Tag Archives: Judaism

What’s Wrong with Islam?

Flashback: Wednesday, August 23, 2006

by Viz
 

The simple answer is that nothing is wrong with the way in which most people today practise Islam, one of the three best known of the “monotheistic” faiths.

Islam at once appears to be both the youngest and oldest child of the Abrahamic tradition. Ishmael was the elder son of Abraham, Isaac being the younger, but Islam (as defined by Mohammed) developed after the movement that many would describe as the first significant descendant of Judaism, Christianity.

Before I proceed, let me undermine that basic premise by pointing out that the Brahmin tradition of Hinduism and the Taoist tradition of Buddhism can both trace their roots to the influx of Jews into Asia after the Babylonian exile period. In that sense, both Christianity and Islam would be relative late-comers to the Ibrahimin fold. Likewise, the primary faith of the Persians, Zoroastrianism, would also take a sharp turn in a more monotheistic direction with the arrival of the enslaved Israelite tribes following the assumption of Darius’ Median empire by the Persians. Darius had taken up the reins from the Babylonians who had conquered Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar a little earlier in that same 6th century BCE and carted off all those slaves.

There are more examples, but here we can see that the vast majority of the world’s population (Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims) have had their cultures shaped by their interaction with the family of Abraham, with about 50% of the world still openly tracing its heritage to that lineage: Christianity (2.2B), Islam (1.4B) and Jews (12-18M).

The problem seems not to be that we don’t have enough in common, but in the interpretation of that common heritage.

When the hadiths talk of the end times and speak of the trees and rocks saying: “Muslim, behind me is a Jew. Come and kill him.”…that is not to say that Muslims are bound to such terrible actions as a matter of faith. Quite the opposite. The hadith is saying that in the time of judgment there will be a persecution of Jews, such that they will have nowhere to hide. We saw this in the last century with the persecution and attempted anihilation of the Jews by the Nazis, as they could find no place to hide. And yet we hear some imams calling for the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews every Friday, citing these hadiths as if they were a licence to kill. Ironically, the Qur’an makes it quite clear that a prerequisite for the fulfillment of its scripture is that the Jews will be returned to the land noted in the Qur’an itself.

Islam is, in many ways, the religion most closely resembling Judaism. The Qur’an features a line-up of prophets that are exclusively Jewish, including Mohammed, who traced his own lineage from Ishmael, son of Abraham, who was circumcised in the skin at Moriah; hence, a Jew.

Like Judaism, Islam is intensely monotheistic, rejecting Jesus as a deity, though, unlike Judaism, it welcomes him as a prophet…and anticipates his return at the end of days, or Qiyaama. All three religions agree that Jesus was a Jew, and Islam and Christianity both agree that he’ll still be a Jew when he returns. Even the Mahdi, it is said, will be a Jew.

So, how is it that radical Islamic preachers can advocate the killing of Jews? What’s wrong with this picture?

Religion has been used for millennia as an actuator for social change. We are seeing the negative side of this in radical Islam today. We saw it, albeit in a more positive light, in Poland when the Roman Church was instrumental in the downfall of the Communist movement in Eastern Europe. We saw it in the spread of Christian “Liberation Theology” in Central America, the correctness of which is still debated within the church. We saw it in the time of Mohammed, and in the time of Jesus. We saw it in every revolt against the Greek and Roman empires in the Middle East.

That religion can be a motivating force in people’s lives should not be an indictment against religion lest we are prepared to also throw away the ancient knowledge that is encoded in those traditions.

It is the interpretation of these ideas, these concepts, these traditions, that needs to be discussed. For it is only in their mutual examination that we can bring about peace without the need for the precursor of looming total destruction.

The trick is not to convert people between faiths, but to help them become better role models within their individual faiths. Just as the rainforests are a seminal trust of biodiversity for this planet, so are the various faiths of man a reservoir for all the aspects of his divine nature.

 
 
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On the Virulence of Rage

The Parable of the Tribes (Vayishlach 5775)

by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Originally published December 2, 2014 at www.rabbisacks.org
where you can read more of Rabbi Sacks’ work (audio available)
or follow him on Twitter @RabbiSacks

From beginning to end, Genesis 34 tells a terrifying story. Dina, Jacob’s daughter – the only Jewish daughter mentioned in the entire patriarchal narratives – leaves the safety of home to go out to “look at the daughters of the land.” She is raped and abducted by a local prince, Shechem, son of the king of the town known as Shechem.

