Perhaps O Israel?

April 1, 2012
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Avi Shafran

There’s something vaguely Marxist about some of the contributions to Sh’ma’s recent symposium on certainty.  Groucho, that is, not Karl. One essay and then another and another, sometimes eloquent and sometimes scholarly, rail against the very ideas of certitude and conviction … with certitude and conviction.

Haredim, who by definition feel certain about certain things, are Exhibit A for some of the writers. Haredi beliefs are deeply held, hence, it seems to follow, they are inherently dangerous.  The actions of a band of uncouth residents of Beit Shemesh this past December are invoked here and there (and there and there) to illustrate the evil of Haredi certainty.  As if the fact that Louis Farrakhan and Rush Limbaugh exist somehow means that free speech is a bad thing.

One writer, a self-declared feminist (presumably certain about that), sees the misbehavior of the Beit Shemesh hooligans as implicating certainty rather than plain old stupidity.

Another chooses to “reject in principle” (nice to have principles!) the claim of “the Haredim” to certainty.  Yet another seems to equate a Christian’s principled opposition to sex education in schools with the claims of “birthers” and Holocaust deniers.  (Graciously, he spares the Haredi community — could it be because he’s not Jewish?  Nah.)

Moving on, we find an abominable attempt to rehabilitate homosexuality, an act forbidden strongly and in no uncertain terms by the Torah – and to cast all who dare to speak the name of the Torah’s position as engaging in “hate speech.”  No uncertainty for him (just unreason).

We could continue, say, with another contributor’s assertion that Haredi stringencies rely “ever more frequently on totalitarian tactics of spying, intimidation and fear”; or yet another’s equating the courage of one’s convictions with “haughtiness”; or a declaration that believing that one knows what Judaism entails “fuel[s] the fires of hostility, polarity, and sinat chinam, baseless hatred.”  But I’ll stop.  You get the idea.

Can we talk?

About, that is, the premise that certitude need be a source of evil.  To be sure, it is deeply wrong to demonize others, wrong to act uncouthly, wrong to not acknowledge the fact that other people come to all sorts of things one may feel deeply about from very different places.

But all that is a far cry from indicting the very idea of believing, strongly, unyieldingly, even passionately, that something is true.  Whether in the realm of religion (Judaism is superior to paganism), family (one’s mother loves him), politics (it makes strange bedfellows) or science (the earth’s climate is changing), most of us harbor deep and unyielding convictions.

Instead of wringing our hands over examples of people whose crimes are not their convictions but their manners, we should be embracing our deeply held convictions but examining our assumptions.  Some of us — and this I preach to my fellow Haredim — need to consider their assumption that less-obviously religious Jews are less concerned than they about serving God.  And others among us need to consider that Haredim, even with all their sex-segregation and seeming stringencies, may not in fact be bad people with indefensible attitudes.

But in the end, as Jews, we are called on to be certain about certain things.  How delicious is the irony that a discussion of the evils of certitude has taken place in a periodical called Sh’ma, whose name is taken from the most fundamental take-no-prisoners declarative Jewish credo: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”

It’s not the “ulai,” the “perhaps,” after all, which we declare, but the Sh’ma. And it’s only one verse, and one thought, in the Jewish mandate, the Torah.

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  1. There is a certain paradox when one says they are “certain” about their “belief”. Belief, by it’s very nature, is something that one cannot be certain about. None of us stood at Mt. Sinai, and as much as we’d like to believe we *know* the things we, as orthodox Jews, believe, we can’t.

    And yet, there are some, too many, in our religious world whose “certitude” is indeed dangerous. It’s dangerous spiritually, as it pushes others who fall outside the “certitude” away. And is dangerous physically, as I’ve personally witnessed in Bet Shemesh, not just in December, but over a 5 year period during which we’ve documented dozens of cases of bad, bordering on terroristic, behavior which has its roots in religious “certitude”. (And which is not just limited to a band of uncouth residents, but has the tacit encouragement of so-called rabbinic leadership.)

    This danger, of course, is not just limited to some ultra-orthodox Jews. It can be seen among Religious Zionist Jews whose “certitude” leads them to “know” what God wants vis a vis the land of Israel. And of course we see the danger from of “certitude” of fundamentalists in other religions and ideologies.

    One can and should feel strongly about one’s beliefs. But to avoid the dangers we see growing around us we must instill in believers the humility of understanding the limits of belief.

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  2. I find it troubling that an ordained Orthodox Rabbi writes that the homosexual act is “forbidden … in no uncertain terms by the Torah.” Had Rabbi Safran substituted the word “Chazal” in place of “the Torah”, it would have been an accurate statement. But the simple understanding of the Torah, according to the majority Rabbinic opinion as expressed in Tractate Yevamot 83b, does not “prohibit the homosexual act in no uncertain terms.” In fact, that prohibition is derived via Rabbinic intpretation of a single word, ואת, a word which certainly does NOT refer to the homosexual act in even the farthest possible stretch of its plain meaning. Perhaps Rabbi Safran missed this daf in his daf yomi studies. Or perhaps he prefers a Karaite interpretation of the verse to advance his own posiition vis a vis the homosexual act.

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  3. Having had an interesting and enlightening email conversation with Rabbi Shafran, I retract my previous comment.

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