The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who died on November 8, had legions of admirers. I am one. He combined a brilliant mind with sparkling rhetoric, dazzling secular audiences with lines like this: “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.”
Lord Sacks was able to get a hearing from those who otherwise consider themselves closed to biblical wisdom. For that, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain was sometimes called by his detractors “chief rabbi to the Gentiles”. I think that rather a compliment, actually.
This Gentile was a grateful follower of his work because he helped me better understand the history of salvation. His work taught me much about the Torah – but also the Pauline epistles, as the apostle worked out the enduring encounter and entanglement of Christians and Jews.
Nearly five years ago, I hosted Rabbi Sacks at a public conversation where he gave a virtuoso performance of biblical scholarship at a packed theatre in downtown Toronto. Afterward, he related that it was one of the best public interviews he had ever had. The reason was clear; his interlocutor did not demand that he phrase his biblical exegesis in secular terms, but rather joined him in an exploration of the Word of God had to say to us today.
That Toronto night Sacks spoke about the origins of violence, Freudian psychology and what Genesis has to teach us about both.
“There are five sibling rivalry stories in Genesis: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and the two sisters, Leah and Rachel,” Sacks said. “I read them the way everyone reads them, on the surface, sibling rivalry. But then, when you’re looking at the roots of violence, one of the most interesting discoveries I made was about Sigmund Freud,” Freud is best-known for the “Oedipus complex:” – but, Sacks astutely pointed out, he seems even more interested in sibling rivalry.
The biblical scholar then took a turn at psychoanalysis, demonstrating one of his most captivating qualities: being conversant in other disciplines.
“Sigmund Freud was the only boy in a family of girls,” Sacks explained. “He was thoroughly spoiled and then something terrible happened. His mother, without consulting him, had another baby, and this time, it was a boy, a young baby called Julius, and young Freud did not like this at all. The new child was a serious usurper of Freud’s role as most favoured child in the family situation.” When Julius died tragically young, Freud felt guilty, as though his bad thoughts had cause his brother’s death.
Sacks then puts the two together: “I suddenly realized that if Freud knew that sibling rivalry was the primary driver of human violence, the Hebrew Bible certainly knows that because almost the entire theme of Genesis is sibling rivalry. There’s a drama that unfolds in five acts. If the Hebrew Bible and Sigmund Freud agree, then you sit up and take notice.”
Rabbi Sacks was a master at making people sit up and take notice of things which they had long seen, but did not understand. Religion puts things together.
If sibling rivalry is the root of violence, and Genesis presented the origins of human history in sibling rivalry, then are we not confronted with a most dismal past and a future full of tragedy? Not so, argued Sacks. Look at the endings, in chronological order: “Abel is dead… Isaac and Ishmael standing together at their father Abraham’s grave… Jacob and Esau, after years of conflict, they meet, they embrace, they kiss, and they go their separate ways… Joseph and his brothers in the last chapter of Genesis grant forgiveness and reconciliation.”
That night I saw Genesis as I had never seen it before.
“It was clear that those sibling rivalry narratives in Genesis are not simply variations on a theme,” concluded Sacks. “They describe an upward curve, moving from violence to forgiveness. I suddenly realized there’s more going on in Genesis than meets the eye and we might have here the answer to the sibling rivalry that in a macro scale has poisoned relations between Jews, Christians, and Muslims over the centuries.”
Jews first of all, but also a great many Christians and Muslims, found in Rabbi Sacks an elder brother, teacher and guide. May his memory be a blessing.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and founding editor of convivium.ca