Saturday, September 11, 2010

Sacred Scripture?

[This is a lengthy post, but I urge you to read it through to the end.]

Last week I suggested one response to the burning of the Qur’an on 9/11 would be to read from the sacred scriptures of many faiths on that day. Happily I was not the only person calling for this, and I applaud those who organized and participated in these events. Having stood on the side of scripture reading, I would now like to ask what scriptures should be read, focusing specifically on the Hebrew Bible and Qur’an, though similar passages can be found in Christian sacred texts as well.

The easy route is to read what I call soft passages, readings that speak about love, justice, and respect. Here are just four examples:

"When they encounter empty talk or derision, they ignore it with quiet dignity... responding humbly even to foolish or aggressive words with the dignified salutation: Peace be unto you." (Qur’an 25:63-76) Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. (Proverbs 12:18)

"Please encourage those who aspire to Islam to be gentle and selfless, to turn whole heartedly toward the Source of Being, and to call out to Allah Most Merciful every morning and evening, longing only to gaze directly into the Face of Love." (Qur’an 18:27-31) You shall love the Eternal your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:5) You shall love your neighbor as your self. (Leviticus 19:18) You shall love the stranger. (Leviticus 19:34)

"Whether rich or poor, all persons must receive equal justice, for Allah Most Merciful is equally present to all." (Qur’an 4:131-135) Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you. (Deuteronomy 16:20)

"He is Allah, the Creator, the Originator, The Fashioner, to Him belong the most beautiful names: whatever is in the heavens and on earth, do declare His praises and glory. And He is the Exalted in Might, The Wise. (Qur’an 59:24) [Islam speaks of 99 Names of Allah. Among them Ar-Rahmaan/The Compassionate, Ar-Raheem/The Mericiful, Al-Haleem/The Forbearing, Al-Wadood/ the Loving, Al-Ghafoor/The All Forgiving. Eternal, Eternal, merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin... (Exodus 34:6-7)

* * *

But not all scripture is so benign. For example regarding those who lived in the Promised Land during the Israelite invasion the Bible says:

“They should be utterly destroyed, and should receive no mercy but be exterminated as the Eternal commanded Moses" (Joshua 11:20); “Utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling" (I Samuel 15:3); “You will make them as a blazing oven when you appear. The Eternal will swallow them up in his wrath and fire will consume them. You will destroy their offspring from the earth and their children from among the sons of men (Psalms 21:9-10).

And in the Qur’an we read:
Sura 9:5: "But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for God is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful."

Sura 9:29-31: "Fight those who believe not in God nor the last day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by God and His Prophet, nor acknowledge the religion of truth, (even if they are) of the people of the Book [Christians and Jews], until they pay the jizya [tribute] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued. The Jews call Uzair [Ezra] a son of God, and the Christians call Christ the Son of God ... God's curse be on them."

Sura 5:36-38: "The punishment of those who wage war against God and His Prophet, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land. That is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the hereafter, except for those who repent before they fall into your power. In that case, know that God is oft-forgiving, most merciful. O you who believe! Do your duty to God. Seek the means of approach unto Him, and strive with might and main in His cause, that you may prosper."

These texts are read over and over again. And while the Qur’an seems to be more merciful than Torah, offering peace to those who convert to Islam, one cannot but worry about the damage these readings do to the psyches of the listener? Would you want your children to be raised on these texts? When I was a congregational rabbi I refused to read these texts during Shabbat services, studying them only in adult history classes where we could examine them in context.

More difficult still for those of us who are Jews are the passages in the Qur’an that justify Jew hatred as a sacred duty among Muslims:

“And thou wilt find them [the Jews] the greediest of mankind.... “(Sura 2:96)

“Evil is that for which they [the Jews] sell their souls....” (Sura 2:90)

“Taste ye [Jews] the punishment of burning.” Sura 3:18

"They [the Jews] are the heirs of Hell.... They will spare no pains to corrupt you. They desire nothing but your ruin. Their hatred is clear from what they say ... When evil befalls you they rejoice." (Sura 3:117-120)

“Because of the wrongdoing of the Jews.... And of their taking usury ... and of their devouring people's wealth by false pretenses. We have prepared for those of them who disbelieve a painful doom.” (Sura 4:160, 161)

