Genuine Criticism of Religion vs. Falsification of History

Oh no not another post about religion! I promise the next post will be on chapter 3 of Benny Morris’s 1948.

This is a critique of the article: Mourning for a Judaism Being Murdered by Israel by Rabbi Michael Lerner published in his liberal magazine Tikkun.

Tikkun Magazine

First I would like to make a similar criticism of a statement by a Muslim in defence of Islam, to show that I am not a hypocrite out to attack Judaism, but a person who thinks that the negative aspects of all religions should be criticized.

I saw part of a debate for and against Islam as a religion of war at Oxford university on youtube. The pro-Islam speaker said that we shouldn’t condemn Islam because of Sharia law, because there are various interpretations of Sharia Law. While that may be true today, historically there were four major schools, and as far as I know they all advocated death by stoning as a punishment for certain “crimes”, notably adultery. So to me that’s what the speaker should have said. He should have said while historically Sharia law has advocated things that don’t accord with our current views on human rights and acceptable forms of punishment, there are now new interpretations that are more liberal. And to be clear today’s Muslims shouldn’t be condemned because of their past, but all supporters of human rights and opponents of cruel punishments should take a stand and denounce and criticize this past, not try to hide or deny it.

Anyways back to Lerner’s article.

I take issue with Lerner’s statement that “one of the primary victims of the war between Israel and Hamas is the compassionate and love-oriented Judaism that has held together for several thousand years”.

This is a disgusting statement. First the primary victim of this “war” is not Judaism, but the over 1000 Palestinian civilians, and also the 2 Israeli civilians that have been killed.

To see one of the primary victims as Judaism is to not care about real people in the real world, and care primarily about Jews and Judaism, when it is exactly in the name of Jews and Judaism that these crimes are being committed.

Second I don’t think Judaism has been a religion of love and compassion for non-Jews. Not saying it should necessarily be that way (why care for people who have been intolerant and have persecuted you for so long), but to say it has been is to paper over anti-Gentile sentiment that has been there for over a thousand years.

To be clear I don’t have a problem with Lerner rejecting acts done in that name of Judaism, as many Christians and Muslims reject negative acts that are done in the name of their religions.

What I reject is the falsification of history. If he wishes to reject something of the Jewish religion or the Jewish past he doesn’t like, he should say honestly, such and such is bad and as a moral people we Jews should reject it. He shouldn’t claim that it was somehow pure and wonderful in the past and has only become bad recently.

I will give explanations based on the Christians and the Muslims.

I don’t accept that Christians should say the Holocaust is bad, so we Christians should go back to the historical Christian tolerance of Jews. Christians were never tolerant. It was not as bad as the holocaust, but apology for the holocaust should not be used to deny Christian antisemitism.

The exact same thing goes for Muslims and all other groups. It may be true that the Muslim rulers treated Jews better than Christian Europe treated its Jews or that Jews were not expelled from Muslims lands until after 1948, but Jews were still treated badly by Muslims and that should be acknowledged and rejected. What shouldn’t be done is to say Muslims treated Jews well and then the Zionists came along and made the Muslims hate Jews, and we should go back to the golden age of Islam when Jews and Muslims loved each other.

As an example of such falsification, Lerner talks about loving the other and the stranger. From what I understand in Orthodox Judaism this was taken as meaning to love converts to Judaism, not to love non-Jews. Just as the commandment to love one’s fellow/neighbor as oneself, was taken to mean fellow Jew and not all other humans.

I don’t think that historical anti-Gentile sentiments in Judaism should be falsified. It may not have mattered when Jews were not in positions of power over Gentiles, but they sometimes were, and they definitely are now, so this part of the past needs to be confronted.

From what I have read the “prophetic Judaism” that Lerner advocates, and which is admirable, is part of the reform movement, a relatively recent branch of the Jewish religion. Reform again from what I understand was a reevaluation of Judaism in view of the European enlightenment. Whether they succeeded in making Judaism into a truly humanist religion, I don’t know (maybe they did), but to present this as the true historical Judaism and to say that there have always been some contrary voices is not entirely honest.

About reform: Reform Judaism at Jewish Virtual Library
To read about the history of the conflict between Liberal and Conservative tendencies in Judaism in post-war America you can look at the book Torn at the Roots by Micahel E. Staub.

