Sunday, February 22, 2009

Religious Choices: a Response to Bart

This is a response to a recent comment from Bart, who challenged me as to my consistency in choosing to follow certain laws while ignoring others. He raises some good questions. Different people may respond differently to them, here is mine.

There are two issues at hand here. There is the issue of the relationship between one’s personal values and the public policies that one supports and then there is the issue of the process of religious decision making. As to the first issue, which I think is really the side issue here, I do not believe that making laws against theft is forcing one’s values on other people as theft is an action that does direct empirical harm to others. Someone breaking into my apartment and stealing my television is different from my atheist gay neighbor having gay sex with his boyfriend and reading PZ Myers to him in the privacy of his own home. Since I am a Libertarian and take a hard line stance on the distinction between empirical and non-empirical damage, I am in a far better position than most when it comes to this issue.

To transition into the second and what I think the real issue at hand. While my religion may ban me from having gay sex and, arguably, bans my neighbor from having gay sex, there is nothing in my religion that says that I have to try to stop him either through physical force or through my vote. The most my religion may ask of me is to politely “rebuke” my neighbor and point out that there are alternatives to his way of thinking and living. Even this would be assuming that I am qualified to rebuke people. There are many people out there who have taken it upon themselves to serve as rebukers, who are not qualified and do far more harm than good.

Just as I am under no obligation to stop gay sex I am under no obligation to stop gay marriage. I am sorry if I was not clear on this matter previously, but while I do not support having Judaism recognize gay marriage, I have no problem if the State of Ohio or the Federal government decides to legalize gay marriage. Homosexuality is not different than any other sin. How much sleep do you think I have lost over the government subsidizing pig farmers? Well mainly because, as a Libertarian, I oppose pretty much all government subsidies, but not because of anything having to do with Leviticus. So I am not "amending" God’s law to suit modern times. The same ban on homosexuality from biblical times is still in place in full force. I would also point out that as a Jew I am in a far better position than a Christian in regards to this issue. I do not say that homosexual sex is an abomination while pork or a shrimp cocktail (a la Prop 8: the Musical) is okay.

All serious thinking people, no matter their theology, will, on a regular basis, find themselves having to weigh different issues against each other. The threat posed by Saddam Hussein weighed against the cost and dangers of trying to removing him from power. The desire to protect unborn children weighed against a person’s right to control their own bodies. (Unlike most feminists, I am actually consistent on this issue since when I talk about the right to make choices when it comes to one’s own body I am not only talking about abortion but also the right to use drugs and sell one’s organs on an open market. I do not believe in men’s rights or women’s right. I believe in human rights.) Inevitably one is going to have to make compromises. I do not believe that all those who opposed the war in Iraq wanted Saddam in power or that those who support abortion want to butcher fetuses. They made a decision to way one issue over another.

This applies to religion as well. When one engages with a religion one is engaging a whole complex tradition. For example Islam. People who quote passages in the Koran that support violence against unbelievers and compares Jews and Christians to apes are missing the point. Islam is a lot more than just the Koran; it is a whole body of different legal traditions. If you wish to understand Islam’s view of violence toward unbelievers you cannot just look in the Koran you also have to follow the issue through nearly fifteen hundred years of Islamic legal thought. The Koran deals with a situation in the seventh century where Mohammed and his followers were at war with Jews and Christians. How should Muslims in twenty-first century America apply these passages? There is a range of possibilities and a religious Muslim would possess a lot of leeway, while working under the guidance of his local Islamic religious authority and the Islamic legal tradition. There are a number of Muslims in the history department here at Ohio State. The ones that I have gotten to know are all really good people. To the best of my knowledge, none of them have tried to murder me. That does not make them bad Muslims or cafeteria Muslims, choosing to practice some things while ignoring other things. They are simply the products of a fifteen hundred year tradition in dialogue with twenty-first century America.

Here is a World War II Bugs Bunny cartoon featuring Bugs Bunny taking on a pack of Japanese soldiers. It climaxes with Bugs handing out ice cream covered grenades to apelike Japanese soldiers to blow them to bits. This is a fairly racist piece and not the sort of thing that I would want to be shown to children without corrective commentary. That being said, I would not interpret this cartoon as Warner Brothers telling me that my Japanese neighbors in twenty-first century America are monkeys and that I should go wage jihad against them. It is self-understood that this cartoon was made in a very specific context, World War II, and that it is meant only to apply to this very specific context.

This past week, in the weekly Torah portion, we read the famous (or infamous) passage of “thou shall not suffer a mechashefa (usually translated as “witch”) to live.” (Exodus 22:17) This passage has been used to justify a lot of horrible things, among the least of which has been the attempt to ban Harry Potter. As one can see from this blog, I am a very big Harry Potter fan. I do not see this as me making compromises with the modern world. As I understand the passage, it is not meant to ban the actions described in Harry Potter let alone to ban me from reading about them.

To conclude, I do not see myself as making compromises with the modern world. At no point do I simply say that something does not fit in with modern values and can therefore simply be done away with. My actions and lifestyle choices are well rooted within Jewish tradition. I grant you that there is a personal element to this. I am ultimately the one who has to make choices for myself. I am a product of twenty-first century America so the process with which I look at Jewish sources and make decisions about how to act as a Jew are going to be different than Jews who lived in first century Judea or fifteenth century Spain. This does not mean that I am making arbitrary choices simply to suit myself; there is a thought process.

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