Jacob learns of this fact but does nothing until his sons return. Shimon and Levi, Dina’s brothers, immediately realise that they must act to rescue her. It is an almost impossible assignment. The hostage-taker is no ordinary individual. As the son of the king, he cannot be confronted directly. The king is unlikely to order his son to release her. The other townspeople, if challenged, will come to the prince’s defence. It is Shimon and Levi against the town: two against many. Even were all of Jacob’s sons to be enlisted, they would still be outnumbered.

Shimon and Levi therefore decide on a ruse. They agree to let Dina marry the prince but they make one condition. The members of the town must all be circumcised. They, seeing long term advantages to an alliance with this neighbouring tribe, agree. The men of the town are weakened by the operation, and the pain is most acute on the third day. That day, Shimon and Levi enter the town and kill the entire male population. They rescue Dina and bring her home. The other brothers then plunder the town.

Jacob is horrified. “You have made me odious to the people of the land,” he says. What then were we supposed to do, ask the two brothers? “Should we have left our sister to be treated like a prostitute?” With that rhetorical question, the episode ends and the narrative moves elsewhere. But Jacob’s horror at the action of his sons does not end there. He returns to it on his deathbed, and in effect curses them:

“Simeon and Levi are brothers—

their swords are weapons of violence.

Let me not enter their council,

let me not join their assembly,

for they have killed men in their anger

and hamstrung oxen as they pleased.

Cursed be their anger, so fierce,

and their fury, so cruel!

I will scatter them in Jacob

and disperse them in Israel. (Gen. 49: 5-7)

This is an extraordinary passage. It seems to lack any kind of moral message. No one comes out of it well. Shechem, the prince, would seem to be the chief villain. It was he who abducted and raped Dina in the first place. Hamor, his father, fails to reprimand him or order Dina’s release. Shimon and Levi are guilty of a horrendous act of violence. The other brothers engage in looting the town.[1] Jacob seems passive throughout. He neither acts nor instructs his sons on how to act. Even Dina herself seems at best to have been guilty of carelessness in going out into the town in the first place, in what was clearly a dangerous neighbourhood – recall that both Abraham and Isaac, her grandfather and great grandfather, had feared for their own lives because of the lawlessness of the times.[2]

Who was in the right and who in the wrong are left conspicuously undecided in the text. Jacob condemns his sons. But his sons reject the criticism.

The debate continued and was taken up by two of the greatest rabbis in the Middle Ages. Maimonides takes the side of Shimon and Levi. They were justified in what they did, he says. The other members of the town saw what Shechem had done, knew that he was guilty of a crime, and yet neither brought him to court nor rescued the girl. They were therefore accomplices in his guilt. What Shechem had done was a capital crime, and by sheltering him the townspeople were implicated.[3] This is, incidentally, a fascinating ruling since it suggests that for Maimonides the rule that “all Israel are responsible for one another” is not restricted to Israel. It applies to all societies. As Isaac Arama was to write in the fifteenth century, any crime known about and allowed to continue ceases to be an offence of individuals only and becomes a sin of the community as a whole.[4]

Nahmanides disagrees.[5] The principle of collective responsibility does not, in his view, apply to non-Jewish societies. The Noahide covenant requires every society to set up courts of law, but it does not imply that a failure to prosecute a wrongdoer involves all members of the society in a capital crime.

The debate continues today among Bible scholars. Two in particular subject the story to close literary analysis: Meir Sternberg in his The Poetics of Biblical Narrative[6] and Rabbi Elhanan Samet in his studies on the parsha.[7] They too arrive at conflicting conclusions. Sternberg argues that the text is critical of Jacob for both his inaction and his criticism of his sons for acting. Samet sees the chief culprits as Shechem and Hamor.

