Two years of Intifadah. A year of al-Qaeda. With historic suddenness, humanity finds itself in the throes of an epochal conflict that seems capable of polarizing the entire world. It's given name is the "War on Terrorism," but this does not do justice to the depths of the struggle. For all its grandiose purpose, the "War on Terrorism" is really not much more than a war against bad manners, against a delinquent culture that refuses to play by the generally accepted rules of war. What is shaking the world to its foundations might better be referred to as a "Clash of Civilizations," but we should understand just what those civilizations are, what they stand for, and how it is determined whether one is, in President Bush's words, "with us or against us."
There are those who would describe this as a battle of Democracy versus demagoguery, freedom versus oppression, free-market versus feudalism. The other side describes it as a battle against the global purveyors of immorality and G-dlessness, between believers and infidel non-believers. Among those nations that support terrorism, the conviction of the rightness of their cause is firm and unshakable. No matter how horrific the acts of terrorism become, no sense of moral stock-taking seems to occur. In the West, by contrast, self-doubt reigns and a tense inner struggle is occurring. This inner struggle is no less important than the larger external struggle.
The culture of the West has two distinct roots: on the one hand, it is deeply rooted in Pagan indulgence and self-gratification; on the other hand it is connected to the Torah of Israel and its clear definitions of right and wrong, and its call to pursue justice. This mix of oil and water has been maintained for close to two thousand years, but has never and can never be reconciled. The current conflict is bringing these divergent roots to the fore, each one struggling to establish its primacy and to rid itself of the burden of other. The illusion of a marriage between them is disappearing and within the West each individual is finding that he is being forced to choose whether he is "with us or against us." Increasingly, we are coming to realize that the gray area, the fence sitting, trying to have it both ways is no longer a viable option.
One of the characteristics of the Torah of Israel is the identification of distinctions and the maintaining of separation between them: pure and impure, kosher and non-kosher, the Shabbat and the weekday. Attempts to integrate that which must be kept distinct, the Torah warns, will be disastrous. Justice and righteousness are by definition intolerant of injustice and unrighteousness. The Pagan world view, on the other hand, is one of the greatest tolerance. Tolerance of child sacrifice, tolerance of sexual immorality, tolerance of any practice and worldview, no matter how abhorrent, which permits the individual to fulfill his desires. Paganism is intolerant only of those things which hinder one's ability to pursue pleasure. Torah is fidelity and monogamy where Paganism is promiscuity.
This "unworkable marriage" is starkly evident in the United States. The land was first settled by deeply religious people seeking to construct a society based on what they read in the Torah. A century and a half later, however, the foundations of the nation were established by men who held it as a self-evident truth that one of the most important things with which the Creator endowed men was the right to pursue happiness. Paganism and the influence of Torah have been locked in struggle ever since.
The element of Western culture that stems from the influence of the Torah of Israel stands aghast at the bloodthirstiness of the Arab/Islamic world (itself an unworkable marriage of Paganism and Faith). The West cannot fathom the unbridled delight that is displayed when women, children and whole families are slaughtered without mercy. It demands that those who perpetrated the attacks of September 11th, and their brethren, who continue to bleed the citizens of Israel with ruthless brutality, be recognized as a scourge on humanity and that all effort must be made to bring the force of that worldview to its knees. No more infants and mothers should die, it asserts, due to our squeamish reluctance to identify and confront the Evil.
The arguments put forth by the Pagan view are quite different. In fact they seem less arguments than rationalizations of inaction: we must "understand" Arab rage, based as it surely is on Israeli oppression and American insensitivity; the terrorist culture is really no different than ours, and if we could only turn them into happy consumers, they would abandon their destructive ways; launching a war against terrorism would be too expensive, and it would threaten Middle East stability and the US economy. They all amount to the same thing: denying any moral imperative to confront Evil so as to allow us to continue to pursue happiness as we see fit.
The Torah of Israel was given 3,300 years ago, and it declared then and forever that Yishmael, the father of the Arab nations, would be a "wild beast of a man" whose hand would be against everyone. When Yishmael began to threaten Avraham's son, he was sent away to the desert, separated and removed from the "civilized world." It would appear that we are reliving this scene, being called upon to declare unequivocally that those who perpetrate and support terrorism cannot dwell among the nations of the world. Simultaneously, each individual son and daughter of Yishmael has the opportunity to separate themselves from the barbarism if they so desire. No one is condemned by birth, according to the Torah, and those children of Yishmael who wish to separate themselves from the pointless violence and rage can and must do so. We, as they, are being presented with an individual and communal challenge: do we stand opposed to the immense barbarity that Yishmael has awakened in the world, or do we not?
The Kabbalists say that the final Exile of the Jewish people will be the Exile of Yishmael, and that it will be the most difficult of all. Why the most difficult? Perhaps because it will demand of us that we abandon many of the illusions and self-deceptions that we have accustomed ourselves to, the pillars of Pagan falsity that we have allowed to become the foundations of our worldview. They will have to be razed before a structure of inner Truth, in harmony with our deeper selves, can be constructed. And why will it be the final Exile? Perhaps because the shedding of these illusions and self-deceptions, difficult and painful as it may be for many of us, will finally bring us the ability to see with the clarity the Torah requires, and will allow all of us to walk out of Exile together, bringing the entire world to the repair that it so badly needs.Yaakov Nathan writes from the New York area.
©2002 - Arutz Sheva