Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Maybe Roger Cohen Got It Backwards–The Iranians believe the rhetoric but the hospitality was phony.

In Uncategorized on March 6, 2009 at 11:26 am

I’ve been thinking about Roger Cohen’s impression that it is only the Iranian regime that hates Jews, but the Iranian people have a different impression. He relates that Iranians have always treated him warmly even though he never hid his Jewishness from them. Jeffrey Goldberg speaks of the Islamic devotion to hospitality that transcends politics and personal enmity toward groups, but warns that this has nothing to do with the way they feel. He sees Cohen as naive, duped by a culture Cohen does not begin to understand.

Western attitudes are different. If we hate a particular group, we don’t want to help individuals from that group. Muslims seem to have a more nuanced code. When you are in my home, you are not my enemy, you are my guest, but watch out for me, if you see me coming down the street. Westerners like Cohen do not understand this because they assume that fundamentally people of all kinds share a common code, and this may be true when it comes to those who belong to your tribe, but peoples have different codes when it comes to “the other”.

Cohen, I bet, does not hang out with tribal Jews who relate to the outside world not from a universalist standpoint, but from a perspective of enlightened self interest. He wants to see the nuances that validate his worldview. Hamas is not monolithic, he would tell you. We know that. No group is, but that doesn’t mean there is someone to talk to on the other side. After all, charcoal grey is still pretty close to black.

If Cohen read the book of his heritage seriously, he might understand how it is possible to be helpful to someone you hate, and still hate everything they stand for. Maimonides, quoting the Talmud, states unequivocally that Jews have a responsibility to feed the idolatrous poor with the Jewish poor, visit their sick and bury their dead.

The Rabbis taught: One sustains the gentile poor with the Jewish poor, visits the gentile sick
with the Jewish sick, and buries the gentile dead with the Jewish dead, because of ways of
peace. (Babylonian Talmud Gittin 61a)

Idolatry to the Rambam is anathema, and he would say a blessing on those places where idolatrous places of worship had been destroyed; he wouldn’t let idolaters starve, but if he were in power, he would not let their Holy sites stand. There is no institutional live and let live attitude toward idolatry, but there is a responsibility to the individual idolater.

If Cohen had internalized this perspective, he would know that Hamas will never accept a two state solution, because any non Muslim state on so called Arab land is tantamount to idolatry in the eyes of these Arabs. They have a code for scriptural peoples, but they cannot suffer a non-muslim nation state in their midst. Traditional Jews who have liberal tendencies see this in their own tradition, and struggle with it. But at least they know how implacable these feelings are and how irrelevant it is that Iranians tend to be nice to Roger Cohen, the Jewish journalist from the New York Times.

For a look at sources on “Helping someone you hate“, or how the words Tikkun Olam have become a massive malapropism, check out these links.


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