How Not to Read a Holy Book

Gershom Gorenberg

As a follow-up to an earlier post, I have a new column in Moment magazine on the Chabad rabbi who recently wrote that “The only way to fight a moral war is the Jewish way…  Kill men, women and children (and cattle).” Manis Friedman, unfortunately, isn’t alone in our world in claiming divine sanction as he presents evil as morality. There’s a pattern that ties him to other people, in Judaism and in other faiths, who do the same:

Friedman may think he’s presenting old-time Judaism. In fact, his words are an example of the thoroughly modern phenomenon known as fundamentalism. Fundamentalists are frightened by the openness of the modern world, by the autonomy of the individual, by modern insistence on reaching truth through reasoned debate. They want to feel certain that they are following an unambiguous religious authority.

That desire makes humanistic religious ethics appear suspect in their eyes. After all, the Western philosophic tradition, from the Greeks to Kant, can also produce ethics that stress the value of every human being. If one follows such ethics, the fundamentalist worries, how can one be sure one is doing God’s will? Perhaps one has been misled by a morality “of human invention,” to quote Friedman.

The fundamentalist solution has several elements. First, insist on heteronomy, on an authority outside oneself. Second, assign that role to a person or a book that speaks for God. Third, assert that the sacred text has an obvious “literal” meaning. And fourth, proudly derive from that text the willingness to believe and to do things that are scandalous in ethical terms—indeed, that defy your own basic moral instincts. That way, you can be sure you are following the outside authority. Declare, for instance, that “the Jewish way” requires killing “men, women and children (and cattle)” in times of war.

Read the full article here, and come back to South Jerusalem to comment.

39 thoughts on “How Not to Read a Holy Book

  1. Your argument is against being religious, and against believing in the Torah. Your plan of relying on human “Moral instincts” has a history of the worst barbarism.

    Rabbi Friedman may not have a good military strategy, attuned to the current situation, but your fake moralizing has no weight one way or the other.

    And if the wars in the Book of Judges aren’t old-time Judaism, what is?

    If Rabbi Friedman were “frightened by modern insistence on reaching truth through reasoned debate” he would be afraid of the Sanhedrin, the Beit Din, the Talmud, and Judaism itself.

    You could have simply noted that most modern wars are won without targeting women, children, or cattle, and been on stronger ground.

    Also, there aren’t so far as I remember, any commandments relating to military strategy. Captives, yes, strategy, I don’t think so. So R Friedman owes us a chapter and verse.

    Meanwhile, we might get some guidance from Genesis 9:6 and Deuteronomy 20, as a start.

    The Torah references a “Book of Wars” but apparently this text has been lost. Pity.

    Rabbi Friedman does seem to make one good point you skipped over, shoot through the human shields and they’ll eventually stop using human shields. And his goal for “No war” is one we can all embrace.

    Rabbi Friedman has corrected (or clarified) his remarks on this site, and I think you’ll find it no so different from the other Rabbis.

  2. A very interesting article. I fear that Jewish fundamentalists will end up tearing Isreal apart.
    Perhaps somehow there will “peace” between
    Arabs & Jews but once the ink dries on the papers all hell could break loose in Isreal. I try to be positive but as history as shown us fundamentalists whether religious or nationalistic end up destroying what they profess to cherish killing millions in the process
    Fundamentalists whether be Jewish, Christian, Muslim or Hindu are walking death. BTW shooting through human shields produces martyrs which leads to more fundamentalists who want to blow people up. Also treating the Arab citizens as second class citizens will guarantee future problems. Doing so will make certain there will be an “enemy” within the borders of Israel.Perhaps one way to bring some sort of resolution to the problems would be an
    introduction of an economic package to the region. If people have jobs, a home, something to hang thier hat on they may be less inclined to go blow themselves . Unfortunately the negative myths that are in the air about both Jews & Arabs will take a generation or more to dissipate. At least if the economic situation for the Palestinians improves maybe just maybe some will less likely to want to go and blow themselves up. As for the (possible) coming battle between fanatical religious Jews and the secular population it could end up being the battle of all battles. I pray that somehow this can be stopped but given what fundamentalists do I
    doubt it. Then again hope springs eternal.

  3. A patronizing, shallow, and extremely unfair article. Not at all what I would have expected. I enjoy reading Mr. Gorenberg’s articles because they are usually not like this one.

