Was David Koresh Jewish?

No David Koresh was not a Jew. He was the leader of the Branch Davidian Seventh-Day Adventists Christians who perished at Waco in 1993.

New Yorker has a section title "ANNALS OF RELIGION" under which they published, Sacred and Profane: How not to negotiate with believers by MALCOLM GLADWELL. Gladwell tells us about Koresh, "David Koresh was born in Houston in 1959, to a fifteen-year-old single mother. He arrived at Mount Carmel at the age of twenty-two, pulling up to the retreat in a yellow Buick—another in the long line of disenchanted Seventh-Day Adventists in search of a purer church."

Gladwell is a journalist known for works which I cite often, like "Blink" and "The Tipping Point." Wikipedia describes his writing thusly, "Gladwell's books and articles often deal with the unexpected implications of research in the social sciences and make frequent and extended use of academic work, particularly in the areas of sociology, psychology, and social psychology."

In this New Yorker article he turns to the area of religion and finds an "unexpected implication" in an unfortunate event that occured April 19, 1993. That "implication" is that you cannot negotiate certain things with some believers. It is "unexpected" because neither the ATF/FBI nor the professors of religion involved in the affair at Waco understood that they were not going to be able to negotiate with the Branch Davidians. Gladwell convincingly argues that the standoff in Waco became a human tragedy because it was a fatally bungled attempt at negotiation.

It is not an honor to be mentioned or singled out in the context of this article, which showcases the absolute wrong way to think about negotiating with religious people. And while the ATF leadership and the professors who offered advice cannot outright be called the villians of the outcome, Gladwell enshrines their actions as classically unheroic and lacking of insight into what expectations one needs to bring to the table when trying to negotiate with certain religious types.

About the government agents who engaged Koresh during the siege and failed, Gladwell says they thought, "...standard negotiation practice, which is based on the idea that, through sufficient patience and reason, a deranged husband or a cornered bank robber can be moved from emotionality to rationality. Negotiation is an exercise in pragmatism—in bargaining over a series of concrete objectives: If you give up one of your weapons, I will bring you water. When this approach failed, the F.B.I. threw up its hands. In bureau parlance, the situation at Mount Carmel became 'non-negotiable.'

About the professors who engaged Koresh during the siege and failed, Gladwell says that after they offered him an interpretation of his primary text, he was glad that "someone was taking his beliefs seriously." Koresh said, “I am presently being permitted to document in structured form the decoded messages of the seven seals... Upon the completion of this task, I will be freed of my waiting period. . . . As soon as I can see that people like Jim Tabor and Phil Arnold have a copy, I will come out and then you can do your thing with this beast.”

It turned out that this was not to be. Belief is not text. The textual alternative was a temporary distraction, a homework assignment, nothing material in the standoff changed. After three days of waiting for a textual resolution and surrender by Koresh that did not materialize, the government attacked the complex. The negotiations failed, the government deemed that its best alternative was use of massive force. During the attack, "In the fire, Koresh and seventy-three others perished, including twenty-five children."

The story is tragic. Still, I was impressed by Gladwell's focused insights, especially his contrast between how ordinary people try to negotiate and how religious people mainly cannot negotiate.

Talmudic Analysis:

Based on this Gladwell essay, it's fair to ask, Is some religion diametrically opposed to negotiation? Does some religion essentially negate negotiation? Or in other words, are absolute religious truths non-negotiable?

For me the question is more nuanced because of the work I have done in religious studies over the years. I have examined numerous distinct modes of religious belief and practice and concluded that not all are opposite to, or opposed to negotiation in the same way.

Just a few quick examples of what I mean. On one side of the spectrum of religious varieties in Judaism, the apocalyptic strain firmly opposes negotiation with the realities of the world. It preaches to its adherents that we (members of the apocalyptic group - called millenialist in refrence to the Davidians) stand near the end of time. It recommends inaction, i.e., waiting for the events of end-times to unfold. To some degree David Koresh's group could have been pigeon-holed into the apocalyptic category. that's close to what Gladwell does.

Gladwell says about the worldview of the Branch Davidians: "The Branch Davidians belonged to the religious tradition that sees Christ’s return to earth and the establishment of a divine Kingdom as imminent. They were millennialists. Millennial movements believe that within the pages of the Bible are specific clues about when and how the Second Coming will arrive."

For apocalyptic leaning Jews much of the same can be said, but it will be the first coming of the messiah, not the second.

On the other side of the spectrum of religious varieties in Judaism, the talmudic strain certainly advocates a form of negotiation between the individual Jew and his fellow Jew, and between the individual and every single detail of the universe at large. In a sense the talmud is the compilation of myriads of case studies of how one should negotiate with others, and with the forces of the physical and spiritual worlds, as the rabbis saw them.

Gladwell dwells on the Waco confrontation to derive his implications regarding the non-negotiability of religions. Waco is a good choice for a case study in one sense because it is short and pure and hard to misinterpret. We know what happened and Gladwell tells us why.

Waco is a bad choice of a case study in other senses because not all religions follow the same absolute rigor towards the world. I'd be willing to admit that the talmudic instance of religion is not the norm either. But I'd argue that talmudic religion places negotiations at the center of its value system - as long as one is willing to accept that there are some limits - not everything is negotiable. Rabbis will tell you what  you can and should negotiate, dispute, debate and analyze - and what you should not touch.

Finally then, what if David Koresh had studied the talmud? Would Waco have been averted? As the talmud itself says, "It's not the study that is the essence. It's the action." If Koresh had lived a talmudic life full of negotiation, well then he would not have been Koresh and Waco would never have happened.

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