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What the Koran and the Bible Teach Us About Tolerance

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Egyptians praying outside a Cairo mosque in 2015.
Egyptians praying outside a Cairo mosque in 2015.Credit: Amr Nabil / AP

This newspaper has recently been the arena for a fierce campaign – a bit odd, somewhat in the spirit of the 18th-century, anticlerical, enlightenment movement – against the existence of God. The struggle is being led, zealously, by Rogel Alpher (“There is no God, and belief in him is stupidity”). His critique is not confined to a symbolic glance upward, of course: Believers themselves are also savaged – both those in Israel (primarily Jews, but also Muslims and Christians) and also our Palestinian neighbors, among whom faith is very widespread, and not only among proponents of Hamas.

According to Alpher, each side’s belief that God is on its side only serves to hasten the next war – and about that, I’m afraid, he’s right. Despairingly, he asserts, “The atheistic minority is surrounded by idiots” (“With the help of Hashem and Allah, war soon,” March 19).

Nor is the Palestinian case exceptional. A recent survey conducted in Egypt, whose population exceeds 90 million, found only 866 people who identified as atheists. Indeed, in the Arab world, anyone who publicly admits to being an atheist – and especially if he even hints that the Koran is the work of man – will suffer a bitter fate. Some Arab intellectuals have already experienced this on their flesh. The ability to discuss the holy scriptures openly and critically can legitimately be seen as a litmus test of tolerance toward “deviant” opinion. In this regard, the situation in the Arab and Islamic world is far graver than it is in Israel.

The debate over God’s existence would necessarily appear to be at an impasse. Of far greater importance, though, is the sociological fact that not a single believer in Israel is likely to waver in his faith or in the observance of the precepts because of articles in Haaretz. On the contrary: According to the demographic forecasts, both in our country and among the Palestinian public, we can expect the number of believers to increase. And in Israel, at least, no dramatic upheaval would seem to be in the offing regarding the numerical relationship between the dominant Orthodox stream and the other streams of Judaism.

In principle, it might be proper to aim for a goal of secularization, at least in the American format – namely, that religious belief and observance is a matter for the individual and his co-religionists, while in the public sphere a strict separation exists between religion and state. However, under the current circumstances, that is not a realistic goal in either society, Israeli or Palestinian.

As I see it, a somewhat more realistic challenge would be to bring about a significant increase in the number of people who believe that one can be a strictly Orthodox observer of Torah and the mitzvot, and at the same time adopt a respectful, egalitarian attitude toward the other and the different; to be a true devotee of peace with readiness in principle to make concessions to achieve that end. And, beyond the realm of the conflict, to abide by basic democratic values and oppose incitement and racism.

There are undoubtedly no few religiously observant personalities, and a fairly small public, who have followed this path. The poet Miron C. Izakson, Rabbi Benny Lau and Prof. Avi Ravitzky are only a few examples, along with the remaining religiously observant supporters of the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz and refugees of the Meimad party. And of course there was Rabbi Menachem Froman, who died in March 2013, who was a model of reaching out to the Palestinians on a common religious basis.

But we can state, as a general rule, that the equation Judaism=saliently right-wing politically, is solidly entrenched in the religious-Zionist movement, and also holds in large measure among the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, population – certainly among Shas voters. That equation needs to be refuted first in the conceptual-consciousness sphere; afterward, the effect will be felt in the polling booth as well.

Jewish worshippers in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, April 13, 2017.Credit: Ariel Schalit/AP

A little politics, please

It’s not fair to place the entire burden on those mentioned above and their ilk. Indeed, some of them do in fact express themselves publicly in moderate tones and dare to take issue with Rabbi Yigal Levinstein (the hesder-yeshiva head who has expressed extreme opinions about the role of women in the army and about gays), for example, and not only for his style. It’s puzzling, though, that no reasoned halakhic ruling was issued against the recently passed “regularization law,” which now allows Israel to expropriate privately owned Palestinian land. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who is religiously observant, has announced that he will not defend the law if it is challenged before the High Court of Justice. The 36 occasions on which the Torah cites the duty to treat the stranger well creates a fruitful base for such a religious ruling. Halakhic rulings ought to be issued as well against people who incite against a fifth of the country’s citizens on Election Day; against anyone who expresses himself with contemptuous generalizations against that population, terming them “Zoabis” [referring to Joint Arab List MK Haneen Zoabi]; and against those who suggest transferring part of that population to the control of the Palestinian Authority, arbitrarily and without soliciting its opinion.

Reliance on scriptural verses and religious poskim (decisors) is not easy. As Leibowitz said, some verses abet his views, but he acknowledges that other verses could justify even the approach of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane (one of whose books in Hebrew takes its title from Numbers 33:55). Mutually opposed views can also be gleaned at times from the writings of poskim over the generations. Adopting a more liberal and tolerant approach rests, therefore, with the halakhic and public leadership, and its boldness of spirit. Such a leadership should declare, for example, that anyone who issues a religious ruling stating that Jews must not rent apartments to Arabs in Israel is publicly desecrating God’s name, despite the prima facie evidence to the contrary that could be inferred from the biblical injunction to show them no mercy (Deuteronomy 7:2).

If the halakhist Rabbeinu Gershom (Gershom ben Judah) could rule a thousand years ago that one must not marry a second woman – though this is asserted nowhere in the Torah – then assuredly we too may choose and decide what is appropriate for our time and what should be consigned to oblivion. After all, in the final analysis, it was the early Jewish sages, and later rabbinical jurists, themselves who decreed that various injunctions – cancellation of debts after seven years; the stoning to death of a “stubborn and rebellious son”; and the destruction of cities whose inhabitants were persuaded to become idolaters – were not valid for their time. Nor has there been any sort of initiative by the religious community to renew them. In short, authentic, broad rabbinical will faces no substantial obstacle.

