More on the Danish Cartoons

I’m afraid I must disagree with my friend Shira Schmidt and my hero Rabbi Moshe Grylak (in the current issue of Mishpacha) with respect to their analysis of the Danish cartoons. Asking whether free speech is a Torah value, or how free the press would be in an ideal Torah state, is missing the point. It is not enough to hold the laws of lashon hara triumphantly aloft as conclusive proof that Moslem rioters were essentially right, albeit a bit over the top.

For one thing, we do not live in an ideal Torah state. Most of us live in nations composed of many different types of people, who hold a wide variety of views. I am not familiar with one serious effort in the chareidi world to even imagine what a modern polity under Torah law would look like. Our operating assumption has always been that such a state will not precede the arrival of Mashiach, and when he arrives, he will clarify everything. [So much for the charge that we seek to impose a theocracy.]

Until Mashiach arrives, the first question that we need to ask ourselves is what form of society best protects our ability to live our according to the dictates of the Torah. Most of us would answer a liberal democracy like the United States, which has proven a true malchus shel chesed for Jews. And free speech is one of the core values of liberal democracy because the marketplace of ideas cannot function without it.

True, freedom of speech guarantees abuse of that freedom. There can be no freedom without license as well. But we would not want to live in a society in which any statement deemed offensive to the beliefs of others, whether those beliefs be religious or political, was punishable by law.

Anyone who disagrees should consider the case of two Christian clergymen in Austalia who were convicted of violating the state of Victoria’s Racial and Religious Tolerance Act by stating that the Koran promotes violence, killing and looting. At their trial, the Pakistan-born pastors attempted to defend themselves by reading passages of the Koran itself, but the judge ruled that truth was no defense and that reading the Islam’s holy book is itself an impermissible act of vilification.

The cartoon showing Mohammed with a bomb-shaped turban was neither gratuitous nor racist. It made a point about the “religion of peace” being kidnapped by violent extremists — a point which has been made thousands of time in print, including by a brave Jordanian editor who reprinted 3 of the cartoons and opined that those who slit the throats of captives while grinning in front of a camera do far more to disparage the image of Islam than these cartoons ever could. The decision by a number of European papers to reprint the cartoons in the face of Moslem rioting was a positive expression on the part of at least some Europeans not to allow their culture to be dictated by fanatics who themselves show no tolerance for other cultures.

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13 Responses

  1. HILLEL says:


    This is an old argument. Napoleon “liberated” Jews from the Ghetto, as did Frederick the Great in Germany.

    Frederick’s “liberation” encourages Moses Mendelson to begin the process that, ultimately, led to the Reform Judaism we suffer from today.

    The Baal Hatania, ZT”L, opposed Napoleon, and supported the oppresive Czar–even to the point of sending spies to France to gather intelligence for the Czar. His position was that it is better for Jews to live under Czarist oppression as Orthodox Jws than to live under Napoleon’s “enlightenment” and lose their souls to Reform Judaism.

    And, indeed, French Jewry, after napoleon, became mostly secular and irreligious.

  2. Anonymous in LA says:

    “It made a point about the “religion of peace” being kidnapped by violent extremists”

    No… it has been invigorated by the Islamic equivalent of “baalei tshuvah”. Find me one example of a convert to Islam who became more tolerant of non-Muslims. Find me one example of a Muslim who became more devout and more tolerant of non-Muslims.

    Until there is a Muslim equivalent of the ACLU, where Muslims defend the freedoms and rights non-Muslims, it is proper to assume that there are no moderate Muslims… or that “moderate Muslims” are merely those who have not yet acted on their dogmas.

    Islamic truths an article in last week’s LA Times [registration required] by Mansoor Ijaz, an American Muslim of Pakistani ancestry, writes:

    The second truth — one that the West needs to come to grips with — is that there is no such human persona as a “moderate Muslim.” You either believe in the oneness of God or you don’t. You either believe in the teachings of his prophet or you don’t. You either learn those teachings and apply them to the circumstances of life in the country you have chosen to live in, or you shouldn’t live there.

    I once asked one of the contributors to C-C if contemporary Islam has become a child-sacrificing molech cult and was answered in the affirmative.

    Until there is evidence that the “moderates” are willing to confront the fundamentalists, we should go according to what is stated openly. I contend that the so-called “moderates” constitute less than 10% of the Muslim population. That would be 120 million “moderates” versus 1.1 billion fundamentalists and their silent majority.

    The fatwa against Salman Rushdie stands. There is not one death fatwa against Osama Bin Laden from any imam or mullah on earth.

    Moderate Islam? Where? The ONLY safe Muslim is irreligious or apostate. The rest are hiding behind hudnas (temporary armstices) until they can execute the Koranic vision of a world under sharia.

    I’ll take my que from military historian Victor Davis Hanson who asserted that until Islam has a civil war to determine its direction, as the US had a civil war to determine its stance on slavery, we have NO business thinking of any Muslim as safe.

  3. Chareidi Leumi says:

    I am not familiar with one serious effort in the chareidi world to even imagine what a modern polity under Torah law would look like.

    Are you really proud of this?

    I don’t think that ignoring whole segments of the Torah is something to be proud of.

  4. Jobber says:

    The constant obession by the right Wing, w/ attacking muslims, is upsetting to me. Why do they not realize that their constant anti-muslim drum beating sounds so similiar to the prevelant anti-jewish rhetoric from the first half of the 20th century. Is there really a difference (right and wrong) between extremists ie. kkk, hindu nationalists, ubl, evangelicals (extreme right variety), sikh extremists etc…

  5. Michael Kopinsky says:

    I agree with Mr. Rosenblum’s sentiment that our goal today is not to aim for the “ideal” answer, but the answer that makes most sense with today’s circumstances.