  4. North Jersey Reader said:
    ———————————————-
    BTW shooting through human shields produces martyrs which leads to more fundamentalists who want to blow people up
    ———————————————-

    This in one of these myths that sounds reasonable until we look at the facts. Once the suicide bombing wave began in earnest with the Oslo Agreements, the Left was telling us over and over that there is no military solution, that any use of force would just make more and more people want to become suicide bombers, so the only solution was to find some way of giving enough to Arafat which would make him happy and then the bombings would end because the potential bombers would now feel they had no reason to blow themselves up. This was proven to be nonsense, a vigorous IDF and SHABAK offensive in Judea/Samaria was very effective even though the Palestinians refused to agree to Barak’s offers at Camp David and Taba.
    Similarly, the “surge” in Iraq greately reduced the attacks there as well.

  5. Regarding the halachot of warfare (and, yes, the Torah does give instructions in this matter), it should be recalled that internationally agreed modern restrictions on warfare are recognized by the halachic system as applying even to a Jewish state which follow it. This is parallel to the case of slavery, which is permitted in the Torah, but since it has been abolished by an international concensus, it would not be possible for a Jewish state run on halachic lines to reestablish it, counter to international norms.

  6. I worry less about Rabbi Friedman’s theoretical discussions than the actual actions of Israel providing arms and explosives which are then used directly against Jews, as we have observed in the past 20 years. I missed the column by Gershon and Haim discussing fellow Israeli Gilad Atzmon claiming that burning synagogues is a logical act. The reason I missed the column is that it was never written. The fact is that Israel has lost its deterrence against its neighbors due to following non_Jewish norms and being kind to the cruel

  7. Y you spend too much time watching Fix News . the surge was overblown. The decrease in hostilities had already begun some time before the so-called surge with the coming over of the Sunni militants and the federalizing of the Iraqi military, General Petraeus was the guru and even he knew that stabilizing the country would not be achieved by a show of US military force alone.
    Iraq is another British disaster. A cobbling together of people who be at each others throats as soon as they left but who couldn’t agree on throwing them out(sounds familiar)

    The only system for Iraq must be a federal republic of shared power and resources. I am not optimistic because the concept of a democracy is not in their lexicon and neither the Sunnis’,Shia nor Kurds are into sharing anything. Gee the latter sounds like the Israeli- Palestinian fracas but democracy in Israel is reserved for the Jewish populace.

  8. The Brookings Institution, CNN (polar opposites), the Iraqi Defense Ministry, Petraeus, Barak Obama and the New York Times, among a variety of others, agree the surge was succesful in achieving its goals although Iraq’s future stability is “fragile.” “Overblown” is the opinion of someone who listens to too much Dennis Kucinich.

  9. If people would have listened to Dennis the US would never gotten into this phony neocon concocted war and a close personal friend of mine would’nt have loss his only son . The kid was just 21. I will be happy when they indict the Bush war criminals but the Democrats have no gonads. I served when my country called me to Korea and got shot at. I fimd it ironic that those who defend the Bush war have never served or been in combat because they are too cowardly to admit that they have a yellow streak . that includes you 06 who bailed out on his country of origin ; glad your gone.

  10. I should probably point out to George Hilborn that virtually the entire US population is descended from people who bailed out of their country of origin 🙂

    I don’t go along with Y. Ben David’s use of Iraq as an example to illustrate his point. Even now it’s not exactly clear how the reduction in violence came about. There’s an article here and here that might be worth reading. It also slightly muddies the waters between effective military action and the disregard for civilian casualties. The Israeli policy of disproportionate force and disregard for civilians is not justified in my opinion. I liked the point about slavery though, that’s something I wasn’t aware of.

    I’m not sure how fundamentalism is a modern creation. I just don’t get what he means by that, surely it’s been around forever? Anyway the problem is less about religion and more about land, power, money and all the rest of it. It’s all a justification for getting what you want, the interpretation is fixed around the desire. The fact that politics in the region is still dominated by what amounts to a Bronze Age political manifesto with a bit of spirituality thrown in is pretty depressing.

  11. I apoligize to 06 because I didn’t give him a chance to explain his reasons for bailing out or should he have to. My ancestors bailed out in 1652 but I now know it wasn’t for religious persecution .Thomas Hilborn just wanted a job and came to New Jersey as an indentured servant to a Quaker family amd adopted their denomination. He was flogged for his beliefs and a relative by marriage Mary Dyer was hung.

    I agree that fundamentalism is a much used term which really means doctrinare beliefs which make little room for disagreement and are postulated as certainties; such as the Irish cleryman Bishop Usher’s retort to Charles Darwin to wit : the earth is only 4069 years old so evolution theories are bogus.

