.... Thus, when the students asked me to go and speak to the stall holders, I had no intention of disrupting these friendly terms, but rather to ask that they promote their own cause without needing to denigrate or scorn the cause of the Jewish students just across from them. Surely, there were aspects of Islam that were not militantly opposed to the existence of the State of Israel. But I met with a hostile response. We were told categorically that we had no right to interfere with what they were distributing.
When we pointed out that we felt we did have a right to oppose literature which could be used to incite hostility, even violence, to the Jewish and Zionist organisations at the University, one of their representatives picked up one of the tracts by Khomeini and began to read aloud of the Zionist crimes and vices which had to be eradicated.
Familial Origins in Iran
I told this student that my father was born and raised in Iran, specifically from the city of Ispahan. Although he has lived for many years in the United States, all his culture and mannerisms were still distinctively Iranian. I, therefore, could not support the views of the new Iranian leader which were so blatantly hostile toward the many such Jews around the world who loved Iran and had contributed so much to its society.
The student looked at me quizzically. 'You're a Rabbi, are you not?' I replied in the affirmative. ' 'Are you observant of your religion?' the Palestinian student inquired, to which I again responded in the affirmative. 'Then how could you not support this cleric who had done so much to rescue Iranian culture form Western atheism and the systematic destruction of religious belief that pervaded Iran before his rise to power.'
Divide and Conquer
This was a classic tactic. Divide and conquer. This clever student of course noticed that the six Jewish students surrounding me were not observant, they weren't wearing Yarmulkes. So better to establish how he had more in common with me, than even they, and thus obscure the real issue of his distribution of offensive material.
But the Jewish students standing in the wings seemed uneasy with his question. Perhaps I, as a Chassidic Jew, indeed shared the goals of my Arab counterpart. Did I too not share this zeal for religious observance spreading and dominating secular culture. I did not want to debate the issue here, where the issue was clearly a different one. But when we got back to our stall, defeated because they did nothing in response to our protests, I told the students that I would address his question that Friday night at our Centre, and ever since then I have been forced to return to the issue of religious coercion, and explain the Jewish view on the subject, on many occasions.
Khomeinism in a Jewish Guise
I should say that it not only serves as a response to Khomeinism and religious coercion in general, but to Israeli politics in particular. Anger at the Israeli religious establishment has been quite vociferously expressed at Oxford since I arrived. The idea that small religious parties should blackmail the Israeli government into enacting religious measures in order for them to join a ruling coalition is one of the greatest sources of anger pertaining to Jewish matters that I have seen displayed by friends and acquaintances. Even those who are most sympathetic to the Jewish religion in general, and to traditional Judaism in particular, feel that these efforts are counter-productive, and I tend to agree. While I would support enforcing the closure of businesses on the Sabbath, the same way England has legislation penalizing businesses from opening on Sunday, I completely oppose the mixing of religion and politics, for the reason this article demonstrates.
Rabbi Meir Kahane' Legacy
When I first arrived in Oxford, I became friendly with an extremely left-wing Israeli D.Phil student who was writing a paper on Kahanism. While he despised everything Rabbi Meir Kahane stood for, he had a soft-spot for religious tradition, and once asked me to explain the differences between the policies of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who clearly would like to see a more observant State of Israel, and those of Meir Kahane. 'It appears to me,' he told me, 'without wishing to be offensive, that the goals of your Rebbe and Rabbi Kahane are similar.'
'In many aspects,' I retorted, 'that may be so. But there is a fundamental difference which separates them. Whereas Kahane has set out to change governments, the Lubavitcher Rebbe has set out to change people, one at a time,' and this answer sufficed for him.
[I should mention that I had a great deal of respect for this student, because he didn't just talk about liberalism, but embodied it completely. He may have hated Kahane for his policies, but he was mature enough to separate that from any hatred of the man. When, two years later, I awoke to the BBC headlines that Rabbi Kahane was mercilessly gunned down by a Palestinian assassin, I called this student, who today teaches politics at Tel Aviv University, to tell him what had happened, and he was genuinely saddened. 'Shmuley,' he told me, 'I did not support a word he uttered. But he did not deserve this. Nobody deserves this.' Other students, who preach of how they value human life, and criticise the Israeli military for shooting Palestinian stone-throwers, openly chuckled and told jokes to each other, in my presence, when they heard the news.]
