires Jewish people to give charity for distributional justice. In addition to tzedakah, Jonathan Sacks stresses education, civil society, and environmental sustainability as other topics which activists should incorporate into the dialogue of civilizations.

The Dignity of Difference is an important contribution to the debate about interfaith dialogue, as well as globalization and its discontents. It weaves its argument through theology, political science, economics, and philosophy. Yet, there are three issues Sacks fails to address. First, it is not clear to what extent Sacks’ reading of Judaism is a standard Jewish reading. In other words, “how Jewish is his description?” This is important because of his claim that Judaism is the only particularist monotheism advocating the dignity of difference and accepting Judaism, Christianity, and Islam on equal theological grounds. As Richard Harries the Bishop of Oxford details, after the first publication of the book, other Jewish authorities criticized Sacks’ description of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as being on equal theological grounds.2 This criticism suggests that there is not a unity of opinion among Jewish scholars about whether and how to accommodate other Abrahamic traditions.

These criticisms led Sacks to rephrase and remove some statements. For example, in later editions, he removed this statement which had been included in the first edition: “Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are religions of revelation-faiths in which God speaks and we attempt to listen.” He also revised the statement that “God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims” so it became “As Jews we believe that God has made a covenant with the singular people, but [this] does not exclude the possibility of other peoples, cultures and faith finding their own relationship with God within the shared frame of the Noahide laws.” From an interfaith perspective, these criticisms and Rabbi Sacks’ responses indicate interfaith dialogue may not be sustainable without an intra-faith dialogue within each religion.

Secondly, Sacks refers to seeing God in the face of the stranger, but his examples and his argumentation are based on monotheistic traditions. Accepting the dignity of an atheist or a polytheist from a monotheistic perspective is hard, and Sacks fails to get directly involved with this difficulty.

Third, while Sacks talks about accommodating more religious voices in global governance to rectify the inhumane aspects of globalization, he tends to ignore the most outstanding obstacle in front of the integration of religious voices into politics: secularism. How can secular state institutions integrate religious voices while maintaining the separation of church and state? With their claim to sovereignty, nation states, tend to eliminate differences in the name of state- and nation-building and security. Can secularism, sovereignty, and nation state accommodate religious pluralism? If so, how?

Interfaith dialogue can provide solid, theological ground for the religious foundations of the dialogue of civilizations. Creating space for others’ beliefs is one of the most important and urgent challenges of increasingly interconnected and complex global world politics. By articulating Jewish justifications and parameters for the dialogue of civilizations, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks joins the company of other religious voices such as Fethullah Gulen3 and scholars such as Fred Dallmayr4 advocating interfaith dialogue, tolerance, and harmony. Any religious and secular voices advocating that end will help both to avoid the clash of civilizations and possibly to add a moral dimension to globalization.

Voices for interfaith dialogue from Judaism are particularly important for religious and practical reasons. Jewish scholars’ struggle to accommodate other religions can influence other Abrahamic religions and the interactions of Abrahamic religions with non-Abrahamic religions. Politically, it is important because Jewish voices for interfaith dialogue may moderate the ongoing tensions in the Middle East and Palestine.


  1. Jonathan Sacks expands some of his arguments in his subsequent book To Heal A Fractured Word: The Ethics of Responsibility. New York: Schocken. 2005.
  2. Richard Harries (2004). “Jonathan Sacks’s The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations,” Scottish Journal of Theology. (57)1: 109-115. For another thorough review see Fred Dallmayr (2003). “The Dignity of Difference: A Salute to Jonathan Sacks,” Kroc Institute Occasional Paper # 24:OP:1.
  3. Ali Ünal and Alphonse Williams (Compiled by). Advocate of Dialogue: Fethullah Gulen. Fairfax, VA. The Fountain Press. 2000.
  4. Fred Dallmayr. Dialogue Among Civilizations: Some Exemplary Voices. New York. Palgrave Macmillan. 2002.