Return to Previous Page
Rabbi Jack Moline Website
Home | Profile | Works | Links
Extremism and Insecurity
Yom Kippur, 5766/2005
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Eventually, I expect to give you an answer to this question: what are we doing here today? But not yet.

At one point or another, almost everyone in this room has heard me talk about the Oven of Akhnai. In the tractate of the Talmud known as Bava Metzia is the midrash that every serious student of Conservative Judaism learns is the essential story of our philosophy.

The story itself concerns an oven that was constructed out of removable tiles. We don't know if it was a style of oven called the Akhnai or if it was invented by a guy named Akhnai or if it was manufactured by the Akhnai Oven Company. But because it was something new to the rabbis in the first century of the common era, they debated about whether or not such an oven was clean or unclean.

Now, understand that clean and unclean – or in Hebrew, tahor and tamei – were not hygienic categories. The question instead was about ritual categories. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, the head of the academy, declared that the oven fit the category of tahor, clean. The rest of the sages – both his colleagues and his students – declared the oven tamei, unclean. And having reported that argument, the gemara continues with this story (BM 59b):

On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them. He said to them: 'If the halakha agrees with me, let this carob tree prove it!' With that, the carob tree jumped a hundred cubits out of its place -- others affirm, four hundred cubits. 'No proof can be brought from a carob tree,' they retorted.

Again he said to them: 'If the halakha agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!'

Whereupon, the stream of water flowed backwards. 'No proof can be brought from a stream of water' they rejoined.

Again he urged: if the halakha agrees with me, let the walls of the study hall prove it;' with that, the walls inclined to fall.

But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: 'When scholars are engaged in a halakhic dispute, how do you presume to interfere?' Hence they did not fall in honor of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honor of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined

Again, he said to them: 'If the halakha agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!' With that, a Heavenly Voice cried out: 'Why do you dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halakha agrees with him!' But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: 'It is not in heaven.'

What did he mean by this? Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because You have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai: After the majority must one incline.

I often teach this midrash as an illustration of the power that is vested in us as lovers of Torah and students of Torah. And I often sum it up by saying what many people consider revolutionary, but what I think is the essence of our tradition: Torah says what we say Torah says.

But in preparing for these remarks, I have come to view this story in a slightly different light. Though I chose this morning's sermon topic during the summer, I had the good fortune to hear Prof. Menachem Kellner speak a number of times last month, including a remarkable session for members of the Rabbinical Assembly in Washington. He illustrated his talk with a version of this story. Taking two Styrofoam cups, he wrote tahor on one and tamei on the other. He then asked us the status of the two cups. Any number of us hesitated. So he offered a second example.

An unmarried man and an unmarried woman have sexual relations in the morning. That same woman marries another man in the afternoon. That same night, the original unmarried man has relations with the now-married woman. What is the difference between the two examples of intimacy? Without hesitation, we answered that the second instance was adulterous. And Professor Kellner asked us what changed – that is, if the same two people are involved in the same action on the same day, how can one instance carry no penalty and the other make them liable for execution?

Now, those of you with a background in philosophy are light years ahead of me on this question. And those of you without such backgrounds are ready for a little nap. When you wake up, near the end of the sermon, I will give you the answer to the question. In the meantime, let's talk about something else.

I don't know about you, but I am scared to death of fundamentalist Muslims. I am sure that statement is politically incorrect, but I have to say it if I am going to be honest. How do I talk to people who organize the world into believers and infidels if I am not willing to cop to either category? It's not just a difference of opinion, mind you. These folks believe that the world was created to become Muslim. They emphasize that the word "Islam" means "submission," and that the proper role of any human being is to submit to the will of God, of Allah, as revealed in the sacred scripture, the Qur'an, and the explanatory life and teachings of the prophet Muhammed, the Sunnah and the Hadith. As the Qur'an says, "And whatever the Messenger gives you, take it, and whatever he forbids you, leave it. And fear Allah: truly Allah is severe in punishment." [Qur'an 59:7]

I don't know about you, but I think fundamentalist Christians are scary in the same way. I may joke about them when they talk about diverting hurricanes with the power of prayer or ascribe a touchdown or a home run to having Jesus on their side, but the extension of that same belief system gives some of them a sense of permission to physically wipe evil people – that is, non-believers – of the face of the earth. Ten years ago, my cousin Gary Romalis was fixing himself breakfast in his kitchen in Vancouver. Gary was a respected ob-gyn who helped thousands of women have the babies they wanted and hundreds of women terminate unwanted pregnancies. A Christian fundamentalist with a high-powered rifle was hiding in the alley behind his home, waiting for an opportunity. Thank God all he managed to do was shatter his leg. Unfortunately for Gary, four years later he was stabbed in the back as he entered his medical office, making him the first such doctor to survive two nearly fatal attacks.