Khomeini Is a Serious Force Reckon With
For more than a decade an elderly sage with long white beard, traditional black head-dress, and passionate religious zealotry dominated world news in a manner equalled only by the State of Israel. He challenged the technologically advanced world we live in, and our appraisal of modern society and its meaning, by showing that a theocratic state, steeped in the uncompromising ways of ancient tradition, could sustain itself in relative stability despite its turbulent revolutionary beginnings. His name, of course, was Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, and although he is now gone,the legacy he left his people remains as strong as ever.
Upon hearing of his death, I myself breathed a sigh of relief even while watching with sympathy the intense grief and anguish of the Iranian people as they abused their bodies at the funeral processions for the Imam. As I observed this spectacle, a powerful question suddenly overcame me. Why was I, an observant Jew, along with the entire body of traditional Jewry, not more sympathetic to his cause? Here was a man, as the Arab student at the Polytechnic had argued, who had rescued the mores and zealotry of religion from the secular and acculturated values of the Shah's regime. He acted like a modern-day Maccabee, rescuing a traditionally religious people from the smouldering cauldron of hellenism, the by-product of which is often the moral decadence of an atheistic melting-pot. He took a westernized society committed to the spiritual suicide of the people and delivered religious belief from systematic liquidation. Are these not values to which Judaism also aspires?
Khomeini's reform and Transformation of Iranian Society
A brief examination of the Ayatollah's legacy will help clarify my inquiry. Khomeini denounced the immorality of Western civilization to the point where Western and immoral tended to become synonymous. 'Westernisation,' in his vivid language, meant "[a man] parading around the streets with a European hat on [his] head watching the naked girls" (i.e., the women in provocative Western dress).
The look up in origianl published version in Chai Today for this.IRP programme is required reading in Iranian schools and argues: "For decades our society has been consuming imported culture and education. In order to strengthen their political and economic imperialism, the world-devourers have used cultural imperialism." Therefore, Western patterns of life had to be eliminated in all areas: food habits, clothing fashions, architecture and city planning, education and manners.
In order to gain 'cultural independence,' Khomeini declared a 'cultural revolution' in the spring of 1980 (Khomeini's speech on 26 April, 1980) and established the 'Headquarters of Culture' to coordinate the effort.' To date, the government Islamisation programme has indeed affected nearly every area of life in Iran. Media, art and entertainment, clothing, and the family all became subject to moral regulations. Prostitution and pornography were of course totally outlawed, carrying with them severe punishments. The fundamentalist regime also imposed hijab (the Islamic code of dress) on women so that none could be immodestly attired. Western-dressed Iranian women were denounced as "cabaret dancers" by Khomeini. Even coeducational schools were outlawed having been classified as "houses of prostitution, and thought of adversely affecting the concentration of the student due to the emotional appeal of the opposite sex (NY Times, 22 April, 1979)."
Khomeini's regime converted the media, artistic expression, and films into morality exercises promoting religious culture and values. The IRP characterized the media as a 'university' for the education of the population. It declared that 'printing anti-religious ideas and beliefs is not permitted in Islamic society.' Radio and TV programmes were changed to reflect 'the true message' of religious life,' as well as 'art so that it be in conformity with genuine Islamic and religious themes.'
Watching Iranian television became the kind of experience any parent could trust would only serve to enhance a child's Islamic education, rather than exposing their son or daughter to secular violence and nudity. A typical day's broadcasting is as follows: Channel 1: 4:30 pm - Sign On; 4:35 - Verses of the Holy Koran; 4:45 - English News; 5:00 - Programme for children; 6:00 -Provincial News; 6:30 - Sports Report; 7:10 - Call To Prayer; 7:30 - Desert Architecture; 8:30 - Iranian and World News; 9:30 - Economics Programme; 11:00 - Programme in Arabic Channel 2: 10:00 - Sign On; 10:05 - Verses from the Koran; 10:10 - Children's Programme; 11:05 - Family Programme (lessons in sewing, child care); 16:45 - Sign on Again; 6:50 - Verses from the Koran; 7:00 - Cultural, Art and Economic News; 7:10 - Call to Prayer; 7:20 - Lessons in Arabic; 9:20 -Selection of Students by the university; 9:50 - Miscellaneous (cartoons, etc.); 21:50 - The Shrines of Iran; 22:30 - Iranian and World News.
