In any religion there’s a danger of worshiping the outer forms and forgetting their real purpose, of mistaking the means for the end. This can lead to oppressing others in the name of one’s faith. For example, in Judaism this problem arises among certain ultra-Orthodox groups who feel that in many areas of religious life women should not be equal to men. Women cannot be ordained as rabbis, counted in the quorum required for prayer, etc. Ultra-Orthodox groups have opposed the right of women to pray aloud at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, often said to be Judaism’s holiest site. In October 2012, Israeli police arrested a woman at the Western Wall for wearing a prayer shawl and chanting the Shema, Judaism’s affirmation of the oneness of God.* Likewise, according to traditional religious laws governing divorce, a husband must grant his wife a divorce. If the man refuses, he is free to re-marry, but his wife is not. In the State of Israel, where ultra-Orthodox groups generally have control over this sphere of life, many women have been left in limbo, unable to re-marry. The influence of ultra-Orthodox political parties in Israel also accounts for many areas of religious discrimination against the country’s Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jews.
During most of last two millennia Jews held little political power over others and their capacity to act as oppressors was limited. Jews were more often oppressed than oppressors. With the creation of the State of Israel, Jews have returned to the stage of political power and with that, face all the challenges and pitfalls of wielding power. For example, Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War unleashed pent up urges among some to retain control over territories promised to Abraham by God in the Book of Genesis. For those holding such positions, compromising the dignity of Palestinians is of small consequence. Yigal Amir, the assassin of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, justified his action with a talmudic concept that gives one the right to take the life of someone who is threatening one’s own life. Amir, influenced by a number of extremist rabbis at the time, argued that Rabin’s willingness to cede land to the Palestinians in exchange for peace violated God’s grant of the land to Abraham, thereby endangering Israel’s survival and justifying the assassination.
The quest for personal piety and the fulfilment of religious conviction can lead to all manner of harm toward others. For that reason, it’s important for Jews to take to take a hard look at the text from the prophets we read on the morning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a day of fasting often thought of by Jews as the holiest day of the year. It’s a day of introspection when we take a reckoning of our deeds over the past year. We read Isaiah around what would be lunch time, just when we might be inclined to pat ourselves on the back for our piety. Here’s what Isaiah says:
“Why, when we fasted, did You [God] not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?” Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers! Because you fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist! Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day when the Lord is favorable? No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.” (Isaiah 58:3-7)
The language of oppression can all too readily be used as a binary to situate the “oppressor” over against the “oppressed.” Many situations do not lend themselves to such a simplistic analysis. Moreover, placing ourselves on the side of the angels—whether as the oppressed or as those working on behalf of the oppressed—may foster an unhealthy self-righteousness. Worse, those who believe they are oppressed may regard their state of subjugation as a warrant for violence against the oppressor.
History bears witness to this, as I have written in my response about the justification of violence in the theme “Seeing God on Our Side.”
In our time significant studies explore the link between a fundamentalist mindset that has adherents in all religious traditions. This fundamentalism is a “discernable pattern of religious militance by which self-styled ‘true believers’ attempt to arrest the erosion of religious identity, fortify the borders of the religious community, and create viable alternatives to secular institutions and behaviors.” * Such a fundamentalism is typically grounded in a sense of being under siege, whether from the inroads of modernity and secularism or from another religion or religious group. Violence inspired or sustained at least in part by religion is one of the great dangers to our world.*
There is no way to justify oppression. Zulm or oppression under all conditions is strictly forbidden in Islam. But Muslim governments in different periods of history have acted in ways that today would be considered oppressive. As no other community is immune from acts of oppression, the same is true with Muslims. Their rulers in different periods of history have justified their wars to occupy foreign lands as we Americans today justify our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps “might is right” has been a policy throughout world history.
All prophets stood for justice and raised their voices against oppression. The best we can do as followers of different religions and faiths is to raise our voices together beyond politics to speak out against oppression and injustice any place on earth.
There is an Arabic proverb saying that nations can live in disbelief forever but cannot live for long in Zulm. When injustice prevails, the earth even fails to produce its fruits. It is narrated in Masnad Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (one of the Hadith Books) that a person once visited a Muslim storage building where he found melons, watermelons and many types of fruits and vegetables, the likes of which had not grown during his lifetime. He asked the storage keeper where and when these fruits and vegetables were grown and where all the watermelon came from because no such tasty, large produce was available in his day. The storage keeper replied that these were grown when Muslims ruled with justice on earth. Today our earth has refused to produce such a profusion of crops because of the prevailing injustice on earth.