Monday, November 8, 2010

On Dialogue with Arabs and the Old Testament

KabobFest is a collaborative blog devoted to issues of interest to English-speaking Arabs and Muslims, and fellow travelers. Many of its regular contributors live in the US, but descend from the Middle East. I was once a regular in the comments, years ago, but my prolonged efforts at dialogue with what I thought were moderate, educated, Westernized Arabs and Muslims (most are educated and Westernized, an elite, but are also quite radical - Marxists, Baathists and, increasingly, Islamists) were rebuffed and ultimately unsuccessful. I've long since nursed a phantom pain where once hope for dialogue resided; for Jews, peace with Arabs will not be built on dialogue. I still believe that peace can be built, but through coexistence - respecting each others mutual boundaries, developing ways of interacting to minimize conflict and getting on with our lives, not by discussing or debating those boundaries through dialogue.

Such an approach may seem jaded, and it is, though by experience, not bigotry. My personal experience, of which my efforts at KabobFest are but a drop in the ocean, is that the more prolonged the dialogue, the higher the levels of frustration, tension, polarization and radicalization, particularly in an open, internet format where a group dynamic emerges around the like-minded that reinforces maximalist positions, but often in private interactions as well. For dialogue to work, one or both parties must decide to compromise aspects of their core beliefs and fundamental understanding of the world, or tensions begin to build. While I've often found it helpful to understand what some Arab individuals believe, how they reason and perceive the world, I've never felt it necessary to compromise my own sense of reality, truth and justice. My intransigence isn't out of spite, just as I assume neither is theirs, but a rather a deep conviction based on identity, life experience and self-introspection.

I could continue to speak, at length, about issues of dialogue, coexistence and accommodation, but the reason for this post is altogether different. It is one thing to reconcile conflicting beliefs and ideologies, but yet another to correct the record. In my experience, Arabs know very little about Jews and our faith. Most of their knowledge is based on Arab media - itself recycling societal bias and cultural misconceptions - and their own faith tradition, which is overwhelmingly Muslim. There is nothing inherently wrong with viewing other cultures through the prism of your own spiritual understanding and historical narrative, so long as the things you know conform to the basic reality. In the case of Jews, more recent contributions in Jewish thought, by say the Rambam, give a general understanding of Islam in a way that is broad, but accurate - as a monotheistic faith of a people largely descended from Ishmael. So, a ruling was made, from the perspective of Jewish law, whether Islam was monotheistic or not, and also the Arabs who practice it are connected to an individual in the Jewish historical narrative.

The two reasons I still skim KabobFest, from time to time, are to understand the evolving perspectives among its contributors, and occasionally, when I see an egregious misunderstanding of Jews, Jewish laws or customs, to correct the record if possible. The later was the case yesterday, when I saw the following comment by Jamal, who I am having a difficult time placing as either Christian or Muslim:
"Israel," is a covenant between God and humanity
The concept is interesting, although the wording is sufficiently vague that Jamal and I could have widely divergent views on what this statement means. So, I asked him what he meant by this, where he learned of this concept, or from what sources he constructed it. He told me, in a mish-mash sort of way that wasn't nearly as interesting as I had hoped. He did, however, include the following sentence, and that - it's a long post, go take that potty break now - is where our journey begins.
Following the Old Testament literally would amount to a crime against humanity.
Ignore the modern legalism, and you'll see that this statement has been a common refrain from non-Jews throughout the ages. Alternative variations portray the Old Testament as that of an angry and vengeful G-d, with severe laws and even harsher punishments. Such depictions are usually contrasted with the New Testament, where G-d's love, kindness, and mercy for mortal sins, so long as man repents and accepts G-d in his heart, are said to be the primary themes.

Without engaging in dialogue, as I have no wish to challenge anyone's religious convictions, much less engage in a tit for tat over religious supremacy, but merely to set the record straight, to the extent that is possible, here is my response (with minor edits for clarity).
I don't know who said that you should follow the Old Testament literally, or who said that you shouldn't, but Jews said neither. The Torah is a code, a hyper-compressed code of infinite information, a blueprint for creation which preceded creation itself.

Two Torahs were given at Mt. Sinai - the Written Law (this is what Christians call the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses) and the Oral Law (the explanations and derivations of the Written Law, which Christians don't really know about, although more of them are studying it now than ever before). How do we know that two Torahs were given, which are really one Torah, split in two? Because the written Torah often says thing like, do this, but it doesn't say what "this" is, or how to do it. The oral Torah makes it clear.

In more recent times, after the destruction of the 2nd Temple Period, when the level of scholarship decreased sharply, and there was a risk that the knowledge would be lost, the Oral law was written down in a hyper-condensed format called the Mishnah. Codifying the Oral law in the Mishnah took about 200 years. After that began another process of 200 or so years, an unpackaging of the Mishnah, with more derivations, explanations, context, proper usage, and information of value to the historical and cultural record - called the Gemara. Together, the Mishnah and Gemara form the Talmud.

Loosely speaking, after the Talmud was codified came a period of another 400 years, where commentary was written for the Gemara, further simplifying and explaining roots of words, concepts, etc. This was followed by another period of 400 years or so, in which much of the actual daily, practical law and practice was codified in written form, so that a child could learn from a book, in case his father and mother did not know, what a Jew should do when he wakes up in the morning, and what not to do. Today we have commentary on the commentary on the commentary of the Talmud, and some commentaries on that, and so on.

The entire journey, from the giving of the Torah to today, is a drilling down, within, inside the Torah, layers of specificity upon layers of specificity. The Talmud, the Oral Law, is not merely a store of information and explanations of the Written Law, it is a way of thinking, a holistic approach to G-d, to life, to reason itself. All this, and I have yet to mention the Hidden Torah - mystical concepts, which permeate the texts, every letter, infusing with meaning even the crowns above the letters, every law, every thought, every deed, every corner of creation.

So, when you say, "Following the Old Testament literally would amount to a crime against humanity", it's not a statement that makes sense in a Jewish context. It is like someone looking at the surface of a quiet lake and thinking that it is made of glass. You simply lack the vocabulary to engage in any meaningful way on what you call the Old Testament. Most non-Jews, and even some Jews, don't know what they don't know, so they may quickly become frustrated or even take offense when learned Jews refuse to talk to them about matters of faith. Consider it from the Jewish perspective; how do you even start a conversation with someone about the Old Testament who doesn't know what Rashi is? (And if you don't know what Rashi is, you're living proof of my point.) The engineers at NASA do not debate with a child about the variable factors and precision calculations necessary to achieve orbital space flight. In the natural order of things, you first send the child to school where they play with wooden blocks, then they graduate to algebra, then geometry and so on. There are no shortcuts to knowledge, whether it is knowledge of fluid dynamics or the infinitely complex blueprint for Creation.

I recognize that Christians and Muslims have their own faith-tradition and their own historical narrative, but from a Jewish perspective, our covenant is unbroken since Mt. Sinai; everything we have, from the five books of Moses to the ruling of how to make plastic utensils fit for use in a kosher kitchen are one continuum, one Torah, one covenant, inseparable from the Land of Israel and the People of Israel, bound up with the One G-d.

On My Bookshelf