Religious interpretation and the Arab-Israeli conflict

by Michael M. Cohen
WASHINGTON, D.C - United States Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts."In the Arab-Israeli Conflict, religion has been too often used to distort facts or bolster a position. Recent Palestinian claims that the Western Wall, the Kotel - one of the holiest sites in the Jewish religion - was never a Jewish site is only the latest example of an attempt to change historic facts, while the declaration by a group of Israeli rabbis that it is against Jewish law to sell or rent property in Israel to a non-Jew is another example of the exploitation of religion to further political ends.

Attempts to harness religious arguments for political gains are explosive and they point to a dangerous shift in the conflict’s dynamics from a clash between two national movements to one that has greater religious overtones.

One of the lessons of history is that religious wars are much more difficult to contain and resolve. This is partly because a narrow and literalist interpretation of text and theology is all too often considered the only real and authentic voice of a particular religion and is used to stifle more open, conciliatory interpretations. However in the cacophony of the many voices that want to be heard in the Arab-Israeli context, may we be reminded that the religious voice, no matter which religion we are talking about, can also be a voice of moderation and hope.

In Judaism, we refer to a certain form of Judaism as Orthodox Judaism, the only stream that the state of Israel recognises as truly authentic. Yet despite prevalent assumptions, even within Orthodox Judaism one can find a spectrum of interpretation. It is precisely this spectrum which allows for different voices to be heard, particularly when it comes to the peace process. For example, the Shas party, the influential political Orthodox party of Sephardic Jews, has demonstrated in the past its support for territorial compromise with the Palestinians when it supported the Oslo Peace Process in the nineties. And while Shas has shifted to the right since then, as has much of Israeli society, it remains flexible when it comes to land for peace. This is in stark contrast to some of the other religious political parties in Israel which strongly oppose such a position.

How does Shas explain its greater willingness to compromise?

In addition to the mitzvah or “commandment” for Jews to return and live in the land of Israel that appears in the Torah (Numbers 33:53) there is also the concept of pikuach nefesh, or “saving a human life” (Leviticus 18:5), which can override other commandments. There are those who argue that if Israel withdraws from the Palestinian lands captured in the Six-Day War of 1967, and hand it over to the Palestinians so they can establish a state of their own, that will save lives by bringing the conflict to an end.

By contrast, for the parties that oppose territorial compromise, the commandment to settle the land of Israel takes precedence over the concept of saving a human life.
As this example shows, whether or not to apply pikuach nefesh to the prospect of Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza is open to interpretation.

The rabbis of the Talmud clearly accepted that there can be different interpretations for the same text. In the Talmud they quote the prophet Jeremiah (23:29) who said, “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” The rabbis expanded on this, saying “As the hammer splits the rock into many splinters, so will a scriptural verse yield many meanings.” For the rabbis of the Talmud, the various pieces of the rock became an analogy for different interpretation of the text.

Rabbis of the Talmud were often paired off with another rabbi whose position they disagreed with. One such duo was Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai. Of their different opinions, the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) described how a voice from heaven proclaimed that despite differing interpretations, both of their edicts were “the words of the living God.” Their differences were considered an integral part of a holy dialogue.

In fact, most of the debates between Hillel and Shammai concluded with a decision to follow the interpretation of Rabbi Hillel because he was considered to be more accommodating in his approach. A case in point is the upcoming Jewish Arbor Day of TuB’Shvat (on January 20) where in the debate between Hillel and Shammai over what was the correct day for the observance of the holiday Hillel seems to have been influenced by where the majority of the people lived and tried to accommodate them in his decision.

These lessons are important when it comes to the role of religious interpretation within the Arab-Israeli conflict. For one, we see that there is not one authentic way to interpret the text but that divergent opinions will emerge from the process. We learn even further from the example of Hillel that a softer and more open approach can also be our guide.


* Rabbi Michael M. Cohen is the Director of Special Projects for the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies ( where Jewish, Muslim, and Christian college students study and live together as they train to became environmental leaders for the Middle East. He is also the author of Einstein’s Rabbi: A Tale of Science and the Soul.
This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) for a series on politics and religious interpretation in the Arab-Israeli context.

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 23 December, 2010
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