Friday, January 20, 2012

Rescuing Judaism From Jews

One could write the history of Christianity as a series of efforts by some of the greatest human beings who ever lived to rescue Christ from Christians. We're now treated to the baleful effects of dogmatic, intolerant fundamentalism in Islam and, now, in Judaism, all three of the Abrahamic religions. An eight year old girl, walking to religious instruction, was spat upon in Israel by ultra-orthodox Jews holding her insufficiently covered. And, too, they demand separation of the sexes on buses and elsewhere in the public sphere. Things have gotten bad enough that an orthodox rabbi takes them to task in the Times this morning:

...It seems, then, that a religious tenet that begins with men’s sexual thoughts ends with men controlling women’s bodies.

This is not a problem unique to Judaism. But the Talmud, the basis for Jewish law, offers a perhaps surprising answer: It places the responsibility for controlling men’s licentious thoughts about women squarely on the men.

Put more plainly, the Talmud says: It’s your problem, sir; not hers...

So the responsibility is now on the women. To protect men from their sexual thoughts, women must remove their femininity from their public presence, ridding themselves of even the smallest evidence of their own sexuality.

All of this is done in the name of the Torah and Jewish law.

But it’s actually a complete perversion. The Talmud, the foundation of Jewish law, acknowledges that men can be sexually aroused by women and is indeed concerned with sexual thoughts and activity outside of marriage. But it does not tell women that men’s sexual urges are their responsibility. Rather, both the Talmud and the later codes of Jewish law make that demand of men.

Just about every belief system, or absence of belief, that human beings have ever come up with can coexist with humanism, decency, generosity, courage and love, or with bigotry, dogmatism, hatred, greed and lust for power over others. Naziism, and other ideologies based on racism, are perhaps an exception, and they, too, have arisen out of a religious as well as an atheistic framework. In so noting, I take issue with Sam Harris and other militant atheists, who hold even liberal religion as oxymoronic, inevitably legitimizing fundamentalist evil. Liberal religious believers have, in fact, fought evil in their religion's name for thousands of years, with courage and at the risk or cost of their own lives. Some have even held Jesus Himself such a one.

The vitally important lesson of Naziism is that we all, all of us, being human, can be Nazis, and that we must recognise and fight that, accepting that none of us is immune to the temptations of evil. The first thought should never be about the failings of others, but, rather, of those of oneself. That, too, is a lesson of the history of just about any religion. Liberal believers, and liberal unbelievers, can share a common ground worth defending, one which recognises a common humanity even amongst pagans, in Israel, in Saudi Arabia and in the United States. During the Republican primary season, the appalling rhetoric over abortion and the rights of women and gays remind me, yet again, that American exceptionalism doesn't extend to proof against the evils of belief. And reviling all Jews, or Christians, or Muslims, based on their fundamentalists' rhetoric and actions, is not only wrong on its face, but extends and ossifies the hatred which allows spitting on children, and sometimes killing them.

No comments: