Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Mosque on Park Place

More than any other holiday, Sukkot represents the idea of Israel not being an isolated nation concerned only with its only affairs—the am levadad yishkon of Balaam’s vision—but a people that lives in harmony with the family of nations not by ignoring the world but by embracing its place in the larger mosaic of peoples and cultures. Indeed, the Talmud itself interprets the seventy sacrificial bulls that were offered up in ancient times in the Temple during Sukkot were meant to bring merit to the nations of the world. (The nations of the world were traditionally supposed to number seventy.) And the idea has its own biblical antecedent as well: there is a vision at the end of the Book of Zachariah in which the prophet looks to the end of time and imagines the nations of the world, finally possessed of faith in the one God, coming to Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkot together with the Jewish people.

Where this specific aspect of Sukkot has its origin, who knows? Maybe it has to do with the lulav and etrog being representative of the bounty of the world or with the sukkah itself obliging the faithful to leave their homes and spend some serious time outdoors and in the world. Or maybe it has to do with the onset of the rainy season in Israel and the sense that the concept of weather itself unites the nations of the world, or should unite them, in a common sense of responsible stewardship for the world we all inhabit together. But regardless of the real reason, the bottom line is that Sukkot has a certain universalist feel to it that is distinctly less prominent at other festive times of the year.

All that being the case, perhaps Sukkot is just the right time of year for us to revisit the issue of the mosque the Muslim community intends to build on Park Place in lower Manhattan. I’ve lost track of how many op-ed pieces on the topic I’ve read in the last few weeks, but the very fact that something that might otherwise have been an innocuous building project has garnered this kind of attention both from the media and the public is itself something worth considering in its own right. Clearly, the proposal has touched a nerve! And so I’d like to suggest we use this festival of Jewish universalism to ask ourselves where we stand on the matter.

We could argue, not at all unreasonably, that there should not be anything to discuss. One of the hallmarks of American democracy, after all, is precisely that citizens do not need the permission of the government to exercise their civil rights. In that regard, I am reminded of the controversy that dogged the National Voting Rights Act of 1965 before President Johnson was finally able to sign it into law. That legislation was precisely designed to prevent individual states from erecting any barriers that might serve to prevent citizens from voting in national elections. Indeed, the concept was specifically that the right to vote, being among the most basic rights of the citizenry in any democracy, can therefore never be subject to artificial restrictions or requirements that exist solely to prevent citizens from exercising their franchise. We have, I think, moved so far down the road from where we were in 1965 that the right of citizens to vote without first having to get the government’s permission to do so now seems so basic as hardly to require defending at all. And surely all of us feel the same way about freedom of religion, that it may never be made dependent on permission would-be worshipers are required to solicit from the government. That doesn’t mean, of course, that every building proposal for a house of worship has to be automatically approved. But it does mean that legally defensible opposition to any house of worship being built must be rooted in factors unrelated to the basic right of the people involved to worship as they please. This should be obvious to all Americans, but I think it should be especially obvious to Jewish citizens. We, after all, know all too well what it means for the future of Judaism anywhere when the Jewish population is suddenly obliged by law to seek the government’s permission to build a synagogue or a mikveh or to open a kosher abattoir. In any event, it can surely never be in our best interests to see the basic
civil rights of citizens eroded even slightly, let alone grievously.

Two weeks ago, I read the essay published on the Op-Ed page of the Times by the imam who is the public face of the effort to build the mosque on Park Place, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Entitled “Building on Faith,” it is a piece that everybody should read and digest. (You can find it easily at www.newyorktimes.com just by typing the words “building on faith” into the search box at the top of the screen.) In it, of course, the imam says exactly what all Americans want to hear from Muslim leaders: that the mosque he is proposing to build will be a symbol of interfaith harmony, that it will offer an opportunity for people of all religions to gather together and learn about each other’s traditions, that it will provide a space that will be devoted to building bridges between different faith and ethnic groups. It is an inspiring essay, but just as I was reading it I suddenly saw the whole controversy regarding the mosque differently than I had previously…and as having something far more important to say about the way Americans think about religion than specifically about the way they feel about civil rights.

Imam Rauf’s essay could not be more encouraging. Here, finally, is a Muslim leader prepared to renounce and denounce terrorism, who speaks patriotically about the United States as his country (Rauf is an immigrant from Egypt), who is prepared to create places for Jews and Christians to conduct their own religion-specific worship services within his mosque. The only flaw in all of this is the problem of knowing whom to believe. To listen to Imam Rauf, we get the sense that Islam is a peaceful faith and that the people who perpetrated the crimes of 9/11 were renegades who were merely using Islam to justify their murderous hatred of the West. That, of course, is precisely what we all want to think! But it is also so, of course, that there are millions of Muslims who insist that Al-Qaida has it right and that the Taliban does, that Muslims are called upon by their faith to wage war on the world until all infidels are brought one way or the other to embrace Islam, that Islam and the West are already at war. Such people see nothing wrong with terrorism if that is the best way of advancing their aims and eventually of reaching their goals. And I have no doubt what such people think of Feisal Abdul Rauf: that he is the supreme example of whatever the correct term for a Muslim Uncle Tom would be, that he exemplifies the Western Muslim so eager to please the people among whom he lives that he is prepared to abandon the most essential lessons of his faith for the sake of appearing peaceful and unthreatening to his neighbors.

And that, I have come to think, is where the real issue surrounding this mosque lies. Most Americans are not professors of comparative religion or experts in Islam. We see an Islamic world before us that is divided sharply in two, a world in which two worldviews that feel diametrically opposed to each other both claim to be the “real” version of Islam that the faithful Muslim should embrace. We are drawn to want to believe the side that is proffering the version of Islam that we personally find the most appealing. But how self-serving is that approach? In the end, most of us aren’t sure what we think.

Of course, the same could be said of our Jewish world—that in our world there are both fundamentalist extremists insisting that their xenophobic, fanaticized version of Judaism is the authentic version of our faith and also thoughtful, tolerant, non-fundamentalists eager to insist that their kinder, more liberal, and less extreme version of Judaism is the real thing bequeathed to modern Jews by their forebears. And we have all known the frustration of seeing well-meaning non-Jews simply unable to decide which school of thought represents “authentic” Judaism, as opposed to some version of Judaism willed into existence by people who are primarily interested in using religion to buttress priorly held convictions, including political convictions, that they feel the need to anchor in something more respectable than their own wishes about the way things should be in the world.

In the end, I think our best interests are served by helping the Imam Raufs of the world to foster the version of Islam they have embraced. Indeed, we would only be serving our own best interests, both as Jews and as Americans, not merely to tolerate the Muslims in our midst but to embrace those who seek to transform their faith into the kind of religion that can co-exist in a world that will only endure if the peoples in it embrace the idea of living together in some sort of reasonable harmony. Jews have been laboring for centuries to develop a version of our faith that is tolerant, broad-minded, and respectful of others. Can Islam do the same? That, I suppose, remains to be seen…but it’s hard to imagine in what sense we would be acting wisely or in our own interests not to foster the imam’s efforts to open his Cordoba House on Park Place, and then to hold him to his promise that his house be a house of prayer for all people.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Thinking about Gilad Shalit

Sometimes the best way to understand the big picture is to focus instead on a small one and then let that experience frame the effort to look beyond the fame of the picture in focus to see what lies behind and beyond it. That thought came to me the other day when I read a letter purported to have been written by Gilad Shalit’s mother asking people around the world to pray for her son’s speedy release.
Gilad’s story is well known and easy to retell: when he was nineteen years old and a newly recruited soldier in the IDF in June of 2006, Gilad was abducted by Hamas terrorists who crossed into Israel from Gaza and has not been seen since. It is widely believed, however, that he is still alive. Partially, his capture became a kind of international cause célèbre because he holds French as well as Israeli citizenship, but mostly his case remains on the world’s radar because of efforts by the Shalit family to insist that his plight not be forgotten. And, amazingly, their efforts have succeeded. Demonstrations to demand his release regularly attract thousands of Israelis. Abroad, efforts by supporters have resulted in Gilad being made an honorary citizen of Paris, Rome, Miami, and New Orleans. Human rights groups around the world, including some almost invariably hostile to Israel, have begun routinely to call for his release. Most amazing of all, even the United Nations-sponsored Goldstone Report called unambiguously for Gilad to be released. You can find out even more by going to www.gilad.org. Click on the word “English” on the top of the screen and an English-language version of the site will open up in a separate window, and you’ll be able to navigate through the site easily from there.