Is every fundamentalist Muslim a terrorist? Is every fundamentalist Christian an assassin? Of course not. Most of them are just gently, quietly bigoted; perhaps they even feel compassion for those who do not share their certainty, quoting a doctrine of inclusive love to justify a practice of exclusivity and exclusiveness.

What draws people to such extreme beliefs? What enables them to justify actions that most people, religious and otherwise, understand to be crimes by any definition? What makes them so sure of their doctrine that they will violate it to uphold it?

Sociologically, you will probably get a variety of answers, most of them boiling down to an uncomfortably common phenomenon of human behavior. We do not like to be insecure. It may be the spirit of innovation and invention that drives history forward, but change drives people crazy. I know we like to point the finger at poverty and poor education and oppression, but the fact is that uncertainty is far more the culprit. People like things to be dependable, recognizable, consistent and therefore comforting.

Maybe that is why people who live in circumstances we would consider deprived will often claim to be happy. They do not deny their misery, but they feel that the really important things – community, family, home – mitigate their suffering. And perhaps that is why people who become suddenly wealthy or famous turn out to be unhappy. They have everything they think they ever wanted, except that their circumstances have changed to be alien and they have no grounding in community, family or home.

When insecurity threatens to overwhelm an individual or a group, the desire is to remove the source of the insecurity. And I suspect that the more structured and recognizable the social environment is, the more passionately is that sense of security defended. When the threat comes from inside, it must be expelled. When the threat comes from outside, it must be eliminated.

If you accept my analysis, don't be too judgmental. We all have the same impulses; we just deal with them differently. You may remember, those of you old enough, a Sam Peckinpah movie called "Straw Dogs," which starred Dustin Hoffman. It was released in 1971 at the height of the unrest in this country over matters of war and peace. Hoffman played a pacifist academic who moved from the United States to the English countryside because of the culture of violence he found objectionable in the USA. Taunted and tortured in his house by hostile neighbors, he responds with a barrage of inventive homemade weapons, screaming, "I will not have violence done to my home!"

We yearn to be secure, but we never are. There is always something, someone challenging the dependability of the world we have constructed for ourselves. It doesn't matter if it is a natural phenomenon or a new idea, a stranger bent on havoc or a seductive friend, a rebellious child or a possessive parent. And if it isn't any of those things, then it is our own restless hearts. From the beginning of time this has been our dilemma. That's why our very first moment in human history involves eating from the forbidden tree and being expelled from Eden.

Religion – good religion – acknowledges this continuing tension between our desire for security and the fact that we never have it. Religion – good religion – gives us the tools to live well with shifting circumstances by living righteously, by striving to do the right thing in the right way. That is religion's essential question: how do we tie all of this together properly, how do we live rightly?

Religion – bad religion – creates a false sense of security by denying that there is and should be change in the world, change in our lives. Religion – bad religion – sets up false absolutes and justifies everything in defense of those absolutes. It flees from religion's essential question: how do we tie all of this together properly, how do we live rightly?

By the way, it is not just religion in the classical use of the term. The same is true of any ideology, including political ideologies. We all know that the goal of Communism was world domination, and that the imposition of its absolute – the State – justified all excesses against anyone and anything deemed a security risk. The regimentation of National Socialism in Germany appealed to an insecure German public and resulted in the most horrifying atrocities ever perpetrated against our people. Totalitarian dictators – Idi Amin, Augusto Pinochet, Saddam Hussein, to name just a few – create a standard of absolute obedience that justifies the worst abuses of human dignity and human rights in the name of their leadership. They all rise to power on the wings of insecurity by promising to address that most dominant of human concerns. Their strongest weapon is fear.

Yet we also know that those ideologies are not always evil. Communism in its purest form produced the kibbutz movement in Israel. The combination of regimentation and folk religion produced the disciplined Samurai who served honorably in their country. And while we would be hard pressed to cite an example of benevolent dictatorship in our time, the second Temple would never have stood had it not been for Cyrus, sovereign king of Persia, who proclaimed, "God has given me power over all the nations on earth!" and then charged the Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem.

It is neither religion nor ideology that is inherently the problem. It is when people confuse the means with the ends. We are no less guilty of that mistake as Americans than anyone else. Our founding fathers articulated a sense of government that affirmed the dignity and rights of all human beings and created a culture that could be self-critical and self-correcting as it pursued the path that has attracted citizens from around the world who want nothing more than to share in the American dream. Your forebears, my forebears came to these shores because of the promise of that founding vision. Yet, we have in the past and continue in the present to produce citizens, even leaders, who exploit the fears of our citizenry about security to justify violations of our own principles. When the threat comes from inside, it must be expelled. When the threat comes from outside, it must be eliminated.

I am a Jew and not a Muslim, not a Christian, not a Buddhist and not an atheist. In my prideful moments, I like to claim that I am a Jew precisely because I adhere to values and principles that I cannot find in those other systems of belief. I am not a submissive servant, but a partner in creation. I meet no litmus test of faith, but a standard of righteous behavior. I do not deny the value of the material world, but seek to live in balance with it. I am not alone in the world, but a part of eternal consciousness.

