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Saturday, 22 December 2007

Avoiding a head-on collision

Avoiding a head-on collision
By Yedidia Stern and Avi Sagi

Two worldviews grapple in the center of the Israeli arena: religious and
liberal. Each of them claims an exclusive hold on a person's scale of
values. Both of them speak in clear, sharp, puritanical and even
bullying language. Both of them present a full and consistent picture of
the world and both of them strive to shape reality in its entirety: the
world of the spirit and creativity, politics and justice, the private
domain and the collective domain. The one says "the whole earth is full
of [God's] glory" (Isaiah 6:3), and the other charges "the whole earth
is full of justice." Each of them is arrogant with regard to the other,
so that the religious paternalism that takes pride in "a full cart"
clashes with the liberal paternalism that takes pride in "an enlightened
world."

The two worldviews are distinguished from one another, ostensibly, in
the source of their authority (divine as opposed to human), their
purpose (spiritual versus earthly), their nature (religion is interested
in "rebuking" the "other," whereas liberalism refrains from forcing its
opinions on the "other") and more. The distinctions are important, but
they cannot blur the fact that there is a similarity between the way
each of these worldviews is marketed to us by its prophets, its
activists and its judges: Each of them claims that it is "the true
religion."

Depicting either the religious system or the liberal one as truth
systems leads to a head-on collision between them. The tension between
the religious and the secular and between religion and state is among
the greatest challenges facing Israeli society. It affects politics -
about one-third of the members of the previous Knesset were elected on
the basis of their position on this matter; it affects culture - we are
descending into a culture war between religious and secular; it affects
law - disputes damage people's confidence in the courts and lead to the
paralysis of the procedures necessary for adoption of a constitution;
and it affects the national ability to function - when individuals
assume a stance of refusal in the name of the religious truth or the
liberal truth.

Meeting between beliefs

The key to change lies in a broad understanding that the meeting between
a religious world and a liberal world is not a meeting between truths,
but rather a meeting between beliefs. A "truth" is something that can be
proved in an empirical and objective way. In this sense, religion is not
a truth, because no evidence exists of God's revelation and the divine
origin of the Torah. The testimony of the Torah concerning the event at
Mount Sinai is internal, and lacks any external confirmation. These are
not words of heresy; indeed, these are words of faith, because they give
crucial weight to the position of the individual, who by his own
decision takes upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven. How
disappointing faith would be if it relied on what appears to be a fact -
an archaeological find, the sequence of letters in the Torah, prophetic
revelation or the survival of the Jews for many generations. It is
precisely faith that is not dependent on facts, that can be absolute,
just as faith should be, as the proof is always liable to be refuted.
Religiously speaking, the human subject is the anchor of the presence of
God in the world.

This description of religious faith applies to every system of values,
including secular liberalism. The liberal must internalize that he is
not carrying around utterances of truth in his baggage, even if, in his
view, there is extensive support for that liberalism in Western culture,
in national constitutions and in international documents. The priests of
"the liberal religion" are tainted with arrogance when they assume that
their value preferences are "correct" in an objective sense. There is no
external, commonly held criterion that can justify this statement.

The relinquishing of "the discourse of truth" does not override the
importance and validity that individuals attribute to their values. Just
as the commitment that binds a couple, or parents and their children,
can be deep and unconditional, even though it does not reflect a truth
statement, so too can religious and secular people be committed
unconditionally to their worldviews - and derive their behavior from
them - even if they do not reflect an objective truth.

The conclusion from this analysis is clear: If the disputants are not
equipped with truth statements, they must promote their positions out of
humility and self-minimization. They are not entitled to take a
patronizing cultural stance with regard to the other, and they should
have the understanding that the sincerity and the depth that derive from
their decision to be religious or secular-liberal can also nourish an
opposite personal decision.

Gay pride issue

Thus, for example, the well-publicized parade of the gay community, in
the heart of Jerusalem, is repugnant to religious people who catalog
same-sex relationships as an abomination. This is a value judgment, one
that expresses a rooted religious position, but it does not represent a
"truth." Therefore, the religious person should refrain from forcing a
prohibition on such relationships and from blocking the public domain to
a gay pride parade.

