Self-criticism is the mother of dialogue
March 30, 2011 (MO *) -- These days, Judaism and Christianity are often presented as kindred souls who stand for democracy and human rights, while Islam is cut from a wholly different cloth. This essay argues that the books and practice of the three religions barely support this contention.
The Arab revolutions appear to make a mess of the stereotype that Islam and democracy cannot be reconciled, or that Arab countries are populated by sheer medieval zealots. What we're seeing on our screens are pluralist revolutions: young and old, women en men, bearded, shaven, veiled and otherwise, seeking more control over the societies in which they live.
The revolts are a problem for the Geert Wilders of this world who still see a fundamental incompatibility between Islam and democracy, and the Judeo-Christian tradition, seen as a beacon of liberty and enlightenment. The anti-authoritarian revolutions indicate a rather more blurry picture: Israel and the West were all too happy with the dictatorships of Mubarak and co because it served their interests. Those who study the three holy books and how they're practiced, find an ever-murkier picture.
Common roots in the square
Abraham rocked, as a collective spiritual ancestor, the cradle of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The three traditions originated from a kind of fusion between the philosophies of ancient Greece and the monotheistic innovations among the Late Bronze Age Canaanite tribes. The three have made God an eternal, supernatural creator, the source of moral and legal standards, omniscient, omnipotent, and at times a tad condescending or even bizarre -witness God's wish to see Abraham only son sacrificed, psyche! This is obviously a God who demands total submission. Despite the large overlap, the faiths found themselves more often than not on a ramming course. Both between and among each other: Judaism, Christianity and Islam soon split into countless flavors of theology, philosophy and law. Nevertheless, some trends can be discerned.
The halacha or Jewish law, handed down through Noah and Moses, plus interpretations and interpretations of interpretations, are applicable to all aspects of human life: marriage, divorce, sacrificial rites, dietary laws, as well as humdrum criminal law. According to these writings you may be stoned for, among other things, swearing, rebelling against your parents, or even witchcraft. Incest is punishable by death through molten lead poured down the gullet of the damned. Halachic laws are regarded traditionally as more or less hand-delivered by God and immutable. As such the Jewish scriptures are heavily reminiscent of the Islamic idea of justice, with its hard core of immutable, divinely inspired decrees.
During the Diaspora, halakha ruled the various scattered Jewish communities as enforceable religious and civil law. However its sharpest edges, like the death penalty, fell into disuse in the early centuries of the Common Era. Since the European Enlightenment most Jews, at home everywhere and nowhere at once, appropriated a lot of the secularizing trends of their adoptive countries.
In modern Israel orthodox rabbinical courts still dominate the laws on family and personal status in a way that would be unpalatable to, say, secularist France. Marriage as a civil institution for example, does not exist. This results in a number of highly complex issues surrounding illegitimate children, marriages among secular Jews and between different religious communities. Hence a Canadian, recently converted to Judaism, was not entitled to Israeli citizenship because the Orthodox rabbinate did not accept his conversion at the hands of an unauthorized Canadian rabbi. The same Orthodox rabbinate hinders marriages between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. Non-orthodox and secular Israeli Jews often end up marrying in Cyprus or elsewhere.
On another plain, discrimination against non-Jews, in the form of systematic underfunding of predominantly non-Jewish towns, is jarring. The Book of Susan Nathan, who chose to live in an Arab village in Israel, indicates that a strict separation between state and synagogue is far off still, despite the secular inclinations of a majority of the population. "We have to take the heritage of our ancestors back to the Israeli nation," said the Israeli minister of Justice Yaakov Ne'eman in 2009. "The Torah offers a complete solution for all questions that concern us."
New Testament: render unto Caesar
Despite the famous quote from Jesus, widely interpreted as a plea not to mix religion and politics, Christian churches throughout history rarely tended exclusively to the spiritual needs of believers. One thinks of the power struggle between papacy and kings in medieval Europe, countless religious wars, one more gruesome than the next, and churches' frantic clinging to relevancy and control over rapidly secularizing societies of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Although the New Testament, unlike the Old one, does not lay any literal claim to worldly power, it hasn't stopped Christian religious institutions from pretending over the centuries that it does.