Parashat Re'eh: Jihad - the antithesis of monotheism

Our Bible ordains the destruction of an entire city which has been seduced into idolatry.

Hizbullah  gunmen 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Hizbullah gunmen 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Our Bible ordains the destruction of an entire city which has been seduced into idolatry. And, although many sages of the Talmud maintain that such a situation "never was" (B.T. Sanhedrin), the harsh words nevertheless sear our souls. What is even more difficult to understand are the concluding words of the Bible regarding this hapless city: "…(And the Lord) shall give you compassion, and He shall be compassionate towards you, and He shall cause you to increase.… This is because you have hearkened to the voice of the Lord your God to observe all His commandments… to do what is righteous in the eyes of the Lord your God" (Deut. 13:18, 19). Compassion? Righteousness? Are these fitting words to describe such an extreme punishment? In order to begin to understand the simple meaning of the biblical command, it is necessary to explore the actual meaning - and nature - of idolatry. The Bible lashes out more intensively against idolatry than any other transgression, devoting as much as four verses to it out of the 14 verses of the Decalogue, and repeating its condemnation again and again. Moshe Halbertal, in his penetrating study Idolatry, cites varying views of the biblical commentators as to why idolatry was so repulsive. For Maimonides the major sin of idolatry is theological in nature, but for the Meiri it was the number of innocent children sacrificed to Moloch, the eating of limbs torn from living animals and the wanton orgies associated with the Dionysian rites which so incensed the Lord. Indeed, the Bible substantiates the Meiri's position; to give but two examples: "You shall not bow down to their gods and you shall not serve them; you shall not act in accordance with their deeds" (Exodus 23:24)… "You shall destroy, yes destroy [the seven indigenous nations of Canaan] lest they teach you to do all the abominations which they do before their gods" (Deut. 20:17, 18). Our Bible never glories in a commitment to monotheism alone; the founder of our faith was commanded to convey to subsequent generations not only belief in one God, but rather in a God of compassionate righteousness and justice (Gen. 18:19) - belief in ethical monotheism. And when Moses, the greatest of all prophets, asks for a glimpse into the Divine (Ex. 32:18), the Almighty, after explaining that no mortal can ever truly understand the Infinite, does grant a partial glimpse: "The Lord, the Lord is a God of Compassion and freely-giving love, long-suffering, full of lovingkindness, and truth…" (Ex. 34:6). Even Maimonides suggests that these descriptions, known as the 13 Attributes of the Divine, are not so much theology as anthropology; that their major function is to teach us mortals, commanded to imitate God, precisely how to do so: just as He is compassionate, we humans must be compassionate, just as He gives love freely, so must we humans… Hence, the essence of Judaism is not an intellectual understanding of the Divine (which is impossible anyway), but rather proper human imitation of the Divine traits of compassionate righteousness and justice. And so Maimonides concludes his Guide for the Perplexed, written at the end of his life, with a citation from Jeremiah: "Thus says the Lord: But only in this should one glory if he wishes to glory: Learn about and come to know Me. I am the Lord who does lovingkindness, justice and righteous compassion on earth. Only in these do I delight" (Jeremiah 9:22, 23). From this perspective, only a religion which teaches love for every human being, which demands a system of righteousness and morality, and which preaches peace can take its rightful place as a religion of ethical monotheism. Undoubtedly, Islam has given the world architectural aesthetics and glorious poetry, mathematical expertise and philosophy influence by Aristotle. The Kalami and Sufi interpretations of the Koran, which present jihad as a spiritual struggle, place Islam alongside Judaism and Christianity as a most worthy religion. Tragically, however, the jihadism spawned from Saudi Arabia's brand of Wahhabi Islam, the Al-Qaida culture of homicide-bomber terrorism, is the antithesis of ethical monotheism. George Weigel, a Catholic theologian and distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethical and Public Policy Center, cites a definition of jihadism in his compelling study, Faith, Reason and the War against Jihadism: "It is the religiously inspired ideology which teaches that it is the moral obligation of Muslims to employ whatever means are necessary to compel the world's submission to Islam." He also analyzes the theology of Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966), who stresses that God's oneness demands universal fealty; the mere existence of a non-Muslim constitutes a threat to the success of Islam and therefore of God, and so such an individual must be converted or killed; other religions and modern secularism are not merely mistaken but are evil, "filth to be expunged." Such a perverted theology may be called "monotheistic," but any theology that preaches the destruction of innocent human beings becomes mono-Satanism. The enemy of the free world is not Islam, but jihadism. Let me return to our passage regarding the idolatrous city. A mini-army of individuals hell-bent on the destruction of people whose only sin is to believe differently than they do enter the category of "the one who is coming to kill you must be first killed by you." One cannot love the good without hating the evil, with good being defined as the protection of the innocent and evil as the destruction of the innocent. The only justification for taking a life is in order to protect innocent lives - when taking a life is not only permitted but mandatory. Hence the Bible refers to the destruction of the murderous inhabitants of such a city as an act committed for the sake of righteousness. But even the most justified of wars wreaks collateral damage, so the soul of one who takes even a guilty human life must become in some way inured to the inestimable value of human life. Hence some of our sages determine that such a city's destruction had never been decreed, that the Bible is speaking in theory only; certainly all other possibilities must be exhausted before taking such a final step. Nevertheless, the biblical account - well aware of the moral and ethical ambiguities involved - conclusively guarantees that those who fight rank evil will not thereby lose their inner sense of compassion or their over-arching reverence for life. Much to the contrary, he who is compassionate toward those perpetrating cruelty will end by being cruel to the compassionate. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.