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on January 23, 2003
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.
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on January 2, 2003
I bought this book because I had heard some controversy about it, and took it upstairs for bedtime reading. Mistake! I couldn't put it down, and, reading on sleeplessly found my emotions deeply touched by what this man has to say. His vision is as beautiful as it is complex, being that he is himself an Orthodox Jew speaking about the unity and diversity of religion. Yet, as one, he is uniquely qualified to beg all peoples of deep faith to find a way to see a spark of the divine in each other, even in the stranger's eyes. The inspiration and urgency of his writing, which seems to have erupted from his pen after 9/11, is profound. I checked around the web and found that this book is reccommended on liberal and conservative websites, and had favorable reviews from many, including a several Christian and one Moslem reviewer. Alas, as he mentions in his foreward, only hostility and lack of understanding gets media attention today....So I imagine that this wonderful book will continue to be mainly neglected here in the US, where its eloquence and vision is truly needed. I intend to remedy this by buying as many copies as I can afford and giving them to friends and family, on the condition that they promise to read it. But not at bedtime!
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on October 25, 2004
I am an American who teaches overseas, and I think that this book clearly illustrates the problem facing our various countries today: as the author states, we "narrowcast," meaning that we seek out those who are like us, communicate with those individuals, and then pronounce ourselves correct without ever truly seeking a diverse opinion.

The political faultlines we walk today are a perfect example of what happens when we stop talking to each other and only desire positive feedback. This book, however, is not for any standard reader: it appeals, I believe, more to moderates than someone of a strident ideological background. If you blindly follow an extremist path in a political party or religion, I think this book could radically change your mind about said path, but you need to approach the book with as open a mind as possible.

I write this only a few days before the next U.S. presidential election, which has been the ugliest since I came of voting age in '92. I wish both candidates and their quislings would read this fine book.
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on January 5, 2003
A stunning stunning book.
Beautifully written. Inspirational and accessible, incredibly thought-provoking and sometimes challenging. Overall it's the best book I've read in a long while. It takes the world we know we live in, and causes us to think really carefully about how the pieces fit together, and how we are each one of those pieces.
Like Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, this is a book that will be passed on from reader to reader in the next few years.
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VINE VOICEon March 19, 2008
This book is less one complete book than it is a set of essays on a wide range of topics- sometimes insightful, sometimes less so. Generally, I found the book to be most persuasive when it explains the appeal of traditional religion, less so when it sets out an independent argument for the way things ought to be. A few of the issues covered:

*The growth of religious fundamentalism. Rabbi Sacks writes: "The power of conservative religious movements has been precisely the fact that they represent protests against, rather than accommodations to, late modernity." In other words, right-wing religion is successful because it appeals to the dissatisfied; the satisfied by definition aren't going to be as motivated to switch religions or even to invest as heavily in their own.

*The value of religion generally. Why are religions so much more successful in attracting adherents than, say, philosophical systems with similar visions of the good life? Sacks points out that religions don't just have points of view, they "embody [their visions] in the life of the community. They make it vivid and substantial and prayer and ritual, in compelling narratives and collective acts of rededication." By contrast, a philosophy without ritual, or even a religious movement that lacks a lot of ritual, may not seem as "vivid and substantial" to some people. I completely agree; I grew up Reform and have moved towards a more ritual-oriented form of Judaism, and the reason I find traditional Judaism more appealing has less to do with ideology than the felt reality that the latter seems a bit more, well, "vivid."

*The value of religious diversity. Rabbi Sacks argues that the very fabric of creation supports diversity: just as God is glorified by the "astounding multiplicity" of the millions of species, and of the hundreds of human cultures and languages, the multiplicity of ways of approaching God are equally valuable. Sacks writes that "God has spoken to mankind in many languages through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims. But just as God is greater than any language, God is greater than any one way to relating to God." Makes sense to me- but maybe that's just because I am a non-haredi Jew. But what would Sacks say to the haredi Jew who says "But there's a difference- our revelation really happened and theirs is fictitious"? Or to the Christian or Muslim who argues that their way of relating to God presupposes the universality of their religion? I did not see how Sacks really addresses this tough issue.

*Economics. Rabbi Sacks correctly points out that Judaism has sought to steer a middle course between pure capitalism and socialism, by endorsing a market economy combined with mandatory charity. But is the view of Judaism relevant to a secular society? That is- should public policy reflect the voice of Torah, or should it follow the libertarian view that people can express their religious values with their own money rather than using the government to address poverty and related issues? Rabbi Sacks doesn't seem to me to focus on this issue, perhaps because he comes from a society where a generous welfare state is taken for granted to a greater extent than in the USA.

*Environmentalism. As Sacks suggests, there is quite a bit of justification for environmentalism in Jewish tradition. Sacks does address one strand of tradition that I was unaware of before reading this book: Jewish support for preserving endangered species. Sacks writes that according to the medieval sage Nachmanides, the Torah's prohibition of seizing a bird and its mother at the same time exists to prevent Jews from culling species to the point of extinction- a kind of early Endangered Species Act. Of course, translating Jewish environmental values into public policy is even more difficult than translating Jewish economic values into public policy, for the simple reason that environmental issues often involve not just values, but difficult factual questions that most nonscientists don't really understand. For example, I might have a rational opinion that global warming is caused by human activity, if I think there is a scientific consensus behind this view. But that doesn't mean that I know what policies will actually be effective in reducing global warming, let alone whether those policies are cost-justified.
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HALL OF FAMEon November 23, 2004
Rabbi Sachs is an intelligent and astute political thinker. His moral values his concern for the dignity of every human being his desire for peace in the world are felt strongly in the text.His overall prescription and hope is that the major civilizations of the world can through tolerant recognition and acceptance of each other bring great benefit to mankind as a whole. As an ideal prescription and formulation ' The Dignity of Differences' makes great sense.