Naturally, it is not easy to forge agreed-upon “Torah knowledge” among leading authorities, especially if it flies consistently in the face of a mainstream opinion that is dominant in most schools, yeshivas and army preparatory courses, and enjoys the support of the Education Ministry and Religious Services Ministry. It is there that the directorate for Jewish identity – exclusively in the spirit of the right-wing, Orthodox, religious-Zionist movement – is currently being shaped.

In my view, however, it is vital to form an oppositionist response team of this kind, for which proper, cautious organizing can be at least the first steps in this direction. The organization of Beit Hillel rabbis and some rabbis from the Tzohar movement have already issued rulings in certain spheres that can be considered quite liberal. If only they could pluck up the courage to take similar action on issues that have, heaven help us, political implications and which they seem to flinch from addressing.

It’s opportune here to recall the words of the teacher and woman of halakha, Rachelle Fraenkel – the mother of Naftali Fraenkel, one of the three Jewish teens who were abducted and murdered in the West Bank in June 2014. “God doesn’t work for us,” she said, in a powerful statement of faith, harrowing in its honesty. Could this approach become more widespread among the religiously observant? Would it not be worthy of us to be more modest in interpreting concrete reality – and certainly not to purport to predict how it will turn out if we do God’s will?

People pray in the St. Antuan Catholic church during a referendum day in Istanbul, Turkey, April 16, 2017. Credit: HUSEYIN ALDEMIR/REUTERS

Where grace lies

Many of us are aware of the Koran’s numerous harsh pronouncements against Jews. According to both the text and the Muslim exegetical tradition, God directed Mohammed to utter these pronouncements against the ancient Israelites, as well as against the Jews of his time. Some verses imply severe punishment against the Jews in the future. It’s undeniable that it was Mohammed who ordered the expulsion of two of the Jewish tribes in al-Medina, and the killing of every male from the third tribe – the Qurayza. There are, then, abundant Islamic sources that can justify hatred of and hostility toward the Jews, and these are in fact rife in anti-Semitic Muslim literature.

But are we sufficiently aware of the impressive verses of tolerance in the Koran, such as, “O People of the Book! Come to common terms as between us and you: that we worship none but Allah that we erect not, from among ourselves, lords and patrons other than Allah” (3:64); or the pluralistic verses, “To each of you We prescribed a Law and an Open Way. If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single People” (5:48), and “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256; translations, here and below, by Yusuf Ali).

Manifestly, courageous religious leadership is needed in the world of Islam, too. To instill it in the Palestinian public is all the more difficult, given the scale of incitement, terrorism and support for Hamas and for even more extreme groups. Nevertheless, it’s important to dispel the notion that the entire Islamic conversation is dominated by the exegetical range – broad though it is – from the Muslim Brotherhood to Al-Qaida and ISIS in the Sunni world, and their equivalents in Shia Islam.

Alongside this, a moderate religious dialogue exists and is even gaining strength in the Arab and Islamic realms. An example was provided in a recent article in Haaretz (Hebrew edition, March 23) by Eyal Sagui Bizawe. Writing about his visit to this year’s Cairo Book Fair, Bizawe noted that the writings of Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) were mentioned there as a possible basis for “renewing the religious dialogue” – as the attempt to introduce a moderate, pragmatic approach, under the tutelage of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, is euphemistically called there.

Abduh was an intellectual luminary who was closely acquainted with the West and with Western literature. In his capacity as grand mufti of Egypt and as a modern exegetist of the Koran, he tried to show that numerous values that seemingly originate in the West – including advancement of women’s status, democracy and more – emanate from Islam. He affirmed a revised interpretation of koranic verses and a skeptical perusal of them, and effectively called into question the authority of conservative arbiters, whom he dubbed “imitators.”

It’s interesting to see how Abduh interprets the two last verses of Surah Al Fatihah, which opens the Koran and serves as the principal prayer text in Islam, being recited by the faithful five times a day: “Show us the straight way, the way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.” According to the prevailing interpretation, “those on whom Thou has bestowed Thy Grace,” in whose path the believer asks God to guide him, are the Muslims themselves; those whose portion is God’s wrath are the Jews, and those who go astray are the Christians. In contrast to this exclusivist attitude, Abduh adopts a universalist approach. In his reading, it is inconceivable that those on whom grace has been bestowed are the Muslims, because this surah was revealed at a very early stage – before a Muslim community in the full sense of the word had coalesced – and therefore God’s grace was not bestowed upon it at that time.

In his opinion, the prayer, in its positive part, refers to all who are just and righteous, whatever their faith may be, and in particular those who antedated Islam; and in its negative part to all sinners as such, primarily from the pre-Islamic period.

I am not so naive as to think that the conceptual changes that I, along with many others, yearn for, in both Judaism and Islam, lie around the corner. Hardly so: Such notions may be utopian and stem from despair that is not far from that of Rogel Alpher. Still, perhaps it’s worth examining how much there is to talk about with – and about – the “other” in religious terms. Religion, as many have observed, is Janus-faced. Some of its elements contribute to what is most sublime and elevated in human life, but others of its elements spawn extremism, unwarranted zealotry and criminal acts. However, atheism, as modern history has shown many times, is not a guarantee of peace and moderation.

Israel Shrenzel teaches in the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

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