Towards the close of the twentieth century, it seemed that religion and faith were becoming limited to far fewer attendees in churches, mosques and synagogues. But here we are in the twenty-first century, and religion and faith are central players on the global stage. It also seems that no one was ready for such a development, and no one assumed that the twenty first century would see such a change. During the bloody world wars of the twentieth century, it looked very much as though G-d had been left out of the events, the terror attack executed on 11 September 2001 put G-d right in the center of the battlefield. Once again, G-d’s name became the reason for mass murder, once again G-d’s name was shouted while killing innocents going about their everyday affairs, and once again, horrific acts were carried out in the name of the entity that we, the Jews, believe is fully opposed to evil and malice and is, rather, “merciful and gracious, patient and abundant in goodness and truth” (Exodus 34:6).
Facing these horrors, and in reaction to G-d’s name being used in vain, a comprehensive theology is required, one that can delve into the fine details behind the motives that drive this murderous poison and can additionally offer a means of addressing that drive.
What we see is not evil based on urge or force but “altruistic” evil, one employed as representing seemingly sacrosanct principles and which is a counter reaction to the moral relativism pervading the west. In the world of relativism, one which has lost its standards for justifiable good and evil, and rigidity, only force speaks; and in a world that has lost the basic components of identity, meaningfulness and community, violent extremist religious trends will continue to grow and with their poison tipped arrows, attempt to penetrate every place that seeks to build a moral, democratic society.
Where, then, is hope? Hope can be shaped by Jews, Christians and Muslims banding together like a protective wall around humanity, around life and respect for G-d whose name has been violated. We must offer religious education that teaches love of the world, but not in a narrow sense: rather, the rich and multi-hued world of many voices, colors and religions which fill that world with charm and beauty, since “each of us has our own song in the vast symphony of humanity.” In this educational method, our pupils will hear our forebear’s voice, being the voice of Abraham, they will pay attention to his plea to G-d for justice and righting the world; they will internalize that G-d is all about life, and asks that we seek and cherish it.
“I have set life and death before you… and you will choose life, so that you and your offspring may live,” the Torah commands us, reminding us that the message of religion must be one of life and blessing for all living things, and that taking a life is the greatest violation of G-d’s name that humans can perpetrate.
In his book, Rabbi Yonatan Zachs, an important religious leader, wrote: “When religion turns people into murderers, G-d cries.” This understanding derives from the book of Genesis. After G-d created humans in his likeness, he saw how they breached the first commandment he gave them by eating from the tree of knowledge; and how the first human child carries out the first killing. Not more than a short while later, “the earth was filled with violence.” G-d saw that the wickedness of humanity was great upon the earth.” From this sentence the reader moves to one of the most cutting statements in the world’s religious literature: “And G-d regretted having made humans on earth, and his heart was deeply grieved.”
This is the situation in which Abrahamic monotheism appeared, protesting violent ways, and as a vital alternative to saving humanity from the calamities brought on by the generation of the great flood.
What Abraham teaches us is that every person, irrespective of skin color, culture, status or belief, is created in G-d’s likeness. Humans need to be linked to each other on the basis of fairness and justice, compassion, kindness, forgiveness and love.
The prophets Isaiah and Micah were the first to speak of peace as an ideal. The day will come, they said, when the nations of the lands will turn their swords into plows and their spears into vine cutters, and they will no longer experience war. According to the Bible, Abrahamic monotheism comes to the world as a rejection of imperialism and the forced enslavement of humans by fellow humans. Abraham himself, admired by 2.4 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims and 13 million Jews, did not rule any empire, recruit to any military force, nor conquer any land; he did not bring about miracles, or prophesy. Even though his choice of life style was different from that of his neighbors, he stood by them, and prayed for them, in the strongest of words that a believer had ever directed at G-d, “Shall the judge of the world not do what is just?” Abraham seeks to remain faithful to his beliefs: to bring blessing to others irrespective of their beliefs.
This concept, which so many ignored throughout the millennia that have passed since then, remains the simplest definition of Abraham’s faith. His goal is not to conquer the world, to convert it, or coerce it into uniformity of faith. His goal is to be a conduit of blessing. Simply put, the use of religion for political expediency is not righteousness but idolatry.
Wielding G-d’s name to justify violence towards innocent people is not an act of sanctity but of desecration.
Daesh and al Qaeda, and the Islamic ideology which brought them into existence, have birthed dozens if not hundreds of organizations worldwide with similar goals. These organizations, and the acts of terror they carry out, show no signs of fading.
We are becoming accustomed to seeing images on television and social networks that we were sure had passed from the world in the Middle Ages. Hostages being beheaded. In the February 2015 UN Children’s Rights Commission report, Daesh is described as conducting mass executions of children by beheading, or live burial. Churches, synagogues and mosques are destroyed, holy sites are desecrated, worshippers are shot to death while praying, and Christians are kidnapped and crucified. Ancient communities are uprooted from their homes and towns.
Christians are systematically persecuted in various parts of the world. Throughout the Middle East they suffer threats, arrests and killing. In Afghanistan, Christianity has been all but eradicated. In 2010 the last church there was set alight and burnt to the ground. People wanting to convert to Christianity know they are walking targets for death. In Syria, estimates put the number of Christians who have fled at 450,000.
