Evaluation and Definition: Comments on Wafa Sultan

Recently a clip of Arab-American Psychologist Wafa Sultan’s appearance on Al-Jazeera TV was sent around the Internet from one e-mail address to another. Many members of the Jewish world were enthralled with her presentation – here was an Arab-American academic finally telling it how it is. Her praise of the Jewish People was warmly welcomed and appreciated. Her declaration that this modern outburst of violence and terrorism cannot be simply portrayed as a clash of civilizations was applauded. Yet, upon hearing her comments, I wondered if many of these individuals singing her praises were a bit too enthusiastic. Her words also revealed her frame of reference and, while in terms of this specific statement there was much to cheer, I could see a potential for concern in different circumstances…and I wondered why others could not see that this very same person, based on her frame of reference, could also make other statements which many of us would find problematic.

Most people tend to look only at the “bottom line,” but often that is not sufficient. While there may be a point of intersection, between two differing perspectives, in one specific instance, these viewpoints may still be vastly apart on many other issues. By only looking at the point of intersection – and, furthermore, wrongly assuming that agreement on this particular conclusion means agreement on basic principles -- one loses sight of, or ignores, the continuing areas of disagreement. The result can be support for a view with which one ultimately disagrees and a backing of and an advocacy for a group or individual whom one ultimately opposes. The sole issue cannot only be the final conclusion that is uttered in a specific instance. The theory that leads to the conclusion must always be considered. It is not enough to just look at Wafa Sultan’s conclusions on specific issues, although these conclusions in themselves may still be praiseworthy. It is also important to map out how she arrived at these conclusions – and to consider the assumptions and analysis that she undertook to arrive at these conclusions. It is important to recognize her underlying perspective and be aware of not only the points of agreement but also the potential points of disagreement. It is important not just to evaluate a statement but also to truly define a statement.

An example may clarify this point. In her presentation, Wafa Sultan declared that she is a secular human being who does not believe in the supernatural. It is clear that her views of religious tolerance are built upon this perspective – and much of her attack on the prejudiced treatment of Jews flows from these views. This perspective, though, would also find difficulty with an argument that the Jewish right to the land of Israel extends from the fact that God gave us this land. On issues that revolve around the acceptance of this reality, I would expect her view to be contrary to a view that does consider Israel to be the Divine gift to the Jewish People. Now, of course, I am not equating Islamic fundamentalism with basic Torah creed, but the necessary message is still there. It may be that Wafa Sultan’s ontological perspective yields, in this case, conclusions similar to those advocated by believers in Torah mi Sinai, the Divine Revelation at Sinai, but caution must also be applied. Her statement in this particular instance may still deserve to be applauded but attention must also be given to the underlying conflict in theological framework and care must be exercised in voicing approval for any one statement.

There are those who would, actually, further advocate that, notwithstanding the positive nature of any one statement, if this statement is predicated upon a frame of reference that is contrary to one’s personal theological perspective, such as Torah mi Sinai, it must be discarded – or in a case like this one, maintained at a proper distance. I remember reading a story of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch that indicated that he was a strong advocate of such a realization and implementation. There was a situation during Rabbi Hirsch’s lifetime when the German Parliament was considering outlawing shechita, ritual slaughter, in Germany. A prominent Reform Rabbi wrote a letter to an influential member of the German Parliament advocating on behalf of shechita, arguing for its humane nature and its significance for the Jewish community. Notwithstanding the fact that this letter would add great weight in the battle to preserve the legality of shechita, and basically argued for the outcome that Rabbi Hirsch himself desired, Rabbi Hirsch was ready to go to the member of the German Parliament to tell this individual to discount anything written in this letter. To Rabbi Hirsch, the underlying frame of reference and theological position of the Reform Rabbi meant that any point of intersection had to be discounted. Even though he shared the conclusion, the fact that the Reform Rabbi arrived at his position through a process with which Rabbi Hirsch inherently disagreed meant for Rabbi Hirsch that the conclusion itself was also to be disregarded. Applying this to the statement of Wafa Sultan, a person with this perspective would immediately discount even her praises of the Jewish People once she admitted her secular perspective.

Of course, Rabbi Hirsch’s position is an extreme position to which not everyone would agree. In fact, in the story I read, people physically restrained him from going to the Member of Parliament precisely because they recognized the political value of the Reform Rabbi’s letter in the battle for shechita – and felt that points of intersection must still be recognized and given value. Nonetheless, Rabbi Hirsch’s actions inform us that we must also always be aware of underlying value constructs and consider them (and not just the conclusions or the points of intersections) in our analysis and responses to events, positions and statements. It is for this reason that there are many who do not wish to create a political bond, even to benefit Israel, with fundamentalist Christian groups. The divide in frame of reference yields great caution in considering the points of intersection. Others, of course, feel that there is value in building upon the points of intersection. Even if that is one’s position, awareness of the great divide in perspective cannot be ignored.

Too often, we lose sight of the large picture and concentrate only on details – thereby losing sight of the full issue. There are times that traditional Conservative individuals have approached me to tell me how they are holding the fort in their Conservative synagogue – expecting me to praise them for their efforts. What these individuals are specifically referring to is the role of women in their synagogue. Against the general trend towards egalitarianism in the Conservative movement, these individuals continue to fight for a limited role for women – and they expect the Orthodox rabbi to laud their efforts: after all isn’t Orthodoxy on the same side? The response they receive from me is not exactly what they expected. Sometimes, I may give a muted response of “that’s nice” depending on who is making this statement and whether or not I have a chance to get into the matter. This is still shocking for they are somewhat upset that the Orthodox rabbi is not enthusiastic about this alliance. What is still more shocking to them, when appropriate and I have the opportunity, is my full response. It is then that I indicate that really we have no point of intersection. My position on the role of women is totally dependent upon my belief in Torah mi Sinai – as such I do not really understand those within the Conservative movement who wish to continue to limit the role of women. My position emerges from my specific frame of reference. Their position emerges from theirs. In reality there really is no point of intersection for, if I happened to share their frame of reference, I would actually be against their position. The result is that these individuals actually receive a brief lesson in the essence of the distinction between Orthodox and Conservative Judaism – which is not simply that we have a mechitza and they don’t. What happens, to their dismay, is that they actually have to confront theology and a serious approach to Jewish belief. This is really only possible if we go beyond the details, including the details of action, and consider thought and the broader realm of ideas.

This still does not necessarily mean that there is no value in recognizing and sharing points of intersection. There is a side of me that still is glad that Wafa Sultan said what she did notwithstanding her different frame of reference. Interestingly, in the realm of halachic decision making, point of intersection actually plays a great role notwithstanding the different approaches of various poskim. In gathering together variant positions to determine the view of the majority, we may just look at the final psak, even though each posek achieved this conclusion through different methods. In the end, we still have the greater number rendering a specific decision – and that may carry the day. There is value in the micro-conclusion that may be stated. But there is also value in knowing the underlying macro-theology that is the basis for the conclusion. We must not mistake the detail for the whole; we must see the whole. Our call cannot be to simply evaluate whether we like or dislike a particular statement. Our call must also be to define the full nature of a statement by identifying the principles upon which it stands – and responding accordingly. “To go beyond the temptations of temptation…is a perfectly adult effort.” (Emmanuel Levinas)

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht