The Dignity of Difference
Summary: In this unit you can find resources and texts which explore Rabbi Sacks’ approach to diversity, which he terms The Dignity of Difference. As well as texts from the writings of Rabbi Sacks, you can also find classic Jewish sources, other contemporary Jewish voices, and some broader secular texts to enrich the way you teach this concept in your classroom.
There are many resources provided here for the teacher to choose from when building a lesson or series of lessons on this topic (there are far too many to be included in one lesson only). If you only want to dedicate one introductory lesson to the topic, then you are welcome to use our suggested lesson-plan for a sixty-minute lesson, which can be used to explore the classic Jewish texts and initial writings of Rabbi Sacks only.
Age: The resources and lesson plan can be adapted by the educator to a wide range of ages, from middle school/key stage 3 upwards (11 years old), but this unit is most appropriate for high school ages (15-18 years old).
Option 1: Universal concepts and particular examples
- Ask your students to draw a tree.
- Ask your students to define a tree in words on the page underneath the tree.
- Ask for some volunteers to share their picture and their definition. Each time allow the rest of the class to challenge their definition (e.g. if they say a tree has leaves then show them a photo of a tree without leaves in the winter. If one says a tree bears fruit show a picture of a non-fruit bearing tree.)
- Play the following video clip: Rabbi Sacks on Plato’s Ghost (or see alternative text below)
- Conclusion: While there may be one truth in heaven, there are multiple truths on earth. Discuss how this may inform the way we relate to people who have different ideas to us.
As an alternative to the video (or in addition), you could use this text as a catalyst for this discussion.
God, the creator of humanity, having made a covenant with all humanity, then turns to one people and commands it to be different, teaching humanity to make space for difference. God may at times be found in human other, the one not like us. Biblical monotheism is not the idea that there is one God and therefore one gateway to His Presence. To the contrary, it is the idea that the unity of God is to be found in the diversity of creation. This applies to the natural world. What is real and the proper object of our wonder is not the Platonic form of a leaf but the 250,000 different kinds there actually are; not the quintessential bird but the 9,000 species that exist today; not the metalanguage that embraces all others, but the 6,000 languages still spoken throughout the world.The Dignity of Difference, p. 53
- Why is it hard to define a tree (or anything for that matter)?
- What message can we learn from the fact that there are 250,000 difference kinds of leaves, while we can still have the single concept of a leaf?
- While we believe there is only one God, does that mean there is only one way to serve Him?
- What do you think Judaism says about non-Jews?
- What do you think Judaism says about other religions?
- Is it hard to see God in those not like us?
- What does this mean to you: the unity of God is to be found in the diversity of creation?
Option 2: This is Me – Exploring definitions of Human Dignity
Show the following music lyric video of the lead song ‘This is Me’ from the movie The Greatest Showman.
Film synopsis: P.T. Barnum, after trying his hands at various jobs, turns to show business to indulge his limitless imagination, rising from nothing to create the hugely successful Barnum & Bailey circus, the first of its kind. Featuring many exotic performers and daring acrobatic feats, Barnum’s mesmerising spectacle soon takes the world by storm to become “the greatest show on earth”. While his initial motivation was economic gain, he came to care deeply for his performers who represented those who do not fit into mainstream society. The circus gave them a home where they found love, dignity and belonging.
- What is the message of this song?
- What do all the performers have in common?
- How does this song express their self-esteem and dignity?
- What does human dignity mean to you?
- Why do some groups suffer from a lack of dignity in our society? Can you think of some examples?
- Rabbi Sacks says that the Torah teaches us that “Every individual is sacrosanct. Every life is sacred. The human person as such has inalienable dignity” (Future Tense, p. 78). Where can we learn this from the Torah?
- How can we ensure all people have ‘inalienable dignity’ in society?
The following texts are all taken from Chapter 3 (The Dignity of Difference: Exorcizing Plato’s Ghost) of the book The Dignity of Difference (2003).They are the parts of this chapter which focus on where the ideas can bee seen in the Torah. These texts compliment the sources quoted in the main section of this educational unit, which can be found here.
The first violence in the name of religion:
- Bereishit 4:1-15
- Why did Cain kill Hevel?
- Why do people kill in the name of religion?
- How can we rid the world of violence in the name of religion?
The first eleven chapters of Bereishit as a polemic against universalism
The world of the first eleven chapters of Genesis is global, a monoculture (‘the whole world had one language and a common speech’). It is to this world that God first speaks. He gives Adam a command, Cain a warning, Noah His grace. Yet, one by one these experiments fail. Adam disobeys. Cain becomes a murderer. Noah inhabits a world filled with violence. A poignant verse speaks of God’s disappointment: ‘The Lord regretted that He had made man on earth and His heart was filled with pain’ (Gen. 6:6). After the Flood, God makes a covenant with all humankind, the first universal moral code. But that is not the end of the story. There then follows a brief passage that deserves to become a parable of our time…
The men on the plain at Shinar make a technological discovery. They learn how to make bricks by drying clay. As after so many other technological advances, they immediately conclude that they now have the power of gods. They are no longer subject to nature. They have become its masters. They will storm the heavens. Their man-made environment – the city with its ziggurat or artificial mountain – will replicate the structure of the cosmos, but here they will rule, not God. The nineteenth century commentator, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, interprets Babel as the first totalitarianism. It is a supreme act of hubris, committed time and again in history – from the Sumerian city-states, to Plato’s Republic, to empires, ancient and modern, to the Soviet Union. It is the attempt to impose an artificial unity on divinely created diversity. That is what is wrong with universalism.The Dignity of Difference, pp. 51-52
- Bereishit 2 (Adam)
- Bereishit 4:1-15 (Cain)
- Bereishit 6:9 (Noach)
- Bereishit 11:1-9 (Tower of Babel)
- Why do you think the first eleven chapters of the Torah focus on a universal narrative (and not a Jewish one)?
