By Mitchell Levine
In the midst of all the heated rhetoric over “naming” the religious dimension to terrorist acts, it may be worthwhile to step back and consider the source for the reluctance to risk speech that offends another’s religious faith, and to ask what in Jewish tradition might prove helpful to the conversation. Condemning others for who they are is bigoted and wrong, but why should it be considered indecent to critique a religion? Attacks on race, ethnicity, gender and the like are wrong and unfair in part because these traits do not in and of themselves lead to intentional acts. Rather, beliefs overtly inspire acts, and religions commonly promote beliefs. Secular beliefs and their proponents are routinely subject to antagonism. I’m not expected to refrain from judging “Republicans” negatively when some political conservatives say or do things I vehemently disagree with, nor must I take special care to describe militant socialists as having “distorted” socialism. If so, why do I cringe at expressing the notion that Christian teachings about ensoulment might inspire an adherent to commit a violent act against an abortion clinic, or that Islamic ideas about syncretism could arouse the persecution of Yazidis? The answer, I think, must have to do with our tendency to see religious belief very differently from how we perceive ideologies in general.
In contemporary America religious faith is revered, but not taken seriously. It is proclaimed on our dollar bills, but virtually no one expects it to make a difference in how the money is spent. It has been pointed out that we treat religious belief much the way the Victorian gentleman regarded a lady. She was to be placed upon a pedestal – revered and protected from the slightest insult or distress; yet the idea that she should have a vote was considered preposterous. In our society, we honor religious belief, but we do not respect its power to move its adherents to do extraordinary things. We are astonished that a Mother Teresa could spend her entire adult life wrapping bandages on lepers in the slums of Calcutta; all the more so are we bewildered how a faith-based conviction could lead to beheadings. We view religious faith as a private matter, disconnected from conduct that could matter to others, and therefore off-limits to public critique. Thus we are caught off-guard when the convictions faith inspires spawn irrepressible and sometimes violent movements.
It is a secular conceit that religious belief is irrelevant to public life and that, inevitably, the brilliance of enlightenment and progress of the human spirit shall cause it to simply fade away. The story goes that in 1952 the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, agreed to exempt 400 hundred ultra-orthodox yeshiva students from the draft into the Israeli army. This was the entire draft eligible yeshiva population at the time, and he agreed to the exemption in part on the assumption that ultra-orthodox life would soon disappear in awe of the attractions of modern, secular living. Six decades later, we find Israel painfully entangled in issues stemming from this gross miscalculation.
Accepting religiosity as an enduring political force and lifting the taboo against speaking about it openly and unapologetically are important because of some of the ways in which the dynamics of religious belief differ from secular ideologies. Politicians, with considerable agility, reinvent what it means to be a Republican or a Democrat in order to enhance their popularity, or to more convincingly represent the interests of key or diverse demographics; religious extremists are predictably resolute in following their holy writ (as understood by their designated interpreters) and scrupulous in their indifference to broader public opinion. In secular conflicts, we call seeking to compromise, “diplomacy;” but to a fundamentalist religious mindset, “compromise” sounds like another word for “sacrilege.” One may not “compromise” on what God demands, and therefore “diplomacy” demonstrates nothing but weakness. The this-worldly call their dead “casualties;” the other-worldly may call theirs “martyrs,” and the semantics matter: A “casualty” is an irretrievable loss of human life for an uncertain outcome. A “martyr” has shed trivial this-worldly existence for bliss and life eternal. When we debate secular ideologies our identity as human beings is not typically on the line. If I say, “Your libertarianism rests on faulty assumptions,” and I try to prove this, I expect you to either argue back or concede my point. Being libertarian; or not, is presumably something we might conceivably change our minds about, without feeling that we’ve betrayed our souls by committing apostasy.
Judaism, of course, is by no means immune to violence in the name of religion. One may find a number of examples, from the Biblical Pinchus to modern times. Nevertheless, Jewish tradition does preach some nuance which can undermine religious triumphalism and mitigate religious fanaticism. Several well-known rabbinic texts powerfully represent this. The famous debate over the Oven of Achnai contends that persuasion trumps the intimidation posed by miracles and that it can be legitimate to vote against God and prevail (Baba Metzia 59b). Maimonides, implying that it is not necessary to be Jewish to merit God’s grace, codified the tannaitic assertion that not only righteous Jews, but the pious of all the nations of the world have a portion in the world to come (MT Teshuvah 3:5). It would be naïve to think fanatics would be foiled by such texts, but they do have the power to complicate the beliefs which may lie at the root of much trouble. We can and should challenge our fellow monotheists to find theological grounds to similarly disavow the claim that God’s will is beyond question and that any one faith enjoys a monopoly on salvation. Why? Because it is increasingly evident that deeply held religious belief is not about to fade away. Indeed, it is increasingly a robust and defining characteristic of our age.
Mitchell Levine is rabbi of Congregation Agudas Achim in Bexley, Ohio. He finds inspiration in the motto, “3 Jews=5 opinions.”