In Egypt, five million Coptic Christians live in utter fear. In 2013, in the greatest attack on Christians since the nineteenth century, more than fifty churches were bombed and burned.
Iraq’s Christian population numbered 1.5 million in 2001. Currently barely 400.000 remain. Christians were expelled from Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, a city with a Christian presence for more than 1,600 years.
And terror is hitting Europe in endless waves: Berlin, London, Paris, Venice, Stockholm, and now Barcelona.
A century ago, Christians accounted for one fifth of the Middle East’s population. Now they number a mere four percent. That is basically the equivalent of ethnic cleansing. And it is a crime against humanity in our own era.
Most victims of Islamic violence are actually fellow Muslims. And most acts of terror take place in countries where the population is overwhelmingly Muslim: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria. A half million Muslims, which of itself is an incomprehensible number, were killed in the past few years because of Islamic religious beliefs.
Meanwhile, anti-Semitism has resurfaced in the world in full force, even though Holocaust survivors are still alive. Anti-Semitism has risen sharply in those same countries where the Holocaust occurred: French Jews are leaving in fear, as they are in Holland, Norway, Sweden, Belgium and Hungary. The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights published its November 2013 report which found that one third of European Jews are considering leaving Europe.
In Copenhagen, on February 14, 2015, a terror attack outside the synagogue murdered a volunteer security guard from within the community. A month earlier, on January 9th, four Jews were shot dead as terrorists stormed the “Hyper Cacher” in Paris. In May 2014, three people were murdered by an armed terrorist in the Brussels Jewish Museum. In 2012 in Toulouse, France, a teacher and three pupils were murdered by terrorists at the “Otzar Hatorah” school. These last three incidents were all carried out by French-born Muslims. In the summer of 2014, the synagogue near the Bastille in the center of Paris was surrounded by a wild mob screaming “Death to Jews.”
The immediate conclusion we could reach from all the above is: religion is dangerous! Religion causes destruction! Belief is the basis for aggressive or extremist behaviors.
But that would be the wrong conclusion, and a dreadful mistake. A person who believes in the divine foundation within fellow humans, who believes absolutely in the sanctity of life, who is certain that justice and compassion can heal a large part of what ails society, is also perceived as a religious person. Religion and faith are like two sides of the same coin.
Life and death, blessing and curse, are the two faces of every belief, and religion.
In Mosaic law, Deuteronomy 30 contains the following: “See, I have given you life and good, and death and evil.” Jewish sages explicate this as describing the entire Torah s handed down by G-d. With this statement, G-d is teaching us that it’s all in our hands, that we need, and can, accept G-d’s guidelines and carry out the commandments by bringing life and blessing into the world, but we can also use those same commandments to create an infrastructure of death and evil. In Jewish sources, it is phrased as follows: if a person is worthy, the Torah becomes the sole way of life; but if a person is not worthy, the Torah becomes an addictive path to death. The aspect of humanity in that phrasing is the fact that we can freely decide which path to choose.
I am certain that religion and faith are the cure to all human ills and social distress which our society suffers, at both the individual and community levels. But to access this, religion must be taught by teachers and leaders who have chosen life, who can delve into the texts and teach the concepts that lead to hope for the individual and prosperity for society.
This is the tremendous responsibility which now falls to rabbis, priests and imams, and every type of religious leader.
The first stage involves teachers taking on the commitment to release themselves from hatred and uproot it from any connection to religion. In Jewish tradition, we say, “A truly righteous person does not complain about the darkness but finds a way to bring light into it.” We all know that in the blackest of darkness, even the tiniest amount of light, such as the flame of a single match, can banish the dark.
I'm sure you all agree that the idea is fine, but you would also agree that it’s difficult to implement. And here is where I wish to offer a practical element, pointing to the way we can turn this goal into reality. Successful education cannot leave concepts as abstracts, but must give them tangible form. One of the foundations of the Jewish religion is the commandment to carry out various deeds, and not remain in a world of ideas but to turn them into actions.
Education for life and the commandment to uproot hatred must be given practical form and bodily exercise, much like sports training to achieve physical fitness.
Judaism does not educate to love people who hate you, or to forego justice and conceal truth. That is a false solution. The Torah teaches that you do not have to love one who hates you, but you do have to give a helping hand in times of need.
If we wish to see educated adults, we must educate our children and students to giving that helping hand. This most important of lessons would be internalized only when our pupils see us putting that into practice.
In every city and every community, we find people in need: elderly people alone, people with handicaps, children who need help.
In Israel, every school requires its adolescent students to volunteer at least two hours a week in various assistive frameworks. These are, in fact, the most important educational classes. They are lessons in practicing humanity and helping others: sitting at someone’s bedside and keeping them compnay, playing with a child confined to a wheelchair, attending an old age home and talking to the residents, volunteering and contributing in any place that your heart and help are needed.
That is the primary and vital stage in educating to love of other humans, every human.
This stage must not be skipped. If we start with small acts, we will build up to larger scale ones. But if all we do is talk about grand ideas in conferences, we will never achieve even one small act of good.
May G-d bless us all with peace and caring. Amen.