Several years ago, I bumped into the author Salman Rushdie at Emory University in Atlanta, where he had spent a semester teaching. We had a nice chat.
And, at the time, he wasn’t even looking over his shoulder.
Those halcyon days might be over.
They are after Salman Rushdie again (or, to be honest, still: the fatwa against him was never lifted)
In 1988, Rushdie published his famous novel, The Satanic Verses, which Muslims have suspected of being blasphemous against Islam, and more pointedly, the prophet Muhammed. The Ayatollah Khomeini had issued the original fatwa against Rushdie. “Even if Salman Rushdie repents and becomes the most pious man of all time, it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has got, his life and wealth, to send him to hell.”
Just recently, various Iranian media organizations are offering a new reward for the assassination of the British author. The price on Rushdie’s head is now nearly four million dollars.
My late teacher, Rabbi David Hartman, once taught that monotheism has a dark side: it is fairly uncompromising. After all, if you think that there is only one God, then that God must be always right, and you won’t be that liberal about those who oppose that God.
Is that kind of intolerance inevitable? Hardly (thought you might not know it, given all of the religion-based hatred that is alive and well today).
But, the renewal of the Rushdie affair got me thinking: has Judaism always treated its own heretics fairly?
- Elisha ben Avuya, the Talmudic apostate whose life was immortalized in Milton Steinberg’s classic historical novel As A Drive Leaf. Confronted by tragedy, he once screamed: There is no justice and there is no just God!” The ancient sages excommunicated him.
- Uriel da Costa. He lived in Amsterdam in the 1600s. His intellectual struggles with Judaism led him to deny that the Torah was divine. He thought that religions were merely human inventions. He was excommunicated by the Jewish community. Publicly humiliated, he committed suicide.
- Baruch Spinoza. He picked up where da Costa left off, and with similar results. He was a panentheist (experiencing God in everything); taught that Jewish law was largely irrelevant; and was the first to figure out that the Torah had multiple authors. On July 27, 1656, the Jewish leaders of Amsterdam excommunicated Spinoza.
- Mordecai Kaplan. The intellectual father of Reconstructionist Judaism got in trouble with Orthodox Jewish leaders with the publication of his Sabbath Prayer Book. In 1945, they excommunicated the great thinker.
And, here is what is worse. The spirit of delegitimization is still alive in contemporary Judaism, as Orthodox authorities in Israel continue to put forth an ever narrower view of Judaism and of Jewish life.
Let’s not let Christianity off the hook, either. Throughout its history, its own martyrs to free thinking burnt at the stake, or were (like Galileo) excommunicated. No matter what your religion, there is always “the dark side of the Force” that says that my path is the way to heaven, and everyone else can (and will) go to hell.
If there is any word of comfort here, let this be it.
Ask any more-than-mildly-literate Jew: What were the names of the people who excommunicated Da Costa? Or, Spinoza? Or, Kaplan?
They won’t be able to name a single one.
Why? Because we need our heretics. They keep us honest, and they keep us intellectually vigorous.
In the words of Edwin Markham’s poem, “Outwitted”
He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
I promise you: the name of Salman Rushdie will be known, generations after we have forgotten any of the mullahs that called for his death.