The French Emperor’s Burka: When Liberalism Leads to Close-Mindedness

April 13, 2011

It is ironic when liberalism generates, instead of open-mindedness and acceptance, limitation of others’ free expression and denial of their rights.   France, I think, in dictating the limitations of what Muslim women can wear, has unmasked its liberte et egalite and shown it to be something else entirely.  The French Emperor, it seems, is wearing no clothes.  Liberty and equality that in the name of French secularism does not allow religious freedom are just prejudice and fear masquerading as secular values.


Rabbi Abraham Kook, the first chief rabbi of modern day Palestine (pre-state Israel) in the 1920’s, and father of modern day religious Zionism, understood that even in a religious context all things, even those usually deemed as anti-religious, can have value.  For instance, atheism, he said, has an important voice and place.  When others are in need, we must be atheists and not rely on God to help, not attribute the pain of others to divine justice, but jump in to assist, feeling the full burden of others’ needs as if there were no God for them to rely on.


I think secularism, too, has its place.  To be deeply religious, the tolerance and viewing of others’ religious values is of paramount importance.   If God is one and infinite then there are many keys to the kingdom.  When caught up in our own religious views (be they spiritual, or in the case of France, secular) it is hard to appreciate the take others might have on the big questions, i.e. God, people, the good, the universe.   But to have religious depth and not just self-righteousness, we must hear and appreciate the views of others, even if we do not accept them.   Ironically, the more we know about our own religion and the more secure we are in our observance and faith, the more we will be able to tolerate and learn from other’s views.   It makes one wonder how secure the French secularism that Sarkozy has touted really is (


The Talmud says that Jewish law follows the one who states the opposition’s opinion first and only then his own opinion.  Such a person’s view is truly informed and thus more likely to be correct.   When blind to another’s world view, it is easy to be right.  But if we first look through the eyes and values of another and only then commit to our own values, our own opinions will be more true and just.


How ironic that France, birthplace of revolution and freedom, in unmasking the Muslim woman, has donned its own cultural blinders.







Heaven and Heck

April 4, 2011

When I was a Rabbi at Washington University it was common for students who were not very knowledgeable about Judaism to ask me, “Rabbi, Judaism does not believe in Heaven and Hell right?”  I am not sure where this seemingly widespread impression came from, but my flippant answer was always, “No, but we do believe in heck.”

In the Five Books of Moses, the Biblical books of Genesis through Deuteronomy, there is no mention of heaven and hell.  There are proscriptions of earthly punishments, for violations of interpersonal as well as ritual law at the hands of a court, as well as earthly punishments from the Almighty (holding back rain, defeat at the hands of our enemies, exile from the Land of Israel) directed toward the entire Jewish nation for not obeying the Torah, but nothing is portrayed beyond our physical world.

Though the Torah proscribes many punishments for the violation of commandments, in only a few instances does the Bible mention reward for correct actions.  In the case of honoring one’s father and mother (Exodus 20:11) the Bible says, “You shall have long life on the land which God has given you” and for the commandment of shooing away the mother bird before taking her eggs from the nest (Deuteronomy 21:6), the Torah writes the same reward, that “it may be good for you and your days be long…”

The Talmud records an interesting story regarding faith and reward and punishment.   A father told his son to climb a tree and shoo away the mother bird, claiming the eggs for himself.  The boy obeyed and on his way down fell off the tree and died.   The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Alisha ben Avyah, watching the scene of the boy dying while occupied precisely in those two laws for which the Torah rewards long life, gave up his faith in God.  The Talmud then asks, indeed, how do we explain the boy’s death?in light of his fillment of these two commandments?   The Talmud answers that the torah does not mean long life in this world but long life in the next.

Normative Judaism does believe in an after life, usually referred to as Olam Habah, the “World to Come.”  Maimonides railed against the branches of Islamic philosophy in his day (11c) that saw this reward as physical, since the body is put in the ground and only the soul meets its maker.  Maimonides explains that through our actions in this world we cultivate our soul’s ability to reconnect with its Infinite divine source after the body’s death.   What we have done in this world conditions the soul to be close to God or distant from God.

Closeness to the Divine is the ultimate reward; distance from it the greatest punishment.   So we must be clear from a Jewish point of view that though we believe in reward and punishment (with out it, I think, what we do does not really matter) we should not mistake this for a vindictive King in the sky image casting humans into a Dantesque inferno.  Rather our soul in the next world is a natural extension of who we have become in this world.  The development of our moral and religious character which we achieve in the physical world, in a way continues on and “naturally” results in our proximity to the Divine, perhaps the greatest of all rewards and punishments.

In Jewish study and life in general one rarely hears discussion of Heaven and Hell.  I think this emerges from Judaism’s very strong stress on this world, and doing what we should because we are commanded so, not because some non-earthly reward and punishment awaits us.   As the first century Jewish moral work Pirkey Avot, The Ethics of our Fathers (4:17) puts it:  “More beautiful is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than all the life of the World to Come, and more beautiful is one hour of spiritual satisfaction in the Next World than all the life of this world.”