The regime also monopolised all means of mass communication, banning secular papers in an attempt to prevent sexual perversion from infiltrating the country's consciousness. Religious songs became the principle musical expression, replacing rock and disco; mixed dancing was forbidden.
No one in Iran seems to doubt that since the Revolution, and the introduction of its fierce penalties, crime rates, and violent crime in particular, have dropped considerably. Iran at present enjoys one of the lowest urban crime rates of any country in the world.
Consonance with Jewish Goals
In striking similarity to the rudimentary principle of Judaism being a complete way of life, Khomeini's Iran represents a return, not simply to the ideals of Islam, but to the maximalist conception of it as a guide to the details, great and small, of everyday life. As it happens, Khomeini published his own commentary on these matters. In the 1950's, at the Faizieh Theological School in Qom, his reputation as a teacher was growing and people would write to him from all over Iran to ask his opinions on points of religion. These opinions were collated and turned into a book, which he published in 1960; after this he was entitled to refer to himself as an ayatollah.
The book, Towzhih al-Masa'il, or 'Explication of Problems', is a best-seller in Iran, an immense volume which contains more than three thousand rulings on the conduct of daily life and religious observances, from laws on inheritance to matters of personal cleanliness and the right way to slaughter animals.
Nothing was private enough to prevent Ayatollah Khomeini from laying down the law on it. In Western eyes, at any rate, it seems intrusive to describe the different varieties of bleeding in a woman's menstrual flow or to prescribe the correct way to face when defecating, and the correct way to clean oneself afterwards. Similarly, the Torah espouses laws governing all of our actions, encouraging one to know G-d 'in all your ways'.(editor, please check reference)
A further significant point to note is that Khomeini did not only heighten the observance of Islam in Iran, but in many cases he coerced Jews into observance of their religion as well. In one instance, told to this author by one of the individuals who personally witnessed the event, he summoned a group of wealthy Jewish industrialists to his chambers. All of them had factories that were operative on Shabbos and, to their amazement, he condemned them for forsaking their commandments. He declared that in an Islamic country, just as Friday was revered by Muslims, the Sabbath had to be revered by Jews. He concluded by ruling that henceforth, if any Jewish factory opened on Shabbos the owner would be punished with a firing squad. All present complied.
Clearly, ideologies differ in cmplexity, and although it may not be so complex as others, Iranian fundamentalism, like many totalitarian ideologies, nevertheless provides its adherents with a sense of mission and a holistic concept of persons and society, and it has its own distinctive style and rhetoric. The original question posed to me then returns: In light of the moral, ethical, and religious achievements of this man of faith, why was no voice heard from within the camp of traditional Jewry to applaud this religious leader while alive, or eulogize him at his death?
Khomeini's Brutality Is not A Complete Response
No doubt Khomeini's brutality serves to repulse us from praising the Imam's achievements, and it may well be argued that the results in Iran may not owe as much to the vigilance of the Komitehs as to the punishments that are inflicted. But in explaining traditional Judaism's outright rejection, nay repulsion, of everything Khomeini stood for, means aside, the reason of his brutality alone remains somewhat superficial. Aside from the means taken to achieve his ends, traditional Judaism has so far latched onto somewhat incomplete reasons for its outright dismissal of Khomeini's regime. Surely, in the quest for intellectual maturity humans should have learned to extract good from evil. If the Imam's goals were good but his means evil, we should at once commend his ambitions and achievements, yet remain able to decry his methods. Yet Khomeini as an icon of religious values and leadership has been utterly rejected by the Jewish world, goals and methods alike.
