An Edah Editorial
By Rabbi Aryeh Klapper
Conviction Without Fanaticism
If I could make everyone in our world read one text, and
really take it to heart, it would not be the Shma, or any other section of the
Bible. It would not be a selection from the Mishnah, theTalmud, or any subsequent
rabbinic writing. Although I am an Orthodox rabbi, the text I would choose would
be Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. If you pushed me, I would settle
for twelve words from that address:"with firmness in the right, as God
gives us to see the right".
Here's why I think Lincoln's words are so important. The
major threat to world peace today is fanaticism. Abroad, we face enemies who
are genuinely willing to die if only they can kill us first. Fanatic nationalisms
and tribal hatreds led to genocide in Rwanda and the Balkans, and are fueling
attempted genocide in Darfur today. And of course, there is fanaticism as well
within the Jewish community... (You may want to fill that one in yourself).
Fanaticism has always been a powerfully malignant force.
Fanatic communists kept much of the human race oppressed, and murdered millions,
before the Berlin Wall was finally toppled. Fanatic nationalism and anti-Semitism
engineered the Holocaust. Suicide bombing of civilians is a genuinely new tactic,
but "kamikaze" has been a word in English since the 1940s.
Many contemporary thinkers believe that the proper response
to fanaticism is relativism. In other words, they believe that the way to fight
fanatics and fanaticism is to deny the possibility of genuine conviction. Peace
and tranquility will come when each person understands that they have no more
chance of being right than anyone else.
In a utopian world, perhaps everyone would be convinced,
and this response might work. But practical strategies have to work in our world.
This means that they need to work even if not everyone buys into them.
Fanaticism will always be with us. Rather than fantasizing that we can eliminate
it entirely, we need to be able to respond to it effectively,
Relativism can diminish fanaticism, but if even one fanatic
survives in a relativistic world, he or she will soon be running it. Relativists
can't plausibly fight, as they don't know with confidence that the aggressor
is wrong. And as Edmund Burke compellingly argued, "All that is required
for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing".
There is a middle ground between fanaticism and relativism,
and we desperately need to find it, because we need to fight our enemies with
all the power at our disposal - but without turning into them. There is a way
to tell a fanatic off without being a fanatic oneself, and to resist fanatic
terrorists without unleashing our own terror. Lincoln's words are a luminous
beacon guiding us to that way. "With firmness in the right" - effective
resistance to fanatics can only come from those who have deep-seated convictions,
to the point that they willingly risk their lives in defense of those ideals.
How are these resistance fighters to be distinguished from those they are fighting?
"As God gives us to see the right" - even as we act on the basis of
our best perception of the truth, we need to be fully aware of the possibility
that we are erring.
Lincoln's formulation can be seen as a reformulation of
a key rabbinic dictum. According to the Talmud, the House of Hillel and the
House of Shammai argued for three years as to whose positions would have legal
force in Judaism. Ultimately, a heavenly voice emerged and said: "These
and those are the words of the living God - but the law follows the House of
Hillel". The recognition that there is truth on both sides does not mean
that one cannot choose between them, and choosing one side does not require
one to dismiss the other as baseless.
The Talmud goes further, and says that the House of Hillel
merited having the law follow then because "they were pleasant and forbearing,
and taught the words of the Shammaites together with their own - even placing
the words of the Shammaites before their own". In other words, the House
of Hillel never saw their own positions as infallible, or stopped learning from
their opponents. In several recorded cases, they were convinced by the Shammaites
and reversed their positions. But none of this stopped them from championing
their own positions with all the vigor at their command.
Lincoln's words, which echo the sentiments of our sages, enable us to act with
conviction without having to believe that we are infallible. They allow us to
make judgments and act on them, without requiring us to ignore inconvenient
facts, and thus they leave open the possibility of reversing our judgments in
the light of new evidence. They enable us to use force against our enemies when
necessary, without requiring us to dehumanize them.
This Lincoln's Birthday, I urge everyone to read the Second
Inaugural and take its message to heart. Take the time to examine your convictions,
and to make sure that they result from admirable motives and adequate understanding.
That done, we should proceed with malice toward none, with charity toward all,
and with firmness in the right - as God give us to see the right.
Rabbi Aryeh Klapper teaches Talmud at the Gann Academy in Waltham, is Dean
of the Sommerville Beit Midrash, and is a member of the Boston Beit Din.