Biblical Literalism Kills — Literally

Leilani and Dale Neuman stood by as their diabetic daughter slipped into sickness, then acute illness and finally death from … Continued

Leilani and Dale Neuman stood by as their diabetic daughter slipped into sickness, then acute illness and finally death from diabetic ketoacidosis. As followers of an online faith community called Unleavened Bread Ministries, which rejects medicine, prayed for her recovery but they did not take her to a doctor or call for an ambulance as their little girl died of an entirely treatable condition. Tell me these people should not be punished.

According to some of our beliefs, God may have had a hand in the tragic death of 11-year-old Kara Neumann, but it was her parents who let her die. Now they have been charged with reckless endangerment by authorities in Marathon County Wisc., where they live and their daughter died, for their role in her death. Can anyone really be upset about this?

There are moments when faith becomes so fanatical that it consigns others to a death not of their choosing and that is when we should all get worried. It’s not that I don’t treasure freedom of religion. I do. But as Judge Vincent Howard, who ordered the couple to stand trial remarked, “The free exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment protects religious belief, but not necessarily conduct”.

However one construes the free exercise of faith, there are limits, and this is surely a case of two parents who have burned right through them. In fact, it is precisely because I value the free exercise of our various faiths, that I am so disturbed by this abuse of that freedom.

And it’s not that I don’t have compassion for these parents who are suffering a pain which I pray no parent ever knows. I am sure that they didn’t want their child to die, and there is room to mourn with them even as we condemn them.

It’s not even that their community is wrong in claiming that medicine is not well thought of in either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. Like it our not, neither of these texts thinks much of medical doctors, preferring faith in God to the practice of medicine. In fact, the only physicians mentioned in the Hebrew Bible are the embalmers called by Joseph to preserve the body of his father, Jacob. And we know what scripture thinks of the Egyptians!

But none of these facts excuses the Neumanns or should give us pause about their being prosecuted to the full extent of the law. The simple fact is that literalism, especially biblical literalism, kills.

To be clear, I am writing not about Fundamentalism, which refers to a specific faith in the perfection of the text as the revealed word of God. There can be, and often is, room for Biblical interpretation within that definition. And I even realize that as an orthodox Jew, I might be labeled, by some, as a fundamentalist.

This case is not about who is, or is not a Fundamentalist. It is about people hiding behind a claim of reading the Bible literally, which nobody does anyway. A great example can be found among those who claim to follow every word of the Bible and use that claim to explain their rejection of homosexuality and witchcraft, but have no problem violating equally biblical bans on pork or cooking on the Sabbath.

Of course, they will point to a new scripture which extends the prohibition on the first two, and frees them from the second set of proscriptions. But that is an interpretive move and that means that they are no longer literalists who are freed from the consequences of their actions simply by invoking the Free Exercise clause.

The case of Kara Neumann and the parents who allowed her to die, is about the dangers of any group of people, of any faith, refusing to admit that they too are part of an interpretive tradition, making decisions about the meaning of the text which they revere. When they fail to acknowledge their role in interpreting the text, they are creating an excuse to check their consciences at the door, and end up deeply hypocritical at best and murderous at worst.

Be it Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Pagan or anything else, any insistence on the literal reading of any ancient holy book, in contemporary times, quickly devolves into ugly and dangerous behavior. In fact, the reason that both early Christians and the first rabbinic Jews were able to create new communities was because the literal reading of the Hebrew Bible had ceased to be a functional approach to that text.

In each case, believers anticipated that a new reading of their revered scriptures was needed in order to maintain the authority of the text. This kind of re-reading was actually a mark of fidelity to the faith, not a betrayal, and literalists’ inability to appreciate this fact is what brings them down every time. They end up defending ridiculous, and in this case criminal, positions because they fail to appreciate that sometimes, re-reading the text is more faithful to it than not.

The case of Kara Neumann is clearly one of those times. Now it is time for the faithful to stand up and make sure that there never is another case of this kind again.