Both point out, however, the remarkable fact that the text deliberately deepens the moral ambiguity by refusing to portray even the apparent villains in an unduly negative light. Consider the chief wrongdoer, the young prince Shechem. The text tells us that “His heart was drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob; he loved the young woman and spoke tenderly to her. And Shechem said to his father Hamor, ‘Get me this girl as my wife.’” Compare this with the description of Amnon, son of King David, who rapes his half sister Tamar. That story too is a tale of bloody revenge. But the text says about Amnon that after raping Tamar, he “hated her with intense hatred. In fact, he hated her more than he had loved her. Amnon said to her, ‘Get up and get out!’” (2 Samuel 13: 15). Shechem is not like that at all. He falls in love with Dina and wants to marry her. The king, Shechem’s father, and the people of the town, readily accede to the Shimon and Levi’s request that they become circumcised.

Not only does the text not demonise the people of Shechem. Neither does it paint any of Jacob’s family in a positive light. It uses the same word “deceit” (34: 13) of Shimon and Levi that it has used previously about Jacob taking Esau’s blessing and Laban substituting Leah for Rachel. Its description of all the characters, from the gadabout Dina to her excessively violent rescuers, to the plundering other brothers and the passive Jacob, the text seems written deliberately to alienate our sympathies.

The overall effect is a story with no irredeemable villains and no stainless heroes. Why then is it told at all? Stories do not appear in the Torah merely because they happened. The Torah is not a history book. It is silent on some of the most important periods of time. We know nothing, for example, about Abraham’s childhood, or about 38 of the forty years spent by the Israelites in the wilderness. Torah means “teaching, instruction, guidance.” What teaching does the Torah want us to draw from this narrative out of which no one emerges well?

There is an important thought experiment devised by Andrew Schmookler known as the parable of the tribes.[8] Imagine a group of tribes living close to one another. All choose the way of peace except one that is willing to use violence to achieve its ends. What happens to the peace-seeking tribes? One is defeated and destroyed. A second is conquered and subjugated. A third flees to some remote and inaccessible place. If the fourth seeks to defend itself it too will have to have recourse to violence. “The irony is that successful defence against a power-maximising aggressor requires a society to become more like the society that threatens it. Power can be stopped only by power.”[9]

There are, in other words, four possible outcomes: [1] destruction, [2] subjugation, [3] withdrawal, and [4] imitation. “In every one of these outcomes the ways of power are spread throughout the system. This is the parable of the tribes.” Recall that all but one of the tribes seeks peace and has no desire to exercise power over its neighbours. However, if you introduce a single violent tribe into the region, violence will eventually prevail, however the other tribes choose to respond. That is the tragedy of the human condition.

As I was writing this essay in the summer of 2014, Israel was engaged in a bitter struggle with Hamas in Gaza in which more than 1,000 people died. The state of Israel had no more desire to be engaged in this kind of warfare than did our ancestor Jacob. Throughout the campaign I found myself recalling the words earlier in our parsha about Jacob’s feelings prior to his meeting with Esau: “Jacob was very afraid and distressed” (Gen. 32: 8), about which the sages said, “Afraid, lest he be killed, distressed lest he be forced to kill.”[10] What the episode of Dina tells us is not that Jacob, or Shimon and Levi, were right, but rather that there can be situations in which there is no right course of action; where whatever you do is wrong; where every option involves the abandonment of some moral principle.

That is Schmookler’s point, that “power is like a contaminant, a disease, which once introduced will gradually but inexorably become universal in the system of competing societies.”[11] Shechem’s single act of violence against Dina forced two of Jacob’s sons into violent reprisal and in the end everyone was either contaminated or dead. It is indicative of the moral depth of the Torah that it does not hide this terrible truth from us by depicting one side as guilty, the other as innocent.

Violence defiles us all. It did then. It does now.

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[1] Disapproved of biblically: see Deut. 13: 13-19, 1 Samuel 15: 13-26, Esther 9: 10, 15-16.

[2] The Midrash is critical of Dina: see Midrash Aggadah (Buber) to Gen. 34: 1. Midrash Sechel Tov is even critical of her mother Leah for allowing her to go out.

[3] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 9: 14.

[4] Arama, Akedat Yitzhak, Bereishit, Vayera, Gate 20, s.v. uve-Midrash.

[5] Nahmanides, Commentary to Genesis 34: 13.

