The video of religious Jews dancing in ecstasy over the killing of Arabs provokes another note about religion, and Jews' contribution to the complexity. Some would say the beauty of faith in ideas beyond us. Others would say the mess.
What follows might be arcane for some, and not appear relevant to current politics. But wait and be patient.
There is much to argue about in the Books we began creating perhaps three millennia ago, as shown by Rabbis who began wrestling more than two millennia ago with what is unclear or unacceptable in religious firstname.lastname@example.org
Each of the major monotheistic faiths can claim the heights of morality and humanism, but have to concede a good deal of ugliness that has given rise over the years to what we see in Jewish extremism and the barbarism of the Islamic State. Major Christian Churches no longer obsess on the idea of Jews killing Christ or burn heretics, but there are Christians who justify racism and anti-Semitism by what they read in sacred texts.
Here we'll deal with issues associated with Judaism. They include:
- Claims of priority over a key piece of real estate
- Assertions that Jews should distinguish between themselves and others for a number of purposes, and act forcefully against historic enemies and their purported descendants
The Land of Israel is at the heart of much that roils Israel and those who feel oppressed or bothered by it.
Religious doctrines say it was promised to the Jews by the Almighty.
Boundaries are one problem. Those mentioned in Genesis 15 (from Egypt to the Euphrates) are much different from the complex and limited area described in Numbers 34. Yet another Biblical definition, "the land of Canaan" (Exodus 6) is not much help."To your offspring I will give this land." (Genesis 12)
The first chapter of Judges also makes it clear that God's people did not acquire the whole of the Land.
"Manasseh did not drive out the people of Beth Shan or Taanach or Dor or Ibleam or Megiddo and their surrounding settlements . . . . When Israel became strong, they pressed the Canaanites . . . but never drove them out completely."It's never been our's alone. More often than not, it hasn't been for most of us.
The Hebrew Bible, especially the Torah, provides laws as well as history, geography, and morality. However, the laws aren't all that clear, and some came to be viewed long ago as undesirable and in need of modification. Much of the Talmud that came to define Judaism we know it (and not only in the case of the Orthodox) seeks to clarify or change (sometimes in major ways) what can be read in passages said to come from the Almighty.
At least two centuries before Christ, the Rabbis were doing away with the Hebrew Bible's various designations of punishment by death. Stipulations were added about the need for witnesses to crimes alleged, and having warned a wrong doer to desist as a requirement of conviction. Ancient Rabbis said that a court ordering a person to death once in 70 years would be considered a murderer.
There are several Biblical laws interpreted as distinguishing between the actions proper toward Jews and others. The very word interpreted as meaning others, גוים, (goyim) produces its own problems. It is common among modern Jews to view the word as insulting. Yet its ancestry is impressive. It appears 669 times in the Hebrew Bible, the first of them in the 10th Chapter of Genesis. English translations of the word are "peoples" or "nations."
Several Biblical passages that forbid or allow actions with respect to אחיך (your brother) or רעך (your colleague) have been interpreted as distinguishing what should be forbidden or allowed with respect to Jews as opposed to others. Prominent is the charging of interest for a loan, prohibited among Jews but permitted if the lender or borrower is not a Jew.
It didn't take long for the Rabbis to realize that a people immersed in commerce could not prosper without borrowing money at interest, so interpretations came to allow evasions of the Biblical prohibition. The Rabbis could not deny the Torah's forbidding interest among individual Jews. Prominent in their tricks, however, was to define banks and other institutions as not brothers or colleagues. So even if a bank or insurance company is owned and managed by Jews, they could pay or charge interest to Jews and others who were depositors, debtors, or other clients.
Nonetheless, the distinction between individual Jews loaning to Jews or the Gentiles remained, was personalized in Shakespeare's Shylock, and a cause for centuries of persecution.
In order to deal with Medieval Jews who turned against their people and "whispered" to Christian leaders about provisions in the Talmud that could be read to discriminate against Gentiles, Rabbis censored the text and changed several references from goyim to "Egyptians," "Cutheans," or "Babylonians." Those in the know, however, realized that such codes referred to all the goyim.
Also problematic are Biblical passages condemning homosexuality.
Shimon Peres once caused ultra-Orthodox Knesset Members to scream in protest when he quoted another Biblical verse in defense of homosexuality. David said, "I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women." (II Samuel 1)."If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads." (Leviticus 20).
Long ago religious Jews decided that the passage referred to brotherly love and nothing sexual. However, there remain different views.
One can find Rabbis who have ruled that it is permitted to steal from non-Jews, and Rabbis who see the harsh language about the Amalikites as referring to modern day Arabs: "Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.” (1 Samuel 15).
Religious law (הלכה) as learned and taught by the vast majority of Orthodox Rabbis has ruled against such views. Jews who follow what is conventional in religious law do not steal from Jews or from Gentiles, and do not view any cluster of non-Jews as Amalikites who should be liquidated.
Conservative and especially Reform Judaisms have moved as far as any Unitarians toward universal accommodation, with no discrimination based upon religion, ethnicity, race, gender, sexual preference, or any other imaginable trait. Orthodox Jews are still wrestling.
Aggressive Jews who see themselves having a monopoly of justice, or the ownership of disputed land have no trouble finding Biblical or Rabbinical verses to justify their postures and behavior. Christians and Muslims intent on mayhem can find their own justifications in holy doctrines, some of it imported from the Hebrew Bible.
We can be confident that there aren't too many Jews who have gone off the reservation of accommodation, and not as many Christians as in centuries past.
About Muslims, there isn't too much to say with certainty. There are Muslim publicists, clerics, and individuals close to Middle Eastern governments who argue against extremists, but they are a long way from quieting, or overcoming those who see religious justification for the most ghastly of actions.
We don't know how many Jews notice, or are bothered by the oddities in doctrinal history, or the actions of extremists. Most may spend their lives in ignorance or indifference.
There are positive signs of accommodation. The Roman Catholic Church now describes Judaism as its older brother, and absolves Jews of killing Jesus. There are Muslims who write about Israel as the most humane country of the Middle East. There was more Christmas music on Israel Radio than in years past.
Against these signs, however, an Israeli restaurant or hotel may lose its Certificate of Kashrut if it hosts a New Years Eve party. And Tuesday's Jerusalem Post headlined one item, "Netanyahu agrees with haredim not to allow Women of the Wall to read Torah at Western Wall."
There are many Christians, Muslims, and some Jews, who cannot tolerate the actions that Israel takes to defend itself.
It is, alas, a tough region, with faith and madness in bloody excess.
Nonetheless, with all the risk involved from some excessive neighbors, I'll wish us all a Happy, Prosperous, and Healthy New Year
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem