Does the Torah back burning mosques?

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester reflects on the recent arson attack on a West Bank mosque

October 22, 2010
West Bank rabbis deliver new copies of the Koran to replace those destroyed in an arson attack earlier this month on the village of Beit Fajjar near Bethlehem

West Bank rabbis deliver new copies of the Koran to replace those destroyed in an arson attack earlier this month on the village of Beit Fajjar near Bethlehem

The furore over American Pastor Terry Jones's suggestion to hold a "Burn a Koran Day" was quickly overshadowed by the desecration of a mosque in Beit Fajjar near Bethlehem. The graffiti on the walls suggested that it was the work of extremist Jewish settlers.

At first glance, it might seem that Judaism supports this belligerent approach towards our Muslim neighbours. God's instructions to Moses as the Israelites prepare to conquer the Land of Israel offer little in the way of liberal, pluralist sentiment.

According to Deuteronomy, "You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess serve their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. You shall tear down their altars and smash their sacred pillars and burn their Asherim with fire, and you shall cut down the engraved images of their gods and obliterate their name from that place" (12: 2-3).

If these verses seem brutal, the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rabbi Chaim David Halevy (1924-1988) was unapologetic. Quoting from the Aleynu prayer, which is recited at the conclusion of every prayer service, he argued that the Jewish people long for a time when everyone will serve God and we "will remove the idolatry from the earth, and idols will be exterminated; when the world shall be regenerated by the kingdom of the Almighty".

Reflecting on various cruel, grotesque forms of idolatry, he stated that their destruction remained the mission of the Jewish people. Jews should proudly proclaim their desire to rid the world of such practices and instead to spread ethical monotheism across it.

If a Torah scroll is burned, we must rip our clothes

His words, however, were tempered by an important assertion. According to all rabbinic authorities, Islam contains no trace of idolatry and Rabbi Halevy reckoned that currently no one in Israel or the diaspora matches the biblical definition of an idolater. Therefore, he believed that we have a moral responsibility to reach out to all citizens in a way befitting the highest standards of humanity.

The Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks suggests that while Judaism longs for a messianic age when "the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them" (Isaiah 11: 16) - a time when Jewish people will live peacefully alongside other nations - it recognises that we are currently far from that reality.

In the meantime, the rabbis came up with a pragmatic code for living side by side with people whose religious beliefs we may reject, but whose lives and human rights we must respect. He points to a passage from the Talmud which states: "We support poor non-Jews together with poor Israelites, visit sick gentiles together with sick Israelites, and bury their dead as one buries dead Israelites for the sake of the paths of peace" (see Jewish Words, opposite).

As the British Mandate drew to a close and the state of Israel was established, its first Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog (1888-1959) confronted the challenge of establishing the norms of the Jewish state. In a beautiful essay, he addressed questions of how the law and constitution of the country could be reconciled with halachah and how non-Jewish minorities should be treated in a Jewish state.

For while the Bible offers equal treatment to converts and those who fell into the category of "foreign citizens", it was unreasonable to expect all Arabs to convert to Judaism and the biblical category of the "foreign citizen" would not be reinstituted until messianic times. Rabbi Herzog was adamant that it was wrong to treat every Arab as a fifth columnist. He quoted a wealth of rabbinic sources demonstrating that since Muslims are monotheists who observe the Noahide laws and pray to God, they should be entitled to full civil rights in a Jewish state.

The state of Israel, Rabbi Herzog argued, was created by the United Nations on the condition that it would be a democratic state that respected minority rights. There was no room for a Jewish state to renege on commitments it made to the rest of the world.

His successor, Rabbi Yitzhak Unterman (1886-1976), went a step further. He pointed out that the Torah is dedicated to establishing peace and harmony in the world, and this should be our approach to non-Jews who live among us.

His position was mirrored by Rabbi Neriah, the spiritual mentor of Bnei Akiva. In a published response to someone who asked whether it was appropriate to take charitable donations to a local Palestinian refugee camp, the rabbi answered that, so long as they are not personally connected to violent attacks against Jews, we are obligated to give charity to our needy non-Jewish neighbours.

Jewish history should teach us how minorities should be treated and halachah teaches us to treasure our own sacred books and buildings. When a Sefer Torah is dropped on the floor, we declare a full day's fast and if a Torah scroll is burned, we must rip our clothes and adopt some of the practices of mourning.

Vicious, violent ultra-nationalism, which has taken hold of some segments of Israeli society, has no place in our culture.

Last week, some of my teachers, including Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, joined a delegation of rabbis to the desecrated mosque, presenting the imam with 20 new copies of the Koran.

Only this decent, civilised style of religious leadership has any hope of bringing calm to the religious communities of the Middle East and spreading a Judaism which is indeed a light to the nations, reflecting the talmudic principle that true Torah scholars increase peace in the world (Berachot 6a).

Rabbi Sylvester is rabbi of the United Synagogue's Tribe Israel. He has recently been appointed head of the Beit Midrash on human rights at the Hillel Centre at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem

Last updated: 11:11am, October 22 2010