The pope, the press, and a lesson
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The pope, the press, and a lesson

With Rosh HaShanah here and Yom Kippur looming, it is nice of the media to treat us to a lesson in lashon hara (harmful speech) and especially the particular category of motzi shem ra — giving a person a bad name by blaming him/her for things he/she never said.

Specifically, the High Holy Days lesson is to be found in the media’s reporting of Pope Benedict XVI’s "Islam speech."

Yes, the pope did, in fact, quote these words of a 14th-century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Palaiologos:

"Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

The pope, however, never said "evil and inhuman." The German word he used was "Schlechtes," which means bad.

Also, before he quoted that, he noted that surah ‘, ’56 in the Koran reads: "There is no compulsion in religion." And he led into the quote by saying that Manuel II addressed "his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness which leaves us astounded." (Emphasis is in the original text of the speech.)

More to the point, however, the speech was not about Islam at all (in fact, Islam is mentioned only in passing and not in any critical way). It was about the need for reason to dominate theological discussions, because "not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature."

That is why he quoted Manuel II Palaiologos — not because he wanted to trash Islam, but because he wanted to quote what the Byzantine monarch said next:

"’God is not pleased by blood,’" the pope quoted the emperor, "’and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats….To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death….’"

For the next ‘,800 words of his speech, the pope spoke about the nature of "reason," or "logos," in normative Christian theology, and about the need for universities to return theology to their curricula. He then concluded by saying, "It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university."

In nearly all the reports on the speech, none of this was ever mentioned. The focus entirely was on Benedict’s quoting of Manuel II as saying that Mohammed had brought only "evil and inhuman" things to the world (which, as noted, Benedict never said).

The news reports point up the pitfalls of lashon hara. Except for the mistranslation of "Schlechtes," the reports did not misstate what the pope had said; they merely did not state all that he had said. One of the ways we — all of us, not just those in the media — can improve ourselves over the course of the next year (and the rest of our lives) is to be even more careful in what we say and how we say it.

This is not a minor step toward teshuvah. Keep in mind that virtually ‘5 percent of the "For the sin of" litany we recite over and again on Yom Kippur (also known as the Great Confessional) is about bad speech. It is by far the largest category of sin in that litany.

That being said, let me also say that this column is not about defending Benedict XVI. While his Islam quote was blown out of proportion (and made for a perfect exemplar of the pitfalls of lashon hara), the rest of what he said is ludicrous, coming from a pope. Nowhere in his speech does he even hint at the fact that so many of his predecessors did resort to violence and did convert by force. The Christian sword cut open the floodgates to seas of Jewish — and Muslim — blood, yet he makes Christianity sound so logosable.

To be sure, Jewish history is not faultless on the forced conversions issue. The Hasmoneans forcibly converted the Idumeans. For this, however, they were roundly condemned, and to this day normative Judaism does not consider those conversions legitimate. In contrast, the Catholic Church maintains that, although forcible conversions are not valid, baptism is irreversible. Such, indeed, was the declaration in the 19th-century kidnapping and conversion of 6-year-old Edgardo Mortara, a despicable crime ordered by the Vatican and supported by creation of the doctrine of papal infallibility.

Those are matters for which the pope should have been called to task.

The Muslim response to the speech, alas, is also preposterous and dangerously so. Once again, violence — including the murder of a nun — has followed in the wake of someone apparently saying something Muslims do not like.

That, however, is only part of what is preposterous. Muslim insistence on defending their rights and their honor in Western countries is still more absurd. What Muslim group, for example, has protested against the fact that non-Muslim preachers and teachers can be arrested in Saudi Arabia, or has risen in anger over the burning of churches in Africa by Muslims? Why are there no Muslim demonstrators burning in effigy the Muslim cartoonists who depict Jews and Judaism in the most hateful ways?

I would feel more aggrieved for Muslims and their treatment in the West if Muslims would feel more aggrieved for how Christians, Buddhists, and Jews are treated in the Muslim East.

Above all, I might feel more sympathy for Muslim suffering if Muslims felt more sympathy for Muslim suffering. It is the Jewish community that stands in the forefront of the Save Darfur efforts, as Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir accusingly noted at a press conference on Tuesday. The Christian community is involved to some extent. Only the Muslims are missing. Yet it is Muslims who are dying.

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