Integral Interpretation: Answering Spengler
Spengler of Asia Times is a writer I most admire, and to whose new articles I look forward. This does not, of course, mean agreement with everything he says or consideration of his standpoint as a perfect one. In my view, his greatest flaw is his overemphasis on ethnicity as the drive behind world events; this is only natural from one like me who views ethnicity as a secondary factor and ideology—the beliefs and convictions of men—as the prime mover of world history. I respect his worldview; I disagree with it.
Spengler has recently gotten into a dispute with Robert Spencer, of Jihad Watch fame, over quite a small snippet in his article from May 7, 2007, Are the Arabs already extinct? (the very title shows Spengler’s focus: he writes about Arabs while I write about Muslims). Spengler argues that the secular Syrian poet Adonis (the pen-name of Ali Ahmad Said) is a better source for learning about Islam than the traditional sources of Islam themselves. The most relevant quote is the following:
As a poet, Adonis does not describe the spiritual state of the Arabs, but rather evokes it existentially. The available literature on Islam consists mainly of a useless exchange of Koranic citations that show, depending on whether one is Karen Armstrong or Robert Spencer, that Islam is loving or hateful, tolerant or bigoted, peaceful or warlike, or whatever one cares to show. It is all so pointless and sophomoric; anyone can quote the Koran, or for that matter the Bible, to show whatever one wants. With Adonis one gains access to the inside of the Arab experience of modernity. It is a terrible and frightening one, not recommended for the faint-hearted, but indispensable to anyone who wishes to get beyond the pointless sloganeering of the pundits.
Robert Spencer and Hugh Fitzgerald have already given him their answers (see  and  respectively). But since this is a subject that interests me, particularly as an Orthodox Jew, I wish to give my own. My answer concerns specifically the following part of the quote:
The available literature on Islam consists mainly of a useless exchange of Koranic citations that show, depending on whether one is Karen Armstrong or Robert Spencer, that Islam is loving or hateful, tolerant or bigoted, peaceful or warlike, or whatever one cares to show. It is all so pointless and sophomoric; anyone can quote the Koran, or for that matter the Bible, to show whatever one wants.
By mentioning only the primary scriptures, viz. the Koran and the Bible, this is where Spengler has fallen. As an Orthodox Jew, I know better than to regard the primary scripture of a religion in isolation. Even at the beginning of his Torah life, an Orthodox Jewish boy of the age of five does not learn the Torah by itself, but studies it together with its simplest commentary, that of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi). What Spengler has disregarded in his quote is the truth that, in any scriptural religion, the interpretation is an integral part of the canon. So many people fall into that trap, but this is of utmost importance for our age, in which we are confronted by an enemy driven by religious ideology.
By interpretation, I mean not just the commentaries but also the assumptions and methods with which the believer approaches the sacred text. Take, for example, the Islamic concept of abrogation: if two Koranic verses contradict, then the one which tradition has determined to have been given later cancels the earlier. So an irenicist like Karen Armstrong can quote an array of Koranic verses calling for peace and intellectual dispute with unbelievers, but the fact that those verses have been abrogated by one verse that calls for war and forced conversion renders her point obsolete. This is no sophistry, for the Muslim jihadists themselves, whenever challenged on scriptural grounds, enlist this fact as a reply that leaves the challengers silent. Interpretation is an inseparable part of scripture—that cannot be emphasized enough.
Or take the following verse from the Torah (Numbers 1:51):
And when the tabernacle setteth forward, the Levites shall take it down; and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up; and the common man that draweth nigh shall be put to death.
To anyone who wishes to say, “This is just like the Muslims’ law of execution of non-Muslims who set foot in Mecca. See, Judaism is just as bad as Islam!”, this verse seems to be a watertight proof. But when you study it together with Rashi’s commentary, that “proof” evaporates. On “that draweth nigh”, Rashi says, “To that act of worship”, and on “shall be put to death”, he says, “By the hand of Heaven”. That is: the non-priest (i.e. the one who is not a Kohen, even if he is of the Israelites) may not approach the Tabernacle for worship (standing near it to take a photograph would be permissible), and if he does, it is not the people who execute him (contra the fate of the non-Muslim who enters Mecca), it is G-d who does that, in much the same manner as He did to Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, for burning strange fire before Him.