To respond to the claim that there is no one true Judaism, that is true today, but not historically, as with other religions.

One can think outside orthodoxy in every system, that does not negate the fact that there is an Orthodox or Canon Law.

Again, with Islam, Christianity and Judaism there was for a long period of time a canonical and accepted Law.

For Islam this is the four main schools, in Judaism the Orthodox view of Halacha, and at least for the Catholic church, Catholic Canon Law.

All of them pretty much had actual courts that made judgements with coercive penalties. So that the fact that people could think outside these systems didn’t matter much, because people were tried and judged based on the official view of the religion.
So for much of history there was in a very important sense one true definition of the faith.

But even if there was an important counter-movement, I am mainly saying that Lerner is being deceptive in overstating the historical importance of his views.

Note: To be clear When I use the term Orthodox Judaism, I mean Judaism roughly from the year 800 to 1800, following Halacha as defined by the Babylonian Talmud. As opposed to Reform and Conservative Judaism which either do not view the Halacha as legally binding or have a liberal interpretation of Halacha.

Israel Shahak which I often quote had this to say (Open Secrets p. 135):

much as I abhor the journal Commentary, I abhor Tikkun even more for its sanctimonious hypocrisy and for its methodical mendacity about everything that concerns Judaism. I prefer to deal with the overt chauvinism of a Podhoretz who is at least intelligible, than with ‘the politics of meaning’ of a Lerner devoid of any meaning and therefore more dangerous.

The title of the article indicates we should mourn for Judaism because it is the victim. I have more respect for Israelis and Jews who mourn the 2 Israeli civilians and 64 Israeli soldier killed so far. At least theirs is the normal human reaction of mourning losses on one’s side. It takes more to mourn the losses on the other side of the fence. And I think everyone should make that effort. And I think the world is moving in that direction. But a humanist view doesn’t come naturally to most people when it comes to wars. As I wrote before I know of no counter-example. Americans in general cared more about the lives of American soldiers lost in Vietnam than about Vietnamese civilians killed, even though there were many more of the latter.

The issue I have with Lerner is that he makes it sound like Jews are historically superior in their love and compassion towards others, falsifying Jewish history in the process, rather than taking an honest stand and criticizing the past.

Finally I believe that all religions and all groups should as someone said: “try and root the modern practice in modern values, with humanism at its center”.

I think reform Judaism has succeeded in doing that in many areas. For example in its acceptance of homosexuality, both in its members and in its clergy, despite the fact that it is clearly and explicitly forbidden by classical Judaism in the strongest terms. They made a decision to change this aspect of their religion for purely moral reasons, acknowledging that the original position was untenable in light of human rights and civil liberties.

However in the area of anti-Gentile feelings and exclusivity, I think the reality of European antisemitism which culminated in the Holocaust, along with the establishment of the state of Israel, pretty much killed the chances of a similar process taking place, and reinforced the notion of Jews as a separate nation.

As to the history, I think there have been profound changes. To me the religion went from particularism in the beginning (as almost all religions are at first, even Jesus says that he is only sent “unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel”, Matt15:24, when he initially refuses to treat the Canaanite woman’s daughter), to universalism (and a period where there was active proselytism). However after military defeat at the hands of the Romans, and after Christianity won out as the official state religion of the empire (and later when Islam won over most of the rest of the lands where Judaism existed), Judaism went back to particularism in the rabbinical period. Again under reform there was a tendency towards universalism, which I think didn’t quite succeed.

An interesting case of a religion which is not well known, but is probably much more closed is Zoroastrianism, which does not accept converts at all. And in which both parents must be of the faith for the child to be accepted into the faith, though this is sometimes relaxed if only the father is of the faith (it seems Iranian Zoroastrians are more liberal in this regards and Indian Parsis more conservative). Also non-Zoroastrians are not allowed into their temples at least in India.

For another open letter to Rabbi Lerner on the topic of Israel/Palestine see:
Adddendum II to “Kibbutz Life In Israel” – Letter to Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun Very interesting with some good arguments I had not thought of, but the author does quote/paraphrase Israel Shahak several times without citation (though he does cite him twice).

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