A Jewish Take on the Shariah Law Controversy

Sermon delivered September 2, 2011, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block


From January to June of this year, the Texas Legislature was in session in Austin.  Scores, perhaps hundreds, of bills were adopted by the House and Senate and signed into law by Governor Perry.  Yesterday, September 1, was the day those laws took effect.  One such law requires that women seeking to have an abortion must undergo a sonogram at least 24 hours before the pregnancy is terminated.  Already, responsible health care providers like Planned Parenthood routinely perform sonograms on each patient prior to an abortion, so that part is not new, except for the addition of a day’s wait between the sonogram and the surgery.


However, the law adopted by the legislature went even farther.  It requires physicians performing sonograms to describe the fetus to the patient in explicit terms dictated by the lawmakers.  In other words, legislators decided to tell doctors not only how to practice medicine, but exactly what words to say to their patients.  Moreover, the bill requires the woman to hear the heartbeat, if there is one.


Backers of this law make no secret of their religious motivation.  The Catholic Church teaches that abortion is murder, no different from killing you or me, and many Protestant Churches teach the same.  Judaism does not, but never mind.  Consistently calling upon Christian values, the law was adopted under an “emergency” procedure declared by the Governor.


In 1960, John F. Kennedy ran for President.  Though it seems odd to us today, many Americans questioned whether our country should have a Catholic President.  Would he obey the laws of the land, or would he defer to the laws of the Church, the dictates of the Pope in Rome?  Kennedy famously met with a group of Protestant ministers in Houston that year, and declared that, in America, the highest law of the land is our Constitution, not the dictates of any Church or religious leader.


Earlier this week, the Honorable Sam Sparks, a Federal Judge in Austin, made a similar declaration.  The sonogram law had been challenged in his court.  The Judge permitted much of the law to stand.  Women seeking an abortion in Texas cities today did have to undergo a sonogram yesterday, 24 hours before surgery.  However, Judge Sparks made very clear that religious directives could not overturn the Constitution – in this case, specifically the First Amendment.  Physicians in Texas are not therefore constrained to use words dictated by legislators explicitly inspired by the teachings of certain Christian churches.  Women cannot be compelled to hear the sonogram heartbeat.  Not in America, anyway.


God bless America.


And thank God we live in America.


People living in most Muslim countries are not so fortunate.  In most nations where the majority of the population is Muslim, Sharia, Islamic law, is the law of the land.  In Saudi Arabia, a man convicted of theft can be punished by the amputation of his hand.  In much of the Muslim world, the law requires women to wear a Hijab, a garment that covers her completely, from head to toe, exposing only her hands and part of her face.


No wonder, then, that many Americans have been swept up in a crusade to assure that Sharia does not come to be enforced here in America.  In one jurisdiction after another, states, counties, and cities have been asked to enact laws to thwart the observance of “Sharia law.”  In Tennessee, lawmakers sought to make following Sharia a felony punishable by fifteen years in the penitentiary.  One Presidential candidate has said that “Sharia Law” poses an “existential threat” to the United States.  Another said that he would not appoint any Muslim to a government post, since doing so would further what he sees as Muslim-Americans’ goal to impose Sharia on our country.   Last year, a Nevada candidate for United States Senate who came just a few votes short of winning claimed that Sharia is already in force in Dearborn, Michigan.


These claims might be alarming, except for one redeeming feature:  Every one of them is false.  That Senate candidate?  She was wrong.  Even though Dearborn is home to a very large Muslim population, Sharia is no more at work in the public sphere there than it is in San Antonio.  Some politicians just don’t let the facts get in the way of good propaganda.


As President Kennedy, Judge Sparks, and others have made clear across more than two Centuries of American history, the Constitution is the law of our land.  Thieves in Dearborn are not having their hands cut off, nor are the police issuing citations to women who don’t wear the Hijab.


While many Americans have heard the term “Sharia law” thrown about on talk radio or cable television, most of us don’t know what Sharia is.


Educated Jews would best understand Sharia by a comparison to Halachah, or Jewish law.  Halachah is derived from the Torah, but not only from the scroll that Bailey’s parents and grandparents will pass to her tomorrow.  Halachah is distilled from centuries of rabbinic debate, much of it recorded in the Talmud, and from a body of case law.  Halachah is not monolithic.  Jews from different parts of the world observe a variety of customs, and Halachah developed over time.  Today, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism treat Halachah differently.


Halachah covers a diverse array of human experience.  It addresses religious matters, of course, like observance of Shabbat and holy days.  And yet, Judaism doesn’t recognize any distinction between what we modern Americans consider the “religious” domain and what our culture tells us to regard as civil matters.  Therefore, Halachah covers criminal law, marriage and divorce, what we eat, what we should wear, and even sexuality.  The word Halachah means “path,” as Halachah is traditional Judaism’s path for living in accordance with God’s teaching.


