Thursday, July 14, 2011

Those who are astray and lead astray

There are days when my Facebook page and email are flooded with clips from The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) of Muslim preachers saying outrageous and violent things as Friday afternoon crowds or studio audiences seem to cheer them on with nods of appreciation or shouts of “Allah hu Akhbar.” Many Muslim friends have told me that the translations are sometimes inaccurate. It is clear that the clips are cut carefully and deliberately in order to highlight the negative. Those criticisms are reasonable. Nevertheless, even to someone whose Arabic, Urdu, Pashto or Farsi is weak, the messages of Jew hatred and contempt for the West seem to ring loud and clear. These leaders do exist. They do say the kinds of things we see on these clips and they do have audiences that buy their messages. For some, this is ample and sufficient evidence of the corrosive nature of Islam itself. These, we are told again and again, are the REAL spokesmen for Islam.

My own explorations have lead me in very different directions. I have been lead to scholars who are not “moderates” within Islam but see Islam as inherently moderate. I have been lead to scholars who welcome engagement to the outside world. I have been lead to scholars who reject anti-Semitism as anti-Islamic.

That’s all very nice but then there are the others, the fire and brimstone preachers of hate and intolerance captured by MEMRI, posted in Facebook pages and deposited in our emails. I ask myself, what does the existence of these leaders really mean? Is this a Muslim problem or is it a human problem.? Is it fixable and if so, whose job is it to fix it?

I can begin with the teachings of my own guide, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. (Its typically where I begin with everything)

It is a hard and onerous task for the Angel of Death to kill everyone in the world physically and spiritually all on his own. That is why he has helpers everywhere: the doctors to kill physically and the false leaders to kill spiritually.
-Avaneha Barzel

One likes to think that the 18th century doctor with his leeches and death-dealing poor hygiene are gone. False leaders are not. The flock is, by definition, susceptible to being fleeced. Wolves in sheep’s clothing are never far away to lead them over the cliff if greed or politics demand. This was true in the time of Rebbe Nachman and its true today.

A normal acronym for Rabbi is "rosh beis yisroel": the head of the house of Israel. That Rebbe Nachman teaches us refers to true and faithful spiritual leaders. Those leaders who are in it for themselves are "ra b'einei Hashem": evil in the eyes of G-d. Rabbi Nachman’s language was harsh indeed, going so far as to call them “Jewish scholar demons.”

This same sentiment is expressed in a hadith stated in relation to the end of days.

Truly G-d does not remove knowledge by extracting it from [His] servants. Rather, He removes knowledge by removing the scholars, until when no scholar remains the people take ignoramuses as their leaders. Then they are consulted and give fatwas [legal rulings] without knowledge. So they are astray and lead others astray.
-Al-Bukhari no. 7307

Quoted in Joseph E.B. Lumbard, Submission, Faith and Beauty: The Religion of Islam, p. 59

I believe that the preachers featured in many of these films are none other than those ignoramuses who are “astray and lead others astray.” Following Rebbe Nachman’s example, perhaps Imam could be an acronym for “Inspiring Muslims and Mankind” for good Imams and for the bad ones “Ignoramuses Masquerading as Moral.” In this “The End of Time”, what Jews call the “birth pangs of the Messiah,” ever further from the reality of revelation and prophecy, we are weak-willed and susceptible to the wiles of false leadership.

In the time of Rebbe Nachman, as today, when false religious teachers abound, he reminded us that WE give these teachers their power. By supporting them in any way we lend our energy to their misguided and sometimes evil purposes. The masses that cheer on these preachers are evidence of the weakness and ignorance of the generation. But we can choose to distance ourselves from such teachers. Muslims are often called upon to denounce these men and their messages. I imagine there are Muslim organizations with virtually full-time “Denunciation Departments.” There is a place for that. There is a time to speak up, Rebbe Nachman himself was not shy about denouncing the false teachers of his day. We need to be brave.

The path of denunciation is also fraught with dangers. Islam and Judaism share a powerful distaste for speaking ill of others. An error in this area is spiritually deadly. Made public it becomes an error that is virtually unrepairable. That might explain why some of us (and I am one) are very timid sometimes about denouncing religious leaders who we may believe are “astray and lead others astray.”
The more positive approach perhaps is to work at strengthening and supporting those teachers and build those institutions which teach a wholesome and authentic way of life that encourages us both to observe the law and to appreciate the spirit behind it.

For those of us seeking taqwa / devekus / a genuine intimacy with G-d, Rebbe Nachman emphasizes the importance of true teachers and leaders.

Everyone must search very hard in order to find a true teacher who can help him attain great wisdom and G-dly perception. This requires an outstandingly great teacher who has the power to explain this deep wisdom in terms comprehensible to the simplest people.
The lower a person's level and the further away he is from G-d, the greater the teacher he needs. Thus when the Jewish people were on the lowest of levels in Egypt, sunk in the forty-nine gates of impurity, they needed the greatest rabbi and teacher of all: Moshe Rabbenu. [Musa] For the lower down and further away from G-d a person is, the greater the teacher he needs. He needs a master craftsman who has the ability to bring the supreme wisdom of G-dly perception within the grasp of one as lowly and far away from G-d as himself. The sicker the patient, the greater the doctor he needs. (Likutey Moharan I, 30)

In these days, when any ignoramus with a computer can publish their own books, when politics creates religious “truth” and hatred passes for spiritual zeal, we need real leadership and that real leadership desperately needs us. Not only do these teachers strengthen us but we strengthen them as well. Our support, material, moral, and prayerful empowers them to reach wider audiences and encourages them to refine and perfect their messages. They are the antidote to the ignorance and violence that is framed by the MEMRI videos.

