Religion: madness and reality in human coexistence?

The discussion was opened by Rolf Schieder, a professor of theology and minister from Berlin. He answered the moderator’s question as to how secular Germany really is. He believes that educating society to revere God, as dictated by the Constitution of the Federal Republic, is a significant characteristic of the focus on values in German society, which also includes plurality of religion. The religious communities organized in Germany, in his opinion, fulfill a role in civil society, and religious tradition has become an integral part of German society.

Cilly Kugelmann, Program Director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, entered the discussion with a powerful hypothesis: religion has again become a topic for public discussion. One reason for this, as she sees it, is that, since the collapse of communism and the resultant end of the ideological dichotomy between communism and capitalism, the messianic dimensions of human life have disappeared and are now apparently being replaced by religion. For some time now, the promises of social utopias have been replaced by a return to religious traditions.

Adina Bar-Shalom, founder of the first college for ultra-Orthodox women in Jerusalem, stated that Israel’s national government must obviously be secular. This does not in any way exclude ties with the country’s Jewish roots; rather, the public voice of the ultra-Orthodox is that of Zionism founded on religious justifications. The Land of Israel itself is holy, and the Holy Land – and not the human factor – is the focal point.

This brought the discussion to a central point: which code of values governs human coexistence? What is the foundation of the values, according to which a community operates? Cilly Kugelmann forcefully stated that a clear distinction must be made between the State and society. She was supported by Susan Weiss, who, as an attorney and a feminist, is engaged in the struggle to abolish the administration of family law by religious entities in Israel (a similar argument has been raised by Naomi Chazan, who has also identified gender relations as an indicator for the status of democracy in Israel). She argued that religion has no business getting involved in politics. As she sees it, the millet system, dating from Ottoman times, which made each religion in Israel responsible for governing the marriages and especially the divorces of its adherents, involves not only discrimination against women through obsolete provisions of religious divorce law, but also discrimination against men through the entrenchment of traditional sex roles.

Sari Nusseibeh, a professor of philosophy and former President of the Al Quds University in Jerusalem, emphasized the ambivalence that religion can have for human life. According to  Nusseibeh, human values are the supreme criterion of coexistence. Religion can promote peaceful cooperation or can have devastating effects on human coexistence.

All of the participants agreed that a particular negative example of the confusion between the religious sphere and statehood is presented by the National Bill recently introduced in the Knesset as a draft law. Tamar Zandberg, a Member of Knesset for the Meretz party, emphasized that the National Bill disturbed the balance expressed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence between democratic freedom and the role of Judaism in Israel, and opened the way to a new nationalism. Nusseibeh emphasized that he was very concerned by the development of a religiously motivated nationalism in Israel. From the perspective of a Diaspora Jew, Cilly Kugelmann especially criticized the attempt to make Jews throughout the world jointly accountable, thereby subjecting Judaism to a national and ethnic burden, which has nothing to do with religion, but rather, pursues other objectives entirely.

Adina Bar-Shalom also emphasized that the Declaration of Independence provides sufficient protection to human dignity and stressed that the ultra-Orthodox in Israel were rejecting that law.

Schieder pointed out that, in modern societies, religion has become an identity marker, which uses the traditional canons of religions to attempt to define its boundaries. In this way, cultural differences are handled in terms of religion (in this regard, see Susanne Schröter on Muslim Women in Germany). According to Schieder, Christianity and Judaism are connected by their global nature and their universal aspirations. Nusseibeh also views the Muslim world as religiousness in action, which constitutes a motive force for politics but has nothing to do with humanity and human values.

On the other hand, Susan Weiss emphasized that nurturing religious traditions is a task of the State, and that God’s law is beyond rational assessment. Adina Bar-Shalom went even further, stating that, as the ultra-Orthodox see it, values that can be derived from the Torah are valid for all of humankind.

Unfortunately, there was neither time nor opportunity for an in-depth debate on the question – which would certainly have exposed a variety of different positions – of how universal humanism can be justified in a way that is acceptable to all of humankind. Even Kugelmann’s moving plea for a strict separation between state and society could not be discussed in depth. She argued that aspirations to community-building on the basis of identity-related requirements obscured the fact that modern states are not communities, but rather, regulations governing human coexistence with a view to preventing violence.

Whether Schieder, as a theologian, agreed with that argument was not clear. In any event, he emphasized the significance of religious education, as practiced in the German education system, and emphasized that the regulation of religious teaching by the State has proved itself as a preventive measure against fundamentalist trends, and that Islam should also be introduced as an official study subject in Germany.

The audience followed the discussion with great attention. The event obviously touched a nerve in our time, when religion is abused as a justification for violence. The discussion also clearly indicated that the abuse of religious convictions for political purposes can lend a totalitarian character to societies – a threat to which no modern state is now immune.