Review of
Jonathan Sacks'
The Dignity of Difference
(Sacks, 2002).

This review is of the book originally published (Savks, 2002). Chapter three underwent revision (Sacks, 2003) due to criticism made by Orthodox rabbis responding to passages to the effect that Judaism contains partial truth like all religions (Arian, 2002). In the revised version of chapter 3 'Exorcising Plato's Ghost' stress is quickly put on the Jews as a chosen people (among others) having a particular mission to the world and therefore not being universalist, and provides a more Orthodox lead in to the same point against universalism and for God ordained difference. In effect, Sacks' revision was towards being more "tribal" and passifying his community to make the same point.


Jonathan Sacks, writing in the shadow of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York in September 2001 (Sacks, 2002, 1), reflects on difference, and his theme is that difference should not be forever a cause of suspicion and suffering, as evidenced in New York, and by the Jewish people for far too long, but as a basis of God given diversity and acceptance. By difference he includes the varieties of humanity and ecology (173), but also the differences of cultures and religions. Jonathan SacksThroughout tribalism, the even biological tendency to support your own group and its beliefs, is matched against universalism, civilisations of high ideals, in culture, but universalism can be just as dangerous creating single measures that are an affront to humanity (61). He argues against universalism, the bedrock of Western civilisation (48) from his admittedly conservative position (18), the location of religious renewal. This opposition to diminishing of difference extends to the environmental sustainability (161-176), its threat, like so much in recent universalism, being from Enlightenment and secular ethics (165, 170, 171). This book throughout is in effect a polemic against the Enlightenment. However, all this sits uneasily with another theme in the book which is support for the global market economy, so long as it is matched by a covenental vision of support against poverty and for education so that all may participate. Throughout he advocates the market for wealth creation, including the benefits of it across the globe, and claims the Jewish tradition in support of the market.


Several questions arise. Does the contradiction between support for the global market economy and opposition to even its particular form of universalism (24-44) hold? It is clear that he is as critical as the relativism of modernist liberals (like Isaiah Berlin) as he is of postmodernism. So the culture of this world wide market (and it is a culture with economic system) is surely for criticism. The second question is whether anything extra is provided by this religious viewpoint to add to what are social analyses provided by sociologists, economists and even psychologists of business (interested in human values in the work place) in terms of analysis and purposes. In the end do the analyses of specialists provide more concrete solutions? The same sort of question arises with social theology in Christianity also treading on the same ground as secular analysts. Sacks looks to the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud and Jewish opinion down the ages. What does this add and what does this lack?

Global Economy

Sacks defines the global economy as a process of change.

The world is becoming linked into a single interconnected network, driven by technology, ecology, communications and commerce. (38)

In economics he outlines the dominant result of breakdown between identity and one's work, as well as loss of identity through local culture superseded. The "living connection between owners and producers" (34) is gone, and the remoteness of global elites has come about. This is only a larger scale version of what capitalism has always done in terms of alienation and anomie, and well charted by sociologists like Marx, Durkheim and Weber. Of course the reason why this is different is because the market is now so thoroughly across the world without borders. He states that the market has done more than open up extremes of poverty and wealth:

It has subverted other institutions - families, communities, the bonds that link members of a society to a common fate, and the moral discourse by which, until now, we were able to maintain a critical distance between 'I want' and 'I ought'. (35)

Radical solutions might be expected in terms of challenging the market, reducing its freedom and doing these at different political levels throughout the world. Instead, he makes a moral case for the market economy, although it is made for us and not we for it (87).

This case is based on its ability to increase wealth if not so good at its distribution (87). Judaism favoured the market once counterculturally and then in general (91) (and, of course, Western history used Jews to oil the financial works, giving them a niche in society, and then destroying their wealth and even their lives, and evicting them as was the injustice of history). Then in a Weberian style analysis of religious influence, Europe promoted the market and growth because of biblical influences: the biblical respect for property rights (92), the story of a people born in slavery and seeking redemption, and that all humans are seen as equal in God's image. In other words, the Hebrew Bible produced a "critic of big government" where state action needs to be justified (92-93). Judaism promotes the dignity of labour (as, even in the Garden of Eden before his fall, Adam would be happy eating from the labour of his hands) (94), rabbis themselves often worked in a secular sense (although study had a higher value) (95), work facilitates independence and creativity (96), and wealth is God's blessing. Sacks adds that because God made each of us different from the other we have comparative advantage within our own skills and are bound to trade (100-101) for advantage and fulfil God's intention that we are gregarious. Exchange does not mean conflict (102) and both sides can win in the market (103). Yet he states, certainly bringing this moral case for the market up to date:

The economic growth produced by globalisation and information technology has religious significance first and foremost because of the degree to which, more than any previous economic order, it allows us to alleviate poverty. (97)

Judaism is itself anti-poverty and down to earth about wealth creation and its mixed motives (97-98).

Yet it is this globalisation that leads poverty into social exclusion likely to go down the generations (99). Somehow he can distinguish between the existence of something, the market, and one of its results:

What is therefore morally unacceptable about the new economy from a Jewish point of view is not the free market itself, but in the breakdown it is creating in the sense of social solidarity, the increasing segregation of the wealthy from the poor, and the waning sense of the responsibilities of success... (99)

This complete contradiction may only be solved between distinguishing between the market and the global market. It may also be solved by claiming that Jews did not, in their tradition, give support to the free market, but in favour of community self reliance (e.g. conspicuous consumption banned through 'sumptuary' laws, wealth leading to public generosity and communal leadership) and against arbitrary power, from which Jews have suffered for far too long. In so far as the market has alwas created anomie and alienation, the Jewish social tradition is bound to oppose it.

There is another kind of comparative advantage that the global market causes: nearly all the development is in the North and the South is locked into the North's economic development in the basis of trade. The ever faster global economy is bound to lead to social exclusion. Sacks does state that protectionism is permitted to support a local economy, which is against the free market, but especially when the outside trader does not pay taxes (99). A good question is who pays taxes to whom in a global economy and if this does not lead to much protectionism opposing a global economy.

Sacks outlines the disparity of wealth and poverty in the world, and even the exploitation of labour by multinationals needing regulation (110), something which happened without planning (111) (except, presumably, the corporations invited in to raw material countries who themselves can plan poverty wages).

Sacks does not look to the language of rights and their "thin" Enlightenment morality (were not Jews central to much of the European Enlightenment?) but religious insights from the great faiths which move us to action (112). The Bible shows we are brothers and sisters, together, where we need not just the law of government but a concept of Tzedekah, the law of distributive justice with charity (113), considered as together because what we own we really only possess as it is in God's ownership.

So this is going to be the principle to accompany the global market: Tzedekah.

We share what we should. The Israelites were charged to do this so that:

...everyone has a right to a dignified life and be equal citizens in God's covenental community under the sovereignty of God.

These social demands would set up the contrast with the experience in Egypt, that is "poverty, persecution and enslavement" (115). Tzedakah redistributes resources. It needs positive collective freedom towards action, not simply negative individual freedom from constraint. Without people enjoying the basic liberties, there is no freedom. The poverty to be alleviated is not just basic but pyschological, that is relative poverty based on what a once wealthier person knew and wealth within the community, all based on dignity (119).

The Bible describes an agrarian society which suspended economic hierarchies each seventh day, it redistributed to the poor, and debts were cancelled (116), which is offrered as a model for today in microlending and not allowing debt to accumulate to produce slavery (117). Tzedakah was itself transformed into financial aid as the post biblical agrarian society declined and so taxation arose (118). The best alleviation of poverty, however, is the money that facilitates self-reliance economically (119-120) to avoid the stigma of dependence. And then even the poor themselves should give, thus themselves enjoying the dignity of participating in Tzedakah. We therefore achieve human solidarity through this legally enforcable obligation (122).

The question is, how much of this is voluntaristic, and how much is legally enforcable? If, after an agrarian society, it led to taxes, then clearly progressive taxation is vital. Not only this, Tzedakah in contemporary times suggests an equivalent to a welfare state that promotes self-reliance. One suspects a conservative agenda here towards wealth, voluntarism and self-reliance, which would surely be inadequate; there is the right wing agenda against the welfare state on the assumption that it must diminish self-reliance. Yet that welfare state or its equivalent must be extended and be global to be effective, and would involve huge challenges to the global market.