- What can we learn about universalism from the story of the Tower of Bavel?
- What alternative model does the Torah go on to present (from chapter 12 onward)?
The descendants of Avraham represent an alternative
- Bereishit 12:1-3
Babel – the first global project – is the turning point in the biblical narrative. It ends with the division of humankind into a multiplicity of languages, cultures, nations and civilizations. God’s covenant with humanity as a whole has not ceased. But from here on He will focus on one family, and eventually one people, to be His witnesses and bearers of His covenant – a people in whose history His Presence will be peculiarly transparent. He will ask of them that they be willing to give up home, birthplace, and land, all the familiar certainties, and undertake a journey with God as their only protection. Theirs will be a singular and exemplary fate. They will be a people who are different. Indeed the word kadosh, ‘holy’, in the Bible means just that – being different, set apart, distinctive. The question is, Why?The Dignity of Difference, p. 52
- Why does the Torah change its focus from the universal to one particular people?
- What is this people asked to do and to be?
- How will this impact the rest of humanity?
Celebrated non-Jews in Tanach
The God of the Israelites is the God of all humankind, but the demands made of the Israelites are not asked of all humankind. There is no equivalent in Judaism to the doctrine that extra ecclesiam non est salus, ‘outside the Church there is no salvation’. On the contrary, Judaism’s ancient Sages maintained that ‘the pious of the nations have a share in the world to come’. Indeed, the Bible takes it for granted that the God of Israel is not only the God of Israel. He is also the God of Abraham’s contemporary, Melchizedek, king of Salem, not a member of the covenantal family but still a ‘priest of the Most High God’. He is acknowledged by Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law and a Midianite priest, who gives Israel its first lesson in government – the appointment of heads of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Two of the Bible’s heroic women, Tamar and Ruth, are not Israelites. The first is a Canaanite, the second a Moabite, yet each has a place of honour in Israel’s history and both are ancestors of its greatest king, David.The Dignity of Difference, pp. 52-53
- What does the Torah require and expect from non-Jews?
- Why does the Torah not actively seek to convert non-Jews to Judaism?
- What proof can we see in the Torah for the answers to these two questions?
Moshe defends universal morality
Biblical morality… emphasises the dual nature of our moral situation. On the one hand, we are members of the universal human family and thus of the (Noahide) covenant with all humankind. There are indeed moral universals – the sanctity of life, the dignity of the human person, the right to be free, to be no man’s slave or the object of someone else’s violence. The three vignettes of Moses’ life before he becomes leader of the Israelites perfectly illustrate this. He intervenes, first to rescue an Israelite from an Egyptian; then an Israelite from a fellow Israelite; then the (non-Israelite) daughters of Jethro from (non-Israelite) shepherds who are preventing them from watering their flock. Moses recognizes the universal character of injustice and fights against it, regardless of who is perpetrating it and who is its victim.The Dignity of Difference, p. 57
- What do these three instances involving Moshe have in common?
- What does ‘universal morality’ mean?
- What message does this have for us in our lives for today?
Loving the stranger through the experience of Jewish history
Nowhere is the singularity of biblical ethics more evident than in its treatment of the issue that has proved to be the most difficult in the history of human interaction, namely the problem of the stranger, the one who is not like us. Most societies at most times have been suspicious of, and aggressive toward, strangers. That is understandable, even natural. Strangers are non-kin. They come from beyond the tribe. They stand outside the network of reciprocity that creates and sustains communities. That is what makes the Mosaic books unusual in the history of moral thought. As the rabbis noted, the Hebrew Bible in one verse commands, ‘You shall love your neigh hour as yourself, but in no fewer than 36 places commands us to ‘love the stranger’.
Time and again it returns to this theme:
You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger – you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.
When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not ill-treat him. The stranger who lives with you shall be treated like the native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
… Indeed, that is what the Israelites are commanded never to forget about their shared experience of exile and slavery. They have to learn from the inside and always remember what it feels like to be an outsider, an alien, a stranger. It is their formative experience, re-enacted every year in the drama of Passover – as if to say that only those who know what it is to be slaves, understand at the core of their being why it is wrong to enslave others. Only those who have felt the loneliness of being a stranger find it natural to identify with strangers. Even Moses, who grew up as an Egyptian prince, suffers his own exile in Midian and calls his first son Gershom (‘there I was a stranger’), saying, ‘I have been a stranger in a strange land.’
