Combating the Virus of Religious Intolerance (1/30/2010)

As I begin my day, I wonder …. Maybe Mark Twain was right when he said, “Man was made at the end of the week’s work, when God was tired!”

At times it seems as though the world is reverting to a more atavistic state of its evolutionary history. Yet, unlike the denizens of nature, human evolution is unique in that humankind is capable of remapping its evolutionary trajectory. Every faith community has a sacred task at hand–to combat the enemy from within. Religious intolerance continues to find new adherents willing to commit unspeakable atrocities in the name of Yahweh, Allah, and Christ. Whether it is an Christian extremist  bombing an abortion clinic in the South, or suicide bombers killing scores of people in Iraq and in other troubled parts of the world, the mentality of hate still remains the same.  Sadly, the Jewish community is not immune to this virus of religious intolerance that continues to infect our people.

Religious zealotry is not a new problem in Jewish history; in fact, its antecedents contributed toward the final demise of Judea, when it fought its war against the Roman legions over 2000 years ago. When religious leaders fuse religion and politics together, the combination becomes lethal–not unlike the biblical prohibition against cooking meat and milk together.  George Santyana’s dictum, “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it,” certainly applies whenever we fail to learn from the lessons of history.

This past week, the Israeli Shin Bet arrested Rabbi Yitzchak Shapira,  whose rabbinical students were allegedly involved in torching a Palestinian mosque in the village of Yasuf last month. Let me point out from the outset that most people living in the West Bank are not hooligans looking for a fight, but this particular rabbi is very disturbing because he has recently published a book where he advocates murdering Palestinian men, women, and children–regardless whether they are decent folk or not. According to Shapira, the Palestinians are the “Canaanites” of our time.

It is no coincidence that Rabbi Shapira happens to be a Chabad Rabbi and while Chabad has understandably distanced itself from Rabbi Shapira, it seems that Chabad theology has definitely colored this rabbi’s worldview. If Rabbi Shapira were a lone voice, I would be inclined to give the Lubavitcher movement the benefit of the doubt. However, anyone who researches this matter will see that Rabbi Shapira’s ideology bears a striking resemblance to other prominent Chabad rabbis of note, particularly, Rabbi Abraham Hecht and Rabbi Manis Friedman. Both men are considered to be important representatives of the Lubavitcher movement.

For those readers who may not remember, shortly after Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and Foreign Minister Peres signed the Oslo Accords in 1993, Hecht told the International Rabbinical Coalition for Israel that “Anyone who intentionally hands over [the] bodies [or] property … of the Jewish people to an alien people is guilty of the sin for which the penalty is death … If a man kills him, he has done a good deed.”[1]

Unfortunately, Hecht was by no means the only person advocating such an opinion. Within a year, on the evening of Yom Kippor of 1994, a group of right-wing Israelis led by Avigdor Eskin, gathered outside the home of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Wrapped in prayer shawls, these men chanted an Aramaic curse known as “Pulsa da-Nura” (“Lashes of Fire”), beseeching God: “I deliver to you, the angels of wrath and ire, Yitzhak, the son of Rosa Rabin, that you may smother him and the specter of him, and cast him into bed, and dry up his wealth, and plague his thoughts, and scatter his mind that he may be steadily diminished until he reaches his death. Put to death the cursed Yitzhak. May [he] be damned, damned, damned!”

According to Jewish tradition, words can hurt–even kill–more than sticks and stones. Hateful words lead to hateful acts of violence. This may explain why an assassin killed Yitzchak Rabin. Actually, when someone turns against the “outsider,” it is only a matter of time before that person(s) turns against a fellow insider as well. This can be seen in Levi and Simeon’s attack against the townspeople of Shechem–the most grizzly story of Genesis (Gen. 34 ff.). Shortly afterward, we see how the sons of Leah took their rage out on Joseph, the favored son of Jacob (Gen. 37 ff.). Internecine warfare among Semitic families has long been one of the most enduring legacies  of the ancient world. The message is so obvious, how can we ignore the warning of our tradition?

Last May, Moment Magazine decided to write an interesting article on, “How Should Jews Treat Their Arab Neighbors?” A variety of  modern rabbinic perspectives–ranging from the humanistic to the Sephardic and Modern Orthodox–all stressed the importance of peaceful co-existence, tolerance, and its importance for both Arabs and Israelis alike.

One response stood out like a sore thumb–Rabbi Manis Friedman. As one of the main translators of his mentor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, many of us were stunned when the popular Chabad writer (“Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore?” is really an excellent book) offered a perspective that was surprisingly reminiscent of the view expressed by Shapira.

I don’t believe in western morality, i.e. don’t kill civilians or children, don’t destroy holy sites, don’t fight during holiday seasons, don’t bomb cemeteries, don’t shoot until they shoot first because it is immoral.The only way to fight a moral war is the Jewish way: Destroy their holy sites. Kill men, women and children (and cattle). [Emphasis mine.]

The first Israeli prime minister who declares that he will follow the Old Testament will finally bring peace to the Middle East. First, the Arabs will stop using children as shields. Second, they will stop taking hostages knowing that we will not be intimidated. Third, with their holy sites destroyed, they will stop believing that G-d is on their side. Result: no civilian casualties, no children in the line of fire, no false sense of righteousness, in fact, no war.

Zero tolerance for stone throwing, for rockets, for kidnapping will mean that the state has achieved sovereignty. Living by Torah values will make us a light unto the nations who suffer defeat because of a disastrous morality of human invention.

Rabbi Manis Friedman
Bais Chana Institute of Jewish Studies
St. Paul, MN

Maybe Friedman sipped too much vodka at a frabrengen (a Lubavitcher drinking party)!

In fairness to the critics of the peace process, dealing with the likes of Arafat and his henchmen proved to be morally challenging, if not impossible. There is good reason to feel skeptical about Oslo. However, when Friedman penned his response, he criticized not just the peace process, but also the conventional conceptions of Western morality as articulated by Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Kant, Mill, Levinas, Buber, and many of the world’s greatest ethical teachers of history.  I would add that one can hardly criticize what one has not studied. Unfortunately, Chabad never studies philosophy–or even Jewish philosophy–outside of Chabad Hassidut. Herein is the tragedy of  its myopic vision.

The author of the bestselling “Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore?”  evidently has much to blush about. Rabbinic wisdom warns,  “Sages, watch what you say, lest you become liable to the punishment of exile, and go into exile to a place of foul water, and disciples who follow you drink [foul water] and die, and the name of Heaven be thereby profaned.” [2]

(more to follow)

[1] Larry Yudelson, (1995-06-23). “Rabbis against peace treaty mull assassination, revolts”. Jewish Telegraphic Agency (reprinted in the Jewish news weekly of Northern California). Retrieved 2007-03-26.

[2] Avoth 1:11.

2 thoughts on “Combating the Virus of Religious Intolerance (1/30/2010)

  1. Yochanan Lavie says:

    Those who think they are immune from outside influences are the most affected by them. Because anything within their sealed must be kosher, since the gate seal hermetically. However, the gates are always permeable. Like the famous wooden horse, foreign ideology sneaks inside the gates. Those with an open door policy can pick and choose, because they are conscious decision makers; but the xenophobes can’t recognize the foreign import. The ideologies of fundamentalism and ultra-nationalism are at work here. They are not inherently Jewish, but are within the chareidi gates.

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