But as a realistic assessment of where Mankind is and what precisely is going on within these Civilizations there is something lacking here. Any consideration of the present world situation which aims at providing some new and better direction has to look realistically at the character and goals of the major civilizations. The value of recognizing and tolerating others which Rabbi Sachs so rightly promotes is at this historical moment not the note which Islamic Civilization is ready to hear. In Huntington's Clash of Civilizations he spoke about an arc of confrontation in the world in which Muslim countries in thirty some odd places are engaged in aggressive violent behavior against neighbors. Islamic fundamentalist terrorism denies the fundamental premise of all that Rabbi Sachs is trying to teach. There is an assymetry between the Civilization which has to be recognized if there is going to be real progress toward a better world. Rabbi Sachs has made a valiant and admirable try here in offering a better way for the world. Unfortunately this does not address the ' threats' of the moment , threats of terror and violence, also by states which can bring disaster to Mankind. Let us hope and pray that Mankind will get in some years time into the position where all civilizations will recognize and tolerate the legitimate place of others.
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on March 18, 2007
Making world harmony a reality is a tall order and alliterated principles: control, contribution, compassion, creativity, co-operation, conservation, and conciliation are perhaps a bit `forced". But the deep and sincere thinking is much better than this might suggest. The title is more to the point; accepting the "dignity of difference" is entirely possible but for politicized extremists of every stripe (Faith) who ignore not only common principles but exclude any room at all for legitimate differences thereby proclaiming only they know divine will (the sin of `shirk' in Islam) and therefore there is no room for negotiation or compromise. This exclusivity is not unique to any faith or civilization except in the most delusional and arrogant self perception.

Perhaps empathy (compassion), a real sense of justice, and the space for what is essential to each faith are most important. The spirituality and morality of men of all faiths usually can provide toleration and conciliation - it is the politicians, ethnics, opportunists - and usually less spiritual individuals - who stop such developments.

This is a wonderful, even inspirational, book for people of good faith. But reactions, most of all from within the Rabbi's own faith so far, show the difficulty. Maybe psychology (as studied by books like "Blind Trust") needs to be integrated for a more actionable effective plan.

Now, a comment on limitations is required. Sacks remains idealistic and sometimes a bit superficial. He has not even reasonable agreement within his own community. There is little indicating real understanding of Islam in particular (perhaps this is much to ask in a short book). The discussion of education is lively but inadequate regarding quality versus quantity and the difficulty of opening minds. (The largely uncritical reading of "Clash" is itself an indication of limits of education.) It begs questions about why the oldest of the three faiths remains by far that with fewest adherents, and why a persecuted people now persecute others. The moral case for a market economy perhaps avoids too many of the negatives and how democracy evolves towards oligarchy without economic democracy. The critique of elements of globalism identifies but does not explain the role of that same capitalist "Washington Consensus". Greed and materialism more than empathy and generosity are characteristic of the present market economy. In general analysis is better than resolution of problems. Good will is not alone enough.
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on November 14, 2002
This attempt by the British Chief Rabbi to turn religion into part of the solution rather than the problem has inadvertently illustrated the complexity of of religious fundamentalism: Under pressure from Orthodox traditionalists, Rabbi Sacks has asked the publisher to stop selling the book until he can ammend "offensive" passages in which he argued that Judaism was not the exclusive path to God.
For those of us looking for a model of religious faith that doesn't lead to jihad, well, we better hope to get the first edition.
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on August 29, 2008
"The Dignity of Difference" should be read by all four of the folks running for President..if they followed its dictates the world would be a safer place. It echoes Obama more than McCain, but both would benefit from its wisdom. Rabbi Sacks' voice promotes tolerance, asks us to respect those who wish us ill. The mere title should be medittaed on by all who seek a more peaceful world. Inspiring quotes leap from almost every page. For example: "peace means living with those who have a different faith and other texts." The Rabbi quotes the Jewish sage who lived two thoousand years ago and asked "who is the hero of heroes?" and answered "he who turns an enemy into a friend."

Read it, no matter what your faith or if you have no faith...you will emerge at the end of the book a wiser soul.
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on June 15, 2008
This book is one of my favorites and is always a pleasure reading. Jonathan Sacks joins great thinkers of the past and present with a construcive discussion into one of modern societies' main challenges - the dealing with diversity in a global age.

This book is a wonderful introduction into a healthy discussion on the virtues of diversity and responsibilities enshrined in its proper management by politics, society and religion.

Although the author paves a theoretical path, further explored in his later book "the home we build together", he does not make the necessary dive into practicality. In this sense its a great book about postive notions but a limited guide into how actually to make the world better.

All in all, its a fascinating book where every reader can feel at home. Highly readable, highly engaging, and leaves a taste for more.
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