God cares about the stranger, and so must we. Abraham invites three strangers into his tent and discovers that they are angels. Jacob wrestles with an unnamed adversary alone at night and thereafter says, ‘I have seen God face to face’. Welcoming the stranger, said the Sages, is even greater than ‘receiving the Divine Presence’. The Book of Ruth, which tells the prehistory of David, Israel’s greatest king, reaches its climax when Ruth says to Boaz (her ‘redeemer’), ‘Why have I found favour in your eyes such that you recognise me, though I am a stranger’ (Ruth 2:10). The human other is a trace of the Divine. As an ancient Jewish teaching puts it: ‘When a human being makes many coins in the same mint~ they all come out the same. God makes every person in the same image – His image – and each is different.’ The challenge to the religious imagination is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image. That is the converse of tribalism. But it is also something other than universalism. It takes difference seriously.
The prophet Malachi says to the Israelites, ‘From furthest east to furthest west My name is great among the nations, says the Lord of Hosts, but you profane it…’ (Malachi 1:10). The God of Israel is larger than the specific practices of Israel. Traces of His Presence can be found throughout the world. We do not have to share a creed or code to be partners in the covenant of humankind. The prophets of Israel wrestle with an idea still counterintuitive to the Platonic mind: that moral and spiritual dignity extend far beyond the boundaries of any one civilisation. They belong to the other, the outsider, the stranger, the one who does not fit our system, race or creed.The Dignity of Difference, pp. 58-60
- According to Rabbi Sacks, why was it important for Jewish history to begin with slavery in Egypt?
- Do you think this can also help us understand Jewish history until today?
- Where in the Torah can we see ‘God in the face of the stranger’?
Biblical Judaism is the journey away from tribalism and universalism
We can now state what Judaism represents in the history of Western thought. The story of the covenantal people begins with two journeys: Abraham and Sarah’s from Mesopotamia, and Moses and the Israelites’ from Egypt. Mesopotamia in the days of Abraham and Egypt in the age of Moses were the supreme economic and political powers of their time. Judaism has historically been a living alternative to empires, because imperialism and its latter-day successors, totalitarianism and fundamentalism, are attempts to impose a single regime on a plural world, to reduce men to Man, cultures to a single culture, to eliminate diversity in the name of a single sociopolitical order.The Dignity of Difference, p. 60
- Why is it important that Judaism began with these two journeys?
- Do the value systems of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt still exist today in the world?
- What alternative does Judaism offer to tribalism and universalism?
The following texts are all taken from Chapter 3 (The Dignity of Difference: Exorcizing Plato’s Ghost)of the book The Dignity of Difference (2003) and provide a sequential exploration of the idea of The Dignity of Difference and how Judaism teaches this to us as a meta-value. The classical Jewish sources that are referenced in this chapter can be found here.
How Religion has led to Tribalism
There is one answer with which we are familiar. Religion is about identity, and identity excludes. For every ‘We’ there is a ‘Them’, the people not like us. There are kin and non-kin, friends and strangers, brothers and others, and without these boundaries it is questionable whether we would have an identity at all. The sense of belonging goes back to the dawn of humanity, when being part of the group was essential to life itself. Outside it, surrounded by predators, the individual could not survive. Some of our deepest instincts go back to that time and explain our tendency to form networks, attachments and loyalties. To this day, we call these predispositions tribal.
They lie behind some of the earliest religious expressions of humankind. In the pantheon of antiquity there were gods who represented a people or a nation. They watched over its destinies, fought its battles, had their home in a local shrine or sacred mountain, and had, as it were, local jurisdiction. So, for example, the Moabites could see their conflict with the Israelites in terms of a battle between their god, Chemosh, and the God of the Israelites. So primordial is this sense that it never altogether died. It revived in secular terms in the romantic nationalism of nineteenth-century Europe in ideas such as the Volksgeist, the ‘spirit of the race’ conceived in terms no less mystical than its pagan predecessors. It survives today in football grounds and sporting contests throughout the world.The Dignity of Difference, pp. 46-47
- Why has it been important in human development to create identities that ‘exclude’, creating ‘us and them’?
- Is it still important?
- Is having a particular identity a negative thing?
Why Universalism is not the answer
Today we are inclined to see resurgent tribalism as the great danger of our fragmenting world. It is, but it is not the only danger. The paradox is that the very thing we take to be the antithesis of tribalism – universalism – can also be deeply threatening, and may be equally inadequate as an account of the human situation. A global culture is a universal culture, and universal cultures, though they have brought about great good, have also done immense harm. They see as the basis of our humanity the fact that we are all ultimately the same. We are vulnerable. We are embodied creatures. We feel hunger, thirst, fear, pain. We reason, hope, dream, aspire. These things are all true and important. But we are also different. Each landscape, language, culture, community is unique. Our very dignity as persons is rooted in the fact that none of us – not even genetically identical twins – is exactly like any other. Therefore none of us is replaceable, substitutable, a mere instance of a type. That is what makes us persons, not merely organisms or machines. If our commonalities are all that ultimately matter, then our differences are distractions to be overcome.The Dignity of Difference, p. 47
- What is the positive aspect of focusing on the things we all have in common?
- What are the dangers of only focusing on the things we all have in common?
- Why is universalism not the answer to tribalism?
