Muslim Riots and Rosh Hashanah

Last week I wrote about an insight I have learned from saying Selichot in Israel, and promised a second post this week with another thought.   However, I think this week’s events in the Middle East deserve some attention now because they can teach us something for Rosh Hashanah.  So I am writing this piece today instead, and will post my second Selichot piece after the holiday, for the Ten Days of Repentance.   

The Muslim world was in an uproar this week, with riots breaking out in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and, most significantly, in Libya, where the American ambassador and 3 staff members were killed, and Afghanistan, where two US Marines were also killed in an attack on a military base.   As of today, the violence is apparently spreading beyond the Middle East as well, with reports of disturbances in Sydney, Australia as well.  The supposed cause of all of this violence is Muslim “rage” generated by a really stupid movie which might have been made in America, and which depicts Muhammad, the founder of Islam, in a very poor light.

Let’s understand what we just said: because someone who might have been in America made a movie that insulted Islam, thousands of Muslims rioted across the world and killed at least six people.

The absolute immorality of these attacks, and the absurdity of killing innocent people in the name of God, don’t need to be explained.   However, what does deserve some attention is the fact that people could get so angry in the first place.

Reactions in the West ranged from indignation to apology (Hillary Clinton called the video “disgusting” and an abuse of freedom of speech.   When’s the last time anyone reacted that way to a movie insulting Judaism?   They’d have to condemn every Mel Brooks film ever made….)  President Barack Obama even asked YouTube to remove the video in order to calm the rioters (they refused).    The upshot of all this is confusion – Westerners simply don’t understand these protests at all.   They don’t have a clue what could possibly lead people to be so upset by a dumb video.

The reason for this lack of understanding is because genuine religious faith is very rare in Western countries.   Eleven years ago, shortly after the September 11 attacks, I published an article in the Jerusalem Post asking how it was that America’s enemies were able to invade the mightiest nation on earth armed with nothing more than pocket knives.    The conclusion I came to was that the American security forces simply couldn’t understand that people would be willing to give up their lives for something they believed in – so they didn’t take precautions against this type of attack.   At the time, I tried to draw a lesson for Rosh Hashanah from our enemies.

That message is still relevant today.   How many of us are angry, or even genuinely upset, when  someone denigrates things that we supposedly believe in and hold dear?   Perhaps we can learn something from our enemies about devotion to Kiddush Shem Shamayim, the sanctification of God’s Name.  The Muslims got this concept, of course, from the Torah (I’ve recently been learning Sanhedrin 56a with my chavruta [study partner].  This section of the Talmud discusses the details of laws regarding megadef – one who blasphemes or curses God.   The Torah considers this an extremely serious offence, and I have to admit that it is difficult for me to relate to.)   The Muslims have distorted this concept – but many of us have forgotten it completely.

On the other hand, of course, we should all be outraged at the lawlessness and blatant disregard for human life exhibited by these protesters.  The Muslim mobs who are so incensed by what they regard as an affront to kvod Shamayim have completely lost touch with other fundamental principles – justice, peace, liberty and the sanctity of human life.   Those values are the cornerstones of Western culture, and they also come from the Torah.  

Tonight, Jews will stand in Synagogues around the world and beseech Hashem with the following prayer:

ובכן תן פחדך על כל מעשיך ואימתך על כל מה שבראת וייראוך כל המעשים וישתחוו לפניך כל הברואים ויעשו כולם אגודה אחת לעשות רצונך בלבב שלם…ובכן צדיקים יראו וישמחו וישרים יעלוזו וחסידים ברינה יגילו ועולתה תקפץ פיה וכל הרשעה כולה כעשן תכלה כי תעביר ממשלת זדון מן הארץ

And thus may You place Your fear over all of Your creations, and Your awe over all that you have created.   Let all works fear You and all creatures bow before You, and let them all create a single society, to fulfil Your will with a complete heart…and thus let the righteous perceive [this] and rejoice, and let the upright exult, and let the pious ones sing with joy, and let evil close its mouth and let all wickedness vanish like smoke, as You remove wicked governments from the earth.

The fulfilment of this vision is largely dependent on us.   If we learn to identify with, articulate and genuinely represent the Torah’s messages, we will be in a better position to lead the world.   We will be able to explain to Muslims and Westerners alike that there is genuine value in holiness and in venerating God’s great Name.   And we will be able to explain to them both that there is also genuine value in respect for freedom, for human rights and dignity.  We will be able to show both sides of this global conflict that the values each of them hold most dear are in fact correct, and that each can learn something from the other instead of fighting.

To the extent that Am Yisrael actually represents the Torah, we will accomplish the leadership role for which we are destined and which is at the core of the concept of Am Levadad Yishkon.  The fulfilment of this mission will lead to the Redemption of the entire world, and the actualization of a different part of that same High Holiday prayer:

ובכן תן כבוד ה’ לעמך תהילה ליראך ותקוה טובה לדורשיך ופתחון פה למיחלים לך שמחה לארצך וששון לעירך וצמיחת קרן לדוד עבדך ועריכת נר לבן ישי משיחך במהרה בימינו…ותמלוך אתה ה’ לבדך על כל מעשיך בהר ציון משכן כבודך ובירושלים עיר קדשך

And thus give honor, Hashem, to Your nation, praise to those who fear You and hope to those who seek You, and encouragement to those who hope to You, happiness to Your land and joy to Your city, flourishing pride to David Your servant and preparation of a lamp for Your messiah, the son of Yishai, speedily in our days.   And may You reign alone, Hashem, over all of Your creations on the mountain of Zion, the seat of Your glory, and in Jerusalem Your holy city.

May it happen speedily in our time.   Shana Tova!

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