The anti-Muslim film that has set much of the Muslim world ablaze
is truly a mean spirited and offensive portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed. If someone created a video portraying Moses, King David or any one of the Jewish holy men in such a fashion, I would also be offended.
One might say that this film is in fact Islamophobic and is meant to inspire hatred of Muslims.
We Jews have had many experiences of anti-Semites spreading lies, conspiracies and misinformation both about Jew and our religion. Think about the Blood Libels of the Middle Ages, where Christians claimed that Jews slaughtered a gentile child to use their blood in their Passover matzot.
We are still haunted by books that contain vicious lies about us, such as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and a host of others anti-Semitic tomes. Ironically, these books sell best in the Muslim World.
As Jews, our reaction to these types of insults, both against our religion and our people, has always been vigorous and impassioned yet non-violent. Whilst I have read much of the Koran, I am not an expert on Islam. I can, however, comment on why I think Judaism and Jews react the way we do.
Really the reaction we are seeing in the Middle East to this obscene film is religious zealotry. This is something, as a religious person myself, I can relate to – we feel passionate about our religion and have a sense of righteous indignation when what we believe to be the word of God is denigrated.
Nonetheless, there is a story in the Torah of an individual who acted on his sense of zealotry and killed two people who had committed a public sin and act of immorality. His name was Pinchas.
The Torah tells us that the zealotry itself pleased God and Pinchas was rewarded and given the opportunity to become a priest. The Torah describes this by saying that he was welcomed into the “Covenant of Peace.”
Nonetheless, the subtext to this story is that by becoming a priest and thus, working in the Temple, Pinchas is now given a peaceful and nonviolent mechanism through which to channel his zealotry for God (Numbers, Chapter 25).
Clearly, acting in a violent manner based on a feeling of zealousness is not something the Jewish Bible encourages. Doing so and thereby hurting or killing innocent people, as rioters in the Middle East have done, can of course never ever be justified and is entirely morally repugnant according to any reading of the Torah.
Even zealousness against known sinners, however, the Torah would rather be channeled through a Covenant of Peace, rather than one of war and violence.
In fact, according to the Torah, even in a case where an individual has committed a wrong against God and blasphemed, it is a court that has to render the judgment before any punishment can be exacted. Yet, proving blasphemy in Judaism is an extremely difficult process (Leviticus, Chapter 24).
In addition, most punishments that are rendered for spiritual sins are left to God Himself to mete out. We believe that God is just and is alone able to deal with those who sin against Him – it is not our duty to do so.
The same is true for rewards. According to the Torah, God, not humans, rewards us for being true to Him (Deuteronomy, Chapters 29 and 30).
Thus, if violence is discouraged and frowned upon and we trust God to defend Himself – we as humans are left with peaceful options to defend both God and ourselves. This has led to thousands of years' worth of discourse and discussion around ideas and theology. With violence not being an option, we use a more effective tools – our intelligence and communication skills.
In a tragic kind of way, in the Middle Ages these were tools that Islamic scholars used themselves and taught others to use. There was a time when Islam was known for its brilliant theologians, philosophers and scientists.
In fact, some Islamic philosophers – notably al-Farabi (870-950), Ibn Sina (980-1037) and Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) – were read by, and arguably influenced, Judaism’s best known philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204).
Indeed, much can be learned about the correct approach to religion and theology from the Islamic scholars of the Middle Ages.
When one sees the current state of affairs, one yearns for the days of yore. The days when we were able to dialog, debate and question, without fear of reprisals and violence. The days when leaders actually led their followers rather than the other way round. The days when might did not make right and rational and reasonable argument trumped idiotic displays of ignorance by the masses, be it by zealous rioters or foolish and moronic filmmakers.
Yes, those were the good old days. Indeed, there is much we can learn from history and we need to talk more about it.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is co-founder and executive director of Youth Directions
, a non-profit organization that helps youth find and succeed at their unique positive purpose in life