When Politics ousts Religion
I suggest that Khomeini was rejected not merely because the gore of his use force to accomplish religious ends repelled the traditional Jew. Rather, it was the light that this use force shed on the Imam's very perception of religion as a whole, a perception which is loathsome to traditional Judaism, which has engendered a loathsome response to his policies.
There are those who believe that religion is a mountain to be climbed, a goal to be reached. To them, a person's status in the eyes of G-d is ascertained solely by where he or she now stands. If any actions manifest any tendency toward evil, then, in essence, the person has accomplished nothing. It is only the one who arrives at the peak of the mountain, whose journey has reached its climax, who has banished all evil from within him, who may justly be referred to as 'a religious individual'. In the minds of the leaders of this school of thought, it is not a person's slow progression in affinity with G-d which is commendable, but his rapid rise to the throne of the Creator.
Judaism does not subscribe to this outlook. In the eyes of Jewish thought it is not the goal which is significant, but the path. The distance a person has traversed, how far they have progressed, is what G-d measures. Of the Talmud's most central themes is the idea that a returnee to Judaism (Baal Teshuva) is far greater than a tzaddik, the reason being that the returnee has come much further, and travelled a far more torturous path. The Talmud even declares, 'In the place where a ba'al teshuva (returnee) stands, a tzadik cannot stand. look up the referenceThe tzadik, whose righteousness and good deeds by far outweigh those of the returnee, may indeed be standing at the mountain's summit, and from his vantage point he may gaze down at the struggling climb of the ba'al teshuva, as he slowly rises from the ash-heap in search of sublime and transcendent meaning. Yet, the tzadik is pronounced inferior for he did not travel any great distance to reach the mountain's top. Everything was handed to him on a silver-platter, from the cheder he was sent to by his parents, to the yeshiva he attended with the rest of his friends. The Baal Teshuva, on the other hand, has clambered from the abyss of spiritual despair and has, at the very least, started back onto the proper path by his or her own efforts.
Not Righteousness But Transformation
Stated in other words, what the A-mighty searches for in man is not righteousness, but transformation. A person's gradual change from being a materialistically inclined, indulgent organism governed by physical needs and tendencies, to a being with spiritual foresight and disposition. This is the purpose of religion and G-d's calling to man. What the A-mighty desires is that we make and effort to change ourselves for the better. Not that we merely become good. He desires to see a significant expenditure of effort on our part. He want to see that we give a damn. Therefore, if one is born righteous and is reared in a religiously wholesome environment, he will not be judged by how good he is, but by how much better a person and more righteous an individual he became, after embarking on the road of life.
Becoming an Outwardly Oriented Individual
Torah and mitzvot are the critical ingredient in the development and growth of humans. With every passing mitzvah one slowly becomes an outwardly oriented individual. Whereas a child's first words on learning to speak are 'Mine!', or 'Give me', each mitzvah is a lesson in reorienting this natural state to one of giving, rather than taking. As a living organism man first learns to take rather than give. It is vital to his existence. One needs to be clothed, fed, bathed, nurtured, and loved if one is to survive. Our initial stage of life is almost completely passive, and as our first lesson about life we internalize the idea of drawing in all that others are prepared to do for us. What changes this process of taking is of course responsibility. People become older and they learn that their contribution on a microcosmic level, such as family and friends, and on a macrocosmic level, such as community and the world at large, is very much needed if the world is to continue.
But before life makes any demands of the human, the very first calling to which he must respond is to that of His Creator. Before a child is old or responsible enough to help Mommy around the house, he first learns that he must say a blessing before eating food, and must give a coin to charity every day. The reason: because G-d needs him, and he must therefore learn to give, and not just to take. In slow gradual increments, then, man learns, through a religious education, to transcend physical necessity and focus on the needs of others.
