After Herman Wouk quoted his unnamed source’s dictum – “law is the idolatry of the Jews” – and pronounced it a “sharp half-truth,” he chose not to pursue the matter any further. In part, this was the understandable reaction of an Orthodox Jew, attuned to the Yiddishkeit he’d inherited and not disposed to critique it too closely.
But his was also the reaction of a civilized human being who understood and accepted that people take their faith in many forms. It may indeed be true that what brings tears to the eyes of some brings nausea to the stomachs of others. But what of it?
A great deal. Lasting, civilized tolerance requires more than indifference or superficial celebrations of religious food court diversity. It also means sharing the world with those whose beliefs and practices you might find ridiculous, contemptible or worse.
Would that it were so simple.
At the individual level, it’s easy to leave it alone. Some Jews devoutly believe in the sacralization of everyday life and practice accordingly, whether their purpose is personal holiness, Tikkun Olam, the hastening of Final Redemption, their share of Ha’Olam Ha’Ba or all four. Other Jews can’t go to the bathroom without someone telling them how. Still others maintain veneers of piety for less devout reasons. The same may no doubt be said for adherents of other faiths.
What they believe is their own affair. So is what they do.
Provided they do it on their own time, at their own expense, and stay reasonably within the secular law.
And that’s the key to everything, as Western civilization managed to learn after several blood-drenched centuries. Tolerance only works if the state is non-religious, and if secular law trumps religious commandment and usage. Your faith may condone polygamy or require you to kill your daughter if she goes out unaccompanied, but if the secular law forbids it, your faith does not exonerate you.
But in order to work, secular law must be exactly that: secular.
To put it bluntly – in a secular republic, citizens make the laws. God is not a citizen. Nobody’s God. Or gods. And nobody ever has the right to claim the state as the sole possession of their own deities, or to expect special consideration for or deference to their faith.
Yes, people of faith (or, if you prefer, heavy users of religion) often enter the political world for reasons of belief. But that’s what gets them there, not what ought to have special standing, or any standing at all, in the political world.
Again, would that it were so simple.
We need not tarry over the ridiculous argument that atheism is a “belief system” equivalent to religion. No atheist ever told me I was going to roast for eternity, or trash my share of Ha’Olam Ha’Ba, if I didn’t agree with him. What concerns us here is the question of whether the “idolatry of law” at the political level hinders the possibility of creating a 21st century Jewish civilization. If your answer is, “I hope so, we’re the People that Dwells Apart and what do we have to do with the Goyim?” – OK. Conversation ended. But as for the rest of us . . .
At the Israeli political level, we have, perhaps, the “idolatry of law.” We also have at the political level what Judeophile historian Paul Johnson, in A History of the Jews, decreed a theocratic totalitarianism. The term denotes a state in which there is only one legitimate relationship, that between the deity (and that deity’s representatives, interpreters and enforcers) and the individual, and only one permissible activity: serving that deity and that deity’s representatives, interpreters and enforcers. All other relationships and activities are either abolished or subordinated to and formed by the total requirement. There are no independent souls, no independent activities, no independent relationships.
For millennia, Jews have been piling up the rules and regulations until, for some of us, there is no aspect of human life that remains either autonomous or undirected. Whatever the origins of this practice, it had its uses during the long centuries of oppression and exile. But today, when religious experts worry over whether micro-organisms can render broccoli non-Kosher and a rabbi produces a 500-page tome on Halachically acceptable uses of the Internet . . .
And all this comes out of a closed world that scorns and wishes to dominate the rest of us. A closed world from which we hear, more and more of crimes and scandals, cover-ups and self-serving exonerations, along with all the rules they proclaim and will, perhaps, someday enforce.
So to conclude:
At the individual level, Jewish law may or may not be idolatrous. It depends on the person and since none of us can read the heart of another, best to let it go by. But at the political level, there are always those – Johnnson calls them the “rigorists” of Jewish history – who would compel the rest of us to obedience, using whatever means necessary.
Odd. For millennia, sages proclaimed that Jews should support and abide by the laws of any state that permits them to practice their religion, stay out of its politics, serve God.
Any state . . . except a Jewish State.