You may be interested to know how the encyclopedia describes Sharia.  That’s an Arabic word meaning “path,” as Sharia is Islam’s path for living in accordance with the will of Allah as expressed in the Koran.  However, not all of Sharia’s dictates are found in the Koran, as a body of oral tradition and case law has added to Muslim jurisprudence.


Sharia, we know, covers criminal matters and discusses what people should wear.  In addition, sharia describes the way of life for the religious Muslim in all matters:   personal, business, religious, and otherwise.


In other words, Halachah and Sharia are similar structures.


The most significant difference between Halachah and Sharia is that the only Jewish State in the world today, Israel, does not, for the most part, impose Halachah as the law of the land.  In Israel, matters of marriage and divorce, for Jews, are assigned to religious authorities.  For Jews, the religious authority is the Chief Rabbinate, which is Orthodox.  However, Halachah is not imposed upon Muslim and Christian or other citizens of Israel in this way, as their own religious authorities control marriage and divorce.  In other words, Sharia is the law of the land for Muslims in the State of Israel with respect to matters of marriage and divorce.


This difference between Halachah and Sharia is not a minor one.  The majority of Israeli citizens would be as upset at the notion of being ruled by Halachah as many Americans are at the supposed prospect of being ruled by sharia.  No, Halachah does not prescribe cutting off the hand of a thief, and Orthodox women’s dress is a bit less restrictive than that of religious Muslim women.


Still, lest we be triumphalist, Halachah can be perverted as badly as sharia is in most of the Muslim world.  For example, in the mid-1990s, some ultra-Orthodox Rabbis in Israel were describing Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin as a rodef, a criminal in hot pursuit of an innocent victim.  A rodef may be killed, and his killing is not considered murder, as the killer is protecting an innocent person who would otherwise be murdered.  What was Rabin’s crime? He had signed a peace agreement with the Palestinians.  His punishment was death.  His assassin, Yigal Amir, heard his rabbi’s sermon and acted upon it.


Now, let’s be clear:  That perversion of Jewish law is the exception, not the rule.  Sharia, on the other hand is regularly twisted and abused by leaders across the world from Taliban warlords to Iranian Ayatollahs to Saudi Princes.  There are billions of Muslims in the world, and just a few million Jews, in other words about 1 Jew for every 500 Muslims on the planet.  Muslims control some forty nations and vast resources.  Perverse applications of sharia are responsible for terrorist attacks in Israel and form the basis of the 9/11 massacre on our own soil.  While we may not have reason to fear sharia itself, we do have reason to oppose the way it is applied in too much of the Muslim world, and to fight that kind of sharia vigorously.


But let’s get back to those Tennessee lawmakers, the ones who wanted to make the observance of sharia in that state punishable by 15 years in the penitentiary.  In other words, if a Muslim wished to observe his religion’s dietary laws, or if she chose to wear a hijab, that would have become a criminal offense in Tennessee.  In other words, such a law would have made it illegal to be a Muslim in Tennessee.  Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed.  Had they not, a Federal Judge would have done the deed as Judge Sparks did in Texas this week.  The Constitution is the law of our land, not any religious doctrine or any religious bigotry.


Unfortunately, we do have reason for concern about the application of intolerant religious laws on us in the United States today.  No, I’m not talking about sharia. In our country, sharia is the private, protected practice of a minority of our citizens.  Sharia and Halachah function in exactly the same way in America.


No, our fear ought not to be what any minority might like to impose upon us.  Instead, as the sonogram law suggests, a large and powerful group of American citizens would like to impose their religious values on us.  Christianity does not have a legal system analogous to Sharia or Halachah.  However, more and more, we hear calls for America to be governed as a Christian nation.  This movement is not made up of not mainstream Christians.  They are not loyal Catholics or Mainline Protestants.  They are American Taliban whose extremism is Christian, and they have a powerful hold on much of American government today.  They are not inclined to stop at requiring sonograms 24 hours before an abortion or limiting physicians’ free speech.  They urge that Christian interpretations be taught in public school Science.   They insist that Christian values be taught instead of real sex education.  They want a Constitutional Amendment to outlaw the recognition of same-sex marriages performed on this pulpit.


Unfortunately, not only extremist Christians but a fringe element of Jews, too, is sounding the false alarm about sharia in the United States today.  Make no mistake:  the supposed controversy over sharia is but a smokescreen.  This element seeks nothing short of the curtailment of the free exercise of religion guaranteed in our Constitution, at least so far as Muslims are concerned.


221 years ago, the President of the United States, George Washington, wrote a letter to the Jewish community of Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island.  In a few brief words, Washington penned words that America would do well to embrace today.  He made clear that no one religion’s way of life should be imposed upon the nation.  At the same time, he exalted America as a nation where no religious group should be shunned or persecuted.  Today, we Jews are secure in America, thank God and thank the Constitution, thank the men and women who died to protect our liberty.  Our Muslim neighbors today are less secure, as were those Jews in Rhode Island in August 1790.  I close with the words of George Washington, and with the prayer that our nation’s Muslim minority and all Americans would heed his words today:


The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of . . . a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.