    The comment on slavery is well taken and as my favorite comedian Lewis Black says about the G-D of the book of his people ; he is one mean dude no hearts and flowers like the guy in the new book. Unfortunately the so-called Christian Zionists love to quote some of the egregious passages of the old book to justify their egregious behavior and to help in their fund -raising for new settlement construction.

  12. This was an excellent article-provocative. Thank you.

    I think there are those (everywhere) who by their nature need and seek authority. It can be seen as an abdication of sorts- when a person ceases to reconcile with that which is deep within and blindly follows. This is what Emerson’s essays are about. That abdication ( perhaps partial at best) is at least a part of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism -the term came into use around 1950- is a term we use for an anti-modern reaction, a harkening back to strict narrowly defined beliefs. So it is very modern; it is part of ( albeit a reaction to it) and partakes of modernity.

    Unless you’ve been very brainwashed as a child ( which happens) you can’t abdicate personal authority without making some choices – ie who, what to follow. It is not possible to relieve oneself completely from personal responsibility, making choices. Some are more constricted than others in this respect. These are just my observations.

    Personally I find it hard to absolve anyone from the choices that they make or turn away from.

    Above H. Kaine uses the phrase “being kind to the cruel”. The more complete saying I’ve heard several times in similar exchanges:

    “He who is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful.” – Kohelet Rabbah, 7:16

    This is a rationalization for being merciless towards the enemy.

    “When you go out to war against your enemies….” (Ki Tetzei, Deuteronomy 21:10) Upon which verse the Sifri comments (Shoftim 192): “Against your enemies and not your brothers…. Against your enemies you are going out, for if you fall into their hands, they will have no mercy on you.”

    http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/6365

    On the other hand if you go to Hillel (for instance, a man who loved his fellow man and thought in terms of peace)- or your chosen authority (Rabbi) goes to Hillel you have other sentiments, opposing the emotions of hate and anger, a different prescription for treatment of your enemy:

    Hillel said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn” (Shab. 31a). Hillel recognized brotherly love as the fundamental principle of Jewish moral law. (Lev. xix. 18).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillel_the_Elder

  13. Hillel’s opponent was Shammai.
    Israel’s opponents are Hamas, Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as Europeans who feel that the final solution wasnt final enough. I hope Suzanne can tell the differences

  14. Mr. Kaine- That is what you choose to believe which is fear based unrelated to what these enemies are capable of. It’s also a stance that is all too willing to believe threats and willing to return them. It has nothing to do with really defeating your enemy which has only been strengthened by opposition in the case of Hezbollah and Hamas. As for the Europeans- for the most part thank goodness they have had enough of war- and for the few dirty holdouts that are your match, they hold no power thank goodness. But remember you choose to pick these few out to oppose because you need them.

    Hillel was going from the particular to the more general and the greater truth.

  15. Hi Suzanne

    I guessed that’s what Gorenberg must mean when he talks about fundamentalism, either that or he’s just referring just to Judaism on its own, but I still don’t buy it. From what I’ve googled, the etymology of the word goes back further than you suggest, this from Chambers

    ETYMOLOGY: 1920s: the term was originally used of the conservative US Protestant movement, which was characterized by a literal interpretation of the Bible. It was revived to describe conservative Christian and Islamic movements in the late 20c.

    So in the original sense of the word fundamentalism isn’t a modern creation unless you think 90 years old is modern. Wikipedia puts the term older than that <see here).

    The term as I understand it now refers more widely to a strict adherence to a set of values, so what about the Puritans in 16th Century England? People throughout history have reacted to ‘modernity’, we didn’t invent it in the 20th Century. Unless he’s being weirdly abstract about the word ‘modern’ by using it describe all points in history. Any point in history is modern to the people living at that time and so a fundamentalist reaction to those times can be called a reaction to modernity. But then if he means that, lines like Fundamentalism, as I said, is a modern creation don’t scan right. Better to say ‘fundamentalism is a creation of modernity’.

  16. Hi Duncan- I take your point. If you go to wiki also for “modernity” ( as long as we are using wikipedia) the term had wide ( general) uses from the Renaissance onward in Western culture/history but is more specific to the Modern period in history- that is the 18th century ( roughly)- spurred by the Enlightenment – forward

    For me ( a life-long student of art history) – 90 years old is still modern. The Modern period w is special because of the extraordinary pace of changes brought principally by industrialization, increased scientific knowledge, development of mass media etc. This brought with it an awareness and strong reaction in the populace – I think fear based and also understandable.

