When do religions based on text and revelation turn fundamentalist and extreme? When their adherents take their holy books and divine messages to be sources of infallible wisdom that needs no human mediation. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and other creeds can all inspire their adherents to take individual responsibility for weighing competing moral values, but this requires that the community of believers understand that the practical application of religious values “is not in heaven.” In other words, they must realize that revelation and holy texts cannot be understood and used without placing them in dialogue with the real world that we confront in our everyday experience.
At his weekly Shabbat afternoon lecture last Saturday, Rabbi Binyamin Lau cited an aggadah—a rabbinic homily—from the Jerusalem Talmud (Chapter 8, page 5d). (The following thoughts are my own, not Rabbi Lau’s.)
A man named Ula Bar Kushav was sought by the Roman authorities for some unnamed crime. He fled to Lod, then (the early third century CE) an important city in Judea with a large Jewish population. The Romans surrounded the city and demanded that the Jewish community turn over Bar Kushav. If he were not turned over, the Romans would raze the entire city.
The leading rabbinic authority in the city at the time was Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi , known both as a halachic expert and as a mystic. In accordance with the injunctions laid down by his predecessors for dealing with such situations (there were, of course, conflicting opinions), he sought out Bar Kushav, “placated him, and turned him in,” thereby saving his city and its thousands of Jewish inhabitants.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi had been accustomed to receive regular visits from the prophet Eliyahu (Elijah), but in the wake of this incident the visits ceased. Rabbi Yehoshua imposed upon himself several fasts in order to induce Eliyahu to reappear to him. Eliyahu reappeared, but just to say: “You expect me to reveal myself to an informer?” Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi replied that he had acted in accordance with a rabbinic law. Eliyahu replies “But is that the law of a hasid?” And there the story ends.
In this context, a hasid is not a member of the modern ultra-Orthodox movement by that name, but a person who by virtue of great piety and mystical inclination experiences personal revelations.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was such a man, but unlike some other hasidim, he was also a legal authority. He was both a hasid and a rabbi. As the leading religious authority in a city in danger, he had to decide how to act in a complicated real-world situation. He chose to act according to rabbinic law, not according to directly revealed law. Divine justice states that an individual’s life is sacred and inviolable, no matter what, but rabbinic law concerns itself with balance, costs and benefits, and political and social imperatives. Divine justice has certainty; rabbis know they constantly operate in a state of imperfect knowledge.
Rabbinic law is not the word of heaven directly applied to earth. Rather, it is made by human beings. These human beings, the rabbis, are inspired by holy texts and revelation, and reach their rulings through careful study and debate about those texts and revelations. But in the end their law is human law—to the extent that in some exceptional cases even runs counter to divine law.
The implications of this aggadah are that a leader, when facing a crisis, must turn to human law, not revelation. The absolute justice and morality of revelation and mystical experience may not fit the specific circumstances of a real-world point of decision. We need the hasidim to remind us of ideal justice and morality, but a person who is a hasid cannot be a leader who has to make decisions in a world that is not ideal.
Christians, Muslims, and, yes, Jews, have all during their history succumbed to leaders who claimed to be the direct representatives of God, assigned by him to impose a regime of divine justice and morality on the world. These regimes have invariably been murderous, destructive, and imperialist—rather than bringing heaven to earth, they have turned earth into hell. Only when these faiths’ leaders have understood the imperative of the human mediation of revelation in its application to politics and society has religion been a positive force in progress towards a better world.
In Islam today the hasidim are in the ascendant. Despite appearances, as Tzvi Bar’el noted in Ha’aretz earlier this week, they are not the only Islam—many Muslims understand the need for human mediation of revealed truth. But certainly Islam faces a challenge today. To save their religion, Muslims must reject those leaders who reject the need to make divine law human.
But the danger is not one that Islam alone faces. Christianity and Judaism face constant challenge from leaders who are willing to sacrifice thousands, even millions, of human lives on the altar of divine justice. We rightfully criticize Islamic extremism, but we also need to make sure that our own religions have leaders of the caliber of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi.
See my post on another of Rabbi Binyamin Lau’s talks, Telling the Story and Doubting It Too