The Dignity of Difference, by Jonathan Sacks

The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations
By Jonathan Sacks (Continuum, 2002)

Reviewed by Rabbi Jason Miller

As an International Relations major in college, I spent four years debating and writing about Samuel Huffington’s warning of a “clash of civilizations.”  Then, it seemed that globalization and the United States’ increasing role as the hegemonic superpower of the world were discussions limited to academia.  In the years since, our world has become much smaller, we have been introduced to the “axis of evil,” terrorism has penetrated our own borders, and a vocal anti-globalization effort has gone mainstream.  Now, the chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth has proposed that we borrow values from Judaism to avoid the clash of civilizations, seeking an alternative to religious coexistence through his notion of the ethics of globalization.

Much of the Jewish media’s coverage of Sacks’ book has focused on his criticism of Israel’s stance in the current conflict with the Palestinians.  However, looking past this critique (only a short section of the book treats this subject), one finds a novel argument about how people of different nationalities and faiths can coexist in the new world.  Sacks argues that religion does not have to lead to a clash between rival civilizations, but rather can be used to generate tolerance.  In our politically correct society, we often look for ways to put our differences aside and search out our commonalities, and we feel the need to be all-inclusive in our dialogue efforts.  Sacks challenges us by asking whether this “dialogue” is doing any good, or if we would be better served to embrace our differences.  Monotheism doesn’t mean there’s only one way to God, he argues, rather, it’s the belief that the unity of God creates diversity.

Our global borders have clearly shrunk, as evidenced by African children eating McDonalds and sipping Coke while wearing Nike shoes and watching MTV; and, we must now ask what the implications of globalization are to us as Jews.  Sacks ingeniously looks to the Torah for insight into the great debates about globalization, the clash of civilizations, and the campaign against terror.  He divides his book into seven moral principles (all beginning with the letter C) needed to make world harmony a reality: control, contribution, compassion, creativity, co-operation, conservation, and conciliation.  We, in the Jewish community, have a long history of striving to attain these core moral imperatives, labeling them as acts of tikkun olam, repairing the world.

In this post-September 11 world of great uncertainty, we must not be too quick to label globalization, which Sacks argues has compromised human dignity, as wholly positive or negative.  For every story of a Jew living in a remote part of the world once removed from Jewish existence and now able to participate fully in Jewish life due to vast technological advances, there is a story of how globalization has infused a community with American/Western values to the point that its own identity and cultural differences are forgotten.

As American Jews, there are many issues that drive our feelings about globalization and anti-globalization (most notably Israel), but we must not fall prey to oversimplifying the arguments of those in either camp.  At a time when religious values seem to be dividing us, this book is a fresh perspective that charges us to use those values for good.  With the current state of world affairs, the very least we could do is try.