    Gauguin famously scribbled on his huge painting titled “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” These are modern questions.

    So I quibble with the notion that at any point in history you can go back and call reactions to the present at that time “fundamentalist” even though there were probably always reactions to the next new advances or changes. I think the term is specific to our modern period.

    The wiki entry for “Fundamentalism” says

    “The term fundamentalism was originally coined to describe a narrowly defined set of beliefs that developed into a movement within the Protestant community of the United States in the early part of the 20th century, and that had its roots in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy of that time. Until 1950, there was no entry for fundamentalism in the Oxford English Dictionary; the derivative fundamentalist was added only in its second 1989 edition.
    The term fundamentalist has since been generalized to mean strong adherence to any set of beliefs in the face of criticism or unpopularity, but has by and large retained religious connotations.”

    I am open to it’s wider use if you can prove your point.

  17. Dear Suzanne
    I dont need radical Israel haters, whether they be Iranian, Palestinian, European, or Jewish. I wish them all a good life so long as they dont interact or threaten us. While you may believe that Hamas or Hezbollah poses no threat to you, probably living in suburban San Francisco, Long Island, or elsewhere, they pose a threat to us living in Jerusalem, northern Israel, Tel Aviv, etc.
    There is a certain attraction among people to support cruel people. This is why abusive husbands often have very loyal wives. This is why the grandson of the Israel hating Yeshayahu Leibowitz believes that the murdered Marwan Bargouti is the next Moses. I would guess that you would value a Mashall or Ahmadinejad over a million ordinary Israeli Jews. This is what is meant by “He who is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful.” – Kohelet Rabbah, 7:16

    It is a recognition that even in ancient times, there were sick individuals who were attracted to the cruel. You need to ask yourself if you are one of these

  18. How sad that Suzanne cannot tell the difference between Shammai and Ahmadinejad. Multiply this by a few hundred thousand Israelis, it it explains the predicament Israel is in today

  19. I this discussion so meaningful in light of the recent revelations in the book The Family about a fundamentalist cult that our Senators,Ensign and Coburn and South Carolina Governor Sanford all belong to and they have a “safe house” on C street in D.C. where they get counseling which is only justifiable reinforcement for their immoral conduct i.e. “you are members of the Christian elite and you don’t have to worry about these mundane matters. like your wife’s feelings and your childrens’ humiliation” The present scandals just reaffirm the positions taken by these “wingnuts” to excuse their scummy behavior. It brings to mind an old movie called “The Brothers of The Bell”

  20. Hi Suzanne

    Well if you’re a life-long student of art history that explains a lot 🙂 You guys love a label 🙂 So if we take this kind of slightly arbitrary use of the word modern (we could easily use industrial for example) to describe the period you mention, then as far as we know the first use of the word fundamentalism does fall within that period. Some would claim we are now in the post-modern era but let’s leave that to one side. Since according to Wikipedia ‘The term fundamentalist has since been generalized to mean strong adherence to any set of beliefs and the fact that Gorenberg clearly isn’t referring to christians, we can look for other movements in history, the Puritans being one of them, that qualify as fundamentalist. Another Wiki says The 1500s is an approximate starting period for the modern era, in which case the Puritans would still fall into that time-frame, but then aren’t we getting into slightly surreal territory (and I don’t mean the cultural movement that began in the early 1920s). Are we really saying that we can call anything that happened in the last 300-500 years modern? That’s not a usage most people would recognise.

    Going with Chambers again, modern is described as belonging to the present or to recent times which is the way most people understand it. The etymology is apparently the latin word modo meaning ‘just now’. Even if we accept this academic meaning of modernity I could point to the Sadducees or Zealots and I can’t believe there haven’t been other reactionary and/or dogmatic religious movements in ancient history. After all today’s religious fundamentalism isn’t a complete rejection of modernity. These people use mobile phones and drive around in Toyota Land Cruisers. Presumably their vision of the future includes these kinds of items, even though I suspect innovation might suffer in a fundamentalist world.

    Then there’s your assertion that “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” These are modern questions. That’s pretty silly. The Bible is a attempt to answer those questions, as are many ancient religious texts. Questions don’t get much older than those.