Of course there may still be scoffers. “I don’t accept that interpretation”, they may say. No problem, but then you have not accepted the traditional Jewish understanding of that passage. You have not accepted that passage, because Orthodox Jews consider Rashi’s commentary to be an integral part of it. Orthodox Judaism does not consist in just knowing the bare, unguided text of the Torah, but in accepting the sanctioned interpretations of it, and all the practical commanded deeds (mitzvot) that stem from that. From the words in Deuteronomy 6:8, “And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes”, the mitzvah of donning the phylacteries (tephillin) is not automatic; it first requires that the passage not be interpreted solely as a metaphor, and then the shape, size and composition of the phylacteries needs to be gleaned from somewhere. The Oral Torah, believed by every Orthodox Jew to have been given at Mount Sinai just like the Written Torah, has all those details. Without that belief in the divine authority of the Oral Torah, one is not an Orthodox Jew, and whatever religion he practices cannot be called Orthodox Judaism.
The fact is that even believers in the sufficiency of primary scripture cannot do without interpretation, and guided, sanctioned interpretation at that. In earlier years, out of curiosity, long before I thought of coming back home to Orthodox Judaism, I read the gospels of the Christian New Testament. What idea did I come out with after my reading? That Jesus was some kind of mystic and guru, a cross between Mohandas Gandhi and David Koresh. Now this view is blasphemous to any traditional (i.e. non-universalized, non-Marxified) Christian, but that is the sort of conclusion a person can easily reach when reading the gospels unguided. Christian missionaries, upon arrival to a new land, have usually operated thus: befriending the natives, learning their language, devising a writing system for them, teaching them that system, translating the Christian Bible to their language and, finally, teaching the natives the scriptures and their message. Now, that last stage is contrary to a belief in self-sufficient scripture: it would be enough for the missionaries to have stopped at the stage of having translated the Christian Bible—to leave the natives the books and go on to other pastures. But it is obvious that that could end up with the natives arriving at some creative interpretation just as I did, and not that interpretation which the missionaries consider to be life-saving (the belief in Jesus as savior from sin). My point proven again: interpretation is integral to scripture.
Now that this point has been made, it should be clear that the beliefs of any scriptural religion need to be taken as the sum of scripture and its interpretation. Thus, it can be seen that it does not matter what the Bible or the Koran say by themselves, but how the believers interpret what they say. And if the ideology of jihad is to be challenged on scriptural grounds, then that is to be done not by bringing peaceful verses from the Koran but by challenging the jihadist interpretations of its verses, and by challenging the tradition that says the peaceful verses are made void by the warlike ones. And this is no simple business at all, especially not in our age.
Consider Reform and Conservative Judaism: to an Orthodox Jew, these are not legitimate forms of Judaism at all; they constitute forms of apostasy just as surely as assuming a secular lifestyle or converting to Islam are. Now, in contrast to the Islamic treatment of apostates (executing them for the political traitors or runaway slaves they are, according to the belief system), apostate Jews are in no physical danger. Can one say, then, that Reform and Conservative Judaism present potent challenges to traditional (a.k.a Orthodox) Judaism? No. Orthodox Judaism has never given Reform or Conservative Judaism any credit for their challenges. I mean that, whenever a Reform or Conservative rabbi challenges the traditional interpretation, the Orthodox Jewish answer is always the same: “That comes out of your own human mind and not out of the divine voice that the forefathers of the nation heard at Sinai”.
Is there a chance of challenge through sheer numbers? By the prospect of the majority turning away from one interpretation and accepting another, thus forcing even the hardliners to concede? The surprising answer is: not in our day and age. One would assume our day and age is one of rebellion; that is true, but whereas the past generation rebelled against ages-old tradition, this generation is marked by rebellion against the rebellion. Or, as I like to put it: the Sixties bumper sticker, “Question all authority”, has given way to the rejoinder, “Who are you to tell me to question all authority?” The “Mainline Protestant”, or Liberal, churches are not so mainline nowadays, and their liberality has led to the situation that only a few gray heads, the rebels of the 1960’s, populate them, while the young blood is to be found in the demanding, challenging, hardline Fundamentalist Churches. This generation has had quite enough of being told they can do everything they want; the rebellion against that may be nothing more than a matter of, “Where’s the fun in being permitted everything?”, or a deeper explanation that can fill a whole doctoral thesis, but there is no arguing with facts: this day is carried out by the Orthodox Jewish synagogues, by the Fundamentalist Protestant and Non-Cafeteria Catholic churches, and by…
…traditional Islam, with its jihadist interpretations. Which is why an easy-going young man can all of a sudden surprise everyone by switching off his computer one day a week (if Jewish, like I did), by going out to the streets preaching the gospel to passers-by (if Protestant Christian), or… by blowing himself up within a crowd of non-believers (G-d forbid).
And it is not enough to cherry-pick passages from the Koran, or to accuse others of doing so, in order to understand this state of affairs.