Cartoons, Amalek and Values

Back during the early years of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, a friend and I entered into an interesting debate regarding the Ayatollah Khomeini. My friend asserted how great it would be if the Ayatollah was frum, i.e. an Orthodox rav. I countered that it would be sacrilegious; to have someone like that as a rav would be a chilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s Name. Now, obviously, my friend and I were not arguing about the imposition, specifically, of Islamic values upon a society. There is, clearly, a chasm between the Ayatollah and his practices and the world of Orthodox Judaism. My friend was not asserting that he would like to see within the Torah world the same transformations that occurred in Iran. The changes that happened in that country were reflective of this form of Islam, not Torah Judaism, and, as such, could not be the desired results that my friend would welcome if we had a rav like Khomeini. What we were arguing about was the approach one should take towards the substantive values that one upholds. My friend respected the Ayatollah’s approach; I found it abhorrent. This, in itself, also reflects a value disagreement. More importantly, though, the nature of this disagreement actually reflects upon one’s entire approach to ethics, morals and values themselves.

There is a famous joke that is said concerning George Bernard Shaw. It seems that Shaw was at a party, went up to some woman and asked her if she would sleep with him for a million dollars. The woman said yes. Shaw then asked her if she would sleep with him for a dollar. The woman replied: “What type of woman do you think I am?” Shaw responded: “We have already established that. We are just haggling over price.” The joke reflects greatly upon the general perception people have of values. We usually maintain a monolithic view of values, describing our views within the context of one yardstick. This is exactly what this joke is highlighting. In the woman’s second response to Shaw, she was asserting a moral stand that implied some universal standard that she maintained. What Shaw revealed was that she did not really uphold this universal stand but her position was actually dependant on the circumstances. Either she was willing to forego her moral position for a million dollars -- which was the essence of Shaw’s response, showing her that she did not really maintain the universal moral principle she was asserting – or, she perceived a difference in values and morality between sleeping with someone for one dollar and sleeping with someone for a million dollars. In evaluating the values behind a specific act, it is not enough to simply declare “right or wrong” or a “black-and-white” value determinant. The facts may be an important determining factor in defining a much more complex value that includes within its context the specific situation.

Most individuals in the Western World simply viewed the position of the Ayatollah negatively; what my friend recognized was that the actions of Khomeini had to be dissected and separated into variant elements of value commitment. In the case of the Ayatollah there were the substantive values that he was championing and then there was the method by which he attempted to achieve the actualization of his religious model. My friend, while disagreeing with many of these substantive values, still viewed Khomeini’s method of achieving his goals positively. My friend found the method of commitment to religion that Khomeini demonstrated to be of value in and of itself. My friend longed for a rav with similar aspirations. My view was not only that I disagreed with the substantive positions of this Islam but I also disagreed with the method by which Khomeini applied his Islam. To me, not only would Torah challenge this man’s substantive enactments but also the method by which he attempted to implement these actions. Even if he was a rav trying to build a Torah state, I would find his methodology objectionable. Yet, even as I maintained my more universal position, I recognized that any value statement – to fully express its complete meaning – must be articulated in the context of the situation. Only thereby could I fully express my moral and religious perspective. Applying this recognition to my friend’s position, while it could be stated that he disagreed with the actions of Khomeini as they actually were, i.e. in Islamic Iran, he would not disagree with a similar action in a Torah context.

I believe that this understanding of moral and ethical stands is most necessary in relating to many of the issues in the world today. Unfortunately, many still respond with monolithic perspectives and the result is a lack of comprehension and a subsequent lack of the needed proper response to the difficulties that we face. For example, in regard to the cartoons that depicted Mohammed in a most negative way thereby spurring violent reaction from many Moslems, the rhetoric that surrounded these events asserted various value arguments in a simplistic and one-dimensional manner. Freedom of speech was championed as a universal value without any consideration for situational factors. Does freedom of speech allow for any statement? The answer is actually no; as is often stated, one cannot yell fire in a crowded theatre. In regard to freedom of speech and the cartoons, the argument is not whether one upholds this value or not. The argument revolves around the circumstances when freedom of speech overrides other considerations and when it does not. Unfortunately, this analysis is not at the forefront of this debate and the result is that we thereby miss the true nature of this value debate and even misunderstand the very concepts that are being asserted.

Similarly, violence was attacked in a generic, monolithic manner that ultimately truly avoided the true values that were being affirmed. Do we think that violence is always inappropriate? The answer is again no. The actual issues under debate are the circumstances whereby violence is accepted and the method of violence that is appropriate. This latter consideration also identifies the complex nature of value determination. Matters are often not broad in their definition. Violence, i.e. aggression against another, can be divided into a multitude of cases each demanding their own value determination given the circumstances. The issue of the cartoons was thus not a debate over freedom of speech and violence. It was a much more complex debate regarding what are the circumstances whereby freedom of speech should be maintained over other values. And in cases where one feels that a specific comment was inappropriate, what would be the proper response. And if violence would be considered appropriate, what extent of violence would be correct.

Through this analysis, I am really not advocating one side over the other. I am simply calling for one to understand their position. One who maintains that the cartoonist had the right to publish the cartoons is not just asserting the value of freedom of speech. What is being asserted was that, in these circumstances, freedom of speech overrides other considerations. One thus must know all these other considerations and in defending this position one must be able to argue why, in these circumstances, freedom of speech should be paramount. This not only presents a more proper perception of the value but also provides for the true nature of the debate.

This recognition also has great merit in the study of Torah; in fact is demanded in Torah study. The command to destroy the nation of Amalek perfectly illustrates the demand upon us to truly understand the complexity of values and value determination. Genocide is abhorrent. When we consider the Holocaust, our attack of the Nazis yemach shemam is usually built upon this monolithic value presentation although a more complex understanding of their evil is what is truly demanded. The mitzvah of destroying Amalek presents a challenge to such a monolithic assertion and asserts such a demand. Even given the abhorrent nature of genocide, the Torah seems to require of the Jewish nation, in very specific circumstances, to undertake such an act. With this recognition, value consideration and value determination becomes much more complex. The hair-splitting nature of halachic analysis, often a source of criticism of Rabbinic Judaism, becomes understandable. We enter into the ring of value analysis. The question of how it is possible that the Torah could ever demand genocide becomes not only a most important question but a most necessary question. The goal is not apologetics. The goal is understanding. The goal is to truly comprehend the nature of Torah values.

The reality is that we live in a world whereby the realm of value determination has again become a most significant and relevant realm of human investigation. Rhetoric with a goal of seeing everything in a simplistic manner cannot be the response to the challenges that we face. We must recognize the complexity of value determination, the specific situational factors that are an inherent part of this process and argue for our positions in a proper manner. This is necessary as citizens of the world. More so, this is what is necessary as Torah Jews.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

2006 NISHMA