Out of the Danger Zone | A Conversation with Rabbi Rachel Mikva

Mar 02, 2022 / 29 Adar I, 5782

How to harness religion for good over harm
Temple is welcoming Rabbi Rachel Mikva on Thursday, March 3 for the Rabbi David Lefkowitz Memorial Lecture and a weekend of Shabbat learning. Discussions centered around “Dangerous Religious Ideas,” the title of a course she’s taught for several years, the name of her book and a reality she’s encountered in a rich career in the rabbinate and in academic life: No matter how much potential a religious idea has for good, it can also cause harm. We caught up with her before her visit to explore the landscape of religious ideas and a way to deal with the volatility that sometimes accompanies them.

Explain the nature of a dangerous religious idea.
Religion is very powerful. I compare it to electricity, something we can’t imagine our world without. So much of the way it’s used is for good, but in every form, you can name examples of where it has caused harm.

How to mitigate the harm?
The subtitle of the book is “The Deep Roots of Self-Critical Faith in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.” Even our most closely held religious ideas have dangerous power. The more we can be aware of that power and reframe the discussion around them, the more we can make them a source of blessing. Deeply rooted in all the traditions is an intellectual humility, the fact that we are instructed to apply that to our faith.

In conservative theological settings, people can be suspicious of self-critical faith because they think it’s a violation of faith. In more progressive settings, they assume their ideas aren’t dangerous, that they’ve done all the work. Progressives often don’t realize the importance of those tools until you recognize your religious ideas can be dangerous.

Examples in progressive Judaism?
I think there is a tendency in Reform congregations to engage in Orthodox bashing. It’s almost a sport, a rejection of what they consider parochial attitudes, oppression of women, and more. That is a harmful rejection of traditional theologies. How do we not look down our nose about those who feel they understand God’s truth? How do we see our religious differences without contempt?

Another idea: It’s very important to protect freedom of religion. At the same time, we recognize that today, people are using this claim to justify discrimination. We have to realize this value we hold dear can nonetheless be used for harm.

Are dangerous religious ideas here to stay, even with the tools of self-critical faith?
You can’t permanently remove all the dangers. You’re always having to deploy your tools, The power to do good and harm are totally wrapped up together. The question is, how can faith still animate your being, your spirit and life? That’s the shape of the challenge. We’re always on the path of being cognizant of the impact of our religious ideas and thoughts on other people.

Article sourced from The Window March/April 2022 Edition