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Parashah (portion) Ki Teitzei – On Being our Brothers’ Keepers
Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19

Like many of you I have been troubled by the fear mongering against the Muslim community coming from the media and our political representatives. Whether it is about the bans against the building of mosques, or the heartbreaking uproar against the proposal to build an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero; these repeated attacks (verbal thus far) seem to be leading us down a path reminiscent of the era of McCarthyism. Hateful e-mails and videos are circulating that attempt to convince us of the intrinsic evil of Islam, offering “proof texts” from the Qur’an itself. Fear, once again, comes to dominate our national conversation.

We have been here before. As Jews we know well the challenge our Muslim cousins are now facing. Countless times in our own history, our holy texts have been used against us, our rituals distorted in order to demonstrate the “true nature” of the “evil Jew.” For us the result has been expulsions, persecutions, and massacres throughout our history. In truth, many verses in Torah challenge our contemporary worldview. Placed in the wrong hands, these verses can easily be turned against the people who follow the path of Torah. What are we to make, for example, of the following verses from this week’s portion?

If a householder has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother, and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town… Thereupon his town’s council shall stone him to death. Thus you will remove evil from your midst. (Deut. 21:18-21)

Three possible responses to such verses come to mind. The first is to understand them literally. Yet, not only do we-with our post-modern sensibilities-reject fundamentalist interpretations; but even the earliest rabbinic commentators did so too. The second response is to altogether remove these verses from the text. The challenge with this response is that if, over 2,500 years, each generation had taken the passages they didn’t like out of the Torah, the whole edifice would have crumbled into meaninglessness, as Torah is a tapestry of interwoven texts inextricably connected to one another. And so though I struggle with the text, I do not discard it. The third response is to re-interpret the text to find meaning beyond the literal level and extract from it the teachings relevant to our lives today. (Ask me what that might be next year.)

Modern-day non-fundamentalist Muslims face the same dilemma. They too struggle with aspects of their Scriptures which, like ours, express intolerance and violence towards others. They too reject the literal interpretation of these passages and seek to discover the deeper meaning beyond the hurtful words. In fact, we are the ones inciting violence when we point to Qur’anic verses to vilify all Muslims and denigrate Islam based on such fallacious claims. Let the events of the past weeks be an invitation to move beyond that which separates us. Rather than seeing the Islamic cultural centers as a threat, may we chose to open our hearts to the new opportunities to learn and to share, to practice forgiveness and compassionate listening, that their presence in our neighborhoods comes to offer.

© 2010 Rabbi Olivier BenHaim, All rights reserved.