“Allah hath cursed them [the Jews] for their disbelief.” (Sura 4:46)

“They [the Jews] will spare no pains to corrupt you. They desire nothing but your ruin. Their hatred is clear from what they say, but more violent is the hatred which their breasts conceal.” (Sura 3:117-120)

“The most vehement of mankind in hostility [are] the Jews and the idolaters.” (Sura 5:82)

“Allah fights against them [the Jews]. How perverse they are!” (Sura 9:30)

“They [the Jews] spread evil in the land ....” (Sura 5:62-66)

“[The Jews] knowingly perverted [the word of Allah], know of nothing except lies ... commit evil and become engrossed in sin.” (Sura 2:71-85)

* * *

My point in raising this issue is this: just because a book is held sacred, does not mean that everything in it is worthy of respect. On the contrary, there is much in the sacred texts of Jews, Christians, and Muslims that needs to be decried, and until it is, there is no true hope for reconciliation among these faiths.

It is not enough that rabbis, ministers, priests, and imams stand together in interfaith solidarity. It is not enough that they claim to pray to the same God (they don’t). It is not enough that they promote social justice. They must sit together and challenge the hatred that their scriptures promote. They must not hide behind the veil of interfaith respect and shrug their shoulders when they stand before their congregations and, intentionally or not, espouse hatred of the other.

It is not enough to say Islam is a religion of peace, or Judaism is a religion of justice, or Christianity is a religion of love when they all contain seeds of hate that must be uprooted and destroyed.

It is not an accident that Christians and Muslims have and in many cases continue to perpetuate Jew hatred; their sacred texts incite them to it. And unless their religious leaders defuse these texts, the hate will only grow. And the only reason there is no outcry from the Hittite Anti-Defamation League against the Jews is that we did to them what Christians and Muslims have as yet been unable to do to us: we slaughtered them all.

So, yes, let us read each other’s sacred scriptures. And as we do let us applaud the call for mercy, justice, love, and humility we find in them. But let us demand with no less a voice that the evil and hatred they contain be silenced that the flames of human arrogance, wickedness, and spiritual conceit not engulf all the earth.


Claire said...

It is not enough that they claim to pray to the same God (they don’t).

Sure, there is a mismatch between what people think of when they use the label "God" and what It actually is. This would be true between any two people, much less among billions of Christians and Muslims, and millions of Jews.

I don't think that this means that we are all praying to a different God, though. It just means that different people interact through prayer, worship, meditation, study (etc.) differently with It, and have to different understandings of It is.

Someone else who recites the Shema is reminded that there's a big Old Man on a throne that commands him and other Jews to do stuff, and anyone else's idea of what that Big Man is, is false. Every time I recite the Shema, I am reminded of the paradox that, while the Tao manifests as the many, the Tao is one unified existence.

I think you're saying we worship two different gods. I don't think so. We just have different understandings of the same One.

Julie said...

reading some of those passages made my gut knot. I'm pretty sure it was at the Common Grounds series in Murfreesboro where I was introduced to the idea that text fill with such venom were man made, and the ones full of compassion were from a greater source. That still makes sense to me. Thanks :)

Rabbi Rami said...

Claire, I understand your position, and I used to hold it. But, after reading Stephen Prothero's book "God is not One" I have come to see that this view does a disservice to religion. Does God have a Son or not? Jews and Muslims cannot imagine this, Christians cannot image God with it. So when you say that they are really worshipping the same God are you dismissing the essential teaching of Christianity? What about a Hindu who worships Kali or Ganesha? Are these the same as the Hebrew YHVH? Are are you saying that really all theology is silly and shouldn't be taken seriously? Prothero says that this dismissal of theology does harm to religion and makes it impossible for us to understand why religions compete and religious people are willing to die for their God rather than pray to another. If there is only the one God and religions don't matter, why has that message not filtered down to the majority of religious people on the planet?

Again, I understand what you are saying, and I'm sympathetic to it, but I can no longer ascribe to it.

Rabbi Rami said...

Thanks for the comment, Julie, I think all scripture is of human origin and hence reflects the best and worst of which humans are capable.