Monday, May 23, 2022

Religious Violence

R' Shaul Alter's followers (Ynet)
Man’s inhumanity to Man. I mention this famous quote (often associated with the Holocaust) in light of what is going on in Ger right now:

A Violent Schism Just Exploded in Israel's Most Powerful Hasidic Sect

Rival factions of the Ger Hasidic sect fought running battles in three Israeli cities over the weekend. This is why the fur is flying

 Clashes between rival factions of the Ger Hasidic sect spread across the country over the weekend, exposing a growing and increasingly violent rift in Israel’s largest and most powerful ultra-Orthodox dynasty.

Street fighting erupted Friday in three separate places – the southern city of Ashdod, the predominantly Haredi city of Bnei Brak and Jerusalem. Tensions spiked after followers of Rabbi Shaul Alter – the former dean of the movement’s flagship yeshiva in Jerusalem – reportedly hurled insults at Grand Rebbe... 

In reading reports about this violence, I was reminded of the charge often hurled at religion. Namely that religion is responsible for just about all the atrocities and injustices in the world. Actually I think there is a lot of truth to that. Surely what is happening in Ger is a result of religious fervor. As is the violence that occurred in Ponevezh a few years ago over who should head that Yeshiva. Both sides claiming moral (religious) superiority over the other side. 

Religious fervor also explains much of the violence against Israel by Musilm fanatics. Of which Iran is the prime example. Suicide bombings are clearly religious in nature. The racist violence of White Supremacists is another example of that. Often couched in the language of religion - saying that a white Christian America is the will of God and they are simply acting upon that will.

Lest anyone think religious Jews are exempt from that kind of violence, sadly this is not the case. There have been more than a few acts of extreme violence in the name of God by people such as Yigal Amir who assassinated Itzhak Rain - and mass murderer Baruch Goldstein. Both of whom were fervent Religious Zionists.  And they are not the only religious Jews to have committed such heinous atrocities.

Just to be clear if it isn’t already obvious, I am  not saying all violence is equal. That would be a ridiculous claim. What I am however saying is that religious fervor is what often motivates it. The difference being only in degree.

Religious violence is not just a 21st century phenomenon. Unfortunately it has been the case for centuries. Case in point - the Spanish  inquisition. As were the crusades. Both in the name of religion.

 And although to a much lesser extent there was violence in the 19th century in Volozhin - the premier Yeshiva of its day.  It was over a dispute between students of the Netziv and the Beis Halevi over who should be the Rosh HaYeshiva.

The question is why? Why is religion the cause of so much violence? I think the answer is self evident. If one believes strongly that they are doing the will of God, what greater motivation can there be? If one thinks this is what God wants, a truly devout individual may very well give up his life for it. Death is no obstacle since that will bring about the ultimate heavenly reward for that sacrifice. 

One might conclude that in making these observations it would make an atheist out of anyone. Now I am not an atheist. But I can understand why one might reach that conclusion based on all the above. The fact, however, is that the greatest atrocity against humanity in all of history – the Holocaust - was not sourced in religion at all.

Six million Jews were killed. Not to mention all the horrors survivors went through – which probably includes many millions more. All for racial - not religious reasons. And this doesn’t even speak to the millions of others killed or tortured by the German government of that time – and their collaborators all over Europe. Although it could be argued that many of Hitler’s willing executioners of Jews all across Europe did so because of the centuries long blame the Christian Church had placed upon us for killing their god - and we were then finally getting our just deserts.. 

The point is however that religious fervor had nothing to do with the Germany’s motives. That was pure and simple racism – taken to its most violent and extreme conclusion.

I have been thinking about the relationship between religion and violence a lot lately and have tried to explain why that is the case. But the truth is that religion is not really about violence - even though there has been so much of it in its name.  Religion is about truth. For a Jew it is a belief that there is a God who created the universe with a mission for mankind – and for the Jewish people in particular.

Religion is intended to generate good in the world. Not evil. Religious fervor  is responsible for some of the greatest charity work of our time. Christian missionaries all over the world feed starving third world children, often  risking life and limb; and disease to do that in service to God’s will as they understand it.

The Jewish people are no slouches in that department. Chesed is one of the most prominent characteristics of our people. There are Chesed organizations galore in Jewish neighborhoods all over the world that are legendary. From soup kitchens to visiting the sick. From rescue operations to protecting the vulnerable and elderly. 

How many times has Israel sent their elite rescuers to disaster scenes all over the world? How many times have we heard about Israeli hospitals treating enemy combatants injured and captured during a battle? Secular Jews have that trait imbedded into their DNA as well. DNA that in my view  can be traced back to the religious fervor of their observant ancestors throughout history. Jewish philanthropy is legendary as well. 

Religious fervor is about doing good in the world. Violence in its name is misguided. 

In my view and in our day, violence should never be used other than in self defense.  We are a nation whose ways are pleasant. Not violent.  

Unfortunately it seems to be observed more in the breach these days. Difference of opinion about what God wants seem to bring out the worst in us. But it shouldn’t . Differences should never come to blows – or worse. But that is the nature of misapplied religious fervor. Ger is just the latest example of that.