In June of this year, Israel agreed to a German-brokered prisoner exchange deal that would have brought Gilad home in exchange for Israel freeing 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. That sounded like the usual lopsided but effective compromise to which Israelis have become inured over the years, but the deal was eventually rejected by Hamas because Israel refused to include in the deal prisoners convicted of especially violent crimes against civilian Israelis and also because Israel revealed that prisoners included in the swap would subsequently be barred from entering the West Bank lest they be able to find their murderous way from there into Israel. And that, barring any last-minute breakthrough in the context of this week’s continuation of the Middle East peace talks in Sharm-al-Sheikh, is where matters now stand.

Should Israel pay any price at all to gain Gilad’s release? At first blush, it seems strange even to ask such a question out loud. What could possibly be more important than bringing home an IDF solider captured by the enemy? And, indeed, there is very strong support in our sacred sources for taking just that approach to the mitzvah of redeeming captives, called in Hebrew the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim. Maimonides, for example, opens up his discussion of the matter in the Mishneh Torah with these words: “Redeeming captives is deemed so crucial that it takes precedence even over supporting the poor with charity funds or clothing the indigent. Indeed, there is no greater mitzvah than seeking to redeem people held captive because, unlike the poor at home who are merely hungry, thirsty, and unclad, prisoners taken captive and held for ransom are in danger of being all those things and are also at risk of losing their lives. Moreover, to ignore the obligation to redeem captives is to go against any number of Torah laws, including the negative injunctions ‘not to harden your heart or shut your hand against the needy’ (Deuteronomy 15:7) and ‘not to stand idly by while another’s blood is being spilt’ (Leviticus 19:16)…and also the positive commandment to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18).” Other passages in other books go even further, some I noticed daring even to suggest that failing to redeem a captive who is then murdered by his captors makes those who might have redeemed him before he was killed at least partially responsible for his death.

On the other side of the ledger we have the obvious truth that the almost entirely one-sided prisoner swaps we have seen over the years in which Israel releases hundreds of prisoners in exchange for one or two captured Israelis only encourage terrorists to attempt even more abductions. And there are many sources in our literature that take that side of the issue into account. A thousand years before Maimonides lived, for example, the Mishnah already decreed that captives should specifically not be redeemed for outlandishly exaggerated sums of money lest the practice merely serve to make kidnapping even more attractive to people seeking to raise funds through the abduction of innocents. It is true that certain exceptions were eventually made and accepted as reasonable. The Shulchan Arukh, for example, excludes from the rule wealthy individuals who wish to pay for their own ransom with their own funds and makes further exceptions when the prisoner is a great scholar. Still, the general principle is taken seriously and for all it may be so that “every minute one delays in the redemption of a captive it is as though one is personally facilitating his murder,” it is also the case that we must also do what we can not to create a climate that leads to more abductions and consequently even more captives being redeemed in even more lopsided deals.

It was with these ideas in mind, I suppose, that Prime Minister Netanyahu said in July that although he sympathizes with the Shalit family and understands the hell they are living through, he is nevertheless obliged to act in the best interests of all Israelis. And then the prime minister went on to specify that although he was indeed prepared to pay a very heavy price to bring Gilad Shalit back home, he was specifically not prepared to pay any price at all to do so. Also highly relevant in this regard is the chilling detail that many terrorists released in previous swaps have indeed gone on to murder even more Israelis. (The prime minister specifically mentioned the 2004 swap in which four hundred Palestinian prisoners were released in exchange for one Israeli businessman and noted that prisoners among those freed were personally responsible for killing some twenty-seven Israelis in the months and years following their release.) So nothing is ever as simple as it sounds like it ought be.