    But that doesn’t necessarily lead to the liberal conclusion that Mr. Rosenblum comes to, that freedom of speech is therefore the most important thing to protect.

    Another important consideration is that a world of hefkerus, where it’s non-PC to actually have an opinion, is also not conducive to a Torah lifestyle. For example, in the evolution debate, the reason why the Agudah is pro-life is not because they believe that the US government should follow the Torah. (Though it probably should anyways, at least regarding the 7 Mitzvos. Halevai.) I think the primary consideration is that allowing abortion leads to a societal and political landscape where values that are clearly contrary to the Torah become norms.


  6. Bob Miller says:

    A liberal democracy where norms of decency have broken down, aided by the most permissive interpretation of the right to free speech, presents real problems to those religious Jews (nearly all!) who can’t seal themselves off hermetically from their surroundings. So, given that Jews also benefit from free speech in the ways Jonathan suggests, how do we deal effectively with the down side? We’re all too aware of measures that have not worked.

  7. HILLEL says:


    Good question. Our Torah leaders have directed us to build a wall around our homes–keep out TV and the internet, keep out treif publications, increase our commitment to Torah learning.

    Of course, like the wall that Sharon built to protect Israelis from Arab terrorists, there are always missiles that come in over the wall. So we need to remain vigilant to protect ourselves and our families.

    These are the times that try men’s souls!

  8. Eliezer Barzilai says:

    “I am not familiar with one serious effort in the chareidi world to even imagine what a modern polity under Torah law would look like.”

    The only discussion I am aware of states that any such discussions are invalid. See Ha’amek Dovor D’vorim 17:14. For those that believe that the Torah mandates a specific form of everything, his statement there will come as a surprise; he says that it is impossible to mandate a particular form of government, be it monarchy or democracy, because the “right” form of government depends on historical and social circumstances, and, as he says, “such matters cannot be imposed by fiat.”

    I would say that this logic also supports a pluralistic approach to expression and belief, with the rare exception of intentional infliction of extreme emotional distress.

  9. Bob Miller says:

    We do have a strong belief that, when G-d so wills (may this be soon!), one particular monarchy will be restored in Israel that will influence the entire world. But this restoration will not be the “fiat” of human beings and it will only happen when the “historical and social circumstances” have become appropriate.

    In the meantime, we still need to plan for properly governing our own land, Israel. Aspects of a Torah state have been suggested in the 1900’s by the prominent Agudist R’ Yitzchak Breuer ZT”L, among others. Just because the actual state has turned out differently, we’re not prevented from continuing to develop models consistent with Torah. However, none these can be brought to fruition until a popular consensus is created in support. It would be a pity if we now threw in the towel and considered Israeli society to be so far gone as to rule out a future consensus for Torah.

  10. Aryeh says:

    Eliezer, you’re confusing the issues here. While Torah may not mandate a particular form of government for all times and places and that form of government depends on the circumstances, that does NOT mean that we cannot try to figure out what the appropriate form of Torah government should look like in our time and our circumstances. Even if whoever makes this investigation is not able/has no right to impose his views on others through brute force, he certainly has the right to try to convince others of his views. This is no different than any other halachic query. People mistakenly assume that halacha ends with the boundaries of Shulchan Aruch. But that is not true. Any question as to “what to do” is a halachic one and can be evaluated in the framework of Torah values by ones who are trained to evaluate questions in the framework of Torah values. Even in the things which are not in the Shulchan Aruch it is possible to arrive at clear answers. Sometimes, the inquiry will end in a difference of opinions which certainly happens with “normal” halachic questions all the times.
    Why should the question of “what government should we have” be any less of a halachic question than “what is the right way to run a yeshiva with secular studies” (that was the question R’ Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz sent to Europe when he opened Torah v’Daas). The answer to either one is not found in the Shulchan Aruch and will likely depend on the “time and circumstances.” So there’s room for an inquiry as to how a modern Torah state (before Moshiach) is supposed to look like in our time and circumstances.

  11. Eliezer Barzilai says:

    I think that a careful reading of the Netziv in the Haamek Dovor will show that he believes that the form and nature of a government is a matter of life and death, and, as such, political doctrine is independent of consideration of halochoh or hashkofoh, except where government policy will cause the commitment of the sins of idolatry, illicit sexual behavior, and murder.

    And even if you were to show that the pursuit of “halachic good” should be a factor in determining the best form and nature of government, how does one choose what best expresses out religious philosophy? Would a theocracy be best? Yes, until a mad demagogue or a Jereboam co-opts it and kills all of our prophets. There is much to be said for pluralism and personal conscience.

    Just as engineering solutions should be determined by engineers, strategy should be left to generals and medical decisions to physicians. And political science to political scientists. A religious person can make decisions about the intent and extent of medical intervention, but the health professionals will implement them through their morally neutral skills, not their Torah wisdom. The western concept of Democracy, as great an invention as anything in the physical sciences, was not developed by our great Torah scholars, and its character and modes are, and should remain, outside their field of influence. And that, I believe, is what the Netziv says.

  12. jCharles Scott says:

    To HILLEL,

    Consider what happened in Russia under the Czars after the defeat of “liberal” Napoleon — a later Czar implemented the cantonist system. The Talmud was burned countless times by Christian censors. Liberty may allow for assimilation and the like, but censorship and tyrrany don’t have much better track records.

  1. February 27, 2006

    […] Cross-Currents has some thoughts about the Danish cartoons by Jonathan Rosenblum […]

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