Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Condemn the Jewish Jihadists

In his most recent article An Army of Extremists, author Christopher Hitchens takes up the issue of the Israeli rabbis who incited Israeli soldiers into believing that the Gaza onslaught is a holy war for the extermination of the evil Muslims and the expulsion of non-Jews from the Jewish land. Hitchens recounts a familiar episode in the past:

I remember being in Israel in 1986 when the chief army "chaplain" in the occupied territories, Rabbi Shmuel Derlich, issued his troops a 1,000-word pastoral letter enjoining them to apply the biblical commandment to exterminate the Amalekites as "the enemies of Israel." Nobody has recently encountered any Amalekites, so the chief educational officer of the Israeli Defense Forces asked Rabbi Derlich whether he would care to define his terms and say whom he meant. Rather evasively—if rather alarmingly—the man of God replied, "Germans." There are no Germans in Judaea and Samaria or, indeed, in the Old Testament, so the rabbi's exhortation to slay all Germans as well as quite probably all Palestinians was referred to the Judge Advocate General's Office. Forty military rabbis publicly came to Derlich's support, and the rather spineless conclusion of the JAG was that he had committed no legal offense but should perhaps refrain in the future from making political statements on the army's behalf.
Hitchens then argues that this phenomenon is a predictable product of a worldview which allows for religion to govern political and military affairs:

The problem here is precisely that the rabbi was not making a "political" statement. Rather, he was doing his religious duty in reminding his readers what the Torah actually says.
Hitchens notes that the episode from the Book of Numbers, Chapter 31, Verses 13-18 - where the Israelites perform the God-approved massacre of the Midianites - is often discussed by Israeli rabbis. In that story, the Torah describes how the Israelites have just done a brutal job on the Midianites, slaughtering all of the adult males. But, says their stern commander-in-chief, Moses, they have still failed him:
Moses, Eleazer the priest, and all the chieftains of the community came out to meet them outside the camp. Moses became angry with the commanders of the army, the officers of thousands and the officers of hundreds, who had come back from the military campaign. Moses said to them, "You have spared every female! Yet they are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so that the Lord's community was struck by the plague. Now, therefore, slay every male among the children, and slay also every young woman who has known a man carnally; but spare every young woman who has not had carnal relations with a man.
It is impossible to read these verses and not have that gut-wrenching feeling of "how can this barbarity be part of the holy Torah." There are no easy answers. As someone who grew up in a humanistic-religious home, I realize that many religious Jews solve this dissonance by saying we should not apply these ideas in today's world. Indeed, many rabbis, professors and educators make a herculean effort to explain why these texts are not relevant to our generation. I have been blessed to hear some fascinating hermeneutical approaches from such great figures as Yeshayahu Leibowitz z"l, Nehama Leibowitz z"l, Hebrew Universtiy professors Uriel Simon, Moshe Halbertal and others. But here is Hitchens' counter-argument:

Now, it's common to hear people say, when this infamous passage and others like it come up, that it's not intended to be "taken literally." One also often hears the excuse that some wicked things are done "in the name of" religion, as if the wicked things were somehow the result of a misinterpretation. But the nationalist rabbis who prepare Israeli soldiers for their mission seem to think that this book might be the word of God, in which case the only misinterpretation would be the failure to take it literally. (I hate to break it to you, but the people who think that God's will is revealed in scripture are known as "religious." Those who do not think so must try to find another name for themselves.)

Is he right? Could it be that the effort to educate the masses of religious Jews that these texts are not to be taken literally is disingenuous and doomed to fail? Perhaps you cannot teach about the holiness and significance of the Torah, and at the same time expect people to condemn the many indigestible parts of the Bible advocating stoning, killings and massacres!

Hitchens, to be sure, thinks that the root of the problem is attaching holiness to these texts, and accepting them as a legitimate religious source. But he is ignoring a basic structural concept of Judaism - the idea that Judaism has evolved and continues to evolve over time. Throughout history Judaism never spoke in one voice. Over time, principles of interpretation were worked out by many commentaries when they encountered religious texts whose meanings were obscure or whose import was no longer acceptable. These commentaries constitute the so-called Oral Tradition (Torah she'be-alpeh), and they minimize the racism and brutality found in many Biblical texts.