In the words of Reb Natan of Breslov, a prayer…

Please protect me, and save me, so that I don’t attach or affiliate myself with the wrong kind of religious leader, one whose behavior isn’t 100% what it should be, who talks the talk more than walking the walk. Help me to avoid his teachings, to not add his confusion to mine. In addition to everything else, following his advice sucks holiness out of my income which can lead to who-knows-what!
Better to help me any and all tzaddikim[righteous people] whose teachings are 100% unadulterated holiness, whose teachings stem from good ruach (spirit), the ruach of prophecy holy ruach.
(Likutey Tefilot I, #54)


  1. "The path of denunciation is also fraught with dangers. Islam and Judaism share a powerful distaste for speaking ill of others. An error in this area is spiritually deadly. Made public it becomes an error that is virtually unrepairable. That might explain why some of us (and I am one) are very timid sometimes about denouncing religious leaders who we may believe are “astray and lead others astray.”"

    That sounds like a poor excuse to me. If you believe there is a danger, and your post makes a good argument for this being a "pikuach nefesh" type of danger, then you have to speak up. Certainly you have to limit your statements to the scope of what you are denouncing, but there is no reason to let anything hold you back from doing so.

  2. Anonymous (you couldn't give yourself an alias like "Super Jew" :-) is right.
    No question, if there is an issue of danger to life (pikuach nefesh) all bets are off and you speak up right away and as loudly as you need to in order to be heard. I was thinking of less severe cases where either the individual is clearly "all talk and no action" or their deviations are not about violence but about other matters of belief or practice. In those cases one can afford to be more reserved.

  3. Well, I think according to the quote you posted, its not just physical danger to life.

    "It is a hard and onerous task for the Angel of Death to kill everyone in the world physically and spiritually all on his own. That is why he has helpers everywhere: the doctors to kill physically and the false leaders to kill spiritually."

    This seems to suggest that all issues of "false leaders" is infact an issue of pikuach nefesh. I would only take this status as far as the analogy allows, but if its a matter of speach vs speach, I don't see how you can hold back.

    To be clear: I don't think that quote allows you to lie or cheat or be dishonest, (which real pikauch nefesh would) but I think it does remove any consideration of Lashon Harah.

  4. Super Jew> (ahh.. THATS so much nicer than "Anonymous") Thats a good point. It would be a good question for an expert in the laws of Lashon hara.

  5. Let your student Yitzchak bn Shmuel strenggthen and suppor you, holy teacher. Beautiful context for perspective on talking, screaming heads. I turn my face from the haters, to deny them the succor of my attention, the object of their bloodlust. Look away from their spectscle and seek teaching as good as yours here. Thank you, Tsvi.

  6. That is the problem within the Muslim society. They'd like to kill other non-muslims.And some of them say it is permissible to kill non-muslims. But they don't have the valid arguments. They take those Quranic verses out of context. Of course Muhammad had wars with Jews before, but those Quranic verses are meant for his period at that time. I don't think it is 'binding' to the current affairs. Speaking of Quran translations,I have to agree with your Muslim friends, it is true that there are a lot of mistranslation nowadays. A Muslim should learn Arabic rather than relying on translations 100%. By the way, even among Muslims they do have different arguments on certain problems arouse which due to the mistranslation of those Arabic words. Well,in every religion too, I think, just to make a contrast :)

  7. @Muthannah Marawan
    There are no verses that advocate killing Jews in the Koran, and Muhammad had no wars with any Jews. In fact, the sentence in which 800 or so Jewish males in Yathrib were executed wasn't given by Muhammad- it was given by a Rabbi as a penalty for violating the constitution of Medina.

    Islam isn't an anti-Jewish faith. On the contrary. Muslim anti-jewishness today has its root in the state of Israel's establishment.

  8. This was amazingly written, and very eye-opening to many. As a Muslim high school student I often struggle with misjudgments from students as well as teachers about my religion. I also often get the "don't Muslims hate Jews?" question and it bothers me that I can't eloquently articulate how the media's representation of radical Muslims is a misrepresentation of me, and the majority--mainstream Muslims. My most common answer is "no, I have tons of close Jewish friends" and that our religions can be more of a bonding factor than a separating one. It's nice to know that you help other people recognize this fact and I really support your efforts.

    Thank you for posting and I LOVE your blog by the way, it's a great inspiration to me.

  9. Jude, I am so sorry I didn't see your post sooner. Thank you so so much for the kind words!

  10. I'm a Muslim as well. You have a wonderful blog here and I love what you are doing. Thank you so much!

  11. Thanks! I'm glad you saw it, and your welcome =D

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  13. Is it fair or fact to say that, "most of the hardline / hate filled speech is mostly directed at this Zionist movement. The "Jewish people" in the government of Israel who are at odds with the Orthodoxy Jewish beliefs"? ( I ask as a sincere question and not as a slick defense or anything else. I ask as a student who knows nothing.)

    Also, could you comment further on the view of an Orthodox Jew towards the "Zionist Belief System". I am fairly ignorant of the matter.

    Thank you.