Radical Reverence: A Fulcrum against Fanaticism

Article excerpt

The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and the justification of this outrage by some Jews, threatens the integrity of Judaism as a source of morality. As the Jewish world tries to cope with the fact that some "religious" Jews perceive their devotion to the Land of Israel as an imperative to murder, we may find some guidance in Abraham Joshua Heschel's spiritually radical interpretation of rabbinic Judaism.

Drawing on classical Jewish sources (particularly Bevakhot 43b) to establish the primacy given in the tradition to the sanctity of each and every human being, Heschel insisted that attacking a person's inward dignity presents an even graver violation than physical death. In "Religion and Race," he wrote: "The law demands: one should rather be killed than commit murder. Piety demands: one should rather commit suicide than offend a person publicly. It is better, the Talmud insists, to throw oneself into a burning furnace than to humiliate a human being publicly."

I believe that Heschel's radical approach to religious morality, which affirms the absolute dignity of every human being, can be an antidote to the shrinking of biblical faith into ideology and dogma characteristic of some segments of the contemporary Jewish world. A dynamic "piety" of the sort Heschel prescribed can help alleviate the cultural wars now raging within our fragmented communities. Piety (hasidut), in Heschel's terms, includes both a prayerful intimacy with the Divine and a fervent sense of human responsibility, emulating the "God of pathos" evoked by the Hebrew prophets. hen approached in this way, Jewish observance--study of Torah, prayer, and the quest for purity of heart--can bring light to the practical difficulties of achieving justice and peace with security between Israel, the Palestinian people, and their neighbors.

Religion is a powerful force, either sublime or perverse. Even those who deem themselves "observant" Jews--such as the American-born assassin of Hebron and the Israeli fanatic who killed Rabin--are capable of interpreting their vision of Greater Israel as God's call to massacre other children of Abraham, Jew or Muslim. And the non-observant among us wonder how Jews who cherish Torah can slaughter devout Muslims at prayer or murder the Prime Minister of Israel.

How can we penetrate the minds of these "righteous" criminals We tend to consider such ideological fanatics to be "fundamentalists," people who take certain statements in the Bible for literal truth, while ignoring the text's complexity and plurality of interpretations. It is easy to lift proof texts from holy books, Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, to provide support for dangerous political movements. The religious Zionists, out of whose community Rabin's assassin came, embrace a literal interpretation of God's territorial promises in the Bible. But the problem is not the Bible or any sacred text per se. Rather, it is the ease with which leaders and followers join "revealed dogma" with totalitarian politics, relegating opponents to demonic or subhuman status.

But while dogmatic interpretations can sanction violence, they do not propagate actions. Anger, hatred, and fear, not ideology as such, motivate fanatics and drive their programs. Extremist thinking is defensive, an acting out of rage that one's idealized world--for instance, the subsidized settlements of "Greater Israel"--may be dismantled.

Heschel's conception of Judaism may ripen religious emotions stronger than the hatred that fires zealots. hat he calls "depth theology' considers the consciousness of prayer and intuitions of divine presence to be distinct from, and prior to, statements of belief or dogma. The first step is to view social struggles from the vantage point of humanity's preciousness to God. For Heschel, the energy of Judaism does not derive from Torah principles alone, but from a person's encounter with the mystery of existence, with God, with "the meaning beyond the mystery. …