Religions Hold Mix of Justice and Mercy

Religion did not begin with compassion. The gods of the
ancient Near East were not exactly epitomes of goodness.

In the flood story of the Gilgamesh Epic, the gods destroyed humanity not because they
were reacting to unbridled violence and sin, as in the biblical (and quranic)
versions, but because humans were making too much noise and disturbing them.

The ancient gods were worshipped but not out of love. They
were worshipped out of fear.

In the old polytheistic systems of the ancient Near East,
the gods fought each other and their competitors’ human worshippers. People
made offerings to the gods to placate their anger. They bribed them for their

The gods acted out the birth, maturity, decay and death of
nature in their own cycles of violence. Some exhibited the attribute of stern
justice observed in the Bible, but one hardly observes compassion among the
gods of old.

The idea of a compassionate God is an innovation of monotheism.
Only when the one God of all life became manifest could humanity conceive of a
divinity that combined both justice and mercy. The innovation was the
compassion. But the old attribute of stern justice did not disappear.

That combination of justice and compassion (din and rachamim
in Jewish religious parlance) offers a broad repertoire of divine responses to
human behaviors. While we may resonate with the stories of compassion in the
Bible, we must not ignore the cases in which God brings mass destruction upon
Israelites and non-Israelites for the sins of the few. Not all the children
killed in God’s plagues, fires and wars were guilty.

Like the Bible, the Quran portrays God in terms of justice
and mercy. God is al-Jabbar, “the powerful,” sometimes even understood as “the
oppressor,” whom no one can resist, but God is al-Rachman as well, “the
merciful.” God is also al-Salam.

Islam displays the same broad spectrum between the poles of
harsh justice and compassionate mercy that we observe in Judaism. All the
options are available, and the huge compendium of religious literature in Islam
attests to a long and venerable history of struggle (which is the meaning of
jihad) with applying the Quran and its interpretations to the exigencies of
real life.

Different methodologies are used to plumb the depths of the
divine will. As a result, some schools of interpretation tend to be harsher,
some more lenient on a variety of issues.

I know of no criteria by which one can accurately judge a
religion as more just, loving, hateful or compassionate than others. Every one
of these attributes is found abundantly in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Because the range is there, religious interpreters find
themselves attracted to what resonates with their own human experience. There
are cruel Muslims, to be sure. There are also cruel Christians, Hindus and,
yes, cruel Jews.

Particularly since Sept. 11, we hear Muslim spokespersons
stand up and claim that those who engage in certain behaviors or
interpretations of the Quran are not really Muslims. According to this
argument, cruel individuals who consider themselves Muslims are only cruel
individuals. They cannot be Muslims, because Islam teaches reason and

Islam does indeed teach reason and compassion. But Islam can
also express passionate anger and violent aggression. The claim that cruel
Muslims are not Muslims is disingenuous and abdicates responsibility for the
behavior of religious compatriots who are acting immorally against others.

There are indeed religious Muslims who engage in terrorism
in the name of Islam. These are true Muslims.

They may practice expressions of Islam that are neither
normative nor commendable, but “normative” and “commendable” are subjective
terms. Terror in the name of religion fits historically within the broad range
of options that must be considered authentic to Islam, and it must be
acknowledged as such by Muslims.

It is certainly true that the current trend toward militant
and violent radicalism carried out in the name of Islam is a hearkening back to
pagan, pre-Islamic Arabian values. It is also true that these values were not
successfully purged by the softening overlay of religion.

We observe the same tensions playing out in Christianity and
Judaism, of course, but by our generation these religions seem to have been
more successful than Islam in neutralizing the excesses of human nature. At the
very least, it is much more difficult today for cruelty to be acted out through
religious channels within the broadest parameters of Judaism and Christianity
than Islam.

In the final analysis, neither pre-Islamic Arabian standards
nor Islamic or other religious values create human cruelty. The inclination for
cruelty comes from somewhere else in the complex tangle of what is the human
psyche. Cruelty is not Islamic, Jewish or Christian.

On the other hand, in every case I know of human cruelty on
a public and mass level, the perpetrators claim to find justification by
association with some norm or value that is thought to provide legitimacy.
Sometimes the false legitimacy is religious. But this is only an attempt at
justification. Religion or culture is not a cause.

Then again, if pseudo-legitimacy for human cruelty can be
hung easily on a great religious system like Islam, there is a problem. That
problem can be fixed, but only when alternative channels for aggression and
alternative means for resolving disputes are stressed within the system.

And that’s where America comes into the picture. In the
free, open and safe society that is America, I observe American Muslims
engaging in a new jihad. This jihad is an open struggle to stress the Islamic
values of reason, tolerance and nonviolent means of resolving disputes. I see
this jihad being played out every day in the Muslim community of Los Angeles.
There are other voices in the American Muslim community as well –  some that
are quite problematic, in fact — but this is the way it should be in an open

The struggle of the American Jewish community to integrate
the best of Jewish values with the best of American values can be a model. Here
in America, the voices of reason and compassion can prevail because Americans,
whether Muslim or Christian or Jew, will not allow threats and intimidation to
win the day.  