Further still, the spiritual person learns to utilize their own physical desires for the purpose of understanding another's needs as well. When one understands how vital it to feel loved, one understands how critical it is to display love to someone else, for their needs are the same. And as in the process of learning how to give, and in the process of becoming an outwardly-oriented individual, man learns to discover G-d and simultaneously emulate His ways. In the words of the Talmud, 'Just as He is kind, so too should you be kind.'editor; find ref. and add one or two more lines from the quote. It is not good for Man to be alone
Marriage serves as the classic illustration of the principle of growth outwards to reach others. While a mitzvah in its own right, marriage is also the premise for the fulfilment of many other mitzvot, not least among them being the perpetuation of humanity and the Jewish people. Why did G-d choose the framework of marriage as necessary for human existence? To paraphrase the Bible, why indeed is it not good for man to be alone?
Marriage serves as the classic illustration of this principle, and the ultimate institution to constantly reeducate an individual away from his or her natural predisposition. Even the mechanical structure of marriage is such that one must learn to give constantly, from the highest things, like comforting a husband during tragedy, to the seemingly insignificant, like refraining from eating until one's wife comes to the table. It is precisely these 'mechanical' matters which are of pivotal importance to the success of every marriage.
Children Continue a Process of Reorientation
Soon children follow and every parent is faced with a new challenge in the art of generosity: giving without receiving in return. An infant is born with no saving grace, save that of the parent's intuitive love for the child. They have not yet become doctors or lawyers, or generated any nachas for their parents. Yet their dependence on their parents is absolute, needing everything from food to mobility. There are no guarantees that the child will ever reciprocate. Indeed, scores of adult children abandon their parents to nursing homes in their old age. Nevertheless, the idea of a parent coercing his offspring to sign a contract at birth mandating that child-care will be provided only on the express condition that child agree to aid his parents in their hour of need, is laughable. No mountain is too high, no sea to vast, to impede the unrestrained love of parent to child. But, why is this all so important?
Because through the love, giving, kindness, and compassion of everyday experience, a married man or woman learns to find G-d. An man slowly transforms himself into an outwardly oriented being, he learns to perceive an existence higher and greater than himself. One learns to obey the commands of that Being. Not for the prospects of reward, but out of deep-seated love and conviction. And man becomes G-dly.
G-d's laws are for people, not states
When religion is practised for any external consideration, force being the extreme amongst them, inner transformation cannot follow. Nothing changes, no-one becomes spiritual, and the purpose of religion is defeated.
Ayatollah Khomeini changed government without changing people. His theocracy was not merely tarnished by the methods it pursued in procuring religious observance, but was actually supplanted by those methods. He succeeded in bringing about a religious government, but not a religious society. And although, it may be argued, Iranian society today may indeed exist at the summit of the spiritual mountain, officially void of sexual deviance, theft, rape, or impropriety, the population did not climb that mountain. Rather, they were like a cannonball shot there by the religious zeal of the Iranian National Guard, with fear and intimidation serving as gunpowder. The population did not traverse any distance; no-one struggled with internal self-doubt, none felt the terrible tension of religious turmoil that tears the soul asunder, and the internal dialectic that make up the religious experience. In short, they were not personally touched by the sublime hand of G-d which can only be felt when one works with oneself decades to reshape oneself into a vessel for G-d. Time will tell whether the changes Khomeini brought to Iranian society will have any permanency, but one suspects that if the constraints were removed the people would naturally fall back to their previous existence.
Khomeini's Objective: Seize the Reigns of Government
The transformation of government, irrespective of whether the people kept pace, was Khomeini's intention all along. It accounts for his infatuation with absolute governmental control. He always argued the importance of politics and domination of the political and social systems by 'true believers'. In his own words:
"If in a society all its members are Muslim and they observe Islam in their personal lives while their social relations are not governed by pure Islamic laws, it is not an Islamic society. On the other hand, if in a society all its members are not Muslim.... or some of its members are weak Muslims and do not behave according to Islam in all their personal obligations, while the values and laws governing social relations are Islamic, that society is Islamic." (Mavazihi-Ma pg. 26)
In yet another of Khomeini's works, Al-Hukumat-ul-Islamia, he states:
"When a Mujtahid who is just and learned stands up for the establishment and organisation of the government, he will enjoy all the rights in the affairs of the society that were enjoyed by the Prophet, and it will be the duty of the people to listen and obey (him) and this Faqih and Mujtahid will hold the supreme power in the government and the management and control of social and political affairs of the people in the same way as the Prophet and Hazrat Ali (used to do)." Clearly, to Khomeini the exercise of governmental control was the highest religious achievement, something Judaism cannot embrace. The Jewish world-view is about changing people through direct exposure. It sees religious ultimately growing from the grass-roots level of the human condition and human experience.
