Thursday, July 20, 2006

What's our Edge?

Throughout my Western Civ class the past year- which is really a "History of Christianity" class in essence- and throughout the current ongoing war with crazy Islamists, I have been struck by the following question: "How was Judaism able to escape all this mess?" Judaism, for all of its flaws, has never really been guilty of anything approaching Jihad or Crusades, never, for all of its fundamentalism, lapsed into the hard-core evilness that seems to haunt most religions. I have actually pondered the question for a couple of days now and have attempted to compile a list of every possible answer of which I can think, in no particular order.

1) The Blessing of Weakness- Judaism has never been a dominant power, never had a chance to enforce their rule with steel. There are few things more conducive to favoring the weak than being the weak, and few things more likely to discourage oppression than inability to oppress. In fact, this could in some way be the point of Galut- keeping us from the corruption of power until we have figured out basically how to be civilized, with the advantage of being able to learn from everyone else's struggles.

2) Been there, done that- My question excludes the earliest part of Jewish history, which is pretty rife with wars and killing, because I tend to think that everyone in that time was just as bad and one could hardly expect one tribe to suddenly jump to some sort of 21st century Western morality. It would have been as impossible as it would be suicidal. But it's possible that our religion got such an early start that we got over that stage before anyone knew better. I don't particularly like this answer, but I can't articulate an exact objection.

3) Stupid Question- The question itself is based on a false premise, ignoring evils that Judaism has committed or looking at only a small slice of all of history. Of course, I don't think that this is true, but then, the objection is based on my own ignorance and is thus going to be circular and so forth.

3a)Define Evil- Or else Judaism has the advantage of defining what is "evil". Perhaps Judaism has never lapsed into evil because they get to pick what evil is. I don't buy this one either. Firstly, Judaism doesn't define evil in the Western world. Christianity does, and Christianity has done plenty of things that they and others will freely label as evil. Secondly, I think that the definitions of evil that I am using- wanton murder of innocents, for example- are pretty well acknowledged among the general population. But of course, I would be fooled by my own indoctrination, so I can't evaluate this one either.

4)Inherent Advantage- It may not be PC, but there's a definite possibility that our religion turns out less evil results because it's better. I don't think that's a complete explanation, because no religion can be so wonderful as to preclude misinterpretation, because that would eliminate free will. And, objectively, I can see tons and tons of things in the Torah and later sources that would have been excellent fuel for Jihadists, from Amalek to some of the more interesting civil wars. Thank G-d, we have never really been swept up by people pushing these interpretations, but that doesn't mean that the fuel isn't there.

5) The Jews- My brother's- Jews are "a stiff-necked nation." It would be physically impossible to get them to unite around any one goal, except for self-defense. The Jewish nation, as a united whole, lasted for 80 years (with three rebellions)- hardly enough time to start any sort of crusade.

6) Flexible Interpretation- My pet theory. A talk radio host was bullying a Muslem caller into admitting that if he was convinced that his religion really did call for killing people, he would do it. I wondered out-loud whether I wouldn't have to say the same, and then came to the conclusion that "If Jews were ever really convinced that the Torah really did call for doing something that immoral, we would find another way to interpret it." Intellectually dishonest on the surface, but it may just be the soul of Judaism. The halachic system, as it was formed or as it evolved, makes us partners in creating our moral code, which gives us the liberty to use conscience as an interpretative tool. Again, it may be cheating, but then again, I look at it this way: My moral sense and legal code are both Divine. If there seems to be a contradiction, then one or the other has to be tweaked so that they can match, just as I'd try to resolve an apparent contradiction between two p'sukim. And the law is usually a lot easier to tweak.

The reason I love the last theory so much is that I think that the halachic process and its human-centricness is the most awesomely cool thing about Judaism and I would very much like it to be our saving grace as well. But I am open for other explanations, or better arguments for any of the above.

