The Dignity of Difference:
The Religious Roots of Equality

Picture of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

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"What is revolutionary in this declaration is not that a human being could be in the image of God. That is precisely how kings of Mesopotamian city states and Pharaohs of Egypt were regarded. They were seen as the representatives, the living images, of the gods. That is how they derived their authority.  The Torah’s revolution is the statement that not some but all humans share this dignity. Regardless of class, color, culture, or creed, we are all in the image and likeness of God. In some fundamental sense we are all equal in dignity and ultimate worth, for we are all in God’s image regardless of color, culture or creed."

The concept of equality we find in the Torah specifically and in Judaism generally is not an equality of wealth: Judaism is not communism. Nor is it an equality of power: Judaism is not anarchy. It is fundamentally an equality of dignity. We are all equal citizens in the nation whose sovereign is God.

This is evident in the Torah’s opening chapter, where it says that God made humanity “in His image, after His likeness”. Never before or since has homo sapiens been invested with greater dignity. 

“And God created humankind in the divine image, creating it in the image of God— creating them male and female.” (Berishit 1:27)

What is revolutionary in this declaration is not that a human being could be in the image of God. That is precisely how kings of Mesopotamian city states and Pharaohs of Egypt were regarded. They were seen as the representatives, the living images, of the gods. That is how they derived their authority. 

The Torah’s revolution is the statement that not some but all humans share this dignity. Regardless of class, color, culture, or creed, we are all in the image and likeness of God. In some fundamental sense we are all equal in dignity and ultimate worth, for we are all in God’s image regardless of color, culture or creed.

Renowned historian, Paul Johnson, wrote in his book History of the Jews:

“Certainly, the world without the Jews would have been a radically different place, humanity might have eventually stumbled along the great Jewish discoveries but we can’t be sure… to them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human, the sanctity of life, the dignity of the human person, of the individual conscience and possible redemption, of the collective conscience, and social responsibility, peace as an abstract ideal, and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items that constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without the Jews, the world might have been a much emptier place.” 

The Torah tells the story of Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. But the interesting thing about it is Abraham and Sarah don’t appear until the twelfth chapter of Genesis.

The first eleven chapters of Genesis have got nothing to do with this particular family, the family of the covenant. They have to do with humanity as a whole. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, Babel and its builders. And I believe what the Bible is saying to us is that our common humanity precedes our religious differences.

And that becomes a very, very important religious insight. It seems to me that it was some such thought, that gave rise in the 17th century after a century when there were religious wars throughout Europe, to the very concept of religious freedom itself, or as it was called, liberty of conscience. The quest, that is the question that John Locke and of course in a different way, Thomas Jefferson wrestled. 

How can a society cohere when it contains a multiplicity of religious groups whose convictions clash. And the result was what Locke called the Doctrine of Toleration and what in America became the first amendment, the formal substantive separation of religion and power. So that religion, by an act of self-restraint, does not attempt to control the government, and the government, by a parallel act of self-restraint, does not attempt to control religion. If those two are kept with their own respective domains and their own respective integrity, then you have religious liberty. Government is about power; religion is about influence. Government is about state; religion is about society. And that is how religious liberty was born.

The idea set forth here is perhaps the most transformative in the entire history of moral and political thought. It is the basis of the civilization of the West with its unique emphasis on the individual and on equality. It lies behind Thomas Jefferson’s words in the American Declaration of Independence which states its proposition in religious language:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…”

In America, the tree of liberty has religious roots. Don’t believe you can sever those roots and have the tree of liberty survive. Let me be very blunt. When we lose religion what we are left with is moral relativism and individualism which may be fine for individuals—I have no problem with it—but don’t think you can run a society as a whole that way. You cannot defend freedom on the basis of moral relativism. The truth is you can’t even defend moral relativism on the basis of moral relativism. 

What Jefferson meant when he used that phrase “inalienable rights” was: this belongs to us, it cannot belong to the state. The state may come thus far but no further. It cannot interfere with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is a formula for minimal government. 

