This post is somewhat out of my usual mold, being more of an informative write-up than an opinion piece, yet I think many readers might be interested in the view of Islam as well as the Jewish–Arab Conflict through the eyes of Orthodox Judaism. In the spirit of the caveat that Orthodox Judaism is not a monolith, I will also say right away that I belong to the Religious-Zionist faction of Orthodox Judaism in Israel, although I have been to many Torah classes given by Ultra-Orthodox rabbis as well.
Why focus on Orthodox Judaism’s view of Islam? One reason is that Orthodox Jews believe their religion to be lineally descended from the original at Sinai, which puts them, doctrinally speaking, on the same level as non-modernist Muslims (which are most of them, because the Islamic world has not undergone the equivalent of the 18th-century European Enlightenment). Another is that, for historical reasons, Orthodox Judaism is the prevalent branch of Judaism in Israel. Prior to the Holocaust, the Reform and Conservative branches avoided participation in the Jewish return to the Land of Israel. The Zionist pioneers were largely secular, indeed anti-religious, but most of them still wanted religious ceremonies for birth (circumcision), marriage and death, so they enlisted the services of the one existing branch of Judaism then. As most of the governmental institutions of Israel were founded in the 1920s and 30s, this meant that the Orthodox rabbinate was given the legal sanction over Jewish marriages—just as the other religious groups were as well (for example, Catholics in Israel marry under the aegis of the Vatican subordinates, and Muslims do so in shariah courts). The majority of Israeli Jews are secular, but, as it is often quipped, the Orthodox synagogue is the one they don’t go to.
The reason, however, to survey Orthodox Judaism’s view on Islam that should be of most interest to readers is that that view is significantly different from the Christian views we encounter most frequently. On the one hand, many of the Christian criticisms of Islam are never made, indeed cannot be made even in theory, by Orthodox Jews; on the other hand, this does not mean Orthodox Judaism gives Islam a clean bill of health. After much deliberation, let us begin the survey.
Orthodox Judaism’s Internal Logic
The bad blood between Orthodox Judaism and the other two Abrahamic religions has largely obscured the straightforward reason why Orthodox Judaism rejects them. If we were to take some other monotheism with no track record of persecuting the Jews, say Sikkhism or the Baha’i faith, things would be clearer: The Orthodox Jew asked for his opinion of them would say, “They are not idolatry, they are kosher for non-Jews, but we have the one Torah which will never be superseded.” The internal logic of Orthodox Judaism states that the Torah is the first written revelation of God unto mankind, and since God doesn’t change His mind, it is also the last. Thus the Orthodox Jewish view that any later monotheism, no matter its track record with regard to the Jews, is a human innovation where there is some truth that can already be found in the Torah and some new things that are contrary to the Torah.
The Orthodox Jewish view is that the Jewish religion is correct as it is, and that it is not a prelude to anything else. Changes such as the substitution of prayers for animal sacrifices are not regarded as evolution, let alone progress, but as temporary setbacks until HaShem restores the Temple. Thus much for a general view that does not refer to Islam specifically. However, this does not mean Orthodox Judaism has nothing special to say about Islam.
Listening to a sermon given by an Ultra-Orthodox rabbi, one may be shocked on occasion to hear the rabbi praise the Muslims in one breath for the modesty their societies enforce on their women, only to curse them in the next for their acts of terror against Jews. What might seem schizophrenic to the outside observer is actually consistent with the Orthodox Jewish view: The religion of Islam, for all its falsity (see above), is praised for having so much the Orthodox Jew can agree with, while the geopolitics of Islam are reviled because, well, they clash with those of Orthodox Judaism—even with the Ultra-Orthodox, who are not doctrinally part of the Zionist renewal but have largely come to terms with the fact the Exile is nearing its end.
Judaism and Islam are agreed on strict, unitarian monotheism (Christianity, in Orthodox Jewish eyes, is monotheism with a human partner). They differ on the revelation (Torah vs. Koran), but each agrees that their scriptures contain the dictated words of God. They each have a law-code (Jewish halakhah, Islamic shariah) that regulates every facet of life, from the order of getting dressed in the morning to the conduct of kings. Their sexual mores are similar, with the dictum that marriage is the only context in which sexual relations are permitted. Jews suffered the same kind of ups and downs under Islamic rule as they did in the Christian world, but the life of Jews in Muslim lands was slightly easier in that the surrounding society presented fewer challenges to them, being so similar. Of course, this was no comfort to Maimonides, whose family was chased out of Spain by fanatical Moroccans having their “Arab Spring” at the time, or to Yemenite Jews exiled to the deathly swamps of Mawza, or to Persian Jews struck down by pogroms sanctioned by the new Shi’a rulers of the country.