put shagalov in hreReligious Conviction and Governmental Control Become Synonymous
Samuel Huntington has commented that "the most important political distinction among countries concerns not their form of government but their degree of government." (Political Order in Changing Societies) The main characteristic of Khomeini's fundamentalist ideology is its totalitarian approach to politics. The regime sought to promote the politicisation of all spheres of social and even private affairs: its world view is in fact predicated upon a removal of these distinctions. In Islamic government, Khomeini had asserted: "there is not a single topic in human life for which Islam has not provided instructions and established norms." (Islamic Government in Islamic Revolution, pg. 80) The IRP program states that it aims at establishing a 'tawhidi' ('unitary') society, "a society in which Islamic values, commands, and laws govern all social relations." (Mavazihi-Ma, pg. 26)
What this has lead to is the politicisation of religion itself. In his many fiery speeches, Khomeini favoured violence and oppression to bolster religious observance, but did not offer a convincing, positive argument for the beauty and necessity of religion. The lack of explanation was not due to personal ignorance; after all, he was a recognised scholar. Rather, it is fundamentally inconsistent with his view of religion. In his eyes the only matter which was of importance was that the people should adhere to Islamic living standards. As government serves this purpose well, it has become the personification of Khomeini's religious zeal. He had no desire for the inner transformation of his people. Shiite fundamentalism has abrogated its intellectual dimension, and when this happens, fanaticism is sure to follow.
Suppressing Human Development
Khomeini has indeed expressed a distaste for the natural state of humanity, preferring to stunt it rather than allow it to fully develop. "An Islamic regime must be serious in every aspect of life," the Imam said in a broadcast on Iran Radio six months after the Revolution. "There is no fun in Islam. There can be no fun or enjoyment in whatever is serious." To Judaism, happiness is representative of extraordinary energy and fervour which should be cultivated and nurtured for the service of G-d. Like everything, it can be utilised for evil or for good. Khomeini was disinterested in Man's spiritual growth and chose to eliminate any form of joyous expression, fearing that if frivolity were allowed to coexist with religion it might prevail. Judaism thrives on our constant use of material existence for good, despite the temptation that it be used otherwise. In this manner one constantly reaffirms that everything is in G-d's possession, thus substantiating His absolute sovereignty over creation.
Thorn in the side of Khomeini
This uncompromising outlook on life led Khomeini to oust his self-appointed successor, Ayatollah Montazeri, only months before he died. While Khomeini genuinely believed that the establishment of Islamic government in Iran was an end in itself, Montazeri saw the capture of political power by the clergy only as a means which ought to be used in order to improve the material and spiritual conditions of the people. Khomeini maintained that, if need be, people should be forced to behave in an Islamic way. Montazeri, for his part, argued in favour of persuasion through setting good examples.
Both men advocated a return to the simple life and helped popularise such notions as frugality, a reduction in one's expectations from life, a cut in consumption and a distaste for luxuries. Both wanted the Iranians to sleep on the ground, sit on the floor, eat only one or two simple meals a day, make do with very few clothes and be content with living in one or two rooms (Amir Taheri, The Spirit of Allah, pg. 294.)
The difference was that Montazeri believed that human nature of itself tends towards good if given the chance. Khomeini, however, pinpointed the little devil he saw hiding within every person, and thought nothing of enforcing the good at bayonet point if necessary. Between 1981 and 1985, the two leaders adopted basically contradictory positions on almost every major issue, with Montazeri playing the liberal and Khomeini remaining true to his image of the uncompromising radical.
