By DONNIEL HARTMAN
We all have much to learn from the popular uprisings sweeping the Arab world. The tyrants and dictators whose authority is now being challenged are not a uniquely Arab phenomenon. They embody a perspective on life and the world which can be found in all of our societies. It is a perspective shared by many fundamentalist religious leaders and constitutes a source of evil which endangers us all.
The tyrant who feels that it is his right to rob his society’s resources to amass a personal fortune, who places his family’s and friends’ financial interests above that of his people, who declares, as did Qaddafi, that "those who don’t love me do not deserve to live," all suffer from the same moral blindness. When they look out into the world they do not see a universe populated by others but merely an extension of themselves. Everything that is and exists is there to serve them. There is no "other" with whom they have to share, and to whom they have to answer.
Religious fundamentalism often suffers from a similar moral blindness. The certainty it provides, and the dichotomous world of "us" and "them" which it so often creates, structures a universe in which they, too, have no one else to whom they must answer and whom they have to take into account. When I own religious truth I no longer have to listen to the words of others. When only those who agree with me are loved by God and are worthy, all others recede into the background and become insignificant.
I am sure that the rabbis who came out in support of the convicted rapist, former Israeli President Moshe Katsav, were surprised at the extent of the protest against them. They function in a world in which their authority as the carriers of Torah is unquestioned. As the possessors of the truth they are uninterested in the opinions of others and the effect their words may have. To echo Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s statement to his son Rabbi Eliezer, "The world doesn’t need anybody else, but you and me." (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 33b) This is the same Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai who was willing to kill anyone who did not fulfill his vision of religious piety, and whom God banishes from God’s world.
These rabbis, similar to political tyrants, forgot one of the commandments, a commandment which when absent makes religion in general and the leader, religious or secular, a destructive force. It is a commandment which our tradition teaches is the only one for which there is no atonement in this world if violated. In the Jewish tradition, this commandment is called hillul hashem, the desecration of God’s name.
The conceptual foundation for this commandment is that no one can act in isolation, and that all behavior must be judged in accordance with its effect on others and their perception of the value of both the act and its agent. God, who epitomizes transcendence and radical otherness, has with the act of creation chosen to live within this world and human society. By obligating us to act in such a way that God’s name will not be profaned, our tradition is instituting a profound check and balance on us all. We alone don’t get to determine the impact and consequences of our actions. We don’t get to ignore others under the guise of them being insignificant, inferior, or unworthy. The world as God’s domain empowers the voices of all human beings to serve as the evaluators of those who claim to be the carriers of God’s name.
It is in that spirit that the rabbis, when asking what constitutes the desecration of God’s name, answered, "k’gon anna," which means, if we, the rabbis, are perceived to use our religious position and authority for personal gain. (BT Yoma 86a.) Whether true or false, the religious leader must relinquish all claims to controlling the impact of their behavior by limiting their significant others. The God of creation makes all one’s significant other, and one must act accordingly. As a result, the rabbis state that one fulfills the commandment of love of God when one causes the name of God to be beloved by others. The test of this love is not faith or ritual piety, but moral decency in one’s interactions with others. When one does so, one brings honor to oneself, one’s religion and to one’s God, and instead of desecrating the Name, one sanctifies it.
The voices of the Arab masses are demanding that they be heard. They are demanding to live in a society in which they are the significant others and that their leaders feel obligated to a policy whose value can be judged and attested to by them. We, who live under political systems where we the citizens are the sovereign, have to expand our sovereignty to our religious lives, as well. We must demand accountability, propriety, and decency from anyone who speaks in the name of our religion and our God. We do so not in the name of our liberal values, but our religious ones. We do so in the name of the forgotten commandment.