Saturday, March 10, 2001

First written in 2001;
chilling to think that in March of 2001, I wrote something eerily prophetic,
when I said: "This Yom Kippur, think about the Taliban."  Little did I know...

To Look Away From Evil:
Afghanistan's War Against Civilization

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, New York

This Yom Kippur, take a moment, and think about the Taliban.

Why Yom Kippur?  There is that moment, in the middle of the afternoon service when we (Reform Jews, or those using the Reform High Holy Day Machzor called Gates of Repentance) read the following words: "What pains were taken to save cathedrals, museums, monuments from destruction. Treasures of art must be preserved -- they are the song of the human soul!  And in the camps and streets of Europe mother and father and child lay dying, and many looked away.  To look away from evil: Is this not the sin of all 'good' people?"

The world is united now.  We are united in disgust and revulsion and horror as we watch, helpless, a group of thugs and barbarians destroy priceless ancient statues, huge images of Buddha carved into sandstone
cliffs between the third and fifth centuries CE.  Wanton attacks on masterpieces of the spirit, ordered by the most extreme Muslims in the world, out of some warped sense of needing to destroy all traces of idolatry around them.

How extreme are they?  They are opposed as too extreme by... Iran!  Only three countries in the world recognize the legitimacy of their government -- Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates  -- and all three have condemned this narrow and overly literal interpretation of Islam.

I am glad that the Taliban stand alone in this act of madness.  I am glad the whole rest of the world comes together in condemnation.  I share the sense of anger and loss, and the understanding that these magnificent
statues represent a soaring height of accomplishment, that they are, well, art, and that art is indeed, as the prayerbook asserts, the song of the human soul.

To attack art is to tread on something sacred and precious, an assault on our basic sense of human decency.

Any yet... two things trouble me.  The first is that this interpretation of smashing idols sounds...awfully familiar.  To the dismay of museum curators and antiquities dealers around the world, the book of Deuteronomy clearly calls for the same kind of action on encountering statutory worship symbols of other religions.  It is a matter of historic debate amongst scholars as to whether such measures were ever actually
carried out (I prefer the argument that they were not, but have no proof); nevertheless the act that so disgusts the world is right there in our own tradition.  "On the books," as it were.

And secondly: this assault on human decency and dignity...pales in my mind, in comparision to what else the Taliban are doing... to human beings.

This is the group of fanatical hate-mongers who are making it a crime for the women and girls of Afghanistan ... to learn how to read!  The statues have symbolic value and power, to be sure.  But in the course of life, what's the crumbling of an ancient statue, in comparison with the closing of a precious mind?  Where was the world --where is the world? - in reaction to how the Taliban treat their own people?

It is an age old question: when you see something wrong, what do you do?  What can we do?  A parent hitting a child in a supermarket.  A teenager lighting up a cigarette for the first time.  It's their business.  It's
their life.  We'll get in trouble for saying something.  It's not our place.

 How would we like someone snooping in our own closet of values? Are not some of the things we ourselves take for granted morally suspect in the eyes of others.

This is not an easy discussion. Are we to be the world's morality police?

But where is the line?  It is uncomfortable to tell someone else that what they are doing is wrong.  It is even dangerous.  Take it a step further: what you are doing is wrong, and we will not let it stand. Should the
United States not have gone to war against Nazi Germany... earlier than it did, and for different reasons? Would we have invaded Cambodia to stop the slaughter... had we not just left Vietnam with our tails tucked behind us (or whatever the proper expression might be for beating a hasty retreat)?

When do we say something?  When do we do something?  How can we?

But.  How can we not?  And I don't mean the statues.  I mean the people.

It is ethnocentric, it is biased, it is chauvinistic, it is imperialistic to say what I am about to say.  But I am going to say it anyway.  The Taliban are evil.  I don't know what can be done about them.  I'm not at all certain. But we should all start talking about it. At the very least, to put what they are doing to their society front and center in the radar screen of our own sensibilities. To not avert our eyes, but tostare the hard questions in the face, and see what answers may come.

For to look away from evil: is that not the sin of all 'good' people?