[6] Sternberg, Meir. The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985. 444-81.

[7] Elhanan Samet, Iyyunim be-Parshat ha-Shevuah, third series, Israel: Yediot Aharonot, 2012, 149-171.

[8] Andrew Bard Schmookler, The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution. Berkeley: U of California, 1984.

[9] Ibid., 21.

[10] Quoted by Rashi ad loc.

[11] Schmookler, ibid., 22.

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The Mbale

A sefer Torah and school supplies are delivered to the Jewish Mbale community at the village of Pitti in Uganda…

A tip of the old skullcap to Lorne R.

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Sadducees, Pharisees & Essenes

jbookThe roles and significance of the Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes in Jewish religious history has been much discussed and – more often than not – hotly debated. From whence did these three influential sects arise?

Here’s a brief article on the origin of their respective names.


The Sadducees were the Hasmonean priests of the Second Temple period (516 BCE to 70 CE) in Jerusalem. The name comes from the Hebrew name Tzadok, the high priest who anointed King Solomon and who was selected by the him to oversee the affairs of worship. The name in Hebrew (צדוק) means “righteous”. In the Greek histories, since there is no single Greek letter that makes the sound “tz” (the letter tzadi צ in Hebrew), the word gradually became more Hellenic.

That’s the easy one that everybody knows.

The Essenes, whose name we also obtain from the Greeks, is a case of language evolving in the opposite direction. The moniker began as the Greek term xénos (ξένος – stranger) and became incorporated into the local parlance between the time of Alexander’s Middle Eastern campaigns until the Roman occupation of the region. Koine Greek was widely spoken in the area, especially in commercial and cultural centres. Because there is no single letter in Hebrew to represent the sound “x“, a common “s” sound (samech: ס) was substituted with a placeholder vowel (aleph: א) standing at the head of the word – resulting in the Aramaic-Hebrew word Esseni (אסני). Transliterated back into Greek, this resulted in the word Εσσηνοι (Essenoi), as recorded in the histories of Josephus.

Neither Josephus, nor Philo, nor Pliny the Elder recognised how the term came into being; never suspecting that it originally came from Greek! The question would seem to be why the Essenes, a sect of religious ascetics who studied almost exclusively in Hebrew would choose to call themselves by a Greek word. And the short answer is that they didn’t; they were called that by the rest of the population. Often living and studying in caves or other rough shelters, they ventured out only to attend select discussions and ceremonies at the Temple in Jerusalem. No wonder everyone called them ‘strangers’. They lived most of their lives below the radar since the time when the armies of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed the Temple of Solomon in 586 BCE, when they fled to the desert regions with as many scrolls as they could carry and sought shelter in caves. Ironically, they also considered themselves Tzadokites (Sadducees) since they were largely descended from the line of Tzadok – unlike the Hasmonean high priests who later came to hold that name themselves.

The Pharisees were generally composed of those returning from the Babylonian exile after Cyrus the Great, King of Persia and Media, conqueror of Babylon, granted them leave to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple – as prophesied by the prophets Jeremiah and Daniel. During the time that they were separated from the activities in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, they resurrected the oral traditions to a degree not seen among the Israelites since the time of Moses. They had little choice. They had but fragments of their sacred texts that they were able to smuggle with them into captivity; a situation that eventually led to the creation of the Babylonian Talmud and the development of the Rabbinic tradition. Without an acknowledged central authority, religious instruction quickly devolved into a new, more distributed format. The term Pharisee comes from the Hebrew word פרושים (perushim), meaning ‘separated ones’.

Upon their return to Jerusalem and environs (having lived for almost 50 years in exile under a combination of Babylonian, Median and Persian rulers) they found that they didn’t immediately fit in. The Sadducees initially rejected their new teaching methods and the mostly Aramaic-speaking population wasn’t quite sure what to do with so many now-Farsi-speaking immigrants. This makes a double entendre of the name, since it can refer to their time of ‘separation’ and to the language (Parsi/Pharsi/Farsi) that they predominantly spoke.


In the end, it would take the efforts of all three sects to keep their common faith alive through many years of repression and persecution by Rome; the period during which the Second Holy Temple would be defiled and destroyed.

© 2009

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