Universalism and Particularism in the Torah
The Hebrew Bible is a book whose strangeness is little understood. It tells the story of God who makes a covenant with an individual, Abraham, whose children become a family, then a tribe, then a collection of tribes, then a nation. It is the narrative of a particular people. Yet the Bible does not begin with this people. Instead it starts by telling a story about humanity as a whole. Its first eleven chapters are about Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, Babel and its tower – archetypes of humanity as a whole. This is not simply an etiological myth, a tale of origins. It is quite clearly intended to be more than that. The Bible is doing here what it does elsewhere, namely conveying a set of truths through narrative. But by any conventional standard, the order of these stories is precisely wrong. They begin with universal humanity and only then proceed to the particular: one man, Abraham, one woman, Sarah, and one people, their descendants. By reversing the normal order, and charting, instead, a journey from the universal to the particular, the Bible represents the great anti-Platonic narrative in Western civilization. Against Plato and his followers, the Bible argues that universalism is the first, not the last, phase in the growth of the moral imagination.The Dignity of Difference, pp. 50-51
For the continuation of this text, which goes on to analyse the first eleven chapters of Bereishit as a polemic against universalism, see here.
- Why do you think the Torah begins with a universal narrative, and doesn’t skip straight to the beginning of Jewish history?
- Why is this order (from the universal to the particular) ‘wrong’ compared to the rest of western philosophy?
- What is the message in this reversing of the order?
The message of Judaism as an alternative to Universalism and Tribalism
Judaism has a structural peculiarity so perplexing and profound that though its two daughter monotheisms, Christianity and Islam, took much else from it, they did not adopt this: it is a particularist monotheism. It believes in one God but not in one exclusive path to salvation. The God of the Israelites is the God of all humankind, but the demands made of the Israelites are not asked of all humankind. There is no equivalent in Judaism to the doctrine that extra ecclesiam non est salus, ‘outside the Church there is no salvation’. On the contrary, Judaism’s ancient Sages maintained that ‘the pious of the nations have a share in the world to come’. Indeed, the Bible takes it for granted that the God of Israel is not only the God of Israel. He is also the God of Abraham’s contemporary, Melchizedek, king of Salem, not a member of the covenantal family but still a ‘priest of the Most High God’. He is acknowledged by Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law and a Midianite priest, who gives Israel its first lesson in government – the appointment of heads of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Two of the Bible’s heroic women, Tamar and Ruth, are not Israelites. The first is a Canaanite, the second a Moabite, yet each has a place of honour in Israel’s history and both are ancestors of its greatest king, David. How does such an idea arise and what does it imply?
To this I suggest a radical answer. God, the creator of humanity, having made a covenant with all humanity, then turns to one people and commands it to be different, teaching humanity to make space for difference. God may at times be found in human other, the one not like us. Biblical monotheism is not the idea that there is one God and therefore one gateway to His Presence. To the contrary, it is the idea that the unity of God is to be found in the diversity of creation.The Dignity of Difference, chapter 3, pp. 52-53
The radical transcendence of God in the Hebrew Bible means that the Infinite lies beyond our finite understanding. God communicates in human language, but there are dimensions of the divine that must forever elude us. As Jews we believe that God has made a covenant with a singular people, but that does not exclude the possibility of other peoples, cultures and faiths finding their own relationship with God within the shared frame of the Noahide laws. These laws constitute, as it were, the depth grammar of the human experience of the divine: of what it is to see the world as God’s work, and humanity as God’s image. God is God of all humanity, but between Babel and the end of days no single faith is the faith of all humanity. Such a narrative would lead us to respect the search for God in people of other faiths and reconcile the particularity of cultures with the universality of the human condition.
This means that though God makes absolute demands of the Jewish people, other than the Noahide laws these demands are not universal. There is a difference, all too often ignored, between absoluteness and universality. I have an absolute obligation to my child, but it is not a universal one. Indeed it is precisely this non-universality, this particularity, that constitutes parenthood – the ability to feel a bond with this child, not to all children indiscriminately. That is what makes love, love: not a generalized affection for persons of such-and-such a type, but a particular attachment to this person in his or her uniqueness. This ability to form an absolute bond of loyalty and obligation to someone in particular as opposed to persons-in-general goes to the very core of what we mean by being human.The Dignity of Difference, p. 55
- What is a ‘universalist religion’ and how do we know that Judaism is not one?
- What does it mean that Judaism is a ‘particularist monotheism’?
- Why did God make a particular covenant with the Jewish people? Is this to the exclusion of other covenants with other peoples?
God, Author of diversity, is the unifying Presence within diversity.
God as we encounter Him in the Bible is not simply a philosophical or scientific concept: the first cause, the prime mover, necessary being. He is a parent (‘Have we not all one father?’ ‘Like one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you’) bearing the love that a parent feels for a child he or she has brought into being. The God of the Hebrew Bible is not a Platonist, loving the abstract form of humanity. He is a particularist, loving each of his children for what they are: choosing Isaac but also blessing Ishmael, favouring Jacob but also commanding his children not to hate those of Esau, the God ‘whose tender care rests upon all his works’. The God of Abraham teaches humanity a more complex truth than simple oppositions – particular/universal, individual/state, tribe/humanity- would allow. We are particular and universal, the same and different, human beings as such, but also members of this family, that community, this history, that heritage. Our particularity is our window on to universality, just as our language is the only way we have of understanding the world we share with speakers of other languages. Just as a loving parent is pained by sibling rivalry, so God asks us, his children, not to fight or seek to dominate one another. God, author of diversity, is the unifying Presence within diversity.The Dignity of Difference, p. 56
- What message is God expressing through the particular covenant with the Jewish people and His love of them?
- How can we be particular and universal at the same time (how are we the same and different at the same time)?
- What does it mean that God is the “author of diversity”, and the “unifying presence within diversity”?
