Academics explore religious violence, mourn Yitzhak Rabin

Some noted Bay Area historians say it was not insanity but centuries-old religious teachings that drove Yitzhak Rabin's confessed assassin as well as other politically motivated killers.

Jewish history professor David Biale and Jesuit professor John Coleman drew links between religion and violence during a panel discussion at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union last week — after they and some 50 students said kaddish for Rabin.

Both professors pointed to recent examples of religiously motivated violence, such as the murders of several American doctors by anti-abortionists, Islamic fundamentalists' terrorist acts and the Hebron massacre, in which Orthodox Jew Baruch Goldstein gunned down 29 Muslims worshipping at a West Bank mosque last year.

"These people are not crazed, insane assassins, but people who act in what they believe is a rational manner based on their interpretation of religious tradition," Biale told the audience.

"It's simple to argue that those who carry out these acts are devoid of morals, but they have them."

Biale's theory is that "every tradition contains principles that do sanction violence under certain circumstances."

In Judaism, he said, those circumstances are extremely narrow. The "law of rodef [pursuer]" dictates that if someone is pursuing someone else "to kill him, you may kill the pursuer," Biale said.

And "Yigal Amir says Rabin was a `rodef,' endangering the lives of Jews," Biale added.

But Jewish tradition attempts to constrain religious zealotry and violence with a model advanced in the Book of Numbers, Biale said. Here, Pinchas kills Zimri for committing an act of what Biale called "idolatry and sexual violation." According to his own standards Pinchas killed for God, to save the Israelites and end a plague.

In the story, Pinchas thrusts his spear through both Zimri and his sexual partner — indicating that the two were having intercourse when Pinchas attacked them.

According to tradition, "a zealot must catch a person in the act, which makes it almost impossible to undertake becoming a zealot," Biale said.

He pointed out that Jewish rules dictating such conduct are clear: Problems only arise when the religious realm of moral absolutes intersects with the political realm of compromise. The question, he said, is how to unite the two paradigms.

Such paradoxes have shaped Christian history as well, said Coleman, who specializes in teaching about religion and society.

Jesus was consistently nonviolent, he said, yet Christians have "wars, capital punishment, homophobia, three strikes you're out, anti-Semitism and racism."

"The first militias in the Midwest were Christian. These people think they are serving God."

Violence in the name of religion occurs when people lose sight of the "humanity of the enemy," he said. Christianity's solution is to "recognize sin in ourselves, which forces us to see ourselves as like the enemy."

Loving the sinner and rejecting the sin is a cognitive challenge, Coleman admitted to the audience. But it is the key to peace.

Violence ignites when people assume they understand the will of God, Coleman said.

The best way to stem violent temptations, he suggested, is to live "in a sense of mystery, as a perpetual seeker who is never absolutely sure."