At the same time, religious people should not be required to look the
other way and disregard the phenomenon. Indeed, precisely because it is
counter to their faith, religious treatment of the issue is necessary,
especially within the education system. The internal discussion can
develop in different directions - from intensifying the condemnation of
same-sex preferences in the name of faith, to finding solutions in
rabbinical law for softening the attitude toward the phenomenon. In any
case, brutal action must not be taken against it, because the opposition
is not based on an objective truth.

And in the opposite direction: Part of the ultra-Orthodox public is
opposed to the inclusion of "secular studies" in their schools'
curriculum. Many attack this postion in the name of varied "truth
claims": concern over the fate of ultra-Orthodox children who will lose
their ability to earn a living; fear for the future of a society, part
of whose citizens function in an inadequate manner; and the like. These
claims, however, express a particular scale of values - and that is all.
An attempt to impose core studies on the ultra-Orthodox would be nipped
in the bud if the Israeli majority were to internalize the thought that
the question of which subjects a child should be learning is not a
matter of "truth" or its opposite, but rather one of values, preferences
and networks of loyalty. Protecting the "other's" child from his parents
is patronization of a sort that the mind - certainly the liberal mind -
cannot tolerate

In both of these cases, it is possible to resolve the dispute by means
of nonintervention by one side in the other side's "space." However,
there are more difficult situations, in which the two outlooks compete
for primacy with regard to the same matter. For example: How will the
Sabbath in the public domain of the Jewish and democratic state be
observed? Will the street shut down, or not? Take note: A liberal claim
concerning the universal validity of a right such as the freedom of
occupation, to justify working on the Sabbath, is not "a truth," just as
a claim concerning the Sabbath as a national asset that preserves Israel
is also not "a truth." Both of these claims express only a value
preference.

On the agenda, there is a proposal to open entertainment, culture and
leisure venues, as well as to make public transportation available on
the Sabbath, along with shutting down commerce and industry. This
proposal does not fit the criteria of either the religious truth or of
the liberal truth, and therefore is likely to be rejected by both camps.
However, if the religious and the secular were to recognize that they
are confronting an important value system, one that sincerely reflects
the world of those who hold it, discourse will open and listening to the
other's opinions will be possible. The solutions that will end up being
adopted should not be drawn up in advance, because such is the nature of
true dialogue, which is open and dynamic, though it is certainly
possible that their general outline will resemble the proposal that is
on the agenda. The believers on both sides will live in their belief,
even though it will not be fully realized.

Eliminating "truth claims" from the arena enables a new look at the
range of issues on which the conflict between religion and state is
focused in Israel. The status-quo arrangements and proposals for
agreements on matters of religion and state are perceived nowadays as
solutions that express relative weakness of the compromiser, as a
retrospective position, a pragmatic tactic for a troubled time. This is
a mistake. If the encounter is between believers and not between truths,
then there is no scope for developing expectations of "repairing the
world in the kingdom of God" or "repairing the world in the kingdom of
liberty."

The agreement that is perceived as a compromise expresses a principled
ideal. It does not contain the relinquishing of a position or a flaw in
loyalty to a worldview, but rather the acknowledgment of the absence of
a monopoly on truth and an internalization - sometimes difficult and
painful - of the significance that derives from this. Those who aspire
to social agreements are not feebleminded. They are heroes who have
conquered their opinions, without relinquishing them. Every person has
an individual identity that includes his life principles. It includes
concrete positions on fateful issues, such as issues of religion and state.

However, the personal identity must also include an additional element:
The "other's" positions are no less valid than my own beliefs. This is a
supreme principle, and it should serve as the compass for all of the
commitments of our lives. It contains respect for the position of the
other person from within the understanding that I do not possess, just
as he does not possess, a monopoly on truth. I have loyalty to one
position, but it does not obligate the negation of the other position.
In the debate about religion and state, there is room not only for my
own world, but also for the world of the "other," his distress and his
pains. The role of the discourse is to enable this balance between the
worlds.

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