Isis is an Egyptian goddess. We do not recognize in her the god that Israel proclaims. Nor do we consider any of the other gods of ancient cultures to be one with our God. Much of Jewish identity has been forged through the proclamation of the distinct identity of Israel’s God. Israel’s God is different from other gods, and part of what makes Israel’s God worthy of our allegiance are the qualities of compassion and lovingkindness associated with him. These are foundations for the covenant God makes with us, in which we affirm our allegiance to Him.
Isis is also the name of a present day organization that is at the forefront of global attention. It spreads terror in the name of religion and proclaims a form of Islam that leaves room for no other, Muslim, Christian or Jew. For centuries we no longer deal with other gods, belonging to polytheistic pantheons. For the better part of two millennia, most Jewish encounter with other religions has been with Christianity and Islam. Many voices over these millennia have recognized that the God of Christianity and Islam is the same as the God of Israel. We know this through how he is understood and through the common stories shared by all three traditions. Islam, in the opinion of nearly all Jewish authorities, is said to believe in the same God as Jews do. And yet, when we see today’s Isis something tells that the gulf between us is fundamental we do not share the same God.
Recognition of the fundamental divide, on theological, not simply political or moral grounds, is essential for understanding what is fundamentally wrong with Isis and in what it is opposed to our fundamental identity. Let me make the case with the help of Rabbi Menachem Meiri, a 14th century rabbinic authority from Montpellier, and one of the most important rabbinic authorities in history, whose encyclopedic work on the Talmud is part of every serious rabbinic curriculum. Meiri recognizes nearly all present day religions, certainly Christianity and Islam, as valid and legitimate. For him, the battle against avoda zara, the worship of foreign gods, is mostly a matter of the past. Today’s religions are valid because they have a moral code. The Torah’s purpose is to order society in moral ways. A religion that achieves this goal testifies that it knows God and serves Him. By their fruit you will know them. If the religion leads to an upright moral life, this tells us who is the God it worships. And once we recognize the moral qualities a religion produces, we know its god is the same god as ours.
For Meiri, Islam orders society in a moral way. We know that over the centuries Jews have suffered in the hands of Muslims, that is in the hand of certain Muslim regimes, groups and ideologies. Muslims, as any other group, are certainly far from perfect. Recognizing that a religion leads to an ordered moral life does not assume moral perfection. But it does assume a basic ground of moral behavior and what might be called human decency. Muslim wrongdoing over the centuries would not, therefore, invalidate the religion. When suicide bombings started to impact Israel, following the Oslo peace treaties, David Berger of Yeshiva University raised the question of whether such activities should nullify the status of Islam, or certain forms of Islam, as a valid religion, due to their immoral nature. My response was that they shouldn’t. There was, in my view, much moral latitude and room for error in judgement, given fundamental moral premises. Today I see things a little differently.
Isis, and to a lesser degree Hamas and other similar movements, are not simply engaged in religiously based warfare. They are creating societies and these societies shape the moral character
of their members. Something qualitatively different occurs when an entire religiously based regime is founded on instilling terror and on practicing cruelty on the mass scale that we have been seeing. Whether it is the burying alive of women, the mass killings of enemy, the wanton murder of captives, the wholesale denial of the validity of the religious other or any of the other manifestations of a particular “religious” mentality all these aspects have something in common. It is not simply that they are offensive to our religious sensibility. They are offensive to our human moral sensibility. And the reason is because they lack compassion. They create a personality and forge a society that lacks compassion.
There are enough debates in our society that touch upon the nature of proper moral behavior and indeed there is something equivalent about the term “moral”, even if we have a basic sense of it, guided by our religious tradition and our reason. Still, we recognize cruelty when we see it, and we recognize when compassion is missing and when the lack of compassion becomes the hallmark of a society.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama published a few years ago a book in which he reviews all world religions one by one, and seeks to show that they have one thing in common training their adherents towards compassion. It is a very interesting reading of all religions, coming from the perspective of a foremost Buddhist leader. Jews certainly value compassion and caring as basic characteristics of their personality, their society and ideally of their state as well. “Israel are compassionate children of compassionate parents”, the Talmud tells us. To know God is ultimately to know, and to share, in His compassionate nature.
We can now state why even if Islam is recognized as a valid religion, the God of Isis is not our God. Any god who can tolerate cruelty, systematically practiced, and in whose name individuals and society are shaped to be heartless and lacking in human feeling, is not our god. The teachers and warriors of Isis may believe in the same god numerically one and not many. But that is not sufficient for identifying their god as ours. God is known through the lives of the faithful, through their characters, through the society they create. If we believe in God, we must, at the same time, be ready to keep open the option of ungod, the age old notion of idolatry. Today’s idolatry is not the worship of images. It is the holding of a wrong idea of god, an idea that goes against the fundamental nature of God, and of the person and society He wishes to establish. We therefore do not share the same God for our God is the God of compassion.