On January 22, six world powers (U.S., France, Germany, China, Russia and Britain) attempting to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons ended their latest attempt at negotiations. Once again, they failed. We can applaud such diplomatic efforts, but I wonder if our government and others really expect the Iranians to respond. Consider these items:
• Nov. 10, 2009 (Washington Post): Iran charged three young Americans—Shane Bauer, Joshua Fattal and Sarah Shourd—hiking in the mountains of Iraq’s northern Kurdish region, with spying. They released Shourd last September. The men remain imprisoned.
• April 20, 2010 (BBC News): An Iranian cleric claimed that recent earthquakes were caused by women wearing revealing clothing and behaving promiscuously.
• July 9, 2010 (BBC News): Iran said that it would spare death by stoning for Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, 43, a woman accused of adultery. She since purportedly confessed to the murder of her husband. An official suspension was later announced in September, but her status remains unclear.
• Dec. 28, 2010 (Reuters): A member of an exiled opposition group was hanged for various offences, including “moharebe”—waging war against God.
• Jan. 11, 2011 (Associated Press): The number of Christians arrested since Christmas has risen to 70. Accusations range from trying to convert Muslims to being under foreign influence. The Christians’ big sin? Worshipping outside officially sanctioned churches.
Muslim states like Iran not only uphold Sharia (religious law) but also take a highly literal view of that law. Stoning and beheading—performed in Saudi Arabia—along with amputations follow ancient statutes. They make no allowance for changing sensibilities almost fifteen centuries following Muhammad’s receiving of the Quran.
Almost two thousand years ago, Judaism’s Sages took a different stance. Although the Torah enumerates over two-dozen capital crimes, the Sages opposed capital punishment. Working within the law they made it practically impossible. The Mishnah elucidates: “A Sanhedrin [high court] which executed a person once in seven years was called destructive. R. Eleazar b. Azariah said, once in seventy years. R. Tarphon and R. Akiba said, if we were members of a Sanhedrin, never would a person be put to death” (Makkot 1:10).
Our world demands compassion and flexibility. The Chassidic Rebbe of Kotzk said that just as the prohibition of idolatry forbids having other gods, so should it prevent us from making idols of the mitzvot (commandments). Our laws do not exist for their own sake. We must cleave not just to the letter of the law but also to its spirit. I would add that only in doing so can we truly value and respect all human beings whom Torah teaches us are “made in God’s image.”
May the ayatollahs in Iran turn from their embrace of blood in the name of God to respect their people and their neighbors in the name of God.
In “The Governor of Alabama and the Priest of Midian” (1-21-11), I spotlighted Governor Robert Bentley’s offensive remarks about non-Christians. Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Birmingham’s Temple-Emanu-El wrote to his congregants following a meeting with the Governor. He stated, in part: “I believe our Governor spoke ‘church talk’ without thinking of the ramifications of what he was saying. He is not a career politician, and he is new to this role…. For me, his apology was the right step after his stinging words. And I have heard from some of you the good news that some of our fellow Alabamians are now more sensitive now to the way their words are heard by others. Sometimes good things can emerge from trying moments.” I deal with this subject in chapter one of God’s Others—“Which Side is God On?”.
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