Reuven Firestone is professor of medieval Judaism and Islam and the director of the Edgar F. Magnin School of Graduate Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

Visiting Peru’s Would-be Jews

Chan Chan is the world’s largest mud city. Lying just
outside the town of Trujillo, on Peru’s northern coast, Chan Chan’s high
earthen walls feature pre-Columbian carvings paying tribute to the civilization’s
many gods.

In 2001, I ventured to Peru, not just to visit the ruins of
great ancient cities founded by the Incas and their predecessors, but to meet
nearly 200 Inca descendants who have found Judaism in recent decades.

Groups of native Peruvians, who were religious Christians,
began practicing Judaism after they came to believe that it was impossible to
follow biblical laws without adhering to Jewish ritual.

Prospero Lujan, at 70 an elder statesman among the “Inca
Jews,” escorted me to Chan Chan one afternoon. I asked him why these Peruvians
would take an interest in Judaism, when Peru’s own ancient cultures built such
splendid monuments.

“Where are they and their gods now?” he replied, referring
to their destroyed civilization.

Prospero’s past may be Inca, but his future is in Israel.
Next month, Prospero will fly to Israel on a chartered plane full of new
Peruvian converts making aliyah. Two groups of Inca Jews were converted and
made aliyah before 1991. The remaining community in Peru struggled for more
than 10 years to gain the attention of Israel’s chief rabbinate. The rabbinate
initially promised to return soon to Peru to convert more people, but reversed
course after several earlier converts “defected” to a more secular lifestyle in

The Inca Jews finally prevailed in November 2001, when an
Orthodox beit din (Jewish court), came to Peru from Israel and converted
Prospero Lujan and 83 others. I reminded Prospero that war-torn Israel is no
paradise, but he was unfazed, feeling the Promised Land will rejuvenate him.

“I will never be afraid again. When I am 80 in Israel, they
will think I am 40,” he said. “Spiritually, I feel young. Practicing Judaism
has totally renewed me.”

The new converts’ enthusiasm is matched by the disappointment
of approximately 80 Inca Jews the beit din left behind.

Ester Guerra, who immigrated to Israel with the first groups
in 1991, recently called me in the middle of the night, having heard that I am
a friend to the Peruvian communities. The family of her brother, Lucio Guerra,
was one of those wishing to convert with the rabbis last fall. The rabbis
passed over Lucio’s family.

“Please do something,” Ester begged. “I am all alone here in
Israel, and it is destroying me. You know my brother Lucio’s family, how
religious they are.”

When I was in Peru, I visited the Guerras in Cajamarca, a
town over 8,000 feet high in the Andes, six hours inland from Trujillo. As we
spoke, Lucio’s wife, Marina, prepared a fish lunch with hot peppers, baked
yucca and rice. The Inca Jews generally eat only vegetarian food and scaly
fish, because they cannot get kosher meat.

Lucio formerly drove a cargo truck, but was forced to become
a garbage truck driver for the municipality to avoid working on Saturdays.

“My old job was better-paying, but we have to look toward
spiritual goals before material concerns,” he explained. Lucio tries to support
his family of six on approximately $175 a month.

The Guerras’ children, in navy and white school uniforms,
ran in from their morning classes just as lunch was ready. Everyone performed a
ritual hand washing and said the Hebrew blessing over rice. As we ate, I talked
to Eliel Guerra, 10, about life in Peru’s public schools.

“Our teacher makes us pray the Catholic way,” he said. “When
she called on me to lead the prayers, I looked the other way, and she pulled me
to the front and hit me twice on each hand with her tablet.”

The Guerras do not know why they were denied conversion last
fall by the beit din. Ester thinks it may be because Lucio does not lay
tefillin — which he cannot afford to buy.

Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum, a member of the beit din in Israel,
said the failure to use tefillin would not itself be a reason for denying a
conversion. However, Birnbaum would not say why any particular family or
individual was denied conversion last fall.

Rabbi David Mamou, the head of the beit din, said he hopes
to organize another group of rabbis to go to Peru about six months after this
group of 84 people has been “successfully absorbed” — though it’s not clear
exactly how that determination will be made.

“We have opened a door and we hope to continue forward,”
Birnbaum said. “Another 10 years of inaction will not pass.”

The Peruvians want to believe the rabbis, because they
cannot bear the thought of waiting another decade.

“Now we are waiting for the opportunity offered publicly by
the beit din to return to Peru,” said Aquiles Lujan, Prospero Lujan’s oldest
son, who also was passed over by the beit din in November. Aquiles has become
the new president of Trujillo’s community.

“We also remain at the mercy of men of good will and kind
actions to make possible the return of the rabbis,” he continued, stressing the
role that world Jewry can play — both with funding and advocacy — in helping
the remaining Inca Jews convert and move to Israel.

Under Israeli law, no rabbis other than Mamou’s group can
help the Peruvians realize their dream of immigrating to Israel.

Malka Kogan, an attorney at Israel’s Interior Ministry,
explained, “The State of Israel’s rule is to allow a man to immigrate who
converted in a congregation where he lives.”

But what if the man is like Lucio Guerra or Aquiles Lujan,
without an authorized local congregation willing to help?

“Then the chief rabbi’s office must convert him before we
can bring him to Israel,” Kogan said.

No matter how long that takes. Â

Bryan Schwartz, an Easton, Pa.-based lawyer, is completing his first book, “Scattered Among the Nations: Photographs and Stories of the World’s Most Isolated Jewish Communities.”