About

Brad Hirschfield An acclaimed author, lecturer, rabbi, and commentator on religion, society and pop culture, Brad Hirschfield offers a unique perspective on the American spiritual landscape and political and social trends to audiences nationwide.
  • CCNL

    Another significantly stupid cult!!!

  • Farnaz2

    There really is no argument here. There is no need to refer to the Bible. The parents are responsible for their daughter’s death. Any and all religious leaders who preach as this religion does should also face prosecution in the event that illness or death results from their insanity. There is no slippery slope in this argument. There is in the online “religion” and in any similar “creed” a lethal pit of nonsense from which the public should be protected.

  • CCNL

    Another significantly stupid cult!!!

  • observer12

    The fact that this sort of atrocity continues in this country in the twentieth century is an abomination. Such cults need to be monitored, and, in my view, suppressed, plain and simple. Their message is a message to kill. I find it inconceivable that such speech is protected by the First Amendment.

  • observer12

    The fact that this sort of atrocity continues in this country in the twentieth century is an abomination. Such cults need to be monitored, and, in my view, suppressed, plain and simple. Their message is a message to kill. I find it inconceivable that such speech is protected by the First Amendment.

  • Bios

    Mr. Hirschfield, I’m glad you are writing a post on this issue.I think that what these religions do is replace one addiction for another. This being said, biblical literalism kills just like any other addiction does.This whole obsessive/compulsive behavioural pattern and complete psychological dependence on the bible, to the point of shutting down all other behaviours and resulting in such a tragedy, should be serious enough to attract the attention of competent authorities on this subject.All these religions that promote obsessively dependent activities/behaviour based on the bible (or any other ancient book) should be recognized as addictive and be treated as such. How many Kara Neumann’s after are we going to have to wait?

  • jameschirico

    People that take the Bible literally should be put away in mental institutions. Deuteronomy said God told them to slaughter all in a city and take the virgin women as concubines. Infections should be fought with anti-biotics not the flowing water of rivers. When a woman menstruates, do we take two doves to the tent of the elder slaughter one and set another free? The lessons in the Bible must be applied to a modern society.

  • jessteshara

    As I recall, Rhonda Byrne’s ‘The Secret’ says health is a mind over matter thing, as well. ‘A course in miracles’ says some stuff. The same power that allows sage to clean a space of bad energy can apply to the body. The eastern use of pressure points can be used for good or ill.. Anyway, a reaction I had to this article was that if a) one is deathly afraid of doctors, or b)afraid they’ll go to hell if they use a doctor, or c)defending ridiculous, in this case criminal, positions (like abortion, capital punishment, war, cigarrettes, some fast food, etc.) -thou shalt not kill- , well, it’s a mad mad world.. You can’t legislate beliefs, even if some beliefs, from a Darwinian perspective, are better than others, perhaps.

  • n7uno

    I’ve known a number of literalistic Christians. As my mother says ‘Engage brain before opening mouth’.

  • grashnak

    I’m going to guess that if the ancient Hebrews had access to antibiotics and MRIs, the ancient texts might be a little kinder to the medical profession.

  • MGT2

    I fully agree with he sentiment that what these parents did was wrong and finds no justification in the scriptures. That is what happens when cultic movements hijack, misuse and abuse Holy Writ. It is just that situations like these expose the ignorance about scripture–on both sides of the issue. This is not a case of scriptural literalism. Those who oppose any religion find this to be healthy fodder and an opportunity to say “ha ha.” But scripture is the gateway to faith and an understanding of God. Taking bits and pieces of scripture without regard to the whole, leads to the ignorance and folly of the cultists, and to the ignorance and hubris of those who seek to discredit faith.

