Pamela Geller, she of the terrible hate-mongering anti-Muslim subway ads (and much other anti-Muslim hate-mongering besides) has apparently decided to put up new ads, in response to those placed by Rabbis for Human Rights and the Council on American Islamic Relations meant to counter her hate. In the new ads, she will quote a particularly inflammatory line from the Quran. Following is a piece I wrote about a year after 9/11 for the Chicago Tribune, in which I addressed this tendency we all seem to have to cherry pick words from Scripture (those of others as well as our own) to prove a point.
Those of us who see the struggle for peace and justice as a spiritual act often quote our Scriptures to validate our efforts. We talk about “true” Judaism, Christianity or Islam and decry how our religions have been distorted. We adorn our walls and bulletin boards with beautiful quotes, words we believe God gave to humanity: “Seek peace and pursue it,” say the Psalms. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” Jesus exhorts his followers. “Those who keep from evil will dwell amid gardens,” we read in the Koran. “In their wealth, the beggar and outcast had due share.”
God, we say, is all about peace and justice.
What, then, are we to do about the other words in our books, words we often choose not to discuss?
“As for those peoples that warred against Jerusalem,” reads Zechariah 14:12, “their flesh shall rot away while they stand on their feet.” Or this passage from John, where Jesus talks to “the Jews”: “You belong to your father, the devil. . . . The reason you do not hear [God] is because you do not belong to God.” In the fifth chapter of the Koran: “The only reward of those who make war upon Allah and His messenger . . . will be that they will be killed or crucified, or have their hands and feet on alternate sides cut off . . . in the Hereafter theirs will be an awful doom.”
Usually, people like me ignore these passages. We push them aside, or counter with quotes we like better. When we do this, though, we are lying.
An individual’s understanding of the Creator comes from life experience; so it is with communities.
Each of the world’s religions–monotheist, polytheist, animist, druid–came into being in the framework of a particular culture. Many arose in response to perceived failures of another faith. Some focused on establishing a discrete community on this earth; others sought to transcend the earth; many juggled both colossal tasks.
There were political struggles and bloody battles to fight, slights to overcome, the weak-willed to encourage, traditions to establish and pass on.
So the Israelites institutionalized slavery. St. Paul made wives subordinate to husbands. The Koran recommends amputation for thieves. We can look it up chapter and verse–it’s really there, in all its sordid glory, flesh rotting, Jews being of the devil, infidels crucified.
I was born a Protestant and moved to Israel as an adult. I decided about 13 years ago to convert to Judaism. Temporarily back in Chicago, I decided last year to become bat mitzvah at 38, which happened in September.
The scriptural portion I was assigned was Zechariah 14, and I found myself learning to chant the verse quoted above–and as a fluent speaker of Hebrew, I understood every word. My portion covered the whole chapter, so I had also to contend with pack animals dropping dead and plunder being snatched.
These verses almost literally stuck in my craw. I found they took me days to learn, and I would often stumble, forget the tune, as I came up against them in practice. The music was lovely; the words horrific.
I found comfort in Zechariah 14:9, a reference to the messianic age: “And on that day, the Lord will be One and his Name One.” That is what matters to me–the notion that we will one day grow beyond our differences and worship at the same altar. This other stuff, this war stuff–I’ll learn it and move on.
But I couldn’t, if for no other reason than that I sang the words in practice every day, for months. Terrible images of war and retribution, and a bitter, vengeful God, over and over again. I found I couldn’t deny that these ideas are also part of my heritage, as legitimate as the soul-stirring ideas that guide and comfort me–undeniably, incontrovertibly there.
And then it came to me–and as a person of faith, I do believe that this was a blessing, not something from my own limited wisdom–that “as legitimate” doesn’t mean “decisive.”
The prophet who set down those words was writing from within the midst of a broken, vanquished people who had in recent memory seen battles as horrific as those he described.
In spite of the horrors they thought inevitable, the prophet and his people could envision something beyond the brutish existence they knew. “And on that day, the Lord will be One.” We learn at the end of the chapter that the time will come when all the peoples of the world will come to Jerusalem to worship–not as Jews, but as who they are.
I would submit that our challenge today is to deny nothing in our Scriptures, but to learn from them how to acknowledge the times in which we live and transcend them. If we aren’t honest about reality we will not be able to transform it.
For me, an Israeli Jew who longs for an end to our war with the Palestinians, I believe this means I must pray for the wisdom to see the evil done on both sides and look past it. To fight for real justice, a solution that acknowledges the suffering and supports the dignity of Palestinian and Israeli alike. To do any less would be an affront to God.
“He has told you,” we read in Micah, “what is good and what the Lord requires . . . only to do justice and to love goodness and to walk modestly with your God.”