Sacks admits that although it may mix with a free market, it means the free market has limits. He still wants markets and wealth creation, but in the global economy he wants a Tzedakah that gives dignity to nations too.

Tzedakah needs, for example, powerful institutions for the world as the European Union created for itself and its interests. Should not the economy follow not a free market but the Swedish model? And in a world market of corporations where the market is in fact not free but manipulated in every oligopoly's boardroom, the institutions of state and the globe need power and direction quite contrary to a free market, or rather the market of corporate freedom. Tzedakah needs countervailing power.

Religions and Global Culture

Jonathan SacksNo argument is made in this book about the different approaches within Judaism towards its tradition: surely another dignity of difference. He mentions that he is Orthodox (capitalised here), and he is used to being called a fundamentalist by liberal colleagues (18). No mention is made either that the Enlightenment caused some Jews to ask about whether all commandments were relevant (leading to Reformism), some to say all 613 commandments should be kept with an examination how they should be applied in the modern world (Orthodoxy), and some (Chassidic) retreated to a Torah age equivalent along with mediaeval Christianity when the sacred canopy supported the observance of commandments without modern dilemmas. The Enlightenment did create values that undermined the oppression of Christian particularists (was mediaeval Christianity really a universal culture?) and which some Jews saw as beneficial and socialist, and even worthy of assimilation; whilst the continued harsh treatment in the particularist localities as in Russia and Eastern Europe at this time of other ethical values led to the beginnings of socialism, nationalism and Zionism.

The persistent criticism of ethical values, beyond those of Christendom in Europe, that freed individuals from group oppression, seems to involve a rewriting of history. Sacks seems to want to preserve the religions good and intact, whereas European and later American history has seen a relativity and easing of those traditions from within, as a result of education and study, either on their own terms (the biblical order is first the Law and then the prophets: the scholarly order is often given as first the prophets and then the Law), or in comparsion with Enlightenment modernist thinking and since.

The argument is made for the input of the vision of the religions as persistent great world resources (see 12, 195). He does not argue for a generalised religious vision, and indeed is opposed to it. He wants to exorcise "Plato's Ghost" (45-66).

This is his rejection of universalism as culture which he describes as oppressive to Jews in every case, including the Enlightenment. The others were the Alexandrian Empire, ancient Rome, mediaeval Christianity and Islam (61). No mention is made of the degrees of tolerance: Islam being more tolerant than, say, Catholicism in the 1400s. Global cultures have done both good and immense harm because they make the error of seeing us as ultimately the same, whilst for Sacks none of us is like the other and we are all unique (47). Plato is universalist in that he looks to the heavens to see the perfect forms (49) of what appears on earth. Universality offers high possibilities (49). However, he states, God is not like this: God produces people in the particular and gives everyone the dignity of difference (53). In fact God is personal regarding people and parenthood (55) and being seen in the face of the stranger (59) but is no Platonist regarding humanity as an ideal (56). However, he does combine the polar opposites such as the universal and particular (56). The Hebrew Bible starts with universality, yet after the Noahide Covenant (51) and Babel with its multiplicity of languages (52) moves to the particularity of Abraham and Sarah (50-51), so it makes universalism the first not the final goal. Nevertheless he admits there will be a universal order at the end of days (52). This is the problem with this account.

God may be the God of all but Judaism is not (53), because it is basically tribal and half way to universalism conceiving of a universalist God but not universalist faith (50). Yet the universalist goal of faith is precisely what Christianity, Islam and the Bahai faiths tap into. Christianity has a saviour for all, with its New Testament; Islam draws on the Bible and has the restored perfect revelation through Muhammad; and the Bahai faith in this stream claims to be the best unifying revelation for this emerged higher age, stressing unity throughout. Does this mean Judaism is inevitably inadequate (or instead, on Sack's reading, more honest and tolerant)?

Of course all religions can all be seen as partial packages. They can be relative or, as for Sacks, objective and truth-bearing just like languages (54). Using the analogy of languages is, however, a dangerous route to relativity; Sacks is keen to avoid this (19) using the idea of absolute commitment (18, 55). That approach in itself is no solution because a postliberal can be absolutely committed to a position without external objective support, such as given by a universal God.