  • mdharmonass

    There is a need to refer to the Bible here. The Rabbi is making a great point that the misuse of the Bible is in fact the problem itself.Times have changed and we have to deal with that.God may have looked at Abraham and prefered him because the patriarch was willing to kill his only son Isaac on God’s demand, but today we would be right to throw Abraham in jail for acting on that intention.If that had been me in Abraham’s place, I would have failed that test. How can we respect any religion that would put our children in harm’s way? The Rabbi is telling us that if we believe the religion is asking us to put our child in harm’s way, we probably don’t understand what we are being told.This is an excellent article with great points.

  • donniedanger

    no, Koranic literalism killsstop with the Christian bashing alreadyor is it that Christians are a much more tolerant target?

  • ethanquern

    Tragic. Absolutely unequivocably tragic.The rabbi is far too kind, by talking about the situation in the abstract. Imagine yourself for just one moment of your precious life as the little girl suffering, wondering, even praying if you will for help to make her better. And though help is available, readily available, it is denied. All because of an insane belief.We are biologically wired to pine for children lost unnecessarily, and this is absolutely a tragic situation. But what of the countless gay and lesbian youth who commit suicide because of social beliefs? Personally, I know half a dozen boys and girls who surrendered their life rather than live in a society that hated who they were. And before a single one of you claim righteousness for your belief against them, it is that very belief for which they ended their lives.Tragic. Totally tragic. It is not literalism that just kills. It is religious self-righteousness. It is a curse of humanity, and the cause of countless grief, suffering, and wars beyond measure.That religious serves a useful purpose is a widely accepted “fact.” But what is equally true is that religion is also the source of endless cruelty. And if a balance were to be weighed, can any amount of self-righteousness outweigh the depth of the cruelty?The answer to that question must be never in a society that even pretends to be just, free, and humane.

  • tomkat1

    So much confusion, it’s no wonder we are in the state we’re in today. We have lost our sense of wonder and make a fetish of our own inventions.

  • tigers1

    I agree that freedom of belief does not equal unlimited license to act in the name of belief. A person who reads Genesis and concludes that God intended for humanity to go around naked should still expect to be arrested for acting out that belief in public. However, I disagree with those who emphasize the point that these parents who let their child die were part of a cult. That really makes no difference. Whether cult or mainstream, NO religion should get a free pass from the law. Equal treatment under the law (14th Amendment) demands that whatever the law requires or forbids must apply equally to all people. No can claim exemption from legal requirements or prohibitions by saying, “Well, this is about my freedom of religion.” Freedom of religion meets its limits precisely where it conflicts with the laws that apply to everyone else. In this case, suppose the parents were not religious — suppose they were atheists who stood by, grief-stricken, and let their child die. Would we even bother asking questions about their guilt? Then why should it be any different if this atrocity is committed in the name of religion?

  • theosnyder

    Biblical literalism uses the scriptures to justify predetermined moral positions. It is a denial of reason as a partner with faith. It limits the meaning of scriptural texts to conform some derivation of contemporary cultural values. It serves the interests of some power elites in religion. It came into being in the early 20th Century in opposition to critical scriptural scholarship that tended oppose some of the more negative positions and practices of Christian denominations. Scriptural literalists forget or do not even know that their cited texts come to them via a long process of affirmation of handwritten manuscripts, communal decisions about authenticity and authority and translations from ancient to contemporary languages. They also fixate on individual texts with no worry about genre, context or redaction. Literalism in the use of scriptures is plainly and simply an exercise in religious ignorance. The children of scriptural literalists often come to question their parent’s lack of reason and, unfortunately, equate religion with fundementalism, rejecting the whole mess.

  • waxmop

    Are you really sure you want to go down this road? How would you react to a ban on infant circumcision? To a lot of people’s eyes, that’s a barbaric practice with no medical value.I’m disappointed with a person of faith putting so much emphasis on the protection of life even at the cost of what somebody holds most dear.I don’t like what these parents did. But I believe that this is protected. Once the majority can tweak the practice of religion, there’s really no freedom of religion any longer.

