At the National Prayer Breakfast: The Dignity of Difference

At the National Prayer Breakfast: The Dignity of Difference

In February 2017, Rabbi Sacks delivered two keynote addresses as part of The National Prayer Breakfast gathering in Washington D.C. The gathering included representatives from all faiths, and from across America and over 100 other countries.

The first speech focused on the concept of the dignity of difference and how we, as people of all faiths and of none, can come together to recognise that our common humanity precedes our religious differences.

Friends, wow. This is the first time I’ve been in a gathering like this. It is amazing. I thank you for the privilege of being with you and for the privilege of being with you and the privilege of being in a room of so many remarkable people who do such great work, and I pray to God is that He bless all you do. Friends, it’s also been a wonderful meal because it has shown me that eating together across faiths can be such fun. The reason I say this is because the first time I had such an occasion turned out to be one my potentially most embarrassing moments in my life, and I’ll tell you the story.

Soon after I became Chief Rabbi and John Major was the Prime Minister of Britain 10 Downing Street phoned my office and said would the Chief Rabbi please join myself for a little meal in 10 Downing Street because we’re making a meal for the state visit of the late President of Israel Chaim Herzog. It was the first time my wife and I had ever been to a meal like this, and of course, 10 Downing Street made all the arrangements with my office. A very embarrassed official said will the Chief Rabbi want to eat kosher? To which my office replied, probably.

The next day they phoned up and said, “Would the Chief Rabbi say Grace?” and my office said, “Probably!” Then next day a very embarrassed official phoned up and said do you think you could make it a short Grace? Because the Prime Minister has to go off and do something else so will you agree to do short Grace? The night finally came. It’s a very small meal, 16 people in 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister of Britain, Foreign Secretary, some other Cabinet Ministers. President of Israel, Chaim Herzog and an Israeli Cabinet Minister, and went into the little dining room in 10 Downing Street and the Prime Minister stood up and said I call on the Chief Rabbi to say Grace.

It was just then that I discovered that just when you think you have explained everything, there’s something you haven’t explained. You see in Jewish law if you want to make blessing over food, you have to have food in front of you. Did I know it was de rigeur in sophisticated circles in London to sit down to a completely empty table? There was no food in sight. I couldn’t make the blessing and there was nobody to ask, give me some food. I was standing there pondering my choice. Should I say a blessing that is forbidden in Jewish law, that’s taking the Lord’s name in vain? Or should I disobey the Prime Minister, thus putting an end to 50 years of Anglo-Israel diplomacy?
I lifted mine eyes up to the hills in search of salvation and salvation came. Because one of the officials in 10 Downing Street had decided that morning in a fit of aesthetic enthusiasm that one of the gold table ornaments would look more attractive if it were draped with a butt of grapes. This was the only food in the entire room, so I said a grace that included grapes and everything else. It was great and honour was satisfied.

After the meal I went up to the Prime Minister and said Prime Minister you must understand that your faith is different from ours. In fact you have more faith than we do because you are prepared to thank the Lord for that which we are about to receive, but we after long historical experience prefer to have received it first.

Friends that’s what life is. It’s encountering difference and diversity. Think about it. Walk down any city street in any western society and you will encounter in one hour more religious, cultural, and ethnic diversity than an 18th century anthropologist would have encountered in an entire lifetime. This is an amazing thing. Every school I go into in London has between 40 and 60 ethnic groups within its student body. It is stunning. Never before have we been so close to so much difference.

The real question is, do we see this as a good thing or not a good thing? Now my answer to that is very simple. Look at the world God created. He didn’t create one kind of tree. He created 200,000 kinds of tree. He didn’t create one form of life, but three million forms of life. He did not create one language but 6000 kinds of language. The miracle of monotheism is that unity up there creates diversity down here.

Everything is challenging like this and the main thing depends on whether we feel threatened or enlarged by difference. So after 9/11 I wrote a book called “The Dignity of Difference.” Just to make that point in religious terms, but you don’t have to make it in religious terms only. You can make it in secular terms. I discovered after my historical research that countries and cultures that embrace diversity went on to greatness. Those that suppressed diversity went on to decline. Anyone who has read James Surowiecki’s famous book “The Wisdom of Crowds,” or Cass Sunstein’s book, “Why Societies Need Dissent” knows that the same applies to businesses to economies and indeed to religions.

Judaism like Christianity and Islam is full of diversity. One of the things I admire, the people who put the Hebrew Bible together is that they put in it such dissident works. Ecclesiastes, Job, remarkable. They wanted to hear the counter voice. They wanted to hear more than one voice and that has been the case ever since. In Israel where there’s a certain divide between religious and secular, I wanted to show that we can talk together with mutual respect and so I had a public discussion with the secular Israeli novelist Amos Oz. I will never forget his opening sentence. It is one of the most Jewish sentences I ever heard. He said, “I don’t think I’m going to agree with Rabbi Sacks about everything, but then on most things I don’t agree with myself.”

Of course the Koran celebrates the fact that God created many nations so that we may know one another and Gospel embraces Jew and Greek, slave and freemen, man and woman. This is what made Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the great forces that they are. The basis of this spiritually is that resonant line in the first chapter of the Bible when God says, “Let us make man in our image according to our likeness,” because if we believe that, then the greatest religious challenge is can I see God’s image in someone who is not in my image? Whose colour, culture, or class is not mine.

That is a challenge. The Rabbi said it beautifully in the Mishnah. They said when you mint many coins in the same mint, they will come out identical. God makes every one of us in the same mould, in his image, yet we all come out different. That’s what makes it absolutely fundamental.

Now, today, we face a great challenge because there is hardly a nation in the world that is not growing less tolerant of diversity. In country after country we see different religious and ethnic minorities that were once friends and yet today are hardly talking to one another. We are in danger of forgetting the fundamental religious truth that the rabbis summed up in the words ezer hu gibor: Who is a hero, not one who defeats his enemies but one who turns an enemy into a friend. Friends we are all children of Abraham.

If we are children of Abraham then there is one scene engraved in our minds. That scene in Genesis 18 where three strangers pass by and Abraham rushes to offer them hospitality. Listen, you know I know all of you would do this, but don’t forget he was 99 years old and he had just had circumcision. But the thing is as we all know from the end of the story, those three strangers turned out to be angels and the fact is that the Bible is telling us something very simple. If you treat people like angels they become angels, but if you treat them like enemies, they will become enemies. Let us treat our friends and strangers as angels.

Friends, think about this. We are defined as a humanity by our commonalities and our differences. If we were completely different we wouldn’t be able to communicate, but if we were all exactly the same, we’d have nothing to say. That is how we have to do it, strive to find our common humanity and then celebrate our differences. Let us thank God that we have these differences and every time we embrace somebody of a different faith or culture or experience, our world is enlarged. Let us strive to see the trace of God in the face of a stranger and we will create the beautiful future God wants us to create. Amen.

The second speech focused on Rabbi Sacks’ latest book, Not in God’s Name, and looked at how we can confront the phenomenon of religious violence and what it means for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to recognise that we are all children of Abraham. Here is the second speech, on Religious Violence.