Learning Universal Morality from Particular Morality
Biblical morality… emphasises the dual nature of our moral situation. On the one hand, we are members of the universal human family and thus of the (Noahide) covenant with all humankind. There are indeed moral universals – the sanctity of life, the dignity of the human person, the right to be free, to be no man’s slave or the object of someone else’s violence…
On the other hand, we are also members of a particular family with its specific history and memory. We are part of a ‘thick’ or context-bound morality (represented, in Judaism, by the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants) which confers on us loyalties and obligations to the members of our community that go beyond mere justice. We have duties to our parents and children, friends and neighbours, and the members of society considered as an extended family (‘When your brother becomes poor … ‘). The generic word for such duties is chessed, usually translated as ‘kindness’, but meaning the loving obligations we owe to those with whom we are linked in a covenantal bond. It is precisely these moral intimacies that give life to the families and communities in which we learn the grammar and syntax of reciprocity and altruism.
The universality of moral concern is not something we learn by being universal but by being particular. Because we know what it is to be a parent, loving our children, not children in general, we understand what it is for someone else, somewhere else, to be a parent, loving his or her children, not ours. There is no road to human solidarity that does not begin with moral particularity – by coming to know what it means to be a child, a parent, a neighbour, a friend. We learn to love humanity by loving specific human beings. There is no short-cut.The Dignity of Difference, pp. 57-58
- What are ‘moral universals’ and ‘moral particularity’? Can you give some examples?
- Is it then morally acceptable to have a ‘particular love’ to those you are more similar with (such as family or community)?
- What then can ‘particular love and relationship’ teach us about universal morality and love?
Loving the stranger through the experience of Jewish history
Nowhere is the singularity of biblical ethics more evident than in its treatment of the issue that has proved to be the most difficult in the history of human interaction, namely the problem of the stranger, the one who is not like us. Most societies at most times have been suspicious of, and aggressive toward, strangers. That is understandable, even natural. Strangers are non-kin. They come from beyond the tribe. They stand outside the network of reciprocity that creates and sustains communities. That is what makes the Mosaic books unusual in the history of moral thought. As the rabbis noted, the Hebrew Bible in one verse commands, ‘You shall love your neigh hour as yourself, but in no fewer than 36 places commands us to ‘love the stranger’…
It does not assume that this is easy or instinctive. It does not derive it from reason or emotion alone, knowing that under stress, these have rarely been sufficient to counter the human tendency to dislike the unlike and exclude people not like us from our radius of moral concern. Instead it speaks of history: ‘You know what it is like to be different, because there was a time when you, too, were persecuted for being different.’
Indeed, that is what the Israelites are commanded never to forget about their shared experience of exile and slavery. They have to learn from the inside and always remember what it feels like to be an outsider, an alien, a stranger. It is their formative experience, re-enacted every year in the drama of Passover – as if to say that only those who know what it is to be slaves, understand at the core of their being why it is wrong to enslave others. Only those who have felt the loneliness of being a stranger find it natural to identify with strangers…
God cares about the stranger, and so must we… The human other is a trace of the Divine. As an ancient Jewish teaching puts it: ‘When a human being makes many coins in the same mint~ they all come out the same. God makes every person in the same image – His image – and each is different.’ The challenge to the religious imagination is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image. That is the converse of tribalism. But it is also something other than universalism. It takes difference seriously… The God of Israel is larger than the specific practices of Israel. Traces of His Presence can be found throughout the world. We do not have to share a creed or code to be partners in the covenant of humankind. The prophets of Israel wrestle with an idea still counterintuitive to the Platonic mind: that moral and spiritual dignity extend far beyond the boundaries of any one civilisation. They belong to the other, the outsider, the stranger, the one who does not fit our system, race or creed.The Dignity of Difference, pp. 58-60
- Why does Jewish history begin with slavery?
- Why have Jews been called on to be the perennial ‘stranger’ in society?
- How do these ideas change the way we live and build society?
Biblical Judaism is the journey away from tribalism and universalism
We can now state what Judaism represents in the history of Western thought. The story of the covenantal people begins with two journeys: Abraham and Sarah’s from Mesopotamia, and Moses and the Israelites’ from Egypt. Mesopotamia in the days of Abraham and Egypt in the age of Moses were the supreme economic and political powers of their time. Judaism has historically been a living alternative to empires, because imperialism and its latter-day successors, totalitarianism and fundamentalism, are attempts to impose a single regime on a plural world, to reduce men to Man, cultures to a single culture, to eliminate diversity in the name of a single sociopolitical order.
The faith of Israel declares the oneness of God and the plurality of man. It moves beyond both tribalism and its antithesis, universalism. Tribalism and its modern counterpart, nationalism, assumes there is one god (or ‘spirit’ or ‘race’ or ‘character’) for each nation. Universalism contends that there is one God – and therefore one truth, one way, one creed – for all humanity. Neither does justice to the human other, the stranger who is not in my image but is nevertheless in God’s image. Tribalism denies rights to the outsider. Universalism grants rights if and only if the outsider converts, conforms, assimilates, and thus ceases to be an outsider. Tribalism turns the concept of a chosen people into that of a master-race. Universalism turns the truth of a single culture into the measure of humanity. The results are often tragic and always an affront to human dignity.The Dignity of Difference, p. 60
- Why is it important that Judaism began with these two journeys?
