"Knowing" what's right
President Obama, after saying that building a mosque at Ground Zero fit our "commitment to religious freedom," backtracked, saying he wasn't commenting on the 'wisdom' of building it so close to 'hallowed ground.'
A Fox News poll showed that while 61 percent of Americans believe that Cordoba House has a constitutional right to build near Ground Zero, 64 percent believe it is not appropriate to do so.
Does Obama's hedging show a lack of ethical convictions? Does Hamas' endorsement change the debate? What is behind public opposition to the site? Can you believe in religious freedom but not believe the mosque is appropriate?
It is a perilous business, this professional certainty. Rabbis, Priests and Ministers, like pundits and parents, are expected to have a definite, full-throated opinion on every subject. The more controversial the topic, the more imperative that we slight the arguments for the other side and insist that our opinions are not only correct, but touched by the deep spirit of wisdom.
So what ought a Rabbi to do when he is genuinely, powerfully torn? Do I pick a side, hoisting my flag with the convinced, stilling my reservations and calling them cowardice? Or do I offer up my indecision, satisfying no one, least of all myself?
For what it is worth, here is what I sincerely believe - there should be no Islamic center near Ground Zero, and of course they should build it. Clear now?
Emotional impact first. Will it spur triumphant glee on the faces of fanatics across the world - we bombed them and now we are building a mosque? Of course it will. Anyone who gainsays that reality knows little about the fanatic mindset. More than that, the real pain that families will feel should give us pause. On or near the site of a great single act of collective murder it is almost unthinkable to build a structure that recalls the motivation of the murderers.
But in rushes the reality of the American dream and glory. Not the merely legalistic consideration of private property, real as that may be. Rather the hope of fraternity among faiths should give us pause. Granted that there will be those for whom the idea of peaceful Muslim coexistence is unthinkable. Ideologies are potent and there is reason to have genuine fear for the grip of fundamentalism on the Islamic world. Yet throughout history the best weapon against fanaticism has been moderate adherents of the same faith. Erasmus was a more potent advocate for tolerance than any nonbeliever. So shall we spurn those who seek to make common cause with us?
Then arises the third, quagmiric consideration. How genuine are Imam Rauf and his compatriots? The Atlantic magazine's Jeffrey Goldberg, a friend whom I esteem and trust, knows Rauf well, and insists he is the real thing. On the other hand my colleague and friend Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, having read his book "What's Right With Islam" has serious reservations about Rauf's attitude toward Israel and the Islamic world. Some have unearthed statements he has made, or is alleged to have made, that are alternately admirable or disturbing. Others insist to me they will not take a position until they know the source of funding for the center.
I am made uneasy by the point John Podhoretz has made, which is that if the city had built up the area by now there would be no issue. Additionally, had this been handled diplomatically then the opportunity for crass point scoring - for calling people alternately naïve, or subversive, or tyrannical or fascistic, or intolerant etc. etc - all of that might have been avoided.
Yesterday I discussed the mosque with a thoughtful, cultured woman who grew up in Iran. She, her husband and her family are under no illusions about the threat of Islamic terror. Equally however, as educated, remarkably accomplished immigrants they are appreciative of America's pluralism and openness. We agreed, throwing up our collective hands, that no single sentence or slogan captures the complexity of the question.
In short, this is not easy. I am made most uncomfortable by those who pretend it is, as though the other side is muddleheaded or cruel. My best guess is that the center will be built and in five years no one will take particular note of it.
But I could be wrong. I have been wrong before and doubtless will be again. Perhaps I should have chosen a profession where such an admission was considered a virtue. Unfortunately in a world of opinion mongering, since no one remembers next week what you said yesterday, all that matters is that your opinion is clear and loud.
Sometimes soft and hesitant is right. On this one I cannot shout. I will take the advice of the Talmud: "Teach your tongue to say 'I don't know.'"
Posted by: gzembow | August 29, 2010 3:50 PM
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