We must acknowledge that certain religious texts in Judaism foment hatred and incite against non-Jews. That is the first step in any credible analysis. The next step could be either to ignore those texts or replace them with alternate texts. However one decides to relate to those problematic texts, it is still very much possible to appreciate and embrace the many aspects of Judaism which highlight equality and the sacredness of all human life. In my opinion, it is a worthwhile effort to offer a new interpretation of Biblical and Rabbinic texts -- one that unapologetically rejects those racist and violent views and rulings, and, at the same time, moves away from the literal meaning and expands our horizons so that our interpretation with brings us in line with the modern-day approach that emphasizes the inherent equality of all human beings and the duty to safeguard human rights for all.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Happy Birthday and Speedy Recovery, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Today Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg celebrates her 76th birthday, and I'd like to take this opportunity to wish her a Happy Birthday and a Refuah Shleimah!*

Justice Ginsburg's determination to continue serving on the Supreme Court despite suffering from pancreatic cancer is heroic and admirable. Ginsburg, who underwent surgery on Feb. 5, returned to the bench on Feb. 23 and looked healthy and cheerful as she vigorously questioned the attorneys appearing before the Court. A recent USA Today interview revealed that she continued to read legal briefs while in the hospital, and prepared herself for the return from the Court's winter recess, refusing to miss even one day of oral arguments. Talk about a work ethic! And when asked why she chose to attend President Obama's Feb. 24 address to a joint session of Congress, she responded by alluding to the bone-headed remarks by Republican Senator Jim Bunning (Kentucky) who predicted Ginsburg would likely be dead within nine months:

First, I wanted people to see that the Supreme Court isn't all male. I also wanted them to see I was alive and well, contrary to that senator who said I'd be dead within nine months.
All the more power to her!

In honor of her birthday, I will feature a quote from her dissenting opinion in the April 2007 case of Gonzales v. Carhart in which women's rights organizations brought a constitutional challenge to a federal ban on a particular type of abortion. This case dealt with a Congressional ban on a second-trimester abortion called "dilation and evacuation" (D&E), also colloquially known as "partial-birth abortion." In this medically-approved procedure, a doctor performs the abortion by dilating the cervix and then inserting surgical instruments into the uterus and maneuvering them to grab the fetus and pull it back through the cervix and vagina. The petitioners claimed this ban is unconstitutional because it imposes an undue burden on a woman's right to abortion based on its overbreadth and lack of a health exception.

The majority opinion upheld the ban. Justice Ginsburg wrote a powerfully persuasive dissent, attacking the majority opinion of the Court and noting that this case marked the first time the Court upheld a ban on a particular method of abortion. She strongly objected to the majority opinion because it marked the first time the Court upheld a law that did not make an exception to preserve a woman's health! In the following quote, she interposes in her opinion past quotes from the Supreme Court cases showing the Court's attitude to women's role in society, and reflects on how that attitude has changed over the years. It makes for fascinating reading:

Revealing in this regard, the Court invokes an antiabortion shibboleth for which it concededly has no reliable evidence: Women who have abortions come to regret their choices, and consequently suffer from "severe depression and loss of esteem." Because of women's fragile emotional state and because of the "bond of love the mother has for her child," the Court worries, doctors may withhold information about the nature of the intact D&E procedure. The solution the Court approves, then, is not to require doctors to inform women, accurately and adequately, of the different procedures and their attendant risks. Instead, the Court deprives women of the right to make an autonomous choice, even at the expense of their safety. This way of thinking reflects ancient notions about women's place in the family and under the Constitution--ideas that have long since been discredited. Compare, e.g., Bradwell v. State, 16 Wall. 130, 141 (1873) (Bradley, J., concurring) ("Man is, or should be, woman's protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life. ... The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfil[l] the noble and benign offices of wife and mother."), with United States v. Virginia, 518 U. S. 515, 533, 542, n. 12 (1996) (State may not rely on "overbroad generalizations" about the "talents, capacities, or preferences" of women; "[s]uch judgments have ... impeded ... women's progress toward full citizenship stature throughout our Nation's history"); Califano v. Goldfarb, 430 U. S. 199, 207 (1977) (gender-based Social Security classification rejected because it rested on "archaic and overbroad generalizations" "such as assumptions as to [women's] dependency" (internal quotation marks omitted)). Though today's majority may regard women's feelings on the matter as "self-evident," ante, at 29, this Court has repeatedly confirmed that "[t]he destiny of the woman must be shaped ... on her own conception of her spiritual imperatives and her place in society." Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U. S. 833, 852 (1992).
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993 by President Clinton, and has since been known as one of the liberal justices of the Court. To read a brief biography of Justice Ginsburg, click here (Oyez website). Ginsburg's positions on civil liberties in general, and women's rights in particular, have strengthened civil rights in America, and we need this fighter for children, women, and the downtrodden on the Court for many more years.
* Hebrew for "full and speedy recovery." It is customary to say a special prayer for sick people on the Sabbath during the reading of the Torah, and to mention names of family and friends who are suffering from sickness. I don't know the full explanation for this, but the customary format for mentioning the names is [person's name] daughter/son of [person's mother]. In Justice Ginsburg's case, it would be: May God bless and heal Ruth Ginsburg bat Celia Bader and send her speedily a complete recovery.