- Do the value systems of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt still exist today in the world?
- What alternative does Judaism offer to tribalism and universalism?
Finding God in the face of the stranger: The Dignity of Difference
Nothing has proved harder in the history of civilisation than to see God, or good, or human dignity in those whose language is not mine, whose skin is a different colour, whose faith is not my faith and whose truth is not my truth.
There are, surely, many ways of arriving at this generosity of spirit, and each faith must find its own. The way I have discovered, having listened to Judaism’s sacred texts in the context of the tragedies of the twentieth century and the insecurities of the twenty-first, is that the truth at the beating heart of monotheism is that God transcends the particularities of culture and the limits of human understanding. He is my God but also the God of all humankind, even of those whose customs and way of life are unlike mine.
That is not to say that there are many gods. That is polytheism. Nor is it to say that God endorses every act done in His name. On the contrary: a God of your side as well as mine must be a God of justice who stands above us both, teaching us to make space for one another, to hear each other’s claims and to resolve them equitably. Only such a God would be truly transcendent – greater not only than the natural universe but also than the spiritual universe capable of being comprehended in any human language, from any single point of view. Only such a God could teach humankind to make peace other than by conquest and conversion, and as something nobler than practical necessity.
What would faith be like? It would be like being secure in one’s home, yet moved by the beauty of foreign places, knowing that they are someone else’s home, not mine, but still part of the glory of the world that is ours. It would be like being fluent in English, yet thrilled by the rhythms and resonances of an Italian sonnet one only partially understands. It would be to know that I am a sentence in the story of my people and its faith, but that there are other stories, each written in the letters of lives bound together in community, each part of the story of stories that is the narrative of man’s search for God and God’s call to humankind. Those who are confident in their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faith of others. In the midst of our multiple insecurities, we need that confidence now.The Dignity of Difference, pp. 65-66
Questions to Consider:
- Why is it so hard to see God in the face of the stranger?
- How can there be one God but many religions? What message can be learned from this?
- How does this impact the way we live our lives and the way we interact with those who are not the same as us?
- Rabbi Sacks on the Dignity of Difference – Part 1 (short JInsider video)
- Rabbi Sacks on the Dignity of Difference – Part 2 (short JInsider video)
- The Dignity of Difference: 2007 Kenan Institute for Ethics Distinguished Lecture (1 hr 15 min lecture)
- In Defence of Religious Liberty (30 min speech at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty)
- Jewish Particularism (45 min speech at The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies
- The Dignity of Difference (11 min speech at The National Prayer Breakfast)
- Improving interfaith dialogue in multicultural Britain (3.30 min speech in the House of Lords)
- Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, “The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations” (1 hour 14 min lecture at Duke University)
- Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (8 min speech at Mandel Leadership Institute in 2013)
Further articles from Rabbi Sacks exploring the Dignity of Difference
- “The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilisations” (7th Annual Templeton Lecture on Religion and World Affairs) (transcript)
- Judaism in a Multi-faith Society (section 3 in the Little Book of Questions)
- Particular Paths to a Universal God (Covenant & Conversation, Yitro)
- Neighbours are usually people like us. It’s strangers not like us we need to learn not to hate (Thought For the Day, 19 October 2018)
- The Trace of God (Covenant & Conversation, Noach)
To love God is to recognise His image in a human face, especially one whose creed, colour or culture is different from ours.From Optimism to Hope, p. 144
It is in our difference that we are most Divine, and by respecting our differences we do most to bring God into the world.Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 88
To be a Jew is to be part of the ongoing dialogue between earth and heaven that has persisted for two thirds of the recorded history of civilization and whose theme is as urgent now as at any time in the past: to build a society that honours the human person in our differences and commonalities, our singularity and interdependence.Radical Then, Radical Now, p. 184
We celebrate both our commonalities and differences, because if we had nothing in common we could not communicate, and if we had everything in common, we would have nothing to say.Opening address for Papal Visit, Twickenham, 17 September 2010
When difference leads to war, both sides lose. When it leads to mutual enrichment, both sides gain.The Dignity of Difference, p. 23
Our very dignity as persons is rooted in the fact that none of us – not even genetically identical twins – is exactly like any other.The Dignity of Difference, p. 47
Society is a conversation scored for many voices. But it is precisely in and through that conversation that we become conjoint authors of our collective future, rather than dust blown by the wind of economic forces. Conversation – respectful, engaged, reciprocal, calling forth some of our greatest powers of empathy and understanding – is the moral form of a world governed by the dignity of difference.The Dignity of Difference, p. 84
The very fact that we are different means that what I lack, someone else has, and what someone else lacks, I have.The Dignity of Difference, pp. 100-101
God, the maker of all, has set his image on the person as such, prior to and independently of our varied cultures and civilisations, thus conferring on human life a dignity and sanctity that transcends our differences. That is the burden of his covenant with Noah and thus with all humankind.The Dignity of Difference, p. 200
The test of faith is whether I can make space for difference. Can I recognise God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideals are difference from mine? If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing him to remake me in His.The Dignity of Difference, p. 201
By stating that not just the king, but everyone, is in the image of God, the Bible was opposing the entire political universe of the ancient world. Every individual is sacrosanct. Every life is sacred. The human person as such has inalienable dignity.Future Tense, p. 78
