“The Dignity of
By Daniel P. Bennett
Head of Religious Education
St. Mary’s School, Cambridge
With additions from Dr. Amineh Hoti
Society for Dialogue and Action
At Lucy Cavendish College
Cavendish College: The Chief Rabbi inaugurated THE DIGNITY
OF DIFFERENCE - the theme of the first of three Cambridge
inter-faith festivals that are organized by the Society
for Dialogue and Action or D&A. In chronological order,
the second will be hosted by a senior member of the Christian
faith and the third by a Muslim. The Society for Dialogue
and Action aims to focus on increasing understanding and
mutual respect among the members of the Ahl-e-kitaab or
the Abrahamic communities with a special emphasize on the
participation of women and young people. In summer, D&A
organized scholarly seminars and visits for more than eighteen
women to the synagogue, Church and mosque.
The main seminar hall at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge
University’s mature women’s College, was packed
with more than eighty people from all ages and from all
backgrounds, including: The High Sheriff of Greater London,
Dr. Khalid Hameed, Councilor John Hipkin, the former Mayor
of Cambridge, the present Mayor of Cambridge, representatives
from inter-faith organizations: Alif-Aleph, the Centre for
the Study of Jewish-Christian and Muslim-Jewish Relations,
Cambridge Inter-Faith Program, East of England Faiths Council,
The Islamic Academy in Cambridge, The Three Faiths Forum.
Among the participants in the room were also RE teachers
and eight students from the over 50s class: 'Jews, Christians,
Muslims and the Middle East Today’ – at the
University of the Third Age; the secondary school students
were from Cambridge schools, such as The Perse, King’s
and St Mary's.
Chairing the event was Reverend Dr. Andreas Loewe, from
Cambridge’s principal Church, Great St Mary’s,
which is also the University Church. Dame Veronica Sutherland,
President of the College and previously a distinguished
UK Ambassador welcomed the initiative and talked about the
importance of the work of building bridges. Dr. Amineh Hoti,
a Muslim female scholar who is running the Society for Dialogue
and Action, introduced the Chief Rabbi, and referred to
the two alternative approaches that dominate our time –
the clash or the dialogue of civilizations.
She said she had chosen the theme of the inter-faith festival
from the Chief Rabbi’s book: The Dignity of Difference:
How to Avoid a Clash of Civilizations (2002) which encourages
us to celebrate the diversity of God’s creation and
is one of the most profound themes of Biblical and Qur’anic
teachings. Because it addresses one of the oldest human
problems, which is how to rise to live peaceably together
against the background of human conflict and how to prevent
differences from turning into a source of strife- or clash!
For Dr. Sacks, humanity’s problem in resolving this
choice is rooted in an inherent difficulty with learning
from the past and its mistakes. Humanity’s trouble,
as Dr. Sacks put it, quoting Richard Weaver, is that we
“haven’t read the minutes of the last meeting”.
Humanity may also be being caught unawares by a revolution
in communications technology which will change the world.
Dr. Sacks identified what he considered to be three previous
‘revolutions’ in the history of civilization.
Writing gave rise to the birth of civilization, as it enabled
the accumulation of knowledge beyond the living memory.
Secondly, the alphabet gave rise to the book and thus the
people of the book. We became a “kingdom of priests”,
a kingdom of lettered people, a people of universal literacy
with “no cognitive elite”. The development of
the printing press gave rise to the third revolution (or
revelation!), Luther’s reformation. With the possibility
of reading a book in your own room came an individualism
that would lead later to nationalism.
So, we find ourselves living in the midst of Dr. Sacks’
fourth revolution, instant global communication, which is,
or will be, changing everything. Global communication, he
suggested, abolishes space and distance. It gives rise to
the fragmentation of the nation state and invites segregation,
as the distant become close and vice versa. If modern communications
mean we are no longer necessarily living close with people
like us, how do we live with difference? This question of
how we live with those who are unlike us will shape the
The clashes of our time will not be resolved by a secularism
that seeks to ignore them, but by meeting, talking, friendship
and returning to sacred texts to hear what God is saying
now. For the Chief Rabbi, the key is the realisation that
we are different and therefore each has gifts that the other
Genesis 11 (The Tower of Babel) became an illustrative text
in this regard. Dr. Sacks described it as the ‘hinge’
passage standing between Torah’s general archetypes,
Adam and Eve, and its particular individuals, Abraham and
The people of Babel speak one language, they have a shared
vocabulary. They invent brick and decide that they will
become gods, building a tower to reach heaven. With divine
irony God ‘comes down’ to survey their handiwork.
It is, Dr. Sacks suggested, a critique of universalism (in
a similar vein to Aristotelian criticism of Plato’s
Republic). The people unite in a project, and that is a
positive development, but then comes the danger of imposing
that unity on all – an imposed unity leads to totalitarianism.
Universalism must modulate into the valuing of the individual
and the particular in the community. We have things in common,
but our differences enlarge us all. It was said that if
we are completely different we cannot communicate; if we
are completely the same we have nothing to say.
On the afternoon following Dr. Sacks’ address, I was
delighted to welcome a panel of speakers to continue discussion
of these ideas with sixth formers at St. Mary’s School
in Cambridge, as part of their Philosophy, Ethics and Religion
course. Three of the students had been present at the Chief
Rabbi’s talk. The six members of the panel, most of
them Muslim women (some in hijab) chaired by Dr. Amineh
Hoti, had all been involved in Inter-faith Dialogue in Cambridge;
some of the contributors had taken part in the recent interfaith
course for women. Many of these women, for the first time
in decades, received and offered hospitality to and from
Christians and others. The seminar began and ended with
reflection on the Qur’anic verse that God has made
humanity into nations and tribes so that we may know one
another, and the Jewish blessing quoted by Dr. Sacks: We
give thanks to God for creating many different souls and
Drawing on personal experiences and ideas from the panel,
and contributions from a number of the students present,
we explored ideas of difference, of hospitality, of understanding,
integration, religious freedom and expression, multi-culturalism
and strength in diversity.
As with some of the questions to Dr. Jonathan Sacks at Lucy
Cavendish College, there was an acknowledgement that inter-faith
dialogue appears to be most crucial in parts of our world
where there is lack of peace and people feel aggrieved by
oppression and injustice. At both events, however, there
was a realization that religious leaders and, importantly,
people on the ground are more likely to be able to come
up with the ingredients for peace than the politicians.
Individuals can cross divides. Communications technology
can become part of the solution as well as the problem,
as illustrated by the project supported by the Chief Rabbi
in Israel/Palestine, enabling the young of communities separated
by ancient distrusts and conflicts to ‘meet’
their different neighbor through the electronic media.
Another issue raised again at Lucy Cavendish College concerned
how we draw to the inter-faith discussion those for whom
it isn’t a matter of immediate concern or interest.
The message from both events was that this understanding
may arise incidentally through being alongside each other
- perhaps as faiths work together to tackle hunger, disease
and poverty. To paraphrase Dr. Sacks, as well as face to
face conversations we have side by side issues with which
we can all engage.
Our sixth form students are, I hope, examples of those who
will be able to go out and cross those divides at a grassroots
level. Their contributions to the seminar and responses
to the speakers gave hope that, as they expand their horizons
in university communities or traveling the world, they will
be willing to engage with the otherness of those they encounter
and thus be enriched by the dignity and blessing of difference.
For, as the Chief Rabbi concluded, in reaching out to the
human other we are reaching out to the divine. And so we
will find the trace of God in the face of a stranger.