But I need to be more honest than prideful. Being Jewish does not mean being more than human – it means being fully human. And if that's the case, then I must acknowledge my insecurity as well. We have produced Jews, sometimes Jewish leaders, sometimes me who demand submission to the mandates of halakha as if they had meaning independent of the people who observe them. We have produced Jews, sometimes Jewish leaders, sometimes me who expect an articulation of belief and obedience to a certain image of God, as if righteous living were not enough. We have produced Jews, sometimes Jewish leaders, sometimes me who have devalued the material world by living not in harmony with it, but as if it were of no consequence at all. We have produced Jews, sometimes Jewish leaders, sometimes me who have arrogated a sense of certainty as if the only consciousness in the world that matters is mine alone.

You know, someone quoted Barry Goldwater to me a few weeks ago in justifying what I found to be a position that flirted with racism. The familiar quotation is "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!" Goldwater, as you may recall, was half Jewish. That wasn't the half. Extremism in defense of anything is a vice because it establishes the goal itself as an absolute, whether it is liberty or halakhah or peace or personal enlightenment. For the extremist, when the threat comes from inside, it must be expelled. When the threat comes from outside, it must be eliminated. Only God is absolute in our tradition, and God does not need our defense.

But in researching the quotation, I found the other half of it from the half of Barry Goldwater that was Jewish. In the next breath he said, "and let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!" That paraphrase of the Torah puts our pursuits in context; the only context in which to pursue justice is a just context, and you may extrapolate from there if you like.

All honest attempts to help human beings cope with insecurity can lead to right and righteous living – Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, humanist, you name it. All honest attempts to tie together a community to its collective benefit can lead to right and righteous living, be it democracy or any of the other forms of government that are second best. But all those that try to mask the inherent insecurity of human life with exclusionary and exclusive practices and pronouncements put their proponents in the same place as the danger they claim to address.

Okay, those of you who have nodded off and want to hear the answer to the earlier question – it's time to wake up. What is the difference between the intimacy in the morning when the woman was single and the intimacy in the evening, after she had married anther man? From the point of view of the behaviors, absolutely nothing. What has changed is not the nature of the two individuals nor the nature of the act they perform. What has changed is the meaning that we as a community have given to the ritual of kiddushin, the ritual of marriage. It is the same with the example of the two Styrofoam cups; what has changed is the meaning we have given to those cups. There is no tahor and tamei except as we say there is tahor and tamei. To put it in precisely the terms used by Prof. Kellner, the distinctions of halakhic categories are not ontological, they are not existential, they are not inherent. Only those who subscribe to them believe in them. That, by the way, is why non-Jews may eat pork to their hearts' content without sanction or disapproval, and why they are under no obligation to observe Shabbat. We don't believe in the "cootie theory" of Jewish law.

Because if it is otherwise, if there is an objective reality to these systems of understanding we hold sacred as Jews, then there can only be right and wrong in the world, and never a shade of gray. If the purpose of the halakahic endeavor is to uncover only a revealed truth, then we value not the scholar, but the prophet. In fact, if all that Jewish legal studies seek to do is affirm an antecedent reality, that is, to affirm the original intent of our constituional document, the Torah, then scholarship is completely irrelevant. We don't want the wisdom, just divination.

Maybe many of you, but certainly at least Don Goldstein, are recognizing the conflict between Yehudah haLevi, who believed in ongoing prophecy, and Moses Maimonides, who believed in the rational process of deliberation. If you were to ground this in Greek philosophy, you would see the conflict between Plato, whose universe was filled with absolute truths and forms, and Aristotle, whose universe was spare and waiting to be filled with human deliberation.

It is the blessing and curse of human existence to live with insecurity. It is the nature of the human experience to try to minimize that insecurity; it is inevitable that we will fail. I wish I could tell you why God put us on this roller coaster, but I cannot. But at least one source in our tradition gives us a certain encouragement to find meaning in the ride.

When Rabbi Eliezer resorted to prophecy to prove that the oven of Akhnai was clean, Rabbi Joshua rebuked the revelation from heaven with these words:

"It is not in heaven."

The midrash continues:

What did he mean by this? Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because You have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai: After the majority must one incline.

R. Nathan met Elijah and asked him: What did the Holy One of blessed name do in that hour? -- God cried (with joy), he replied, saying, "My children have triumphed, My children have triumphed."

It is the blessing and curse of human existence to live with insecurity. It is the nature of the human experience to try to minimize that insecurity; it is inevitable that we will fail. But as long as we do not surrender the effort to ideologues and triumphalists with their false promises of success, as long as we choose to struggle with past and present to build a future, as long as we gather on these sacred days of our own consensus to acknowledge our shortcomings and renew our efforts, then and only then do we do God's will.

Home | Profile | Works | Links

Comments or Questions? Email