Jonathan I Rosenblatt
The Statue of Liberty, dedicated in October 1886, was a gift from the people of France to the United States. For more than a century, she has welcomed new Americans and celebrated the special role of France in the incubation of the liberties that define American democracy. Perhaps it is time we returned the favor to our French allies of long standing and offered them a gift of wisdom in a challenging time.
The world is in the grips of a struggle against the violence of terrorists inspired by a virulent strain of Islamic ideology. In France, the threat of Islam is perceived as an attack of the very fabric of France’s proudly secular culture and society. In order to protect ‘Frenchness’, various legal measures have been enacted to block visible symbols of faith from public places. The most recent wave has been legislation in almost thirty municipalities along the Mediterranean and in Northern France to ban the ‘Burkini,’ a swim costume designed to uphold the modesty-in-dress rules observed by Moslem women. One of these regulations claims that the burkinis are “not respectful of good morals and secularism.”
This reflexive reaction, rooted in fear and anger, is understandable in a society that perceives itself under siege by forces against which conventional defensive responses are irrelevant. Even in the United States, the level of mainstream anti-Moslem rhetoric, a rhetoric that has risen to the level of national debate, tolls the dangers of the wide-spread sense of frustration and fear. But are the vituperations good strategy in the struggle against global terrorism? Consider the message sent by the recent French swimsuit war. The message is that there is no place in France for truly devout Moslems. Conversely, it also suggests, that true devotion to Islam can only exist in societies purified of all outside influences. An aggressively secular France mandates an aggressively Islamic Saudi Arabia or Iran or Turkey. In such Petri dishes Islam’s most virulent strains are likely to flourish—and to be exported in an ongoing kulturkampf against the West.
But consider an alternative. Many years ago I had the honor of a private audience with one of the sages of Israel’s ultra-orthodox community in his spare apartment in Bnei Brak. I waited patiently as scores of his disciples and followers filed by him for a word of advice or a blessing. When they had all left, he sat with me alone. He asked, “Are you from America?” When I responded affirmatively, the elderly scholar responded, “Ah. America is medinat ha-chesed—a land of lovingkindness.” He was, in part, referring to America’s generosity to people suffering anywhere on the planet. But, as well, he was reflecting on the particular relationship between America and deeply devout Jews. During the great period of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe—the period of Ellis Island and that great lady in New York’s harbor—the assumption was that the ‘Golden Land’ required the surrender of traditional practices of faith in their more restrictive iterations. Legend had Jewish immigrants tossing their phylacteries overboard when they saw the American coast. But another narrative was slowly growing. The United States, particularly after the Holocaust, became the home of great institutions devoted to traditional observance and scholarship. Entire communities, replicating the norms of their European antecedents, found a place in the fabric of American life, without ever being required to forfeit their aspirations to exalted service of G-d and Torah.
And an interesting result ensued: a distinctly American strain of intense Orthodoxy, one that functions in respectful harmony with a vast variety of neighbors. Witness the streets, subways and busses of New York City, where the sight of Chassidic garb or the black and white formality of the classical black-hatted Yeshiva student is no longer novel and certainly not disruptive. More remarkable is the subtle internal shift. American ultra-Orthodoxy is a gentle strain, one which, by comparison to its contemporary and historical cousins, has absorbed much of what is best in this ‘land of lovingkindness’: an easy interaction with people of other ideologies and backgrounds, a higher level of comfort interacting with women in mainstream environments, a greater willingness to travel and to embrace shared resources of the public sphere; keep your eyes open in the National Parks, historic sights, museums and zoos of our country.
Last year, I was doing research at Harvard and had the opportunity to meet for daily afternoon prayers with a group of devout young men all of whom are students at Harvard Law School. They hail from the greatest American Yeshivot (seminaries)—Bet Midrash Govoha (Lakewood), Ner Israel Rabbinical College (Baltimore) and Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (Yeshiva University). Their level of Talmudic scholarship was astonishing. Each day they met for services in a classroom they had reserved. At various times they were joined by non-orthodox Jews observing the anniversary of a loved one’s death; these guests were male and women. With alacrity and total comfort our visitors were accommodated and welcomed. It was not unusual to observe one of the ‘regulars’—all of whom prayed by heart—calling up an e-prayerbook on his tablet for a guest. And when I met my minyan-buddies around the Law School, they were clearly a comfortable, accepted and accepting element in Harvard’s international and socially diverse community. There was more than civility; there was affection, humor and respect for the gifts of others. In short, without surrendering to a creed of secularism, an American ultra-Orthodoxy had found a place even in the elite intellectual American enterprise.
What would be the result if Islam were welcomed by western democracies? Not with the message, “Abandon all faith ye who enter here” but with the affirmation that people with high spiritual aspirations will find home and haven. Understand, you will not dictate standards to the general population; they remain free to pursue their vision. But, you will be able to raise a generation of fine Moslems, Moslems of whom your Prophet would be proud, just as Orthodox Jews have raised generations who stand in eternal conversation with the sages of the Talmud and the Torah luminaries of the past, without shame. I cannot help but believe that Moslems raised in a land of lovingkindness, with fellow-citizens of other beliefs and habits, would create a strain of Islam more benign, more loving of the ‘other.’ And it would not be a diluted Islam, a sham or a compromise. It would be a true flowering of an ancient faith. The ascendency of this Islam and the ascendency of the Imams and Sharia scholars it would produce would be a towering and effective response to the threat of fundamentalist terror.
To our French friends (and to ourselves), consider Lady Liberty’s welcome, not only to individuals but to communities of faith: we welcome you to reach toward heaven here, just as this great torch reaches skyward to proclaim the cause of liberty. We are confident that your service of the Divine will enrich our society. And along the way, you will see your fellow citizens as the human setting in which true faith can flourish. The great possibilities of religious tolerance are not limited to those who learn to tolerate the sight of bekishes and burkinis. The culture of liberty affects its most miraculous transformation on those who experience it from within those costumes. Even on a French beach or in a Harvard lecture hall they can come to behold a society receptive to and supportive of the consummation of their highest spiritual aspirations.