    I also think that writing a critique against fundamentalism using quotes from ancient texts is slightly missing the point. Why assume that something written down by somebody thousands of years ago is necessarily more enlightened than something we can come up with today? You could put Kohelet Rabbah in the mouth of Khamenei and Hillel in the mouth of Paris Hilton but would that make either of them worth listening to? It’s about judgement and discernment not following a text.

    I actually like the last point by Herbert Kaine but disagree with his general position. If you want the world to see Israel as vulnerable then stop destroying vast tracts of Lebanese and Palestinian territory, killing thousands in the process, every time some comparatively minor terrorist attack takes place. Most people see orgies of destruction taking place by the IDF and then pictures of Israelis crying and shouting over a hole in the road and a few broken windows. Add that to the fact that Israel has a nuclear arsenal ready to destroy major arab cities across the region and you can see why people view Israeli protestations of vulnerability with some suspicion. The idea that Iran would visit untold destruction upon itself just for the satisfaction of destroying Israel, and with it a million or so arabs, is kind of ego-centric. They do have other things to think about. I’m sure they would have a negotiating position somewhere short of total annihilation.

  21. Mr. Kaine- I detest Ahmadinejad. so I don’t know what you do with this information. As well I have listened to Meshaal’s extremist statements but sensed some moderate tones and reasonableness from him lately though I don’t particularly like him. I definitely don’t support him. I may understand, if I try, what motivates him better than a person who feels so threatened by him that brand him and put all sorts of their own overblown fears into their judgements so as to preclude any reaction to him other than to obliterate him ( making him a martyr)… which exacerbates the situation. These counterproductive feelings are felt and fostered ( via fearmongering) and it’s done on both sides.

    If you are calling me a radical Israel hater ( I hope not) you are way far off. And I don’t support cruel people. I don’t even have to ask myself the question. And I’ll judge who is cruel and who is not thank you. They cross all lines- and I think it is best to look at those amongst my own first.

    I think you should ask yourself how tolerant and thus fit you are to be in the neighborhood you live in. Israeli’s need to make friends out of enemies in order to survive because they surely aren’t going to be able to kill them all. The more cruelty you show, the more cruelty is returned and so on. .. the hole gets deeper.

    Nimrod- That is why Israel is in it’s predicament.
    Not because I can or annot tell the difference between Ahmadinjad ( I hope he leaves the scene so I don’t have to type his name again) and Hillel’s opponent – the one who is not so well known, whose ideas were inferior.

  22. Apology accepted, Mr. Hilborn. Comments can get a little heated at times, it’s okay.

    Why don’t you drop me a line: msjwilliams@gmail.com. I dont’ want to hog Haim and Gershom’s comments with a long answer to your questions, but I’d be happy to continue the discussion.

    all the best–sarah

  23. I may understand, if I try, what motivates him better than a person who feels so threatened by him that brand him and put all sorts of their own overblown fears into their judgements so as to preclude any reaction to him other than to obliterate him ( making him a martyr)… I understand the motiviation of our enemies. They believe in a theology that Jews are apes, pigs, and odgs. They are also taught that Jews have no historical claim to Palestine, and that by killing them, they are doing Tikkun Olam. Similarly, SS men killing Jews were carefully indoctrinated that Jews were the enemy, and most SS men in the Einsatzgruppen thought they were doing Tikkun Olam.
    My theology teaches me that Eretz Yisrael is the gift of G-d to the Jewish people. You seem to assign a moral equivalence to these beliefs. Suzanne, sooner or later, you will have to choose which side you are on-those who believe that Israel has a right to exist, based upon the theology that I believe in, or that Israel has no right to exist, based upon the theology that much of the Moslem world subscribes to, that Jews are apes, pigs, and dogs. I am not sure what the compromise position on this, perhaps we should admit that we are dogs (pigs have a treif connotation, and apes are too close to humans) and we will have peace. I cannot predict whose side you will take when you are forced to choose. I do know however, that Iranian supplied rockets from Hezbollah are a real threat to us, as demonstrated 2 years ago, just as the fear of hearing Israel in the news in suburban San Francisco (or wherever in the comfy diaspora you live) must be a real threat to you

  24. Mr. Kaine. This is not about me. It’s not about your theology either.

    Israel has a right to exist, but not based on the theology you believe in. If that is so then any other nation also has a right to exist- even on the same land -also because of their theology which they truly believe in.

    This is not the way the world works.

    The world does not run on your theology… nor does it matter what names some call Jews or Jews call Arabs out of anger and hatred. You know Jews do say some terrible hateful things about Arabs – all Arabs….. and Muslims.

