Thursday, March 22, 2012

עין תחת עין

An old drasha I meant to post but didn't - this one was for Limmud on one Leg

עין תחת עין

"An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind"

(Questionably attributed to Mohatma Ghandi)

It is hard not to see the logic of Ghandi's thought, and from our (post-)modern perspective, it is hard to see the logic behind the original biblical principle. In fact it does not take the perspective of modernity to see the problematic nature of the eye-for-an-eye concept. The rabbis themselves reworked the understanding of the biblical verse - "assuming" that it could never have been meant in its literal sense. In a passage of the Talmud discussing compensation (Bava Kama 83b), the rabbis ask, "Why pay compensation - does not the bible say, "An eye for an eye"?". The rabbis respond to their own question, saying, "סלקא דעתך" - "Cast out that thought of yours!" It is obvious to them, that the meaning of the verse never meant that one whose eye has been gouged out should be allowed to do the same to his attacker - but rather we must pay compensation.

We have convinced ourselves that the very concept of retributive justice is old-fashioned, antiquated, even barbaric - a symbol of a more ignorant, less civilized world. And yet, I am not sure that this conclusion is always correct. It would be tempting to suggest that the spiritual path, the Jewish path, is to reject vengeance, but our tradition is never that simple. Our tradition, as always, has at least two authentic opinions on the question of revenge. In 1945, on his release from a concentration camp, Dr Zalman Grinberg gave the following testimony:

“We do not want revenge. If we took revenge it would mean that we would fall to those moral and spiritual depths in which the German people have been lost for the last ten years. We are not able to murder women and children! We are not able to burn millions of people! We are not able to starve hundreds of thousands!”

It is hard not to agree with his words, and see the morality etched into them. On the other hand, no less of a Jewish view is represented by the last letter of Mordechai Anilewitz,

“The dream of my life has risen to become fact. Self-defence in the ghetto will have been a reality. Jewish armed resistance and revenge are facts. I have been witness to the magnificent heroic fighting of Jewish men of battle.”

Could Anilewitz' desire for revenge be considered immoral?

If we return to Ghandi and his famous quote, it is undeniably true that if we are willing to take an eye for an eye we may all end up blind. But it must be remembered that Ghandi also refused to fight the evil of Nazism - a refusal to engage with evil can lead to a greater evil. Sometimes, intervention is necessary. If we started with a quote questionably attributed to Ghandi, it is reasonable to finish with one of the most common misattributions ever. Edmond Burke never said: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” But if he had, he may be adequately reflecting the initial intention of “An eye for an eye”. Vengeance is not Jewish, but Justice, Justice shall you pursue…

Friday, March 2, 2012

Liberal Judaism in the UK asking the big questions....

I wrote this post a few weeks ago, I don't know why it didn't get published on the blog. Here it is....

Just read two excellent pieces by UK Liberal Jews, both of which, from different directions touch on what it means to be Jewish. I know neither author, but agree with most of what both say. The first article I found on Facebook:

It seems to be written by an extremely articulate "Boger" (graduate member) of LJY Netzer, who unfortunately, I don't believe I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, but I hope to one day. He just needs to go on and say what Jewishness is, as well as what it isn't. Maybe he could take some inspiration from the words of another Liberal UK Jew, Rabbi David Goldberg, who writes this article in the Groinyard. (Those who have read my previous posts will note my failure in steering clear of the Guardian's CIF pages).

Goldberg's article is very sensible and very well written. He essentially argues that Jewishness and Christianity still have something to teach when denuded of their religious accouterments.

I do believe, however, that his article may be misunderstood by the average non-Jew, since it falls into the trap pointed out by Mr Walmsley's article above (the Boger of LJY Netzer). It is occasionally misleading, as it seems to suggest that Jewishness and Christianity are co-terminous, parallel entities. As if Judaism is a religion in the same way Christianity is. Jewishness is the culture of an ethnic group called the Jews (I am clearly more happy defining what we ARE than David). Christianity is a faith-based religion of many peoples, invented by a group of Jews and Europeans, but practiced today primarily by victims of European colonialism. Christianity is based on faith, and always has been. To be a Jew has never been based in faith - but rather as an ancient primitive culture, Jewishness assumed an understanding of the world in which the unknown was explained through a mythical Godhead. But the basis of Jewish culture, like all cultures has always been an organic connection to the cultural center through ties of land, language, kinship or shared heritage. Atheist Jewishness is not Oxymoronic - most Jewish heroes have engaged, in one point in their lives, in a rebellion against the mainstream understanding of the divine within their society - in fact - some of our foundational myths rests on the idea of revolting against mainstream understanding of the divine (both the Abrahamic and the Mosaic myths). Christianity, on the other hand, is a faith based cultural narrative. As the now infamous Dawkins' poll, referred to in the article, showed, it is hard to still consider it a faith. And as the author here suggests - after faith, values can remain, and continue to be meaningful. Yishar Koah to UK Liberal Judaism for stoking the fires of interesting debate.