Moral decisions are never simple. When we try to teach our children to distinguish between right and wrong, we usually use the simple model of someone coming to a fork in the road and then having to choose between left and right, good and bad, right and wrong. Everybody likes that model because it reduces the challenge of living a moral life to a game anyone can win: you face a choice between two options and you make the right choice and that’s all there is to it. But, as we all find out soon enough once we leave childhood behind, that is almost never all there is to it. Yes, of course, occasionally it really is that easy: you find a wallet somewhere containing someone’s driver’s license and a huge amount of cash and you have to decide between returning the money to its rightful owner and stealing it merely because you can. But how often exactly do we face choices that are that clear-cut and ethically transparent? Far more often in life we come to forks in the road at which both paths forward are right and wrong…and we have to choose between them not merely by willing ourselves to behave morally but actually by weighing the evidence and then obliging ourselves to decide which path is the least bad. It’s that kind of world…and thinking about Gilad Shalit and his fate is a good way to prepare for Yom Kippur precisely because it provides a small but extremely vivid picture of the kind of moral dilemmas we constantly meet in life and which we are called upon by tradition to adjudicate for ourselves as we stand before God in judgment on the holiest day of the year.

For Prime Minister Netanyahu, the choice must be excruciating even to try to think through. Is it better to save someone in real danger even if it means almost inevitably that others will pay with their lives as a result? Does a real person in real and constant danger trump the fear that crimes by unnamed parties may or even probably will be committed against unidentifiable innocents who themselves have no idea that their lives could conceivably be forfeit if the individual who might yet murder them is released from prison? It’s so easy to think about Gilad and to empathize with his parents and to yearn, as do we all, for his release…and another thing to imagine actually having to decide where to draw the line, how much is too much, at what point a government crosses over from behaving nobly to behaving recklessly. I can’t imagine having to make such a decision, yet Yom Kippur is our national season of taking ourselves seriously…and being happy that this specific decision is not any of ours to make should inspire us to own up to the countless decisions we do make in our lives, mostly without thinking about them too seriously at all, and asking ourselves how well we have managed, if we have, to choose the moral path forward at each of those crossroads.

It’s never simple! Almost any misdeed can be rationalized, even justified. But part of the process of atonement involves facing down that truth and understanding that life almost never offers us simple choices that anyone possessed of the desire to live morally could manage successfully to negotiate, that it is more or less always possible to explain away our own poor decisions with reference to the complexity of the choices we are forced to make and to the inevitable positive side-effects of choosing poorly or wrongly. At almost any crossroads both paths forward will have something to recommend them to the moral individual...which is what makes Yom Kippur such a complex experience to live through. Considering the complex morality behind any decision to negotiate with terrorists—and personalizing the issue by considering it specifically as it applies to any negotiations Israel might undertake to free Gilad Shalit—can inspire us all to think more carefully and more honestly about the decisions we have made in the past year and will be obliged to continue making into the future…and to resolve to live more carefully, thus also more morally, and never to sidestep difficult decisions merely because we can see something positive in both possible paths forward.

I know we all join together in the prayer that Gilad Shalit be released quickly from captivity and reunited with his family. If you are inclined, you can make a donation to the Keren Maor foundation that was founded “to assist and support the families of kidnapped soldiers in their struggle to free their sons” at the www.gilad.org website. (The foundation was founded when Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, both of whom were captured by Hezbollah in Lebanon and both of whom were subsequently murdered, were still alive. Of the three, then, Gilad Shalit is the one left on whose behalf the foundation labors.) What we can all do is include a prayer for Gilad in our Yom Kippur prayers and hope that our prayers will be answered speedily and effectively. I know he will be in my prayers…and I hope he will be in yours as well.

I wish all my readers an easy fast and a satisfying and meaningful Yom Kippur. May God look with favor on your work and listen kindly and indulgently to your prayers. And may God grant that the soldiers of Israel and all who serve in our American armed forces always be safe and secure wherever duty brings them.