    About Israel’s survival- if you talk about the right to exist- you also have to extend that to your enemy. Getting rid of your enemies by killing them produces more enemies.

    it does not help your cause when you characterize those who, out of their own anger hatre, call Jews “apes pigs and dogs” as “much of the Moslem world”. This choice ( out of all else possible ) and distortion says more about your feelings than theirs as a whole. Many if not most are ready to accept and live in peace with Israel- the rest will come around eventually if they don’t feel threatened and humiliated.

    So you have the choice to make… sooner or later. Not me.

  25. I didnt see anything by Herbert suggesting that Israel kills its enemies. I also didnt know that Suzanne was the official spokesman for Islam. I guess I missed it in todays Guardian. Since Suzanne, as the official spokeswoman of Islam, has decreed that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, perhaps she could arrange for Ahmadinejad to speak in the Knesset and arrange a group hug.

  26. Thanks for the link Larry. In my opinion another example of academics bastardising the English language. How can you call a period of 300-500 years modern? Where do you go after modern? Postmodern? And then what? Prefuture? At which point we presumably disappear up our own a-holes.

    Depressing back and forth going on. I’m pretty much with Suzanne. I’m going to make what is probably an ignorant comment so feel free to tell me how idiotic I am, but with the amount Israel has spent on its military and with the resources of the diaspora couldn’t Israelis just have bought most of the land fair and square by now? The point is that two wrongs don’t make a right and an ancient piece of propaganda shouldn’t form the basis of 21st Century policy. So if you want a piece of land, buy it.

    It’s ironic that those who cling to historical documents can’t seem to learn the lessons of history. Namely that occupying a piece of land by force doesn’t guarantee you’re going to hang on to it, in fact it often increases the chances that you won’t. If Israel wants to carry on existing it has to change the rules of the game and move beyond divisive theology and a sense of entitlement. I believe the muslim world can come to terms with Israel’s existence given Islamic lands extend from the Atlantic to China, it’s about justice for the Palestinians.

    I’m tempted to say you all should have listened to Jesus but that would just be a wind-up. So I won’t say it.

  27. Palestine belongs to the Palestinians. You cannot buy it for 30 pieces of silver. If you want peace, leave-nothing is stopping you. If you have no historic claim to Palestine, how can pre 1967 be kosher while post 1967 be unkosher?

  28. Duncan: I’m tempted to say you all should have listened to Jesus but that would just be a wind-up. So I won’t say it.

    I am glad you said it. I have been thinking this for a long time: that Jesus has the answer to this situation and that true Christians can be of and acceptance. But this idea can be found in Judaism’s old testament as well-
    from Isaiah:

    And He will judge between the nations, And will render decisions for many peoples; And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they learn war.

  29. Hopefully not to labour the point, but I still disagree somewhat with the part of the premise about fundamentalism. Statements like

    Fundamentalists are frightened by the openness of the modern world, by the autonomy of the individual

    I’d like to quote Slavoj Žižek, tidying it up and paraphrasing slightly. It’s from a talk called ‘Maybe We Just Need a Different Chicken’ which you can find on Google Video. This bit starts about 56 mins in.

    We should be aware that living in a free, individualist society requires a complex cobweb or texture of implicit rules so that we can interact with each other as free individuals. Many rules have to be there so that we can be ‘free’. I got a lesson of a lifetime when more than ten years ago I visited Belgrade and by chance got into contact with some really hard nationalist guys in a local restaurant. They told me openly that it’s not that they are escaping freedom or that they want old values. On the contrary. Modern life was for them too well regulated with all its politically correct rules. As one of them brutally told me ‘my God if you want to live in a free western society I cannot even beat my wife I cannot rape a nice girl if I see her, I cannot beat a friend, I cannot swear’. For them liberal society was all too regulated and stifling and to recognise and identifying yourself as a nationalist fundamentalist meant a new freedom.

    Islamic fundamentalism is not just what it appears to be on the surface. It has grown out of the disenfranchisement of colonialism. It’s a flag to rally around, a sense of identity in reaction to the erosion of identity and humiliation of occupation. A desire to return to certainty perhaps, but perhaps more like a certainty of being in control of one’s own destiny as opposed to having it controlled by others.

    Take a look at the Glasgow airport attack of 2007. The two main protagonists were a doctor and a man studying for a PhD in computational fluid dynamics. These were not primitive men threatened by or rejecting modernity. I find it hard to believe they envisioned an Islamic world living in mud huts. In fact from what I can remember most of the British suicide bombers were motivated by the humiliation of other muslims, by political situations. Suicide bombing or marching on minefields is not a religious act, it’s an act of desperate pragmatism. It just has to be dressed up somehow.