God took one man, then one people, and summoned it to be different to teach all humanity the dignity of difference… The human condition is indeed universal—we are each in the image of God and we each share in the covenant with God. But we are all different, and that difference is sacrosanct. It is what makes us unique, irreplaceable, and thus possessed of inalienable dignity.Future Tense, pp. 80-81
Our diversity meets in God’s unity. The supreme truth to which the Torah gives witness is that one who is not in my image—whose creed, culture or colour is not like mine—is nonetheless in God’s image. That is the principle of the dignity of difference.Future Tense, p. 81
Antisemitism begins with Jews, but it never ends with them. A world without room for Jews is one that has no room for difference, and a world that lacks space for difference lacks space for humanity itself.Future Tense, p. 111
The only adequate response to the fear and hatred of difference is to honour the dignity of difference. That is the Jewish message to the world.Future Tense, p. 111
I write as one who believes in the dignity of difference. If we were all the same, we would have nothing unique to contribute, nor anything to learn from others. The more diverse we are, the richer our culture becomes, and the more expansive our horizons of possibility. But that depends on our willingness to bring our differences as gifts to the common good. It requires integration rather than segregation, and that in turn means that we must have a rich and compelling sense of the common good. Without it, we will find that difference spells discord and creates, not music, but noiseThe Home We Build Together, p. 10
What makes us different is what we are; what unites us is what we do.The Home We Build Together, p. 16
What then is society? It is where we set aside all considerations of wealth and power and value people for what they are and what they give. It is where Jew and Christian, Muslim and Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh, can come together, bound by their commonalities, enlarged by their differences.The Home We Build Together, p. 240
How then do we avoid the violence that comes when different groups meet and clash? The answer proposed by the Bible is that something transcends our differences. That something is God, and He has set His image on each of us. That is why every life is sacred and each life is like a universe. The unity of God asks us to respect the stranger, the outsider, the alien, because even though he or she is not in our image – their ethnicity, faith or culture are not ours – nonetheless they are in God’s image. So God is universal. But our relationship with Him is particular.Not in God’s Name, p. 194
There is no single, simple system that will honour both our commonalities and our differences. Tribalism – identity without universality – leads to violence. Imperialism – universality without identity – leads to the loss of freedom and the suppression of the very diversity that makes us human. That is why the Bible sets out two covenants, not one: one that honours our common humanity, the other that sanctifies diversity and the particularity of love. And the universal comes first. You cannot love God without first honouring the universal dignity of humanity as the image and likeness of the universal God.Not in God’s Name, p. 200
- How do these contemporary Jewish thinkers approach the value of the family in Judaism?
- How does this compare to the approach of Rabbi Sacks?
- Do you think they conflict, compliment, or add to the approach of Rabbi Sacks?
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
The Exodus is partial fulfillment of the general divine commitment to turning the world into a universal human paradise. The Exodus of the Israelites is a down payment, the first divine installment of the promised universal liberation. This redemption is an assurance to the world that the universal redemption will follow.
This ritual and its implications grow out of the model that God recruits all humans to join in the covenant of filling the world with life. Then God enters into covenant with Abraham and Sarah and their family to serve as teachers, role models, and a pioneering community, setting the pace for humanity. The Jewish covenant is not a replacement or substitute for humanity’s covenant. It is meant to be a living example and a continuing confirmation of humanity’s way. All humans eventually will be beneficiaries of the final world repair. The Messianic age is the Exodus writ large.
Over historical time, the Jewish dialectic, with its built in universal-particular synthesis, has been subject to dissolution. Various Jews and Jewish movements turned away from universal humanity, instead interpreting the Torah and its promises as purely focused on Jewry.6 I dare say that this narrowing of focus (most powerfully expressed in some parts of haredi culture) leads to a situation where Jews and Judaism would appear to be indifferent to the fate of the world. Judaism becomes a tribal religion. In our globalized culture, many Jews abandon this Judaism to embrace all of humanity.
The alternative extreme has made a strong appearance in modern culture. Many revolutionary “non-Jewish Jews”7 rephrased the Torah’s promises as exclusively intended for the universal human race. Therefore, they abandoned and/or actively rejected Jewish identity out of the belief that universalism—in dignity, equality, and justice—is the superior moral standard and the best historical outcome.
In coming to this conclusion, the universalists missed the power of the Jewish dialectic. Their universalization became a homogenization of humanity. In history, this homogenization frequently led to the denial of dignity or outright suppression, not only of Jews, but of many other minorities. In the extreme, for example, to achieve true, pure Communism, Stalinism went on to suppress many nationalities, not just Jews. The Yevsektsia, the Jewish wing of the ruling Communist party in Russia, was happy to take the lead in a systematic program of closing synagogues, yeshivot, and community centers in order to hasten the arrival of Stalin’s universal Communist utopia.
This forced standardization became the enemy of tribal loyalties, local cultures, and family bonds. In power, it generated an assault on many human attachments and loyalties. In its most acute forms, this led to totalitarianism and coerced uniformity. The result often was not universal dignity but universal oppression. Forced universalism led to denial of the local and human connections that enrich human life, that keep power on a human scale and respectful of individuals and smaller groupings. Similarly, in economics, out-of-control globalization leads to flattening out local differences and leaving many people disadvantaged and at the wayside.
