Like most people, I am becoming increasingly disturbed by the reports of
bombings, kidnappings and beheadings coming out of Iraq. The cities Falluja and
Ramadi and much of Anbar Province are now controlled by fundamentalist, Al-Qaeda
I have asked myself why it is that I am so disturbed by the murderous methods
the militants use. We all know that this is war, and war means that there are two
sides that aim to eliminate each other. If we are honest with ourselves we would
have to admit that the military aircraft, the laser-guided missiles and the
Abrams tanks used by the Americans are more lethal and disturbing killing
machines than a masked man with a butcher knife. So what is it about these
anachronistic beheadings that offends us so much?
As a devoutly religious person, what bothers me more than anything else is
the fact that the beheadings are carried out as a form of religious ritual. One
of the films of such a murder is reported to show a man quoting passages from
the Koran ordaining death. "He who will abide by the Koran will prosper; he who
offends against it will get the sword..." And then as he performs the barbaric
act he and his partners shout "Allah akbar!" (G‑d is great).
I know the intensity of the passion one feels when one is convinced that one
is carrying out the will of G‑d. Seeing that same passion used in such an evil manner
I often wonder what my contemporaries and I would be like if our teachers had
taught us that the only path to G‑d is through the sword. I am convinced that at
least some of us would have accepted these barbaric teachings at face value and
would have become religious murderers. Maybe the fundamentalists are ordinary
people who have just been brainwashed by evil ideology.
We have to see this war for what it really has become -- a war of opposing
ideologies. On the one side is the Western idea of freedom, democracy and human
rights, and on the other side is a form of theocratic dictatorship where the religious
authorities are given a free hand in interpreting G‑d's will. The question is
whether our democratic society can ever overcome an ideology that has the lethal cocktail
of religious zeal and murderous intent.
If this war is ever to be won, it has to be fought on two fronts. Certainly
when people have become terminally corrupted by lethal ideas, one may have no
choice but to eliminate the people who carry the ideas. However, at the same
time there has to be a sincere and strenuous effort to win over young people.
We must combat the ideas behind religious fundamentalism, and we can do this
only if we offer a coherent and equally attractive alternative.
Fundamentalist religion offers its adherents a framework in which to live. It
offers a protective brotherhood. But most of all, it adds a sense of meaning,
purpose and passion to the life of the adherent. All of the above -- a structured
framework, a brotherhood, a sense of meaning and a passion -- are things that
Western society lacks. How is Western-style democracy ever to replace the
dangerous type of Islamic fundamentalism if it is not fighting on the same turf?
The Kabbalists tell us that whatever G‑d created in evil he created the exact
counterpart in good. One has to present young people with an alternative religious
ideology that offers the same qualities as fundamentalism but is aimed in a
Judaism is an example of this type of ideology. Judaism has a built-in sense
of community. It offers real direction and passion but the theme throughout is
peacefulness. As Maimonides writes (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Megillah 4:14), “G‑d gave the Torah to
make peace in the world as it is written (Proverbs 3): ‘Its ways are pleasant
and all its paths are peaceful.’” According to the Talmud, a court of
law empowered to carry out the death penalty that executes a criminal more than once in
seventy years is considered a "murderous court." Throughout the Mishnah and
Talmud--which were formed during the rise of Christianity and Islam--you'd be hard-pressed to find a sage who is venerated for his physical battle against unbelievers. Judaism
preaches peacefulness; warmongers have no place.
Although there are parts of the Bible that if interpreted literally could
seem cruel and violent, our sages interpret them in a peaceful manner. For
example the Bible (Exodus 21:24) says that a violent attacker should pay "An eye
for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," but the sages don’t take this literally;
instead they say it means that the offender must pay the monetary worth of the
eye or the tooth. Another example is the law (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) regarding
the stoning of the rebellious child. Instead of widening the definition of a
rebellious child, our sages narrowed it, to the extent that it is virtually
impossible for the law ever actually to be applied. Many Biblical laws can be
interpreted either as a license for violence or in a peaceful manner. Rabbinic
Judaism exemplifies how potentially violent laws can be interpreted in a
civilized and peace-loving way. In Judaism, killing and religion are as far
apart from one another as the number one is from infinity. It is this peaceful
model that we should be exporting.
Secularism is doubtless dominant in the West. But this may be because the
religion that is currently offered lacks passion and attractiveness. What will
happen if a new generation of religious demagogues rises up, passionately
arguing a negative fundamentalist line? We may end up with another crusade on our
hands. The only way to avert such a disaster is to offer an alternative peaceful
religious model that has real meaning as well as purpose and passion. Let us
hope that those directing the war realize this. The future is still in our
hands. Let us shape it while we are still able.