Good Cop/Bad Cop
Opponents of the regime accused the two men of offering an Islamic version of the soft-cop/tough-cop interplay in order to confuse the people. This is almost certainly unfair: the two men genuinely had variant approaches. The difference between Khomeini and Montazeri extended to the important issue of exporting the revolution as well. Montazeri emphasized proselytisation and propaganda; Khomeini inclined to see an effective answer only in the use of force. In 1981 the Imam ordered the creation of an 'Army of Twenty Million' which, when and if fully ready, would fight to hoist the flag of Allah in every capital of the world.
In the light of the foregoing considerations, Judaism chooses to reject and finds repulsive Ayatollah Khomeini's entire perception of religion, not merely its implementation. The individual to Khomeini's conception of religion is what the incongruent piece of a puzzle is to the hammer. Although the piece may not fit or even belong to that puzzle, it must be banged in place. The puzzle must be complete overall. Needless to say, with sufficient banging its form will eventually be altered, and it will enter, but the fact that it has a different picture printed on it will forever remain. Judaism does not believe in people being banged out of shape so that they fit the spiritual puzzle. Rather, it advocates an inner transformation so that the human pieces fit the puzzle both in shape as well as content, in deed as well as in heart. The result is a truer, more beautiful whole that will no longer be a puzzle.
Attacked by Colleagues
When I first expressed this idea in print, in an American Jewish magazine by the name of Chai Today, I received several letters of disagreement, one of which was exceedingly abusive and was subsequently published in an alternative Jewish periodical. In the letter, the author attacked me for my 'misrepresenting Judaism' and accused me of possessing 'a severely misguided understanding of Judaism at best, and a liberal mind-set at worst.'
The author, who is an Orthodox rabbi from California, made the following argument, which I shall summarize.
He maintained that I had misrepresented Judaism because indeed Judaism did possess many of the mechanisms employed by Khomeini. Judaism calls for very severe physical punishment, in many cases capital, for religious transgression. For example, one who breaks the laws of Shabbos can be put to death if all the criteria is met, such as witnesses and warning, etc. Moreover, for even the slightest religious infringement, the offender would receive lashes from a Jewish court, in Temple times. 'What Rabbi Boteach is seeking to do,' he concluded, 'is to whitewash Judaism of its similarities to the Khomeini regime, so that it conforms with today's liberal values.'
To be sure, the good Rabbi, whose attack saddened me because of its hostile tone, is correct. Indeed Judaism does mandate physical punishment for religious offenders. Where he grossly errs, however, is in his understanding of the purpose of these warnings and punishment, and what the Torah is seeking to achieve by stipulating them.
One Apple Should Not Infect Another
The purpose of these punishments is not to make the population religious. Rather, their purpose is to preserve the religious observance and devotion of a population that is already religious.
To explain: G-d wishes that people approach religion from a stance of joy, interest, and personal involvement and conviction. There are numerous statements throughout Jewish literature which show that these qualifications are not just preferable in serving G-d, but rather they are what it is all about. If so, the question may be asked, why did G-d institute such severe punishments for religious infraction? The answer is that these laws were instituted for a society which used to be the norm, i.e., the majority of the population were observant and devout. The problem was, what if a few rotten apples began to appear within the group? In order to prevent them from infecting everyone else with their faithlessness, and to protect the offenders themselves from acting upon their faithlessness, the Torah instituted that punishment be instituted both as a deterrent, as well as a way of weeding out those who could adversely effect the faithful.
The Sanhedrin Exiles Itself
That this is true is easily demonstrated by a passage from the Talmud, which tells of how forty years before the destruction of the second Temple, when the terrible suffering which was being visited upon the Jews caused them to be a lawless people, many of whom having incurred a capital penalty under Jewish law, the Sanhedrin, the high Jewish court, exiled itself from its chambers on the Temple Mount. The reason: They were only allowed to pass capital judgments when they were in the chamber, and there were so many who were deserving of it, they did not wish to put so many to death.
In other words, once the death penalty no longer proved an effective means of retaining and preserving the spiritual devotion of the people, it was abandoned. And although the Sanhedrin could have used it as a means to reinstall fear into the population and thus make them religious again, this is not what Judaism is about. It is not engendered by fear or intimidation, but by love, allegiance, and an inner desire on the part of man to reach out to his Creator.