There are Judeo-Islamic commonalities just as there are Judeo-Christian ones. Maimonides recognized this, as his rulings show: On the one hand, he ruled that it was permissible for a Jew to enter a mosque, for those were houses of monotheistic worship, but on the other, he forbade Jews to teach the Torah to Muslims, while permitting teaching it to the Christians; his reasoning was that the Muslims’ belief in the corrupted state of the Torah (which, they hold, was why the Koran was given in its stead) meant they would only look for faults in the text, while Christians accept the Torah as is, so teaching them is not a waste of time. Generally, Orthodox Jews discuss scripture with Christians and theology with Muslims.
Specific Misgivings about Islam
So far it sounds as if the only thing Orthodox Jews have against Islam is that it is a later religion. This is not so, there are pointed criticisms of Islam; however, what is notable is how few of the Christian criticisms of Islam are made by Orthodox Jews, understandably, because Judaism itself would fall under so many of them.
The greatest specific criticism made by Orthodox Jews about Islam as a religion concerns the afterlife vision of Islam: Orthodox Judaism (and Christianity also) holds the afterlife reward to be purely spiritual, the ability to enjoy HaShem’s light and to understand the full depth of His Torah without the encumberments of the phsyical body—or, in the world of the Resurrection of the Dead, one will have a purified body that no longer obstructs the soul inside. The afterlife of Islam, in contrast, contains such things as rivers of wine, fruits served to the blessed endlessly, and above all the 72 virgins given to every man as a reward, especially to those who had died fighting for Islam. (What the women will get is left unspecified.)
Orthodox Judaism views Islam’s material-hedonistic afterlife as conclusive proof of the human origin of that religion. Go to any Ultra-Orthodox Torah class and you will eventually hear the doctrine that “In this world there is no reward”—the idea that there is nothing in the physical world that could be paid as a reward for doing HaShem’s will. “In the entire world,” say the Jewish Sages, “there is no reward even for a single amen.” That is, if you gave someone the entire globe as a reward, or even the whole universe, it would still not repay him for saying amen in the Kaddish a single time in his life. The contrast between the Orthodox Jewish view of the afterlife and Islamic one could not be greater.
That is the main dispute Orthodox Judaism has with Islam as a religion. Most of the other misgivings Orthodox Judaism has with Islam do not concern the creeds of the religion, but the politics of Islam as they relate to the Jews. Absent from the criticisms are such Christian misgivings as saying that the all-encompassing Islamic law is a legalism that stifles the spirit—naturally so, because the same criticism could be made (and has been made) with regard to Jewish law. Also absent is the Christian assumption of a “pagan worship behind Islam,” which is manifested in such ideas as Allah being an Arabian moon-god in disguise. Christian doctrine holds that the false religions of the world are pagan demon-worship in masked forms, but Orthodox Jews believe that the seductive power of paganism was taken away by HaShem some time after the end of the Babylonian Exile, at the request of the last Biblical prophets. Therefore, Orthodox Jews fully accept Islam, Sikkhism and Baha’ism as monotheistic religions, rejecting them not for being “disguised paganism” as Christians do, but because they believe the Torah to be final.
A Nationalistic Conflict Still
It is clear now that Orthodox Judaism finds relatively little fault with Islam as a religion. It is the political aspects of Islam—inseparable from the religion, just as is the case with Orthodox Judaism—that are the cause of conflict. The interesting thing here is that this conflict is not much different from the non-religious conflict between Jews and Arabs as nations. In fact, the only way the element of religion makes things different is in bringing non-Arab nations like the Persians on board this conflict, which otherwise they would have no reason to take part in.
Orthodox Judaism views history through the prism of the interaction between God and the nations (note: nations, not races; Judaism is race-agnostic). The eschatology of Orthodox Judaism speaks of a peaceful existence between the various nations of the world. Islam, in contrast, brings a supranational component to it by calling for uniting mankind under shariah law, and its eschatology features a world totally under Islamic rule much as Marxism speaks of a worldwide, supranational Dictatorship of the Proletariat. (There’s a reason why Marxism and Islam are allied today, despite their differences.)