It takes the idea of divine sovereignty, of divine power over all earthly power, to establish the priority of right over might, humility in the exercise of power, and above all, the moral limit of power. There are certain things you should not use power to achieve and one of those is to tell people what they should worship or what they should believe.  It is dangerous not just for religion. It is dangerous for society as a whole.

However, even if we are not religious there is still a case to be made and it was made by one of the most brilliant people who ever wrote on this subject, Alexis de Tocqueville. The French aristocrat and political philosopher said:

“I see the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty marching in opposite directions but in America I saw them walk side by side, hand in hand.”

He said that religion in America is the antidote to the biggest threat to society and societal freedoms – something he called individualism. Religion, he said, strengthens democracy by strengthening families, strengthening communities, strengthening charities, and that led to what he called the art of association which he defined as the apprenticeship of liberty. Now that argument has recently been empirically demonstrated and quantified by one of the leading sociologists in America, Robert Putnam, who wrote the book,  American Grace, which was an absolutely enthralling work. 

What he showed, through extensive research that laid behind this book, is that being a member of a religious community is the single strongest indicator of willingness to give to others, of involvement in charitable giving- whether to secular or religious causes, of engaging in welfare work to help a stranger… on every index, the best guide to altruism and active citizenship is membership in a faith community. In other words, everyone gains thereby, because it is faith communities that are our great heritage of that wealth of nations called social capital.

Philosopher, political economist, politician and civil servant, John Stuart Mill, was the greatest defender of liberty in the 19th century in Britain. He was an atheist, or maybe just an agnostic, who believed that freedom includes the right to voice opinions that dissent from whatever is the majority view of a society at a given time. That is the only way we avoid error: by allowing dissent of voice.

In Roman law, and indeed in Judaism, there is a principle of justice which says, audi alteram partem, which means justice depends on the ability to listen to the other side. When one side is silent there is neither freedom nor justice and this effects everyone, religious and non-religious alike. It is that willingness to listen respectfully to those whom with we disagree that has been lost today. It has been lost in the media, it has been lost in university campuses, it has been lost in the internet where we can chose to only listen to the people we agree with.
Broadcasting is gone and narrowcasting has taken its place and the result is that society has been fragmented into sects of the like-minded. And we all thereby suffer. 

America’s great achievement was to turn religion into a force for freedom. As a religious leader myself, I believe that religious liberty, as it developed in America, is not just a great political achievement, it is also a great spiritual achievement, because it is based on humility and self-restraint, on the knowledge that this is one nation, under God. Because it involves asking each of us making the great religious gesture of making space for difference. 

It was standing at Ground Zero shortly after 9/11 that inspired me to write my book Dignity of Difference, my own argument that religion is a force for freedom. And therefore, all I have done between then and now has been an inadequate way of paying tribute to the memory of those who died as the result of religious hatred. And the only way we can defeat it is through religious love.

I argued in Dignity of Difference that the miracle of Abrahamic monotheism is not necessarily one God, one truth, and one way. I say the miracle of Abrahamic monotheism is that unity in heaven creates diversity down here on earth. And, what is wrong with fundamentalism is the attempt to impose a single truth on a plural world.

You look at the world and see religion becoming a force for violence and oppression, and heaven knows what. Countries throughout the Middle East, Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa, which are turning into what British philosopher Thomas Hobbes called a “war of all against all”, where life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. They can see religion as a force for violence, terror, or oppression, and therefore, what the world needs now is for America to stand tall and assert its unique and outstanding history and show that here we have proven that religion is indeed a force for liberty.

Daily Goal:
Today, when freedom— not just religious freedom but every kind of freedom—is threatened by a resurgent Russia, a driven China, and wars of religion destabilizing vast areas of the globe, the world needs the American message that religion is true to itself when it is a force for freedom, that religion is about influence, not power. It’s about society, not the state. It’s about not purchasing my liberty at the cost of yours. It’s about that wonderful truth that we are all in God’s image. Which means that somebody who is not in my image, whose color or culture or creed is different from mine, even though they are not in my image, they are still in God’s image. Can we see the trace of God in the face of a stranger?

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