Wednesday, October 24, 2007

On Religion, Rabin and Easy Solutions

In addition to discussions over politics, Israeli Friday night dinners also have their fair share of arguments about religion. While I am never one to shy away from a bit of theological banter, and enjoy bating religious dogmatists with controversial statements as much as the next person, what I really dislike is the type of simplistic question that punctuated my relaxing Succot Friday night dinner in Caesarea last month; "I’m surprised you're religious – I mean, religion is the cause of so many wars around the world."

Its instructive to note how many Israelis relate religion to two main sectors of the population –
the Charedim, perceived as misogynist parasites who control marriage and conversion, and the national religious ‘settlers’ who are connected with an uncompromising extremism of ‘not one inch.’ When these straw men are complemented by traditional secular Zionism’s view of the galut Jew as the weak, cowardly religious type as expressed by Bialik and Berdichevski, it's unsurprising so many Israelis see religion as an anachronism. Add into the mix a few bigoted or cruel comments from Israeli rabbis, and you have a pretty strong recipe that fuels anti – religious feeling.

That same week, the
Ha’aretz supplement reviewed a book by Chanoch Daum, a formerly religious journalist and writer living in Efrat who discusses a religious upbringing he describes as loveless and unempathetic and the theological and emotional scars it has caused. Divided into four parts, the book is comprised of different personal letters Daub writes to God, his father, his community and his wife.

Strangely enough, the Talmudic rabbis themselves were aware of the potentially destructive power of organized religion, as well as the dissonance between God’s words and the actions of those who purport to speak in His name. Long before the ideas of Marx, Spinoza and Freud or modern complaints about religious coercion, the Midrash suggests that Abel's murder by his brother Cain was due to an argument over either property, religion or women. Another commentary on a verse in Ecclesiastes (which we read on Succot) (4.1) suggests a dissonance between the religious authorities of the day (who interpret God's law without mercy) and what God actually wants.

Secularism in Israel meanwhile, has its own problems. I recently heard Uzi Dayan describe the process of secular Zionism (of which he considers himself a part) detailing the jump from the Tanach to the Palmach and the ambivalence to skipping towards 2,000 years of Jewish civilization in between. From dreaming of creating a new Jew from the ashes of the diaspora, many secular leaders in Israel feel that instead of a generation of heretics, they have raised a generation of ignoramus.

I would have thought that everyone in Israel with all its complexities would realize that
generalizing our problems into a bumper sticker soundbites of good and bad, of fanatical religious or immoral secular, of kapo left wing or fascist right would do little good. Yet it seems that surprisingly few understand Isaiah Berlin’s comment that its not religion or secularism or capitalism or communism that is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals. Instead, it’s the belief that somewhere in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker…there is a final solution, one utopian ideology that will solve all our problems.

Similar to JFK, most Jews my age remember where they were the night
Yitzchak Rabin was assasinated. 12 years ago this week, I was at a party of a friend of a friend in Elstree, old enough to realize that what happened was bad, but too naïve to realize the danger of those who feel their religion or ideology justifies murdering elected officials.

As we mark the Yahrzeit of our former Prime Minister, Israeli society remains divided as ever. And while its difficult to help people understand there’s no magic wand or absolute solution to our problems, part of me feels that those like Chanoch Daum, Uzi Dayan and the Rabbis of the Talmud give us a clue – the need to critique our own community and to rid ourselves of the self righteousness that we are in the position of the absolute truth.

And perhaps most importantly, in a country where there isn’t even a word for subtlety, to start a conversation to help us understand one another better.


NSB said...
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David said...

I remember where I was...playing basketball with my brother, Shabbat afternoon. Rabin's assassination was a formative experience for me in it sort of pricked the bubble that I was part of a perfect, heroic, victimized religious community.

It really is hard to draw conclusions from it though. The vast majority of Israelis will agree that assassinating a Prime Minister or elected official is wrong. But then what about releasing Amir, or violence at other times?

Dialogue is important but many people will always be unwilling or unable to engage in it. There are many times I've thought about visiting a place like Merkaz HaRav
to try and understand the Hardal mindset but it would just be a personal indulgence. Breaking bread and davening with say, a guy living in a caravan is important in that we personally connect, but I doubt I could get him to come down from the hilltop by explaining realpolitik to him. A Yasamnik has to do the dirty work for me and everyone else who voted for a government that will evacuate outposts and it's back to the same question of force...

Anonymous said...

Kol Mila Ba'sela.
thank you for this post and particularly for the quote from Berlin.

Anonymous said...

It is not a problem with religion or secularism.

The real issue is generalizaions.

People generalize all the time.

We categorize people in groups left right and centre, most likely because we somehow believe it makes it easier to deal with people and feel them out if we group them.

Youre a blah blah so and so, therefore you must think along the lines of xyz.

What a load of rubbish.

Everyone is an individual.

There are nice and perhaps not so nice in every single group - without exception.

That little worm, no pun intended given his escapades with his better half, which by the way is a real slap in the face to the justice system, was a single individual, with some supporters, who perpetrated one of the most disgusting acts in our time.

He does not by his actions, words and thoughts, define all other people on the right of the political spectrum.

I agree with the left most, but not all, of the time but I know many people who are more towards the right in their thinking who think Amir is a monster.

Treat people as indidivuals, not groups.

Its not so hard, takes a bit of effort and lots of time, but in so doing avoids many uneessary mistakes.

People from all walks of life have much to learn from each other.

