Friday, July 29, 2016

Religious Violence and Morality

In the past few parshiot we have met some unsavory characters — types we recognize in the 21st century— two in particular.
            The first is Korach, every society’s nightmare. See if you recognize him: He has a measure of authority and is hungry for real power. He wants the power for its own sake. He’ll do anything to get it. He’ll say anything, deride anyone. He stands in the public square and claims that Moses and Aaron have set themselves above the people, claiming authority they shouldn’t have (completely ignoring that it was God who put Moses in that position and, in fact, Moses didn’t really want the job). He plays on people’s fears and resentments, and gathers followers who are easily blinded by their selfish desires. He stages a revolt with the intent to install himself as supreme leader with complete control.
            The second is Pinchas, the vigilante. He sees people behavi
ng in a way he finds morally reprehensible and, without consideration for due justice — trial, evidence, witnesses, impartial judge — he kills them. For him, murdering them is justified capital punishment, it’s godly, it’s the epitome of righteousness. To make matters worse, Torah concurs, placing into God’s mouth the words, “I grant [Pinchas] My pact of friendship” (Numbers 25:12) in gratitude for his zealous violence.
            Some of this sounds much too current, doesn’t it? All we need do is open a newspaper or log onto an internet news source and we find that Korachs and Pinchas abound. Both biblical stories end with people suffering and dying. The real life cases do, too.
            Noting that the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal once wrote, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has honestly and candidly written in his book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence:

Too often in the history of religion, people have killed in the name of the God of life, waged war in the name of the God of peace, hated in the name of the God of love and practised cruelty in the name of the God of compassion. When this happens, God speaks, sometimes in a still, small voice almost inaudible beneath the clamour of those claiming to speak on his behalf. What [God] says at such times is: Not in My Name.[1]

            Rabbi Donniell Hartman of the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, recently published a book with the intriguing and challenging title, “Putting God Second.”[2] He offers a similar observation:

…religious advocates fail to acknowledge God’s undeniable role throughout human history, and into the present, as an animating force for war, murder, and all manner of moral blindness. Our sacred texts, as well as the lived reality of religion and its adherent from time immemorial, are covered in the blood of innocents. To deny that God commands believers to wield the sword in God’s name is to ignore the reality of our religious texts and history.[3]

Noting that “more and more people are being killed daily in the name of one god or another,”[4] Hartman says that religion can be employed to inculcate moral blindness of two particular types: (1) “God Intoxication” is when one is so focused on God that they lose sight of human beings and no longer show empathy for compassion for them, reserving it all for God and God alone. (2) “God Manipulation” is when God is presumed to intercede on behalf of one particular group or tribe, elevating them above all others. Both lead to devaluing “others” and even butchering them in the name of the God who is loved above humanity and who presumably loves one group above all others. Here it is in Hartman’s words:

…pious humility is a primary catalyst for the moral blindness of God Intoxication. Conversely the religious consciousness of dignity, self-empowerment, and self-assertion—qualities both assumed in and required by any covenant partner with God—are the psychological foundations of God Manipulation. It is precisely when the idea of being chosen by God meets a human being imbued with self-worth that the seeds of arrogance, self-aggrandizement and ultimately moral blindness can flourish. Instead of chosenness being a catalyst to serve God, it co-opts God into the service of humankind. When a self-confident human encounters God, he or she can catalyze the God Manipulation that blinds humanity to the needs of others who they do not believe are as worthy as they to sojourn so close to God.[5]

It is not just that history is replete with examples of both “God intoxication” and “God manipulation.” The bigger problem is that our world today is filled with both. And people are dying daily.
            Hartman argues passionately for the primacy and autonomy of moral good, whose underpinnings also come from Torah. Against these two types of religious moral blindness stands the human conscience and capacity for moral judgment. Humans — our tradition recognizes — have an enormous capacity for justice, decency, and morality. Abraham not only objected to God’s plan to annihilate S’dom and G’morrah, but even challenged God to live up to the very standards God had promulgated:

חָלִלָה לָּךְ--הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל-הָאָרֶץ, לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט
 Far be it from You [to do such a thing]! Shall not the judge of all the world do justly? (Genesis 18:25)

When God thought to wipe out the entire Israelite nation because they built a Golden Calf to worship, Moses stood his ground on the mountain and said:

 וַיְחַל מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהָיו; וַיֹּאמֶר, לָמָה יְהוָה יֶחֱרֶה אַפְּךָ בְּעַמֶּךָ, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, בְּכֹחַ גָּדוֹל וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה. לָמָּה יֹאמְרוּ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר, בְּרָעָה הוֹצִיאָם לַהֲרֹג אֹתָם בֶּהָרִים, וּלְכַלֹּתָם, מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה; שׁוּב מֵחֲרוֹן אַפֶּךָ, וְהִנָּחֵם עַל-הָרָעָה לְעַמֶּךָ… וַיִּנָּחֶם, יְהוָה, עַל-הָרָעָה, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת לְעַמּוֹ
Moses implored Adonai his God, saying, “Do not let Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand. Do not let the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that [their God] delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.’ turn from Your lazing anger, and renounce  the plan to punish Your people….And Adonai renounced the punishment [God] had planned to bring upon [God’s] people. (Exodus 32:11-12, 14)

            Yet another—and wonderful— example is found in this week’s parashah. With our minds filled with the stories of Korach and Pinchas, which have painted a backdrop of the worst of religion, Torah tells the story of the daughters of Zelophchad whose biggest achievement — the only lasting accomplishment that we know of — is having fathered and raised five strong and courageous daughters who have a keen insight into justice. Their names (and it’s unusual for Torah to bother telling us the names of women, so the biblical author clearly admired them): Machlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah. Their father, Zelophchad, dies leaving no sons. Accordingly, once the Israelites reach the Land of Israel, his inheritance will pass to another clan. Machlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah recognize the fundamental injustice of prevailing custom and appeal to Moses, who takes their complaint to God. God affirms the validity of their criticism, and the law is changed.
            Would that it always happened this way. But it doesn’t because “God intoxication” and “God manipulation” intervene to thwart justice and morality all too often. Human beings are fragile and insecure creatures, and sometimes the worst among us hide their insecurity behind a facade of power, control, and violence. That, too, undoubtedly sounds familiar to you. But thank goodness for examples like Zelophchad’s daughters, who teach us how it ought to be done.
            Let me close by sharing with you words from Hartman’s conclusion:
I believe that faith is less about balance than about passion and commitment, and the challenge Jewish tradition poses here is to recognize both humility and empowered self-confidence as essential features of a life with God: to embody each, in its own time and place, as fully as possible.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (2015: Schocken).
[2] Donniell Hartman, Putting God Second: How to Save Religion From Itself (2016: Beacon Press).
[3] Ibid., p. 159.
[4] Ibid., p. 43.
[5] Ibid., 168.

1 comment:

  1. Coincidentally, the phrase "a still, small voice," describing Elijah's experience of God, and mentioned in the drash, is part of the Haftarah of this parashah.