    Slavoj Žižek also talks about how ideology needs implicit and explicit dimensions. For example life in the army. On the one hand there is discipline and order and yet the other world of off-duty excess or the spoils of war is an essential component to make the whole thing work. Look at the Tehran police chief caught in a brothel. There’s a kind of suspension of disbelief going on. Believe in such-and-such and in the end be rewarded by power, prestige, wives, a different kind of freedom. Or perhaps not so different.

    I don’t disagree with the whole article by any means. For example the idea fundamentalists “proudly derive from that text the willingness to believe and to do things that are scandalous in ethical terms. But like I said, the interpretation is fixed around the desire, however subconsciously. To quote the Bhagavad Gita “Most men worship God because they want success in their wordly undertakings“.

    So I object slightly to the notion that fundamentalists are threatened by progress, that they are essentially primitive. What they are really reacting to perhaps is the ‘progress’ imposed by others that they perceive as humiliating. Do you think most of the US soldiers in Iraq really fully believe that they are fighting for an abstract kind of freedom? These selfless knight/monks of liberty? Some may believe it, others may believe it to an extent, but I’m willing to bet a significant number also recognise the economic and geopolitical factors that underpin their mission. I suspect a good many see it as just an extreme job with some rather extreme ‘perks’.

    By defining fundamentalism as being purely a function of religion you run the risk of confusing the issue and degrading the worth of religion in general. You get rid of fundamentalism by removing the need for it, whether it be economic sanctions, injustice, insecurity and so on, not by attacking it’s theological foundation. To sign off because it’s pretty late, and slightly ironically perhaps, here’s a quote from the Srimad Bhagavatam.

    Like the bee gathering honey from different flowers, the wise man accepts the essence of different Scriptures and sees only the good in all religions

  30. Oops, I guess its time for a group hug with St John Chrysostom

    It is because you killed Christ. It is became you stretched out your hand against the Lord. It is because you shed the precious blood, that there is now no restoration, no mercy anymore and no defense. Long ago your audacity was directed against servants, against Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah. If there was wickedness then, as yet the wont of all crimes had not been dared. But now you have eclipsed everything in the past and through your madness against Christ, you have committed the ultimate transgression. This is why you are being punished worse now than in the past. . . . If this were not the case God would not have turned his back on you so completely. . . But if it appears that He has utterly abandoned you; it is evident from this anger and abandonment that He is showing even to the most shameless that the One who was murdered was not a common lawbreaker, but was the very Lawgiver Himself, and the Cause, present among us, of innumerable blessings. Thus you who sinned against Him are in a state of dishonor and disgrace, while we who worship Him, though we once were less honored than any of you [i.e., as gentile pagans), are now established through the grace of God in a more respected position than any of you and in greater honor. [Chry. Or. C. Jud. VI, 2-3)

    John Chrysostum c. 390 CE

    Debauched, Animal Jews

    I know that many people hold a high regard for the Jews and consider their way of life worthy of respect at the present time. This is why I am hurrying to pull up this fatal notion by the roots. . . . A place where a whore stands on display is a whorehouse. What is more, the synagogue is not only a whorehouse and a theater; it is also a den of thieves and a haunt of wild ……. not the cave of a wild animal merely, but of an unclean wild animals . . . . The Jews have no conception of [spiritual] things at all, but living for the lower nature, all agog for the here and now, no better disposed than pigs or goats, they live by the rule of debauchery and inordinate gluttony. Only one thing they understand: to gorge themselves and to get drunk. [Chry. Or. C. Jud. I, 3,4; PG 48, 847, 848]

    John Chrysostum C. 390 CE

    Fit for Slaughter

    When animals have been fattened by having all they want to eat, they get stubborn and hard to manage. . . . Another prophet intimates the same thing when he says “Israel ran about madly like a heifer stung by a gadfly” and still another calls her “an untrained calf.” When animals are unfit for work, they ate marked for slaughter, and this is the very thing which the Jews have experienced. By making themselves unfit for work, they have become ready for slaughter. This is why Christ said, “Ask for my enemies, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them before me.” [Chry. Or C. Jud. 1.2; PG 48, 846)

    John Chrysostum C. 390 CE

  31. This is what makes blogs so great. I’d never heard of John Chrysostom and now I’m better informed. For the record my joke (which really was a joke) was that people should listen to Jesus not John Chrysostom but I’m glad Nimrod Tal made those references, although I suspect his beef is with Suzanne not me.