  • maria18

    These cults are all ridiculous. They use their disaffection with modernity to believe in a God who is sitting on a cloud just waiting to send us to hell if we do not live like them . God is a merciful God always has been and is not going to stop now. Proof? Look around you and remember that god is kinder. than the most merciful and kind person in the world there Such a god could never tell you not to help your little girl!

  • jyhume

    Hirschfield: “In fact, the reason that both early Christians and the first rabbinic Jews were able to create new communities was because the literal reading of the Hebrew Bible had ceased to be a functional approach to that text.”This an excellent point, that perhaps might make sense to the True-believer. These literalist beliefs couldn’t even exist if not for the openness of their founders to subjectively reinterpret the ancient texts in the first place. These literalists are essentially taking a snapshot in time and saying, “This is it. This interpretation alone is the absolute truth.”

  • MPatalinjug

    Yonkers, New YorkKara Neumann has unnecessarily suffered a tragic death, due mainly to what is clearly the religious fanaticism or bigotry of her parents.Yes, Brad Hirschfield, a literalist interpretation of the Bible plus a literalist implementation of its provisions can lead to human tragedies of unimaginable dimensions.If the Jewish or the Christian bible is the Word of God, and if God, as believed by adherrents, is kind, loving and merciful, then God should hever have allowed Kara Neummann to die. Her whole life was before her.But religion, all religions, are (if human beings are not afraid to be fully rational and not afraid to face the truth) the greatest fraud inflicted by clever and manipulative priests/immams/rabbis on humanity, the better to exploit and control it.The concept “God” as a transcendetal and supernatural being is their pure invention, the figment of their febrile imagination.Mariano Patalinjug

  • Jerusalimight

    Rabbi Hershefeld is just as guilty of trivializing the Bible as this dumb couple.The problem is not ‘literalism.’ The Bible ‘literally’ condemns murder, and we have no problem with that.The problem is people who go off the traditional interpretation and take their own way. There’s an old Talmudic joke about someone wanting only a ‘literal’ interpretation of the Bible without interference from the opinion of the Rabbis, so the first day his Rabbi taught him aleph and beis, the first two letters of the alphabet. Then the next day he mixed them up, and the student protested. The Rabbi wisely asked him, ‘But you said you wanted the Bible without the sages’ interpretation. Who says an aleph is always an aleph?These misguided people trusted themselves or others to interpret the Torah instead of going to the Rabbinic sources and seeing what the words really meant. And they made their alephs into tafs.So does Rabbi Hershfeld. It is quite insulting to the Torah to say, as Rabbi Hershfeld implies, that there is some ‘literal’ interpretation of the Bible that exists out there that we should be careful of. No. There are no dangerous ‘literal’ Bible quotes that need to be ignored, as this poor commentary implies. We should do exactly what the Bible says, including ‘Do not kill,’ but we should make sure we are in touch with proper sources to explain what the Torah means.

  • rlalumiere

    Mr. Hirschfield, Luke, the author of one of the Gospels, was a physician. So, not to knock on you too hard, but you’re wrong about the New Testament being so anti-medicine.

  • mgloraine

    We must bear in mind that all holy scriptures, all ancient texts, Dead Sea Scrolls, cave paintings & petroglyphs are the products of humankind. Writing is a human invention, and everything ever written was written by humans including the Torah, Bible, Koran, Mahabharata, and so on. They are of great cultural significance, but the words themselves, along with their dozens of translations and augmentations, are the work of humans like us.To seek an understanding of the meaning of the writers in their own times and cultures might be a precursor to wisdom. To blindly follow the writings of ancient philosophers and scribes as the “word of God” is pure folly.