14 comments:

Miri said...

if you define evil as the mass killing/oppression of OTHER peoples, you'd be right.Also if you are, like you say, ignoring various bits of early history (need I remind everyone of pilegesh bigivaah and all that it led to?) if, however, you want to decribe evil on a smaller scale- corruption, manipulation, oppression and abuse of various forms- I would not be able to say we were so free from guilt. however, those are probably more the failings of being human than the failings of being Jewish.

Mike said...

Tobie, flexibility works both ways. It can also be used to do things forbidden by the Torah but wanted by the leaders. The Catholic Church didn't believe that the Crusades were evil at the time.

Tobie said...

Miri- well, yes, but just about everyone does that, and it's rarely religiously inspired. I was talking more about mass evil actions, and yes, I was ignoring the early and messy bits.
Mike- the Catholic Church probably thought that what they were doing was mandated by the Bible. True, they didn't particularly want to wiggle out of it, which is why the last theory alone is not sufficient- it gives freedom, but not motivation. However, I think that it's possible that many Moslems- like the caller- would want to wiggle out of it, but feel that they may not. (Islam means submission, after all.) Which is when the flexibility comes in handy- it allows us to not do anything we find immoral.

Irina Tsukerman said...

I would say that the big difference is the motivation for those evil actions. Jews never felt the need to overcome other people for the sake of converting them, nor does Judaism exclude the possibility of other deities - only that Jews themselves are only supposed to worship one. Therefore, it is easier for Jews to be more laissez faire, to live and let live - or even to keep separated from other communities. Whereas, both Christianity and Islam centered around tenets, which were pretty much categorical imperatives - Christianity was based on the idea of conversion of as many people as possible, and Islam had the idea that although Judaism and Christianity were its natural predecessors, they were naturally distorted and Islam was "the most correct version". Given human nature, it's not surprising that these tenets were interpreted the way they were and not some more benign way.

Tobie said...

nor does Judaism exclude the possibility of other deities - only that Jews themselves are only supposed to worship one.

Whoa. This is a take that I don't think I've really heard before. Certainly the Gemara believes that any idol worship, even among non-Jews, should be punished by death- as should adultery and theft. I agree that non-conversion is the path that Judaism has taken, but I hardly think that it was the only one open to us, given the Talmudic, etc. sources

e-kvetcher said...

Boy, where do I begin?

a) I think it is important to treat Christianity, Islam and Judaism as three different entities and not lump C and I into one bucket, because I think each has done things for very different reasons and in very different circumstances.

b) I don't think that there is "hard-core evilness" in most religions. Of course I am not sure what you mean by evil? Mistreating those not of your religion?

Going back to my point (a), I contend that really until the power of the Catholic church was consolidated in Rome, and other religions were actively oppressed, Christianity was very similar to Judaism in its dynamic. Just like in Judaism there were many sects, there was a lot of disagreement and infighting, but there was no massive intolerance and violence going on on a systematic scale that was actually doctrinal. And although Christianity was focused on proselytizing, from the point of view of doctrine it was always voluntary.

I strongly agree with your point 1. I disagree with your point 3a. I think it is not fair to say that Christianity has done a lot of evil. A lot of the truly evil things have been perpetrated by people that were nominally Christian. If you look into the details of the history of the Crusades, you will find the knowledge of doctrine was the the Crusaders' strongest asset.

I also strongly agree with point 6. As Blu Greenberg says, "where there is a Rabbinic will, there is a halachic way". I also think that 1 and 6 are related. The Jews have gotten their asses kicked a few times and interpreted this to mean, "perhaps G-d doesn't want us to do this, so we'll make a halachic ruling to the effect."

I would like to think that Jews are different, but I am not sure. I think that if by some miracle Jews became the dominant power in the world, there would certainly be a residual effect of the goodness that we accumulated through the years of being oppressed and downtrodden. But I think that very quickly that would turn around. "Absolute power corrupts absolutely." I look at some of the more extreme rabbis in EY who call for the destruction of Arabs on theological grounds and I can easily see what would happen if those characters got into the driver's seat.

