Thursday, November 24, 2011

Repression and Destruction for God’s Sake

Religious violence is a strange and repulsive thing. Religious violence in Egypt, Mosque burnings in Israel are only the most recent manifestation of this. I prefer the attitude of a Muslim friend, who told members of his community that if someone attacked the Kabbah stone in Mecca he would not defend it because ‘if God wants it not to be damaged or defaced He will take care of it’. Yet, there are still many who seek to achieve spiritual goals by physical force.

Filling in “Religious” Wells
One instance of this might have been the case of the philistines stopping up the wells that Abraham had dug which they filled with earth[1] . One commentary suggests that Abraham had given the wells names relating to God, similar to other place names used by Abraham like “God Will See”. This would have the effect that people would become aware of God. Abraham’s strategy could be compared to modern marketing strategies that seek to build brand awareness by putting the name everywhere. When Abraham died the Philistines reverted to their idolatrous ways and stopped up the wells to counter Abraham’s strategy[2]. This might be what the Midrash meant when it states that the blocked wells were “the seven Noahide commandments that Abraham encouraged them to obey but which they forgot[3]”.

Destruction of Places of Worship
Mosque burning
The very orthodox Jewish newspaper Hamodia (it is so socially conservative it has no photos of women!) called the Mosque burning “reprehensible and deserving of condemnation and punishment[4]”.   Orthodox Judaism would also condemn the destructive behaviour of the Philistines, yet this would not be because of a broad principle of religious tolerance.  We find very clear guidance on the places of worship that are strongly in opposition to monotheism. “…You shall demolish their altars and smash their monuments, and cut down their ashera trees, and burn their graven images with fire[5]. Again, we are told “you shall utterly destroy from all the places where the nations, that you shall possess, worshipped their gods, upon the lofty mountains and upon the hills, and under every lush tree. ... cut down the graven images of their gods, and destroy their name from that place[6]”.

Bamiyan Buddhas
It appears that the physical places that are sacred to one religion are perceived as presenting a real threat to the establishment and flourishing of other faiths. I remember reflecting on this after the Bamiyan Budhist statues were blown up by the Taliban.  I thought about the fact that my sacred text required us to do in a similar context what the whole world condemned others for doing. It is convenient for Jews that we are not in a position to burn graven images today. 

Religious Repression in the Womb
This theme also appears in supra-commentary to Rebecca’s predicament during her pregnancy with twins when “the children agitated within her[7]. One layer of commentary has the two unborn children acting out their future attitudes. When Rebecca passed a house of idol worship Esau would jump around trying to get out…when she passed a house of prayer and (Torah) study Jacob jumped to get out[8]. The question is asked why didn’t Esau just get out and worship his idols and leave Jacob alone? The answer given is that he was willing to forgo his own idolatry if thereby he would be able to prevent Jacob from entering the Torah academy[9]

Is It Just Bigotry?
An alternative and more plausible explanation for the actions of the Philistines is reflected in Isaac’s statement to their king, Abimelech, “and you hated me[10]”. The Philistines were jealous of Isaac’s success[11].  Commentary suggests that the king Abimelech was at first ashamed of his hostility to Isaac. Like so many rulers, he “allows” his people to stop up Isaac’s wells in the hope that the harassment would cause Isaac to leave.  When this failed Abimelech has no option but to get involved personally[12] and ask Isaac to leave[13]. One wonders about cases that seem, at first glance, to be religious violence, are really an expression of other factors.

Futility of Repression
The efforts of the Philistines to destroy Abraham’s well, and erase names he gave them prove to have been in vain. Isaac returned and dug the wells of water that were dug in the days of Abraham, his father…and he called them names, just like the names that his father called them[14].  Over the years of Jewish history, overwhelming force sought to destroy the Jewish people and faith and failed. We can only hope and advocate for an end to violence in defence of an omnipotent God and against what may prove to ultimately be indestructible ideas. 

[1] Genesis 26:15
[2] HaKsav VhaKaballah
[3] Midrash Ohr HaAfela cited in Torah Shlaima p1055, the link is suggested by Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit p.259
[4] Hamodia, 11/10/11,  Australian Edition p.A12
[5] Deuteronomy - Chapter 7:5
[6] Deuteronomy 12:2-3
[7] Genesis 25:22
[8] Beresheet Rabba 63
[9] Reb Yechezkel of Kuzmir, Greenberg, A., Y, (1992) Torah Gems, Y Orenstien, Yavneh Publishing, Tel Aviv, p.198
[10] Genesis 26:27
[11] Genesis 26:14
[12] Alshich
[13] Genesis 26:16
[14] Genesis 26:18


  1. It is an evil evil thiing what the Zionist settlers do in Palestine. So is the apathetic attitude of the "Israeli" population who KNOW what goes on and who stick their heads in the sand. Mosque burning, field burning, house burning, land grabbing, etc. It is an evil sin to do this in the name of G-d. It is sickening and provokes a feeling of violence in the throats of many around the world. It will not last long. One by one, these evil heads of state who commit attrocities and who permit the people to commit attrocities are falling .... Iraq, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, etc. The rest will fall, too, including the Zionist leaders. Do they really think the US will permit them to drag us into World War III? At the end of the day, the American people will not stand for it. Not because of morales, but because of economics and deaths of American soldiers. Watch and see.

  2. Many Israelis, including leaders, have condemned the Mosque burning. I yearn for an end to all violence in the holy land of Israel/Palestine and justice, dignity, safety and peace for all it's inhabitants as well as the surrounding countries.