  • Idealogue

    Mr. Hirschfield has misinterpreted the idea of literal interpretation.To take the Bible literally is to accept its historical accounts as attempts at historical accuracy, and to accept its symbolism as symbolic. This does not mean that they must ignore the fact that it dismisses certain old testament rites because this would require thought. Those who claim not to take scripture literally simply contort it to mean something opposed to the intentions of those who were tortured and killed in defense of their writings within. Hirschfield does not explain how this situation is caused by literal interpretation at all. I assume this case is only as attributable to literal interpretation of the Bible as is past polygamy amongst followers of Mormonism.

  • Idealogue

    Mr. Hirschfield has misinterpreted the idea of literal interpretation.To take the Bible literally is to accept its historical accounts as attempts at historical accuracy, and to accept its symbolism as symbolic. This does not mean that they must ignore the fact that it dismisses certain old testament rites because this would require thought. Those who claim not to take scripture literally simply contort it to mean something opposed to the intentions of those who were tortured and killed in defense of their writings within. Hirschfield does not explain how this situation is caused by literal interpretation at all. I assume this case is only as attributable to literal interpretation of the Bible as is past polygamy amongst followers of Mormonism.

  • Alex511

    fr donniedanger:>no, Koranic literalism killsstop with the Christian bashing alreadyor is it that Christians are a much more tolerant target?Nobody is “Christian bashing” on this topic. These people were part of a CULT, NOT Christian, and should be brought up on murder charges for killing their daughter.

  • Farnaz2

    MDHarmonass:RE: Your postGod may have looked at Abraham and prefered him because the patriarch was willing to kill his only son Isaac on God’s demand, but today we would be right to throw Abraham in jail for acting on that intention.Evidently, you’re unfamiliar with Judaism, or you would never have written this post. Unfortunately, the “OT” (sic), was thieved from the people, Judeans, by whom and for whom it was written, “reinterpreted” and then used to “lessen” us as to its “true meaning.” Right. No, the family of whom the Rabbi writes are Christians. Big surprise.If the Christians bothered to read their own translations, botched though they were, they would see that Isaac would have had to be thirty-five years old at the time of the “Binding,” NB, the “Binding,” not the “Sacrifice.” Yuck. The entire point of the episode was to end human sacrifice forever.But the NT God is an unforgiving god, a torturer who sent his only begotten son to earth to be slowly bled to death and to incriminate all humankind in the murder.No. These parents sacrificed to an NT God. Probably distant cousins of the Catholic Bishop Williamson and the Catholic Ratzinger who “re-communicated” him.

  • Alex511

    fr donniedanger:>no, Koranic literalism killsstop with the Christian bashing alreadyor is it that Christians are a much more tolerant target?<Nobody is "Christian bashing" on this topic. These people were part of a CULT, NOT Christian, and should be brought up on murder charges for killing their daughter.

  • Farnaz2

    MDHarmonass:RE: Your postGod may have looked at Abraham and prefered him because the patriarch was willing to kill his only son Isaac on God’s demand, but today we would be right to throw Abraham in jail for acting on that intention.Evidently, you’re unfamiliar with Judaism, or you would never have written this post. Unfortunately, the “OT” (sic), was thieved from the people, Judeans, by whom and for whom it was written, “reinterpreted” and then used to “lessen” us as to its “true meaning.” Right. No, the family of whom the Rabbi writes are Christians. Big surprise.If the Christians bothered to read their own translations, botched though they were, they would see that Isaac would have had to be thirty-five years old at the time of the “Binding,” NB, the “Binding,” not the “Sacrifice.” Yuck. The entire point of the episode was to end human sacrifice forever.But the NT God is an unforgiving god, a torturer who sent his only begotten son to earth to be slowly bled to death and to incriminate all humankind in the murder.No. These parents sacrificed to an NT God. Probably distant cousins of the Catholic Bishop Williamson and the Catholic Ratzinger who “re-communicated” him.

  • paws1

    Excellent article Rabbi Hirschfield. Your compassion for the Neumanns is admirable.

  • griggs1947

    Yes, these parents deserve punishment for their cruel act! The rights of the child rate above the superstitions of the parents!

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