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Shemot – Human Liberty versus Revealed Law

The coldblooded murder of journalists and staff of the Charlie Hebdo magazine last Wednesday in Paris, is the latest in a series of Islamic fundamentalists’ terrorist attacks on Western Democracies and has heralded a sinister start of the Gregorian New Year.

The shock of this latest attack has been all the more severe because Freedom of Expression is one of the cornerstones of Western Democracy, which especially for us, Progressive Jews; forms the fundaments of our worldview, which is based on the values of our Jewish tradition and Enlightened, Western, Democratic Principles. This was not only a despicable act of violence and cowardice it is also a direct attack on the democratic values of Western society.

As David and I followed the story with a sense of dismay and disbelieve we discovered in the coverage of the atrocity a remarkable difference in the way ‘het NOS’ (the Dutch national television) reported on the attack, and the BBC’s report. The biggest difference being, that the NOS felt no scruples to show some of the offensive cartoons, published by Charlie Hebdo on national television, whilst the BBC showed none.

The reason why the BBC did not show the cartoons was, I learned last Thursday night on ‘Question Time’, because, astonishingly, the BBC guidelines stipulate that The Prophet Mohammed may not be represented in any shape of form’.

Immediately one wonders, whether the BBC guidelines are an acceptable restriction to the Freedom of Speech, or whether there actually is such a thing as an ‘acceptable restriction to the Freedom of speech’. If the guidelines have been derived from a sense of fear, we would, I assume, all agree, that such a limitation is not acceptable, even if the BBC had acted out of responsibility for the safety of its employees. If the main reporting agency in England, were to restrict its reporters from disseminating certain information, criticism or scrutiny out of intimidation, then surely, the very fabric of journalism has been corrupted.

But maybe it wasn’t fear that moved the BBC, but the question whether the Freedom of Speech includes the right offend people. In the debate on ‘Question Time ‘last Thursday, one of the speakers argued that the ‘right of freedom of speech includes the democratic right to worship and the right to offend and to be offended – to deny the one is like denying the other.’ This argument echoes the words of Spinoza which we read earlier in the service ‘Not only is freedom of thought and speech [including the right to offend] compatible with piety and the peace of the State, but it cannot be withheld without destroying at the same time both the peace of the State and piety itself. (FoP p550)

Here in the UK there has always been a strong tradition of the freedom to criticize and satirize: we need just think of Spitting Image in which leaders and heads of state were readily ridiculed and satirized, or Monty Phyton’s hilarious, but rather irreverent The Life of Brian, to name only a few. Yet since the Salman Rushdi affair, from the moment Ayatolla Khomeini issued a fatwa against him for writing The Satanic Verses, some have questioned that right. Nevertheless, Rushdi himself maintains that ‘religion like any other idea should be criticized and satirized’.

The tradition to criticize those in leadership, religious or otherwise, and even to call God to account can be found all over the Tenach in particular in our rich and inspiring Prophetic tradition. The Prophetic voice, which the guiding principle of Progressive Judaism, when it converges with Modernism and Modern Western liberties.

But, one would argue, of course there are certain limitations to our freedom of expression, for freedom of speech is only free within the confines of the law; incitement to hatred and slander, are forbidden; why not blasphemy, satirical or otherwise?

There is an inherent contradiction in the Western ideology of the human liberty which originates with the Torah and that is that although humanity is free to act as he chooses, he is only free to do so within the confines of the law. Thus one might argue that to break the law may be a criminal offence, but to obey is not to be free. Conversely, the other opposite view, best expressed by Hegel says ‘‘Freedom’ is nothing but the recognition and adoption of such universal substantial objects as Right and Law’. Thus, all what matters in this relationship between liberty and law, is whether the law is just and whether humanity is virtuous’. If the law is just then it does not compel a just man to do what he would freely elect to do even if the law did not exist.

Now this is exactly the problem for any faith which derives its law from a Divinely Revealed Source, such as Judaism or Islam. In Modern thought reason has been the governing force of all our decision making. Just as we, Progressive Jews accept reason as the main determining factor for what we believe (for example we do not believe in techiyat ha-meitim because it doesn’t make logical sense to us). This line of thought originated with Greek Philosophers, from Aristotle, and maintained throughout medieval Jewish philosophy by thinkers like Moses Maimonides, and renegade proto-modern philosophers such as Dutch Jewish thinker Baruch Spinoza, who wrote: ‘when man is governed by reason he is free, for he ‘does the will of no one but himself, and does those things only which he knows are of greatest importance in life, and which he therefore desires above all things’.

Yet these pre-modern thinkers found it hard to grapple with the authority of Revealed Law in relation to human Reason. Accepting Revelation as the basis of all law, means accepting that Revealed Law comes from a source higher than human reason. This is all good and well when human reason leads to the same conclusions as Revealed Law, but when it doesn’t, when for example a society defines a set of ethics, based on reason that does not agree with the Revealed Law there is a major conflict of interest. (This situation happened of course many times, as we see that some biblical laws have been circumvented by rabbinic law because it was either not deemed practice or no longer ethically acceptable; thus capital punishment, though accepted in Torah was as good as abolished, the biblical law of stoning of wayward children, was never put into practice, and the lex talionis was swiftly interpreted as a monetary punishment). For Jihadists such as the Paris gunmen however, there is no binding authority other than that of Allah and the Koran, and for them the Law of the Land is of no importance, particularly when it is perceived as too free, and a threat to the eternal laws of Islam
That clash between Jihadists and the West, which has come to a head since the 9-11 attacks on the Twin Towers, the War against Terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, the so called Arab Spring (what a misnomer that has proven to be), the rise of IS and the intensified terrorist atrocities all over the western democratic world, has intensified a debate which has now raged for centuries, and which in itself is not a un worthwhile debate.

The fact is, that – hard as it might sound, particularly at this time of shock and worry, there is much wrong with our society. And we have noticed this too. Liberty, can lead to selfishness and narcissism, and reason does not necessarily always lead tolerance, compassion, and goodness. Within Judaism there has always been clear understanding that in a just society there needs to be a balance between rachamim (compassion) and din (justice), between liberty and a reigning in of liberties, between freedom and law.
The questions that the atrocities of the Jihadis raise for Western societies, deal with ideals, higher goals than the pursuit of riches and perceived happiness alone, with have led to the selfish and self-obsessed societies we have become. It simply isn’t true that Islamic Extremism has been sparked by an estrangement from the West because of poverty and Islamophobia because many of the British fighters who have gone to join IS are actually highly educated, who led a privileged life. Their estrangement has arisen from living in a society which has little to offer in terms of higher values. Our society is rich in knowledge and technology, but impoverished in ideals, in moral values, in communal solidarity, in a positive, pluralistic national identity.

Perversely, the atrocious attack on Charlie Hebdo may open up a debate about these issues, as it has struck at the core of a value that matters so much to us, it might have shocked us into defining ourselves again as a society with a higher values, and a sense of the common good for humanity within our deeply fragmented world.

As a religious community we should not only find solace and courage in our own company, and in prayer, though we do so, but also concern ourselves with the very deepest questions of our faith – why we are here and what it is that God demands of us, to truly be partners in God’s creation, answerable to the repair of this severely suffering world.
Ken yehi zarzon:v’nomar amen

Rabbi Kathleen

January 12, 2015