Compromise, learning to agree to disagree sometimes without resorting to violence, and sharing spring to mind.

It is my sincere hope that we will see something reasonably concrete come out of the up-comming peace conference in November this year.

NSB said...
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NSB said...
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NSB said...
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NSB said...
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NSB said...


No offense, but there are in fact groups. That's just the way it is. In every religion obviously- but same goes for culture, class, IQ etc.. (My Grandfather z"l used to say "everybody's equal but some are more equal than others") you name it and there's a sector. Pretending that there isn’t is pointless if you ask me. Be it ultra orthodox, modern orthodox, conservative, catholic or protestant you can't deny that these are separate categories from one another. I think the only way to get on with all is to accept that. Stop trying to understand each other or explain our different passions and musings about life and expecting someone with a completely different mindset to see the light.. Maybe I'm a bit ignorant but it seems a little much for my little head.

I feel that in general people mean well – in their own way whether we understand it or not it would be great if we could just accept that. Every person in this world wants 'good' the problem is that every one has a different view of what good is. As long as it's in the realm sanity, what's wrong with that?! When a persons view of 'good' is so twisted that it's no longer sane... well, that's what we have the law for.
For instance and I'm going to take a risk here… Hitler. Hitler was an insane man. He honestly believed that the Jewish people were 'bad' for the world. He believed that ridding of such a germ would be 'good' for the world, … and so in order to save the world he'll rid of them. Hitler was insane. – That's where the law comes in and says "sir, you cant handle knowing good from bad – ur mucked up and we will have to isolate you from society" Yigal Amir thought it was 'good' to be rid of Rabin.. not just terminate his position in the government but terminate his life. The law was created for men like Amir who are insane and have a twisted idea of 'good'.

I'd like to believe most people have their sanity.. and so with exception to the few that don't .. why cant we just accept that each individual associates themselves with the sector that they believe is Good. Can't we agree to disagree and stop trying to save the world one opinion at a time? – We are not pinky and the brain and with all do respect to the guy who contrived those two, but he's a little creepy.

(wow that was long.. Sorry Cal, I'll stop ranting right about now, Good shabbos all)

Anonymous said...


I disagree. I dont think its healthy to group people at all.

I think we do it out of habit and because its easier to do things that way.

That doesnt mean its logical or rational to do so.

Theres absolutely nothing wrong with trying to approach people from a different angle for a change.

Give it a whirl sometime, you may find it works quite well, even if it is a little more time consuming.

Re good vs bad, thats not what Im on about at all.

His motivations and intentions dont concern me at all. Thats something purely subjective and one can argue about good vs bad for ages and get nowhere.

What Im talking about is ones approach to conflict resolution.

If two people can sit down and look each other in the eye like rational human beings, recognize that some nice and some not so nice things were done by BOTH side, and recognize that now we cannot rewrite the past, but that we can definitely write the future - that is what Im talking about.

Compromise, in the true sense of the word, means that you have to throw all your preconceived ideas about that individual right out the window.

Otherwise your not going to compromise. Youre going to say "well, you did xy and z before so why should I bother talking to you? you belong to THAT group? Im not talking to you."

Then people resort to violence. Like Amir, like Arafat, and many others.

Sometimes you have to resort to violence in self-defence, including preemptive action, because someone has or is about to force your hand and you have no choice left because you know they will not talk to you and will not listen to reason, so youd be wasting your breath.

For example, lets take terrorists.

Some people, some time ago, came along with the bright idea of "we dont talk to terrorists, we dont negotiate with terrorirts."

What is the logic behind saying something like that?

That leaves you with only one option - violence.

Why remove a perfectly workable option from the table - even if it is often an extremely difficult, but not impossible, one?

Generalizations again. You are part of that group. So we wont talk to you. Its not logical.

Many people said we wont talk to terrorists because of Arafat and people like him.

Arafat the man is now dead, replaced by people like Abbas and Erakat, who are not perfect people, but much more approachable.

The organization is the same - Fatah.

The group didnt change names. It didnt change its structure in a radical way.

All that changed was that Arafat died.

So now we are talking to people we once, and some still do, call terrorists.

But something is working over there, and even someone with half a brain cell can see that some small progress has been made in the west bank and here.

Better than nothing.

But if we said, ok, Abbas is part of Fatah, we dont talk to Fatah, then we would still be at square one - which is a long way backwards from where we are now.

The same thing has happened in Northern Ireland, with some success.

Its not a perfect system, and theres no single magic cure-all.

But is does achieve small incremental results.

At the end of the day, thats a hell of a lot better than no results.

Shabbat shalom

Calev said...

Dahlia - thanks for ure comments - if you like it then i know i am on the right path.

David, Ian and Nina

Generalizing may not be good, but i think its inevitable to simplify.

i think that engaging people in conversation is a start even though it doesnt necessarily make anyway change their mind.I agree that the guy on the hilltop may not come down (even though u may be pretty persuasive) but it helps depersonalization of those with different views.

i think my main point was that people that think the absolute truth lies with them are very dangerous people and that if each of is lives with strong beliefs but with the openeness to others peoples then society would be a much better place.

Shabbat Shalom


Yehudi said...

It is a paradox...I believe that most Israeli's supported Rabin's peace movement only because they were war-weary. If his proposals were presented objectively during "peace-time" I think they'd be rejected. Just my thought. I do wish we could swap Olmert for Rabin, though. Say, I started a new blog that's connected to Jewish Pride. I'd like to invite you over for a visit...let me know what you think!