The Congressman and the Koran

The Congressman and the Koran

A secular year is about to begin, dragging with it a holy war over whether a Koran may be used for the ceremonial oath-taking by a newly-elected member of Congress who is a Muslim.

Let us be clear here: This is about a ceremonial oath-taking, meaning a private affair designed for family, friends and supporters. This is nothing but a mountain of maliciousness created out of a molehill of a moment, and a legally meaningless one at that.

The broader question, however, is whether a person should be made to swear on a religious text he or she does not hold sacred.

People "swear on" sacred texts to lend gravitas to their oaths — to imbue them with an aura of assurance, for an oath taken in the name of a deity is surely an oath that will be kept.

I, for one, would never accept as serious an oath taken by a Jew or Christian on, say, the I Ching or the Vishnu Purana. There indeed may be wise sayings in those books, but neither the Jew nor the Christian is a follower of Confucius or a believer in Vishnu, and so the oath-taker has not invoked the sacred at all.

Why, then, should a Muslim be forced to swear on Christianity’s most sacred text? For that matter, why should a Jew. At least one Jewishly knowledgeable commentator suggests to do so is appropriate and proper, but it is not. First, despite appearances, the Christian bible does not contain the Tanach; the so-called "Old Testament" is a Christian version of our bible and that is not the same thing. The Christian bible contains Jewish texts that have been altered to suit Christian dogma, and also contains "Jewish" texts that the sages of blessed memory rejected for the Tanach. Obviously, it also contains a slew of texts that we not only reject as sacred or true, but have given our lives over two millennia rather than accept them.

One argument against the Koran is that it contains vicious things that are repugnant to most of us. The suicide bomber and the terrorist rely on its text to justify their murders of innocent people. This is not a text on which one should be allowed to take an oath.

That the Koran offers no such justification apparently is irrelevant to the conversation. Suicide, for any reason, is strictly forbidden. Thus, at ‘:195, it states, "cast not yourselves to perdition with your own hands, and do good [to others]; surely Allah loves the doers of good." In 4:’9-30, it adds, "You shall not kill yourselves…. Anyone who commits these transgressions, maliciously and deliberately, we will condemn him to Hell."

Compare that to what the Torah says about suicide.

Well, actually, what it does not say. It takes a rabbinic stretch of the imagination in interpreting the opening part of Genesis 9:5 — "But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning" — to even infer a prohibition. (See the Babylonian Tractate Bava Kama 91b.) I doubt anyone would seriously argue that the Torah permits suicide or suicide bombing merely because it does not explicitly ban suicide.

Another argument against the Koran is that it says hateful things about non-believers and sometimes even seems to condone violence against them.

Even if some of the verses in the Koran can be interpreted so extremely, such statements are not exclusive to it. Take, for example, Deuteronomy 13:13-16, which deals with an Israelite town that has given itself over to paganism. Says the Torah, "If it is true, the fact is established — that abhorrent thing was perpetrated in your midst — put the inhabitants of that town to the sword…. Doom it and all that is in it to destruction."

Or consider Deuteronomy 7:’, which commands regarding the seven nations of Canaan, "you must doom them to destruction: grant them no terms and give them no quarter."

Do such texts turn the Torah into a book to be reviled and shunned?

Another claim is that it does not matter what the Koran actually says; what is important is what the terrorist murderers and the suicide bombers who believe in it think it says.

That would disqualify all holy books — including ours and the Christian bible, as well. For the Christians, the best testimony is summed up in two words — the Crusades. Fortunately, our examples are fewer by far, but they still exist. Baruch Goldstein, who killed ‘9 Muslims on Purim day 1994, comes to mind. Yigal Amir, who saw himself on a mission from God when he killed Yitzhak Rabin, is another.

Frankly, when Christians attack the sanctity of the Koran, as a Virginia member of Congress recently did, I shudder in fear, for we could be next. When a Jew attacks the Koran, however, it saddens me, because Judaism traditionally has taken a benevolent view of Islam and its central text.

In his famous responsum to Rabbi Ovadiah the Proselyte, Maimonides said of the Muslims, "Idolatry has been cut off from the mouths of all of them, including the women and children…. [R]egarding the unity of God, they have no mistake at all."

The Rambam, of course, experienced both the good side and the bad side of Muslim rule in his lifetime. He understood the evils of Muslim extremism, yet this is his opinion.

It is also the opinion of later decisors. One of the foremost halachic authorities of the 19th century, Rabbi Shalom Mordechai Shvadron (the Maharsham, or the Breziner Rav) was asked whether a mohel was permitted to circumcise Muslim children. His answer was a definitive yes (see Teshuvot Maharsham, no. 7:93).

To be sure, there is much about Islam that differs from Judaism. The two do not differ on the basics, however, which is why Judaism can view Islam in this way. Islam, after all, accepts the God of Abraham as the only God.

In practice and belief, there are many similarities. Islam espouses a moral and ethical code that is rooted in the concepts of repentance and a Day of Judgment, and in the coming of a messiah (the mahdi). While it is rooted in a written document (the Koran), Islamic law (shariah) is as derivative as halacha and is similarly based on an oral tradition of scholarly interpretation (the hadith). There is also a huge body of responsa literature with traceable roots to the responsa of the Babylonian Gaonate. And like Judaism, the main debate among sects is whether this oral tradition was "fixed" at a certain time (in Islam’s case, the 11th century), or whether it remains evolutionary.

Jews should not be concerned when a Muslim member of Congress takes his oath on a Koran. They should be concerned when he does not.

Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of the Conservative synagogue Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park and an instructor in the UJA-Federation-sponsored Florence Melton Adult Mini-School of the Hebrew University. He is the editor of Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.