Fighting for Life Itself – Parshat V’etchanan

The meaning of the word Islam is submission. A Muslim is someone who submits to God. This was brought home to me very forcefully about a year and a half ago. I absolutely scandalized the Muslim theologian who appeared with me in an interfaith dialogue session when I asserted that critical moral thinking is a central element of Judaism. The Torah provides us with example after example of upstanding individuals who do not merely submit unquestioningly to God’s judgment, but rather feel called upon to grapple with the issues and to present their human perspectives before God. And God honors and accepts their input.

Rabbinic thinking continues in the same vein. A number of stories in Talmudic literature emphasize that every individual can and should understand central elements of revelation in his or her own way. We are called upon to relate to God not as little children relate to their father, but as grown children or even as partners with the divine.

A parallel facet of this same humanistic philosophy is found in Parshat V’etchanan which we read this week. Concerning the laws and rules of the Torah, Moses tells the people:

Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.” For … what great nation has laws and rules as perfect as all this Torah?

When interpreted and implemented properly, the Torah will serve as a model of wisdom and goodness, as will the Jewish People. The nations of the world will be amazed and inspired. Moses makes it clear that one need not be religious and need not even be Jewish to appreciate the exalted nature of the Torah’s legal system. It should be apparent to all human beings.

If the Torah is meant to be judged as exemplary by universal rational moral standards, this can only mean that human beings see that the rules of the Torah are good for them, good for human society. They appreciate the justness of its laws, and see that it uplifts and improves our lives and our interactions.

This is not about mere submission to an inscrutable divine will. The value here is not blind obedience but rather tikkun olam, the repairing of the world. The ultimate purpose is not to appease or glorify God who is beyond, but rather to uplift and to sanctify human beings who have been placed by God in this world. God is the facilitator, the guide and teacher, but not the goal.

For three weeks now, the Jewish People dwelling in Zion have been embroiled in war with Hamas. In a very deep sense, this is a war of Fundamentalist Islam against Judaism and all who are aligned with her.

Fundamentalist Islam is worlds apart from our Torah. It has taken the religion of submission one step further. In its submission to God, it has denied man. This-worldly morality and humanism have been trampled and derided, traded for the bliss of unquestioning obedience to what is perceived to be the divine will. It has set its sights on the next world and lost sight of this world. In doing so, it has made Islam into a religion of death.

And so we, the people of life, find ourselves engaged in a battle against an ideology of death. We are fighting for our lives, and we are fighting for the concept of life itself.

About the Author
Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger resides in Alon Shvut Israel. He serves as the Director of Memnosyne Israel, promoting interfaith, bridge building projects betweens Israeli settlers and local Palestinians. As the Executive Director and Community Rabbinic Scholar of the Jewish Studies Initiative of North Texas, he also flies to Dallas, Texas once a month to teach adult education classes within the Jewish community and to spearhead interfaith dialogue.
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