Dr Mannie Sher critiques Jonathan Sacks’ new book: ‘Not in God’s Name’

Dr Mannie Sher critiques Jonathan Sacks’ new book: ‘Not in God’s Name’

… and challenges Sacks to go further and view religious violence through a systems psychodynamics lens.


7 August 2015

… and challenges Sacks to go further and view religious violence through a systems psychodynamics lens.

An Open Letter to Jonathan Sacks

Dear Rabbi Sacks

On reading your latest book, Not in God’s Name I feel impelled to comment on your main theses which are both fascinating and worrying.

As with your earlier books, Not in God’s Name is engaging clarifies your proposition that sibling rivalry when translated to large groups, and especially faith groups, may be a cause of inter-group violence. Your descriptions of the great Biblical family dramas between the siblings of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs are deep and impressive and throw new light on traditional exposition. Your interpretations based on text and Midrash are refreshingly insightful and are a joy to read.

However, I am puzzled by your rejection of Freud’s hoard theory and the maintenance of power by the father in the face of the sons’ desire to kill him and take his place. I wonder, in your role of Chief Rabbi, did you never experience, along with the admiration and high regard in which you were held, the murderousness of others to do away with you? You offer the Kleinian formula (p. 52 and p. 259) of denial, repression, splitting and projective processes to account for inter-group behaviour [Us (good) – Them (bad)], but your tone feels somewhat critical as you imply that were it not for man’s tendencies to live life in groups, inter-group violence could be eliminated.

You offer explanations for religious violence: ‘instead of religion relying on strength of argument, it seeks to impose truth by force’ (p. 234), and the corollary, ‘religion acquires influence when it relinquishes power’ (p. 236). You assert that ‘to be free, you have to let go of hate’ (p. 238), but your analysis of religious violence does not go deep enough. How do you explain the presence of human hatred? In places you seem to be getting close to root causes, but then you turn and claim that it is God who does not accept violence because He is a God of Love. That argument takes us into the realm of the un-debate-able – who can argue with that? The weakness of your ‘God-is-Love’ argument is that it is another manifestation of the denial-repression-splitting-projection phenomenon which you deplore in faith extremism because that is based on the ‘bad’, yet you rely on a repression-denial-splitting-projective process but yours is based on the ‘good’. You cannot have it both ways.

You use another form of splitting to address the concept of ‘dualism’ – a basic concept that describes the struggle that humans endure between good and bad impulses and loving and hating feelings in and about themselves and towards others. ‘My God’ vs ‘Your God’ is a form of individual splitting transposed onto the group on a massive scale that derives from a basic human tendency towards splitting that forces out of awareness unacceptable thoughts and feelings about the self and the other. These thoughts and feelings get lodged in the unconscious and are represented in myth (another concept I do not understand why you reject), phantasy, narrative, dreams and ritual where they can be dealt with in one way, or in fighting, controlling or exterminating the ‘Other’ in another. In all of this, you postulate a God of Love who weeps to observe His creatures’ behaviour. But then would you not have to include in your canon a God of Hate who revels in his creature’s suffering?

A deeper analysis of the psychoanalytic roots of thought and behaviour might have led you to explain the phenomenon of violence differently. Your starting point seems to be Man in adolescence and you ignore human development from before conception through birth, infancy, early childhood and the latency period. Psychoanalytic approaches to human thought and human behaviour emphasise the struggle between instinctual expression and seeking loving acceptance, firstly, by mother (is this the first intimation of God?), then father, then the family and later by society. Infantile sexuality and infantile aggression are powerful drives searching for attachment objects and also aiming to control hatred and destructiveness. Both these drives are mediated by the family and community and culture of which the family is a part. Your thesis does not consider the role of sexuality and aggression in human functioning that require mediation for living peaceably in society.

This brings me to your use of the term ‘role reversal’ as a basis for making peace – putting oneself in the ‘Other’s’ shoes and empathising with him. I have never considered role reversal a healthy development, rather a regressive step that avoids facing the anxiety and helplessness of being small and vulnerable. To avoid vulnerability, the individual or group attempts to make the ‘Other’ weak and vulnerable, so that the self can feel strong, helpful and compassionate, but it does not work, because weakness and vulnerability in reality prevent one from ‘caring’ for the ‘Other’. Role reversal is illusory – a flight from reality. A more appropriate term may be ‘identification’ – “I am moved to help the poor and disadvantaged because I am able to identify with their situation and do something about it.” Absence of empathy and the ability to identify leads to harshness of character, cruelty and sadism and ultimately killing without remorse.

As Director of the Group Relations Programme of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, my work involves the study of the dynamics of group life, so I am concerned to read your criticism of groups, group behaviour and group dynamics. A central part of my professional life has been dedicated to the field of Group Relations which is mainly, but not only, concerned with the method of learning through and from experience. In these Group Relations Conferences one is helped to savour and understand both the beauty and the horror, the elevation and the descent that comes from the dualism of human nature and the role played by unconscious process – both individual and collective – in managing the tension between great heights of spiritual experience and the terrible depths of hatred, rejection, disintegration and addiction to the death instinct.

Rabbi Sacks, your book makes a fine contribution to understanding basic humanitarian ideals espoused by religion and to religious conflict and violence and I commend your book. Your arguments are powerfully stated and add to our knowledge of some of society’s greatest splits and how to heal them. I hope you feel this open letter helps expand the debate.

Mannie Sher

Dr Mannie Sher
Principal Researcher / Consultant,
Director of the Group Relations Programme,
The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations

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