Monday, June 1, 2015


In the Jewish world, we don’t really go in for excommunicating people.

That isn’t to say that we’ve never tried. Perhaps the most famous excommunication in Jewish history was that of Baruch Spinoza by the Amsterdam rabbis in 1656. Technically it was a writ of חרם (herem), which could also mean ostracism or shunning. It was brought on by his rationalist philosophy, which they feared would endanger the standing of the entire Jewish community. 

One reason that this has become almost extinct is the diversity of the modern Jewish community: no group has the power to enforce a writ of herem, except among its own adherents. This did not, however, stop a group of Orthodox rabbis from excommunicating Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan in 1945, when his radical prayer book was published.

In the rest of Jewish society, the excommunication made those particular Orthodox rabbis look ridiculous. Paradoxically, it strengthened Kaplan’s position as a faculty member of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Even if most of the faculty objected almost equally strongly to the prayer book and Kaplan’s theology, the chancellor of the seminar was forced to defend him.

Nevertheless, I wish that we could excommunicate Pamela Geller, the anti-Islam activist at whose so-called art exhibition in Texas in May two (probably rogue) terrorists were killed and a security guard was injured.

To be clear, the exhibition consisted of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. In January, Geller organized a protest against a Muslim event at the same location. Bloggers had encouraged protestors to bring guns to the event, and the protest did turn violent when protestors assaulted members of an interfaith group. 

I can only think that the May 4 event was intended as a provocation or publicity stunt. Professor John Esposito of Georgetown University writes

Was the “Muhammad Art Exhibit” intended as an art exhibit or a contest in which her anti-Islam and anti-Muslim followers competed for $10K, producing art that deliberately, as with many of Geller's other public ventures, would provoke, outrage, and invite a confrontation. And of course, despite the fact that the vast majority of Muslims like other Texans had ignored Geller, the actions of two rogue murderers would be used to brushstroke the religion of Islam and faith of a majority of mainstream Muslims.

Geller probably accomplished even more to provoke hatred than she had hoped to.

Geller is Jewish, and seems to think that she acts on behalf of the Jewish people. Judaism, however, has no fundamental objection to Islam as a religion, and Muslims in Israel have full civil rights. There is no need to turn a political disagreement into a religious one.

Some in our community may want to respond, “But they [Muslims] are the ones who make it into a religious issue!” 

That raises a different question: who speaks for Islam? 

As far as I’m concerned, Pamela Geller doesn’t speak for Judaism, and it would be impossible to name anyone who does. It’s nearly the same in Islam: there’s no central authority, and anyone who claims to speak for all Muslims assuredly doesn’t.

Geller promoted her “art exhibition” as a free-speech event. It is legal in the United States to criticize a religion, as long as you don’t encourage criminal activity. 

But Geller and her ilk should remember that freedom of speech and freedom of religion are guaranteed by the same Amendment to the Constitution: the First. 

I don’t see what is gained by using freedom of speech to infringe freedom of religion or, for that matter, freedom of religion to infringe freedom of speech.

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