His argument seems right regarding Judaism and this is because it is, on its account, for a people chosen to be holy and an example for all others. So there will always be others than the chosen people. However, God remains universal, and Judaism with other religions claim universal findings about the human condition (for example there is Buddhist practice towards the mind - it is universal). Jews will rise on the last day, its Orthodoxy claims, and will be part of the end having done their task. So this end is universal. The fact is that religions have sought universality in their ultimate statements, Judaism included. Sacks position is equivalent to that of Isaiah Berlin, the Enlightenment philosopher, whom he wrongly accuses of weakness and relativity (200), of objective truths in difference, but Berlin saw alternative valid claims to the ethical good to be clashing. Partiality but inevitable overlaps need not necessarily be the analysis to avoid Samuel Huntington's clash of civilisations (2), unless one also adopts, as Berlin did, attitudes against pride and domination (see 178). Sacks does include this attitude, because he offers difference God given dignity and so this includes respect for the clash of values.

The argument is not made for or against minimalist ethical universal values. Even the strongest pluralist can allow for some reference to general values, even if they are only ever realised in the particularlity of cultural traditions. The argument goes further because arguably there was never a universalist culture: there were new packages (deemed by some to be universalist) that interacted with old packages (deemed to be local or particularist). Every successful empire has in any case delegated to local culture. The Romans did, the British did, the Americans have: the question now is the survival chances of cultures in the face of a world culture born of North American particularity and this is not really addressed. Nor in this book is the extremism of religion addresses, as seen in the September 11th 2001 outrages, for example being analysed as a reaction against religions' own generalising in the face of mass culture and critical methods. Reviews cannot effectively criticise for what is not in a book, but these matters are pertinent to the overall theme and discussion. The discussion that does exist does not go far enough.

Universal Education and Globalisation

Sacks does support one further specific form of universalism (as well as the global market): universal education over local provisions (139) like those, for example, the Jewish community saw as so important and made their communities adaptive under threat (139). This universality must be a provision into the global economy, he argues (see 140). Education became widened amongst the population with successive revolutions (136): of writing, and then the alphabet which made writing more widespread and gave potential universal literacy (133), and then there was printing, and now there is instantaneous global communication (136).

Yet this is another area of large scale poverty and difference that needs huge intervention to be effective, where the global market will not itself make that provision. As he argues, it is all the more vital as profits lie with ideas (137) while they decline in manufactures. He puts education as a key part of international aid (141).

However, even more relevant here is the contradiction with Sacks general support for the global market economy. Nothing is more universal than this: as Marx saw it gets into every corner of the world, and into once immune areas (155). Yet again Sacks' book carries this contradiction, and is his difference within. Education needs more than assistance through international aid, which in any case is a statement that endorses those who aid and those who receive on the terms of those who give the aid.

Educational provision may be universal, but only in the sense it is might exist everywhere. Rather, education, the argument would run, should be local. Otherwise it could be an agent of corrosion. This argument is not addressed. The point about universal education, in cultural content as well as in provision, is that is seeks to raise eyes above the given horizon. All major civilisations have done this in their elite educational institutions, and these need democratising. Local cultures are foundations of rich deposits to be nurtured, and included, but a global culture needs global knowledge and global values too.

Concluding Points

If Sacks is arguing that here comes another universal culture which threatens, and this one furthermore also allows people to indulge in ever extreme fantasies of their own tribes, then the argument against its carrier, the global economy, should have been more forthright.

The argument Sack's presents is better tackled in, for example, E. F. Schumacher's (1911-1977), Small is Beautiful (1999), arguing for achieving human scale and human control. This means intervention. In the real world it means heavy trust busting and controlling legislation, powers at world and regional level (such as found in the European Union) to protect workers worldwide and to sustain the environment, and the intervention necessary to provide cradle to grave education.

Sacks is a favourite of the Institute of Economic Affairs, and gave the Hayek lecture in 1998 (which partly set off some of his thinking for this book) (vii). Hayek was an economic liberal of minimal intervention, and sacks is critical of him only in that he based his view on scepticism and uncertainty (200) (and, as with his view of Isaiah Berlin, is highly questionable).

