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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Stakes of Hermeneutics

Last shabbat I spent time with former LTSP-RRC students from the Jewish-Christian Encounter course, in which seminarians from RRC and LTSP were paired for guided text study by myself and Rabbi Melissa Heller. The texts always included a portion of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and other texts brought by each student: New Testament, Talmud, hymns, poems, writings of the Church Fathers, other rabbinic literature, etc. Teaching this course has been one of my most rewarding experiences. RRC also holds that course with Palmer (formerly Eastern Baptist seminary) and with Muslim graduate studies.
An alumna of one of the three course that I have co-taught with Rabbi Heller led the Shabbat service that I attended. While we discussed some of my experiences here I mentioned some of the contested discourse that I had been reading in the opinion pages of Ha'aretz, one of the major Israeli newspapers. That discourse was over the theory that Jews have no religious or ethical obligation to save the life of a non-Jew, counter to the articulation of Jewish tradition by many, many Jews around the world.
My former student and now friend, said some thing that has stayed with me: "The hermeneutical stakes are so high (in Israel)." The luxury of idle speculation and philosophical debate without consequence does not exist here. That conversation came rushing back as I read the following article on the BBC about the text that is at the heart of the debate.

Here is the discussion of the text that I and many here in Israel (including the Israeli police) find most troubling:
Hundreds of right-wing Jews have taken part in demonstrations outside Israel's Supreme Court over the brief detention of two prominent rabbis in the last few weeks. 
There were clashes with police on horseback on the nearby Jerusalem streets and several arrests were made.
Rabbis Dov Lior and Yacob Yousef had endorsed a highly controversial book, the King's Torah - written by two lesser-known settler rabbis. It justifies killing non-Jews, including those not involved in violence, under certain circumstances.
The fifth chapter, entitled "Murder of non-Jews in a time of war" has been widely quoted in the Israeli media. The summary states that "you can kill those who are not supporting or encouraging murder in order to save the lives of Jews".
At one point it suggests that babies can justifiably be killed if it is clear they will grow up to pose a threat.

It is my contention that in a place where lethal violence has been used as a political and religious tool, this is no mere philosophical discussion, as has been claimed by those who protest the state action against the rabbis who are circulating this text. I was particularly disheartened by the accounts of those who protested in favor of the rabbis and their text, who hadn't even read it.
In the United States and around the world we are dealing with the limits of religious speech sanctioning violence. Muslims (and those who appear to be Muslim or Arab) are under particular scrutiny in the United States and in Israel. I applaud the Israeli police for investigating this text and its dissemination as potentially inciting violence.
The policies of the State of Israel with regard to its own Arab citizens and the Palestinian Muslims and Christians over whom it holds power are beset with their own difficult rhetoric and history of violence. Yet the two communities are engaged in talks that might bring about a just peace, stability and security for all in this region and many beyond, if no one loses sight of the basic human dignity and right to life of each Palestinian and Israeli person, Musim, Christian, Jew, or Druze, secular or religious.
We - humanity - cannot afford death-dealing rhetoric under the rubric of free speech in civil religion or even religious freedom.

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