Irina Tsukerman said...

Tobie - I mean for other religions. Jews, of course, are strictly forbidden from worshipping other idols. The interpretation I read explained that you can deduce the fact that possibility of other deities for OTHER NATIONS is not excluded because of the wording in the commandments.

Halfnutcase said...

tobie, we don't say there aren't other deities. we say they're not worth worshiping by anyone.

there is a huge massive difference. (and you shall have no other gods before me implies there are other things known as gods.)

additionaly there is the idea of shituf for non-jews which opens a whole grab bag of issues.

that said i find my self thinking most of your reasons from time to time.

FrumGirl said...

I think it is simply because it is not brought down that it is our responsibility to convert people from other faiths. both Christians and Moslems proclaim it is their duty to spread the word of their faith. Of course for sociopathic maniacs that want to take over the world, that is all you need for an excuse.

Tobie said...

E-Kvetcher- I wasn't attempting to lump them. I mean, I was more trying to see why no massive evils have been committed in the name of Judaism than trying to see why the other religions have had evils in their name . By evil, I guess I mean violent religious war, either against other religions or those of your religion with whom you disagree. As is Judaism, I'm afraid. And I will agree that probably the biggest savior was the lack of power, although this itself is possibly traceable to something within the religion. After all, Christianity and Islam were once small as well, but it managed to spread and dominate.

Irina- I am pretty certain that the Talmud mandates a death penalty for any non-monotheistic non-Jew. I don't know how enforced it was- after all, we've rarely had the power- but in a largely polytheistic world, that's as good a mandate for a jihad as any.

HNC- I don't know about you, but the concept of other deities possibly existing is, in my worldview, entirely impossible. I mean, my vision of G-d is such that it precludes there being other entities that might have power. The second commandment proves nothing. Saying that you should not worship any other gods does not logically imply that there are others to worship, it merely implies that there are attempts to worship others. Rashi, on that spot, apparently to fend off interpretations like yours, translates either as "gods of others" or "gods that are other, or strangers, even to their worshippers". Again, shituf merely adresses which opinions are tolerated, not which are accurate. I would just quote one pasuk from the haftara- the first that comes to mind- "Has a nation ever exchanged its gods? And they're not even gods!" implying firstly that the Torah does not believe in the existance of other deities and secondly that it can use the phrase "gods" without endorsing their legitimacy.

Frumgirl- I will agree that that's a big factor, but I would go one step back and ask why not? I mean, with there being a death penalty for idol worship and some of the messianic visions and so forth, I think that there's definately fuel for some to have misinterpreted it as a evangelical religion. Maybe the reason that it hasn't be is that nobody wanted to, or maybe it's one of the other reasons, or maybe I'm wrong and there's nothing in the religion that really could have been twisted that way, or maybe the interpretive process was controlled by moral, divinely inspired people for long enough to preclude those interpretations. I don't know. It's something to ponder.

Halfnutcase said...

tobie, you're not differentiating between 'G-d' and 'gods'

one is not the plural of the other.

there can only be one of the former, the latter are simply things that people worship. also the shituf issue allows for them to worship things as long as they see them as toful to G-d. We're not allowed even that.

e-kvetcher said...

BTW, I thought about your post as we were reading in shul about Moshe telling his soldiers to massacre the Midianite boys and women.

Tobie said...

HNC- well, yes, Judaism 'admits' that other people erroneously worship powerless idols. And just because we tolerate shituf doesn't mean we think it's accurate.

E-Kvetcher- as did I.

Anonymous said...

The basic reason is that Jews never fought to defend themselves since the Bar Kochba revolt was put down.

At that point the rabbis decided that the way to keep Jews and Judaism alive was not through military might but through study of Torah.

Which is why (rightly or wrongly) until 1948 Jews never defended themselves against the onslaught of brutal oppressors.

Good luck on making aliya. Keep us posted at UofC.