In this compelling extract from Lord Sacks’ acclaimed new book, Not In God’s Name, the former Chief Rabbi identifies the dangers implicit in literal translations of religious texts.
Never say, I hate, I kill, because my religion says so. Every text needs interpretation. Every interpretation needs wisdom. Every wisdom needs careful negotiation between the timeless and time. Fundamentalism reads texts as if God were as simple as we are. That is unlikely to be true.
Religions, especially religions of the Book, have hard texts: verses, commands, episodes, narratives, that if understood literally and applied directly would not merely offend our moral sense. They would also go against our best understanding of the religion itself.
There are many examples in the Hebrew Bible. There is the war of revenge against the Midianites. There is the war mandated against the seven nations in the land of Canaan. There is the book of Joshua with its wars of conquest, and the bloody revenge against the Amalekites in the book of Samuel. These strike us as barbaric and out of key with an ethic of compassion, or even with a just war doctrine of the kind that emerged in both the Jewish and Christian traditions.
There were other internal laws that the rabbis found puzzling and morally problematic. There is, for instance, in Deuteronomy, a law about a stubborn and rebellious son who is to be put to death for what appears to us to be no worse than a serious case of juvenile delinquency. So incompatible did this seem with the principles of justice that the Talmud records the view that the law was never put into effect and exists only for didactic purposes and not to be implemented in practice.
These texts – and there are notorious examples in the New Testament, the Qur’an and Hadith also – require the most careful interpretation if they are not to do great harm. That is why every text-based religion develops its own traditions of interpretation.
Rabbinic Judaism declared Biblicism – accepting the authority of the written word while rejecting oral tradition, the position of the Sadducees and Karaites – as heresy.
The rabbis said: ‘One who translates a verse literally is a liar.’ The point is clear: no text without interpretation; no interpretation without tradition; or, as 2 Corinthians puts it, ‘The letter kills, but the spirit gives life’ (NIV, 2 Cor. 3:6).
For almost the whole of their histories, Jews, Christians and Muslims have wrestled with the meanings of their scriptures, developing in the process elaborate hermeneutic and jurisprudential systems. Medieval Christianity had its four levels of interpretation: literal, allegorical, moral and eschatological. Islam has its fiqh; its four schools of Sunni jurisprudence and their Shia counterparts; its principles of taqleed, itjihad and qiyas. Hard texts need interpreting; without it, they lead to violence. God has given us both the mandate and the responsibility to do just that. We are guardians of his word for the sake of his world.
That is why fundamentalism is so dangerous and so untraditional. It refers to many things in different contexts, but one of them is the tendency to read texts literally and apply them directly: to go straight from revelation to application without interpretation. In many religions, including Judaism, this is heretical. In most, it is schismatic. Internal battles have been fought over these issues in many faiths. But the general conclusion at which most have arrived is that it needs great wisdom together with a deep grounding in tradition to know how to apply the word to the world.
One reason is, of course, that these are often very ancient texts, originally directed to times and conditions quite unlike ours.
The war commands of Deuteronomy and the book of Joshua, for example, belong to a time when warfare was systemic, endemic and brutal. The massacre of populations was commonplace. Another reason is that we are dealing with sacred scripture, texts invested with the ultimate authority of God himself. How do you take the word of eternity and apply it to the here-and-now? That is never simple and self-understood. That is why, for much of the biblical era, ancient Israel had its prophets who delivered, not the word of the Lord for all time – that had been done by Moses – but the word of the Lord for this time. There are things that may be justified in an age of prophecy that are wholly unjustifiable at other times.
As a general rule, though, the application of every ancient text to another age involves an act of interpretation, and there is nothing inherently religious about this. It is a central problem in secular law and jurisprudence, deliberated over in every Supreme Court. How is a law enacted then to be understood now? It is a problem every theatrical director faces in deciding how, for example, to stage The Merchant of Venice for a contemporary audience.
In each case, the issue is how to apply the-word-then to the-world-now, bridging the hermeneutical abyss of time and change.
Religions develop rules of interpretation and structures of authority. Without these, as we see today, any group can do almost anything in the name of religion, selecting texts, taking them out of context, reading them literally and ignoring the rest. Without rules, principles and authority, sacred texts provide the charisma of seemingly divine authority for purposes that are all too human. As Shakespeare said, ‘The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.’
What happens in the case of fundamentalism is a kind of principled impatience with this whole process. A radical thinker decides that the religious establishment is corrupt.
In his eyes it has made its peace with the world, compromised its ideals and failed to live up to the pristine demands of the faith.
Therefore let us live by the holy word as it was before it was interpreted and rendered pliable and easy-going. Recall that even the founder of Christianity told his disciples, ‘Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but sword’ (NIV, Matt. 10:34). There is always a confrontational as well as an accommodationist reading of any tradition.
Usually, of course, radical religious movements within an established faith tend to be sectarian and small-scale. What makes the present moment different is precisely what made the Reformation different in Christianity: the emergence, at roughly the same time, of a back-to-the-text-as-it-was-in-the-beginning religiosity, together with a revolution in information technology that allows the radicals to bypass conventional means of communication: church sermons in the age of printing, local imams and community elders in the age of the Internet. Suddenly the radicals command the heights and address the masses, while the religious establishment is left flat-footed and outpaced and looking old.
There is another factor also, that has been present in the background of all three Abrahamic monotheisms, namely the sheer dissonance between the world of tradition and the secular domain. It begins to seem impossible to hold religion and society together.
There comes a tipping point at which faith can no longer be seen as supporting the social or cultural order and becomes instead radically antagonistic towards it.
The term fundamentalism, for example, was originally coined in the early twentieth century to describe a reaction within the Protestant church in America against what seemed to traditionalists to be a steady erosion of faith in the light of modern science and biblical criticism.
There was a similar movement in Orthodox Judaism against any accom-modation with the intellectual doctrines of the Enlightenment or the social pressures involved in Emancipation.
In Islam much of the energy that produced the new radicalism came out of a deep disillusionment with the secularisation and Westernisation of traditional societies after the First World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
In each case, the radical neo-traditionalists felt the force of the echoing question: ‘What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’ (KJV, Mark 8: feel that the world has been allowed to defeat the word. They, by contrast, are determined to defeat the world by means of the word.