Ever since 9/11 the world has been troubled by the problem of religious fanaticism and the destruction it can breed. The very place of religion in the modern world has been called into question because of the negative picture that has emerged of the connection between religious belief and terrorism. The connection of religion to extreme conservative political views in America and to radical right-wing views in Israel has also caused many to wonder if religion is a positive or negative force.
Much of the current emphasis on atheism being expressed in so many best-selling books is based on the allegation that religion does more harm than good. Before accepting that argument wholesale, it is wise to remember that the two movements in the last century that did more harm and killed more individuals than any others in history - fascism and communism - were not religious movements. On the contrary, they were antagonistic to religion. Any ideology can be dangerous when it places itself above the value of human life.
Nevertheless it is true that if ever there was a time when we can see that religion and religious belief can sometimes be a dangerous thing, it is now. We are witness to the suffering that fanatic Muslim belief has led to throughout the world. But we must be careful about blaming Islam alone, as if other religions do not suffer from the same tendency toward fanatic belief that led to massacres of others.
Christianity has a similar record. Forgetting for a moment whatever role it may have had in the Shoah, just consider the Crusades and the havoc they caused, the death that they spread in European Jewish communities on their way to the Holy Land, and the Inquisition which burned people at the stake because of their beliefs. In Lima, Peru, you can still see the museum of the Inquisition, housed in its building which was in active use until the end of the 19th century - located on Jews Street - only recently shortened from its actual name - Death to the Jews Street.
But lest we let ourselves off too easily, let us not forget that it was not too long ago when a Jew perpetrated a massacre of innocent Muslims at prayer in a mosque in the Tomb of the Patriarchs - of all places! - at Purim time because he took literally the words of the Torah read before Purim concerning Amalek, "You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Do not forget" (Deut. 25:19).
It is one thing for us to understand that the Amalekites in ancient days attacked Israel in an unjustified way and the Israelites therefore determined to destroy them completely. It is quite another to begin identifying various groups with the Amalekites and on that basis determine that we have the right to wipe them out. On the contrary, it is of the greatest importance that we learn how to reinterpret our tradition in such a way as to avoid turning Jews into fanatics.
Our rabbis did this frequently. For example when they considered the story of Phinehas, who took the law into his own hands, killed an Israelite and his foreign paramour and was rewarded by God with the covenant of peace (Numbers 25:12), the sages were very careful to say that what he did was actually against Jewish law and that he could have been tried for murder - but for the fact that this was a special situation, and at that moment his zealotry was needed.
These sages were building on the doctrine taught by Hillel: "Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving human beings and bringing them close to the Torah" (Avot 1:10). Aaron, hardly the hero of the stories of the Torah, becomes for Hillel the greatest example of how to be a religious leader. Hillel's choice of Aaron is instructive. He does not say that we should be like Phinehas, the zealot who had been for many, including the Maccabees, the ideal figure they wanted to emulate (Maccabees I 2:26). Hillel ignores him and picks instead Aaron, the non-zealot. To bring peace, reconciliation, to stress love - these are the things that concern him.
Religion is a set of beliefs positing the existence of the divine, a set of actions based on those beliefs and sacred texts in which these are expounded, together with symbols and symbolic actions that encompass and strengthen these beliefs. What is crucial is the content of these beliefs and the actions that they engender.
We need not condemn all religions because some have been used for evil purposes. Certainly we need not come to the conclusion that atheism is preferable. Atheists can be as cruel as the worst religious fanatics. What is important is that leaders of all religions follow the example of Hillel and stress the positive elements of their religion that lead to peace and reconciliation rather than those that can lead to death and destruction.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.
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