In the Orthodox Jewish view, Islam is God’s way of fulfilling Abraham’s wish that Ishmael—the patriarch of the Arab nation—would be given compensation for being driven out in favor of Isaac. Orthodox Jews hold that, just as a convert to Orthodox Judaism becomes a virtual descendant of Jacob, so a convert to Islam becomes a virtual Ishmaelite, an Arab by culture if not ancestry. Orthodox Judaism agrees with many Hindu thinkers in viewing Islam as the vehicle of Arab expansionism—Islam as Arab imperialism. To the Orthodox Jew, the terms “Arab” and “Muslim” are largely interchangeable because of this; it is irrelevant to point out that most Muslims are not Arab, for Orthodox Judaism has a view of national belonging that can transcend ancestry. The political dispute Orthodox Judaism has with Islam is the same as in the secular Jewish–Arab Conflict: Islam has the doctrine that any land once under shariah law must never return to non-Islamic rule, while Judaism holds that the Land of Israel must return to Jewish sovereignty one day. Bringing religion out of it, as many people would call for, changes very little in this picture: The secular conflict is still between an Arab nation that is not willing to give up an inch of land (despite only the Arabian Peninsula being their indigenous territory) and a Jewish nation that cannot call any land other than Palestine its home. Either way, the conflict is difficult to resolve.
Conclusion: Values and Ends
Some people may have ended up disappointed from this survey so far. It would seem as if this conflict were not about values but just another scuffle for land, with the two parties being more or less the same. This is not so: For all the similarities between Orthodox Judaism and Islam, the former is far more compatible with liberal Western ideals than the latter. For one thing, Orthodox Judaism applies to one nation only in one state only, while mainstream Islamic doctrine says all humanity over the entire world is to be brought under shariah law. Another difference is the total rejection of suicide-murder in Judaism, and that the Jewish laws of warfare say the women and children of the enemy are not to be harmed unless the enemy combatants use them as human shields (in which case it is they that bear the guilt for their hurting). It is true, Orthodox Judaism does not go by Gandhian precepts of non-violence, yet neither does it subscribe to the wanton mode of destruction like Genghis Khan, which Islam often does. Despite the many reasons adherents of Western liberal values might have for disliking Orthodox Judaism, they cannot but admit that they can get along with it; it is the appeasement of Islamic imperialism that would go headlong against their interests.
All the above are good reasons for either standing with Israel or being neutral (or apathetic, same thing) about this whole regional conflict. But, someone might ask in curiosity, what are Orthodox Jews fighting for if their values and their Muslim enemies’ values are so similar? Other than national survival, what are y’all fighting for?
I am sure, despite all the similarities, that an Orthodox Jewish society and an Islamic society would not be the same. Still, for reasons of length, I wish to conclude with granting, for the sake of the argument, the assumption that the values of the two sides are the same and that there is nothing to it beyond the national survival of the Jews against the imperialist dreams of the Muslims. I would say this puts us in a better position than a fight over values.
Values can be pitted against you. When Americans protested against the planned construction of a mosque on the site of the 9/11 attacks, one argument they made was that it was outrageous to allow a mosque to be built on American soil while churches were still illegal in Saudi Arabia. The prompt response to that was the familiar, “We’re better than them. We must allow it because our values are better than theirs.” This is the way liberal Western societies are hoist on their own petards. This the way ruthless strategists achieve a piecemeal victory: “When I am the weaker, I ask you for mercy, because that is your principle; but when I am the stronger, I show no mercy and take away your freedom, because that is my principle.”
Because Orthodox Judaism views this as a nationalistic conflict, it is better placed to resist Islamic imperialism without the risk of having our values pitted against us. Again, this is not a call for wanton destruction: The Jewish laws of warfare are quite clear that collateral damage is to be avoided unless that would entail giving the other side its victory on a silver platter. The advantage of fighting for national survival is that our own women and children will not be sacrificed on the altar of “We’re better than them“; Orthodox Judaism holds that mercy is to be shown to one’s own people first, and if the enemy wants mercy for their women and children they have only to keep them away from the line of fire (which terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah notoriously do not, of course).