Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Why ISIS burned the pilot

Since ISIS began spreading a video showing their burning of captured Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasaesbeh, various writers have tried to explain the psychology behind both the burning and its publication. CNN posted a piece suggesting the act was meant to communicate fearlessness. Forbes added that it was a recruiting tool, meant to appeal to those who would find it attractive. The Observer explained the video as intimidation of potential opposition.

I believe there is merit to all of those points, but to me there is another, deeper issue involved: Religion. Put simply, burning Moath al-Kasaesbeh alive, and posting the video, was not necessarily part of  a strategy. Rather, it was a religious act for ISIS. Indeed, along with the video they disseminated "talking points" providing an Islamic justification for their actions.

It is fundamental to the nature of a religious cult that members of the cult see inherent beauty in fulfilling its religious demands - and the more demanding, the better. To a member of a religious cult, the sight of cult members joyously carrying out their duties is the most attractive and inspiring scene imaginable. (Indeed, ISIS made sure to air footage of cheering crowds, including young children.)  As far as the objections of outsiders - they are simply uninformed non-initiates, who don't understand. So ISIS had no concern for international revulsion; to them, any objective observer would recognize the beauty in the burning. Anyone else is simply a fool unworthy of consideration.

But if that's correct, then we must ask: what about us? Jews also see inherent beauty in fulfillment of our religion's demands. And indeed, when people outside our community express hostile opinions of our practices - shechitah (kosher animal slaughter), for example, or brit milah (circumcision) - we, too, might write them off as uninformed. So if religious fervor can so drastically corrupt the human moral compass, how can we prevent ourselves from misinterpreting Judaism and descending to ISIS-level depravity?

Judaism has an important, albeit fragile, safety net: respect for the opinion of non-Jewish society. From the biblical message (Bereishit 1:27) that all human beings are created "in the image of G-d"...

to the biblical examples of non-Hebrews like Malkitzedek (Bereishit 14) and Yitro (Shemot 18) as people whose opinions mattered to our righteous ancestors...

to the talmudic declaration that "The law of the government is the law" (Bava Kama 113a)...

to the talmudic observation that "The pious of the nations of the world also gain admittance to the next world" (Taanit 29a, Yalkut Shimoni 765)...

to the legal obligation of kiddush HaShem (sanctifying G-d's Name in the eyes of the world) (Yechezkel 38:23, Yoma 86a, Yerushalmi Bava Metzia 2:5)...

...Jewish tradition teaches the Jew to value the opinion of his non-Jewish neighbours. Not to the extent of denying G-d's Word and cancelling the Torah, but to the extent of compelling us to think very carefully when our values don't fit those of general society, and to accept outside wisdom when appropriate.

Of course, there are areas in which the Torah's laws ultimately do run counter to society's values, where society and Jewish tradition view each other reciprocally as benighted. Some areas cannot be reconciled, and that's why I view this safety net as "fragile". But overall, our respect for the opinions of those who are outside our circle plays an important self-policing role, ensuring that we do not fall into self-absorbed, ISIS-style excesses. Thank G-d for this very important element of Judaism.

May we always be careful to preserve that respect, and the self-awareness it brings.


  1. I think the Rambam in his more apologetic moments of the Mishna Torah such as Hilchot Avadim often tries to show how the "safety net" is not a tacked on feature sort of exogenous to the system (ie, "what other people think of us") but rather can also be found endogenously within the ethics of discrete areas of halacha. I think that's a much more compelling argument in favor of the religious aspects of Brit Mila, and in the case of Shechita it suggests its own solutions.

    1. Adam-
      I agree that Rambam (and others) see the "safety net" as a function of particular mitzvot, but what makes you contend that this is to the exclusion of its presence as an overarching concept?

  2. Congratulations! This post has been selected as one of the finest of the Jewish world this week in Haveil Havalim, the Yikes-it's-Yitro edition, over at Adventures in AliyahLand.

  3. This is an important post that discusses how religion (I would apply this to any ideological system, not simply religion) can stoop to the level of conceptualizing cruel acts as expressions of beauty, and contrasting ISIS' behavior with the Jewish ideal of human's being created in God's image, which functions as a corrective to such developments in Judaism. The problem is that it steps into the fallacy Bernard Lewis mentioned in his own work: comparing one religion's practice (in this case, ISIS's burning of the pilot) to another religion's ideas (in this case, humankind's being created in the image of God within Judaism). What we need as Jews is more of an emphasis on the practicalities of humankind's being created in the image of God in halakha. This is particularly the case here in Israel, where all too often price tag attacks occur via people who do not share the good rabbi's humanistic perspective and look at humanism as a Western imposition on Judaism, and such people include knowledgeable rabbis. Half the battle is the ideological this post mentions. The other half is being fought by local Israeli rabbis, but the battle is not yet won.

    1. Hello Joseph,
      Thanks for reading, and for your thoughtful comments. I do not make the humanistic/Jewish distinction, but I understand why some do. It's not a simple matter, in my opinion - but I do think that the "humanistic" approach is inherent in authentic Judaism.