Last week Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, died at the age of 72. Rabbi Sacks was a champion of tolerance in an increasingly intolerant time. Given the rancor and divisiveness of recent days, I thought it might be helpful to mull over one of his most powerful ideas.
In perhaps his best known book, “The Dignity of Difference” (2002), Rabbi Sacks countered an argument popular among many religious leaders today, that lasting peace can only be achieved if everyone shares their beliefs. Rabbi Sacks observed, “Tragically, that path does not lead to peace.” Rather, we need “a way of living with, and acknowledging the integrity of, those who are not of our faith.”
I believe we could extend his wisdom well beyond religious faith. Public leaders of all sorts, including political leaders, would do well to recognize that it is not similarity that characterizes creation, but difference. The Creator has a real knack for diversity. Apparently God is not satisfied with a single form of anything, but loves variety.
Several years ago, in a conversation with the board of the seminary I served as president, we were discussing the value of diversity in our student body. We wanted the seminary to be a “big tent” where people from many traditions and backgrounds, representing many different views of the world, could study together and grow together in faith in God. In a sense, we wanted our school to serve as a living example of God’s creation, where we could learn to live together with respect.
One of our trustees observed that we ought to avoid the word “diversity,” however, in pursuing our goal because it had become a political hot-button word. We discussed this concern, and realized along the way that the word had been declared off-limits precisely because some people want everyone to be the same as them. I can’t remember who, but someone came up with a phrase for this: “Uniformitarianism.” We decided that diversity was too good a word to avoid. So is variety. So also difference.
Rabbi Sacks’ idea of a world rich in its diversity and rich in its respect for others corresponds to philosopher Paul Woodruff’s conviction, “If you desire peace in the world, do not pray that everyone share your beliefs. Pray instead that all may be reverent.” In his book, “Reverence” (2001), Dr. Woodruff goes on to say that “without reverence, things fall apart. People do not know how to respect each other and themselves.”
We’ve all read and heard so many pleas for civility in the past several years. Perhaps the cure for the lack of respect for others lies in reverence, that sense of proper proportion in the presence of God, the Creator, whose positive passion for diversity and variety and difference is visible wherever we look in this world. As Rabbi Sacks also said, “God has spoken to humanity in many languages…. No one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth; no one civilization encompasses all the spiritual, ethical and artistic expressions of mankind.”