The Jewish tradition demands more than this, as is actually there within the book but never carried through. It demands more than international aid and voluntary assistance (e.g. 141). He is in favour of institutions of co-operation, on the principle of Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma (148), where it is obvious to meet and co-operate to the good. As well as contracts (for selves) in the market he sees the place for covenants (for groups in communication and reciprocity) sustained on trust (150). He wants forgiveness with justice too (178-188, 190). Yet the global market alone will not itself produce premodern forms of reciprocity (he uses Fukuyama, 1995, 11, for this premodern point) (151-152) or forgiveness with justice and it is likely to alienate people who have built culture on these premodern forms. He sees this (192-193) erosive trend of the market (any market, not just global) if left to its own devices. People do become alone (152) as the world goes its impersonal way. He also qualifies the market in seeing humankind as meaning-seeking in the diversity of cultures, in stories and the persistence of religion rather than just maximising rationality (194). So this could be yet another of his univeral cultures to cause suffering through the market. Jobs are insecure, corporations move, activity is all contract by contract (154), causing nothing more than temporary relationships (155) and distance with all the social problems that follow.

Yet he remains pro-market as a means to the end of wealth creating, with sacred spaces properly off limits (159). He never examines alternatives for wealth creation: he just asserts it works best. But even on his critique of the global market this still leads to the question of practical steps to control and change it.

His answer is in the non-relativity of God who, in his transcendence, created diversity and the dignity of difference (200-201). This difference needs a means by which we accept what God has created. He wants a covenant of partnership without dominance or submission: open ended, long lasting, producing a we who gives identity to I (202). It is relational, non-exclusive being from one relationship to another, and pluralistic but in a shared project (203). It is intergenerational (204-205) through time. Thus there needs to be a global covenant (205), not a contract for a global political structure however but a covenant for a shared vision of human responsibilities and not only human rights (206).

This is the problem. The market does work with contracts, and to tackle it towards justice needs more than a covenant of a shared vision, but real, tough, legal-contractual institutions that get in and amongst those impersonal free market contracts. Active hope (206) needs active effort. The religious vision is rich and the resource useful even for a non-believer (either in Judaism or a God based religion or religion at all) because it has a secular equivalent: agreement about significant values that make us human. These are about identity, recognition in culture, reciprocity and responsibility as well as rights. They have universal application. Yet the global market, as a universal power, can undermine these and cause more suffering, whatever wealth it can maximise.

So answers can be given to the questions above. There is a contradiction between his criticism of the global economy and culture and support for it. More is provided by a religious viewpoint giving vision to social analyses but no sufficient concrete solutions are offered beyond the vision. The analysts usually offer concrete potential solutions. Much is probably individual to Rabbi Sacks than generally widespread to the tradition, such as his support for the market mechanism in general as we know it. This rabbi has added his input to that of other rabbis, and to the social theologians of the religions. The case against universalism is not made in terms of values: these values, like Enlightenment or postmodern values, always add to and flesh out within particular cultures. There is no harm coming to extra-cultural and extra-religious agreements, as he seeks to do with the leaders of other religions (6), intending to produce, presumably, minimalist, religious sourced universal ethics of agreement that all can live by! Conversation allows us to learn about different cultures and religions, but also helps to set standards and make combined strategies.


Arian, C. L., Rabbi (2002), Review of Jonathan Sacks's The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (London and New York: Continuum), Information Resources, The Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: [Accessed 31/01/04, 23:50].

Fukuyama, F. (1995), Trust, London: Hamish Hamilton, in Sacks, 2002, 151-152.

Sacks, J., Rabbi (2002), The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, London: Continuum.

Sacks, J., Rabbi (2003), The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, revised edition, London: Continuum.

Schumacher E. F. (1999) Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered, Hartley and Marks, quoted in Eco Books (n.d.), E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: [Accessed 01/02/04, 18:38].

Simpson, P. (2000), Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered: 25 Years Later ...With Commentaries, Community Economic Development Centre (CEDC) [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL:, Revised: Apr 4, 2000 [Accessed 01/02/04, 18:50]