Monday, April 9, 2012

Religious Certainty; Conformity, Carnage & Comfort

In Toulouse, French Jews & Muslims
link arms in protest of the killings. 

We have been doing a lot of religion this week, two long Seders to midnight, a massive effort to rid our homes of any traces of bread (or other leaven) and long prescribed prayers. Some people happily choose to do all of this and get a lot out of it, personally, I found the Seders fulfilling but reading some of the required prayers felt more like conforming to religious rules or community norms than motivated by devotion to God. I have also been moved by a report about young man who is very much part of the Sydney Muslim community, is gay and considers himself agnostic but he feels compelled to either hide his truth or sever all ties with his community[1]. I suspect that if he was an orthodox Jew his situation would be very similar. In both cases it seems that conformity is part of the cost of belonging[2], rather than individuals being encouraged to freely pursue truth and choose what they believe to be right.

The recent murder of a Rabbi/teacher and his young children in Toulouse is a more serious example of how religion can be used for evil. As a Rabbi/teacher with young children myself, it really brings it home to me. I don’t think it is just to blame all adherents of Islam for the actions of this murderer. The act has also been condemned by French Muslim leaders.  In this post I share a few thoughts about the broader issue of whether religions that claim to have the absolute Truth are a force for good. 

Double edged sword
A starting point for me is the idea that religion can be used for good or evil. It is written of the Torah, If he merits, it becomes a life giving drug for him, if he does not merit it becomes poison[3]. This is interpreted as depending on whether one studies for its own sake[4] rather than some ulterior motive, or alternatively, whether “they occupy themselves with it with all their strength to know it’s secret[5]. This presents the idea that religion can be destructive, but also the opportunity to get it right by being alert to the dangers and continually seeking the “true secret” within the sacred text.

Religiously justified violence and creativity
Yet seeking the truth might still lead people to the conviction that they know what God wants, and that God’s will is for them to kill another person (apart from self-defence). In the Torah, the Israelites are instructed to annihilate the Canaanites, execute Sabbath violators and witches. Yet beyond the early years[6],  religious courts rarely administered capital punishment. “A Sanhedrin (high court) that executes one person in seven years is called "murderous." Another sage says “one execution in seventy years”. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say, "If we had been among the Sanhedrin, no one would ever have been executed.[7]" This reluctance to take a life shows a creative application of God’s law in which very mature, responsible sages, while not doubting their right to kill, somehow manage not to.

Application to Toulouse
In the case of the Toulouse murderer, I think of religion abused. Here was a young person with a criminal record, and no formal religious authority making decisions on his own about religion and death. As the attached image shows, religious authorities in his community clearly did not agree. I suggest that in some cases terrorism might be the bastard child or western individualism/anti-authoritarianism and narrow extremist interpretation of text. If Authority was strongly respected the idiot- murderers would feel compelled to seek guidance, and wiser heads would weight up the interpretations, the circumstances etc. and at least in some cases such as Toulouse, rule against the killing.

An example of this was told to me about some gong-ho young Muslims in Sydney who asked a sheik if they could go off to Iraq to “kill the invaders attacking their co-religionists”. The Imam cleverly instructed them to first fulfil their religious obligations of honouring their mothers and come to dawn prayers every morning before they think of undertaking such a mission. The last US soldiers will be long gone from Iraq before these guys start getting out of bed at 5 am or get permission to fight. This is not a panacea, but in some cases respect for authority and guidance certainly can help, just as in other cases questioning bad authority is important.

Conformity and Questioning Authority   
As part of the Seder ritual, we read about the “wicked son[8]. His “wickedness” consists of excluding himself from the ritual by asking “What is all this work for you?!”. This is seen as a denial of the main principle because he excludes himself. The wicked son is dealt with harshly and confronted with the idea that if he had been in Egypt with that kind of attitude he would not have been redeemed.

The requirement to conform is not based on authority always getting it right. The Torah discusses a process of atonement for when leaders make mistakes and lead others to sin[9]. One teaching tells us “because a person comes to (a position of) greatness, immediately he comes to sin[10]”. In a play on words we are taught, fortunate is the generation in which leaders are prepared to acknowledge their mistakes[11]. One of the great stories about Abraham has him challenge his father and the religious leadership of his time by smashing idols[12]. Yet, it seems that the more dominant example is the story of the binding of Isaac when Abraham is prepared to kill his own child to obey the word of God.

The positive power of certainty and conformity
While some would prefer a more open approach to truth, others find great value in conforming to a set of certainties about God and truth. Consider the inspiring words from Eva Sandler the widow of the murdered French Rabbi who also lost two children. “I don’t know how I and my husband’s parents and sister will find the consolation and strength to carry on, but I know that the ways of G-d are good… I know that their holy souls will remain with us forever… Parents, please kiss your children. Tell them how much you love them, and how dear it is to your heart that they be living examples of our Torah…, imbued with the fear of Heaven and with love of their fellow man[13].” I doubt anyone who had suffered such a great loss could find the strength to be so positive unless she is certain about God and Torah.

A way forward
Conformity and religious certainty can be both a good or bad thing depending on how it is applied. I think is it vital for those who believe they have the Truth to be aware of the dangers that could flow from this certainty and grapple with the ethical implications of it. One way to decrease the risk of devaluing others is to interact in a genuine way with people who do not share one’s own faith. This would hopefully help focus the mind to creatively seek out interpretations that bring people together, and preserve peace, justice and dignity for all. 

[1] Good Weekend Magazine, Sydney Morning Herald, 7/4/2012
[2] Vardy, P, (2010) Good and Bad Religion, SCM Press , London, explores this theme
[3] Talmud Yoma 72b
[4] Maharsha, Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Edeles  (1555-1631)
[5] Rashi to Talmud Shabbat 88b
[6] of conquest and battle with Amalek
[7] Talmud Makot 7a, translation from
[8] The Haggada, the text we recite at the Passover Seder
[9] Leviticus 4:3
[10] Midrash Hacheifetz, from an old manuscript, cited in Kasher, M, Torah Shlaima, vol. 25, p 159
[11] Torah Kohanim cited in Torah Shlaima, , vol. 25, p. 194, Rashi
[12] Midrash, also told by Muslims


  1. Why not use examples of terrorism committed in the name of religious Jewish fervor before illustrating with example from Muslims?!

    Also, there's not much wiggle room/diversity in Islaam when it comes to ibaadah and aqeedah. How does the Torah address homosexuality, and from that, how do Jews today address it?

    1. Safiyyah, I thought of including an example of religious violence that was part of my childhood experience. A Rabbi was beaten for teaching young men in one community (Satmar) the path of another community. In the end I chose to focus on Toulouse because it is current and of concern to me. This blog is my attempt to make sense of my world as it relates to the Torah. Thank you for your interest.

  2. The Torah forbids the Homosexual act. See my post relating to this issue

  3. Religion certainty is an illusion. NO one can be certain of anything unless there's concrete evidence. The liberal religions and religious naturalisms go beyond this paradox in a thoughtful way, quitting certainty and going on a healthy diet of humility. Thanks a lot.

    1. Humility is certainly useful. I think there are people for whom a degree of certainty in their beliefs is very real and a big part of their lives, yet are respectful of other beliefs that differ to their own.

      To be a bit flippant. We better learn to have fun with fundamentalists. Conservative and "certain" expressions of various faiths are not going anywhere. There is a need to figure out how to coexist with it.