Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Being Bilingual

Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society (pp. 162-163), explains why we need to be able to express our social and political views in universal terms and not just religious terms:

It also, especially for minorities, involves being bilingual. A simple example: a lawyer or doctor in the company of fellow professionals uses a technical language outsiders find hard, even impossible, to understand. In dealing with clients or patients, though, he or she will use a simpler language, less precise perhaps, but at least intelligible to a layperson. The same is true of every cognitive minority, including religious or ethnic groups within a largely secular society. If we seek integration without assimilation, we must learn to speak a first language of citizenship, together with a second language of ethnicity and faith.

Click here to read moreThe two are very different, and this sometimes confuses people. So, for example, when I am in a pulpit, preaching to a congregation, I speak as a Jew to fellow Jews, a believer to fellow believers. I use many phrases -- some in Hebrew -- that will be intelligible to my audience but not to a non-Jewish visitor. They are part of our shared vocabulary as a faith... What makes us a faith community are the texts we share, the songs we sing, the rituals we observe, the references we can take for granted.

When, though, I broadcast on national radio or television or write for the national press, I have to use a different vocabulary. I am speaking to an audience 99.5 per cent of which is not Jewish. So the language is different; so is the tone. That is one of the key differences between Gemeinschaft and Gesselschaft, 'community' and 'society', a relationship between friends and one between strangers...

To live together as citizens of a liberal democracy, we have to use the language of public reason, language people outside our group will understand. I can't say to non-Jews, 'Do this because the Bible says so'. A Muslim can't say to non-Muslims, 'Do this because the Koran says so'. That is not because we live in a secular society, though we do, but because this is the only way we can hold fast to our faith and yet still be part of the national conversation together with those of other faiths or none. I hope to persuade other people of the truth of my point of view, but I must live with the possibility that I may fail. Society is like football: I support my team and hope it will win. But I recognize that the rules of the game take priority over which team I support, because without rules, there is no game, and without the game, there is no team.

So being British is like keeping to the rules of the game. It is what allows me to be a Jew, you a Christian, someone else to be a Muslim, and all of us to live together in peace. We have our team, but we also have a loyalty to the rules, the people who make them, and the people who administer them. That is what being bilingual means. We have an in-group way of thinking and talking, but when we take to the field, we honour the rules, because they bind all of us equally, and without them there is no game. That is what national identity is in a multicultural society.

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