Judaism’s ideal model is a universalism of dignity and values that is comprised of a rainbow of different groups and religions. Humans are united in a common vision of a world repaired, but they savor variety, celebrating and drawing insights from different historical cultures and multiple religions. The Jewish idea is to marry the universal-particular dialectic in culture, religion, and community. The universal-particular play off each other and enrich the other. They make for a more human, multi-leveled, less controlling governance system, and a universal culture that celebrates differences and is enriched by the variety of human influences.Y. Greenberg, When Exodus Replaces Creation (Or Not), Parashat Va-etchanan 5781
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow
The recognition that all people are created in the image of God is an axiom. This arises from the plain meaning of the Torah’s Creation story. In light of the supreme importance which the Torah later attributes to the national question and to Man’s ethnic background, the fact that all people are described as descending from Adam stands out. In this description of Creation, the Torah fashions the common origins of the human race. It determines that all people are created in the image of God and that the essence of human existence contains a core that does not distinguish people… This equality does not just apply to the relationship between Man and his fellow Man, but also to the ties between Man and God…
The fact that Man bears the image of God demands respect. Harming him means harming the divine idea in the world, and minimizing his appearance as well. The approach to Man is therefore embedded in the fact that he is not just another appendage of creation towards which we have limited obligations; rather, he is the most exalted of creations. Man’s basic rights are an expression of the glory, the euphoria, the majesty, and the holiness with which we refer to Man, and from this point of departure we understand the limitation of his freedom and options as diminishing God’s glory in reality.Y. Cherlow, In His Image: The Image of God in Man, Jerusalem: Koren Publishers, 2015, pp. 225-227
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
On what basis do we people of different religious commitments meet one another?
First and foremost we meet as human beings who have so much in common: a heart, a face, a voice, the presence of a soul, fears, hope, the ability to trust, a capacity for compassion and understanding, the kinship of being human. My first task in every encounter is to comprehend the personhood of the human being I face, to sense the kinship of being human, solidarity of being.
To meet a human being is a major challenge to mind and heart. I must recall what I normally forget. A person is not just a specimen of the species called homo sapiens. He is all of humanity in one, and whenever one man is hurt we are all injured. The human is a disclosure of the divine, and all men are one in God’s care for man. Many things on earth are precious, some are holy, humanity is holy of holies.
To meet a human being is an opportunity to sense the image of God, the Presence of God. According to a rabbinical interpretation, the Lord said to Moses: “Wherever you see the trace of man, there I stand before you…”
When engaged in a conversation with a person of different religious commitment I discover that we disagree in matters sacred to us, does the image of God I face disappear? Does God cease to stand before me? Does the difference in commitment destroy the kinship of being human? Does the fact that we differ in our conceptions of God cancel what we have in common: the image of God?A. J. Heschel, 1966, No Religion is an Island
The Dignity of Difference is the phrase Rabbi Sacks used to present his approach to diversity in society. By its very essence, the concept and all of his writings on the Shabbat address contemporary society, while of course using Jewish ideas and values to formulate his approach.
The primary source to examine his ideas on the subject is the book of the same title. Within that, chapter 3 (entitled The Dignity of Difference: Exorcizing Plato’s Ghost) presents his approach in depth. The resources found above in both the The Dignity of Difference in classic Jewish sources and Texts from the writings of Rabbi Sacks on the Dignity of Difference are based on this chapter.
Other writings of Rabbi Sacks on this include:
Radical Then, Radical Now/A Letter in the Scroll (2000)
- Chapter 6: The Idea of Man
- Chapter 7: Covenantal Morality
The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society (2007)
- Chapter 1: Introduction
- Chapter 2: Society as Country House, Hotel, or Home
Future Tense (2009)
- Chapter 4: The Other: Judaism, Christianity and Islam
Not in God’s Name (2015)
- Chapter 11: The Universality of Justice, the Particularity of Love
Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times (2020)
- Chapter 9: Identity Politics
- Chapter 16: The Death of Civility
- Chapter 17: Human Dignity
Suggested Lesson Plan on Diversity
Title: The Dignity of Difference
Download our 60-minute class for high-school aged students.
Bet Nidrash on Diversity
Having completed your study of this topic, you may wish to embark with your students on a “Bet Nidrash” on the topic, a practical project based on what you have learned and discussed. The term “Bet Nidrash” is a play on the term Bet Midrash (study hall) replacing the word for study (Midrash) with the word Nidrash, which means “required” or an “imperative”. This suggests that one’s study should not be just for its own sake, but rather a means to an end, to improve oneself and the world around us. Rabbi Sacks’ philosophy and writings were always focused not on the theoretical, but on the deeply practical. He urged for the ideas he wrote about to be implemented outside of the walls of the Bet Midrash, in the real world.
In order to provide opportunities for your students to ‘see the face of God in the stranger’ and celebrate the ‘Dignity of Difference’ you could arrange for interfaith or intercultural programming. This could take the form of:
- Inviting a local non-Jewish faith school to come and share their faith and culture and to learn about Judaism
- Invite a guest speaker from another community to share with your students about their faith and culture
- To stage a cultural festival within your school learning about and celebrating the culture of a local community. You may wish to choose the community and culture of someone in your school community who is not Jewish (such as a member of staff) and they could be your guest speaker.
- A joint social action/chessed project in the wider community with children of another faith/culture. This could start with programming to share and learn about each other’s culture, and then a joint initiative of social action to improve the local wider community together.