    It goes to prove how religion is intertwined with politics and how extremist interpretations of religious texts have gone on for some time. Those are the words of a man in pursuit of ideological hegemony and political control. He wants people to go to his church where he’s the guru to cement his social status. He then derives an interpretation from the Bible to suit his agenda. Jesus may well have said “Ask for my enemies, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them before me“, but they are the words of the king in the parable of the ten minas. Most hippy Christians interpret that to be a metaphor for the paradox of a loving but ‘intolerant’ God, after all the parable uses money as a metaphor for God’s love. There are many interpretations, John Chrysostom chose the one that suited him. Another interpretation of the words of Jesus comes from St Peter when he was presumably in a good mood “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him“.

    The point is that these theological discussions are to some extent a sideshow, although its valid to point out inconsistencies and assert your own beliefs of course. Jewish fundamentalism rises out desire for land, security, control, guilt about letting down ancestors and all those kinds of things. Some religious people search for historical justifications for those things ‘that defy [their] own basic moral instincts‘. The fact that they do this betrays an insecurity about what they’re doing, a need for permission.

    Just to expand the point about explicit and implicit dimensions of ideology look at Saudi Arabia. A fundamentalist state if ever there was one and yet the rulers embrace modernity with all its flashy cars and other luxuries. Outside the Saudi Embassy in Mayfair when I was in London, were brothels and casinos. In the BAE scandal allegations were made about prostitutes being provided for members of the Saudi royal family. Fundamentalism is a facade.

  32. Sorry, forgot to close an italics tag there…everything from ‘The point is’ up until ‘justifications for those things’ wasn’t supposed to be in italics.

  33. Well, both sides can argue that theology is on their side but in fact the determination that there would be two states, one Palestinian and one Jewish, was the result of the San Remo Conference, the League of Nations, various treaties, and the UN Partition.

    Now each side can argue that those are (1) wrong or (2)subject to change or (3) both of the above based on theology, but that won’t get you very far in law.

    “Palestine belongs to the Palestinians.” Yes, we know that. The rub is trying to decide where Palestine is now. Unless you are taking the extremist position that all of Jordan, all of Israel, AND the West Bank and Gaza constitute Palestine….in which case be prepared to argue with Damascus about why they don’t all belong to Greater Syria, a platform still alive and well in Baathist Party politics.

    “You cannot buy it for 30 pieces of silver.” Nonsense. The Arabs, especially the Lebanese and Syrian landowners of large tracts, have beenselling land for decades. Only Arafat and the PLO stopped it, and event then, not entirely. Stop using religious imagery to evoke emotion and try being rational.

    ” If you want peace, leave-nothing is stopping you.” On the contrary, the whole world is stopping us. Can you suggest any nation in the world which is prepared to absorb 5 million Jews? Hell, they wouldn’t take several hundred thousand at the Evian Conference. Yes, we want peace but we’re prepared to endure war since the alternative (as proved so many times in the past) in annihilation. The difference now is that we have the ability to defend ourselves.

    “If you have no historic claim to Palestine, how can pre 1967 be kosher while post 1967 be unkosher?” Actually, we have a ‘historic claim’ to the whole thing. The rub is that so do the Palestinians. That’s why we’ve been trying to sort this out since the British promised the whole neighborhood to three different groups. Are you British, perchance? If so, don’t be so hoity-toity because YOU all created this mess. We’re just picking up the pieces.

  34. Duncan:

    ” desire for land, security, control, guilt about letting down ancestors and all those kinds of things. Some religious people search for historical justifications for those things ‘that defy [their] own basic moral instincts‘. The fact that they do this betrays an insecurity about what they’re doing, a need for permission.”

    So the theological references ( interpretations) enable, justify, and are NOT a sideshow- but very important. They are the source of power for religious authorities.

    There are religious fundamentalists who are militant and there are those who are not militant. As well there are militants who are not religious fundamentalists. What strikes me about religious militants is that they are willing outlaws; they don’t recognize or abide by secular law if they conflict with their strict or literal interpretation religious law.

    There is a stunning picture today in Haaretz of a screaming ultra orthodox man being detained by police as he protests the arrest of a Haredi woman accused of starving her child. This is religious fundamentalism.

    http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1100391.html

Leave a Comment