Thursday, May 17, 2007

Religious Intolerance

Ever since the Taliban became a threatening presence in the life of democratic and peace loving people I’ve had this dreaded fear that one day, intolerance would reign supreme in Israel. I’m not so sure that this is a far fetched threat or as others has told me, bordering on the paranoid. It isn’t all that far farfetched because Israel happens not to have a separation of church and state. The day could come when politically the religious parties could hold the majority of seats and usurp power reigning religious intolerance on the majority of secular Jews in Israel.

The fact of the matter is that in a sense there already is the foundations of religious intolerance, what we term in Hebrew as k’fia daatit. On example of that would be marriage. The founding fathers of Israel, incorrectly assumed that for the sake of the unity of the Jewish people all matters relating to marriage and divorce ought to be in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate. By so doing, intermarriage and mamzerut issues resulting from an unholy union would be minimized. Truth be told, most Israelis resent having this arrangement and would prefer the option of choosing how and by whom they were marrying.

Earlier I pointed out that our founding fathers incorrectly assumed that blending religion and state would maintain the unity of our people. They were incorrect for a variety of reasons: A woman who marries a man through a civil ceremony and procreates, her offspring are not considered mamzeirim. Furthermore, if she wishes to marry a second time to a religious Jew via the offices of the Rabbinate this too is not a problem, because in the eyes of halacha she had not previously been married and thus she could marry halachically. So in effect there really is no legitimate reason to hold the country hostage for the sake of the Rabbinate’s need to control the lives of its citizens.

Religious intolerance is unfortunately deeply rooted in the halachic tradition and as such it isn’t unrealistic to believe that one day circumstances could lend themselves to a situation where a theocratic system of government reigns as a result of a confluence of political circumstances. A quick survey of Biblical text and rabbinic literature will illustrate the point. In Deuteronomy 13:14-16 is a good indication of the level intolerance set up in our faith system:

That some scoundrels from among you have gone and subverted the inhabitants of their town saying ‘come let us worship other gods’ you shall investigate…and interrogate thoroughly. If it is true…put the inhabitants of that town to the sword…Doom it and all that is in it to destruction.

There is of course a host of interpretations as well as interpretive guidelines regarding the application of such a difficult commandment, and it is questionable if it ever happened. The point however is that psychologically the text has displayed little room for tolerance and any sense of pluralism. A reading of Joshua will provide additional biblical examples of intolerance once we entered Canaan. Centuries later, the Macabees displayed little tolerance for those Jews who chose to Hellenize.

In the Talmud, T.B. 106a there is a principle that a person can be forced until he submits. This is within the context of religious observance. The underlying idea is that the sages believed that every Jew deep down, within his heart of hearts wishes to fulfill the commandments. Forcing him is only justified if it is believed that the sinner can be genuinely convinced and that his real and true desire is to obey the law. In all fairness there were dissenters to this opinion and believed that forcing someone into observance wasn’t acceptable. R’ Meir Simcha Cohen in his seminal opus Or Sameach comments the forcing (kfia) is used as a means of convincing one that as a result of which, a person will, out of the fullness of his heart perform the mitzvoth of his own free will.

Again we see that in the Talmud, T.B. Ktuvot 91a, Chulin 132a that If one is told to build a Sucah (tabernacle or booth) and he refuses, or to take up a lulov (palms) and refuses, or to put on tzitzit (religious fringes) and refuses he can be whipped “ad shetaitzei Nafsho”. This is referred to as Macot Mardut as opposed to the punishment of Malkot (lashings). In Macot Mardut the amount of lashes is not circumscribed, but is continued “ad shtaitzei Nafsho”, as opposed to Malkot which has a prescribed number of lashes.

While corporal punishment for not obeying halacha is no longer acceptable other means by which to accomplish the goal of shemirat mitzvoth by the general public has been applied. Legislation, or political blackmail, which is lawful and has the feeling of a democratic process, has been the normative methodology of forcing Israelis to heed the law. (Incidentally, the Chief Rabbinate under the questionable guidance of Rabbi Amar, is trying his autocratic method on the RCA with limited success yet.) This has been accomplished and in practice since 1948 when it comes to marriage and divorce in Israel. However, no matter what the argument is to justify the Chief rabbinate’s involvement, there is a sense of religious intolerance practiced in Israel today. The leap from that to total, full blown intolerance isn’t that great, given the sources mentioned and the ethos of the rabbinate.

My fear is that religious intolerance can actuate and should be seen as unacceptable for democratic loving people. Intolerance damages the autonomy that each of us treasure as well as our self esteem. Even if we accept intolerance passively, ultimately it corrodes our national sense self esteem. Only a dictator can make someone behave against his conscience, and as I pointed out, if the Chief Rabbinate had their druthers we would be living under some form of theocratic oligarchy. The question is what kind of government would want it citizens to live in a way that was contrary to their conscience? A self confident country, an enlightened country, one that honors its citizens, whoever and whatever they are, is a country that honors the conscience of his people, and their ability to make intelligent and enlightened choices. Israel to conduct itself in any other way would be a mockery of its Zionist ideology and heritage. So why do I fear the eruption of a benign “talibanesque” religious oligarchy in Israel?