I traveled to America for my silver wedding anniversary. My previous visit to the USA ended in 1983 and was equally successful. I make no apologies for being unadvisedly pro-American, pro-Jewish and pro-Zionist. Still, I was scared that this time, once I reached the customs hall at Dulles International Airport “they” would not allow me in. Since 9/11 it is not easy getting into the USA for a holiday – I have heard far too many anecdotes of traumatic experiences from innocent people! My knowledge of customs officials is that they tend to be humorless, capricious and apparently, randomly hostile towards foreign visitors.
I suspect that Islamic terrorists intent on committing carnage are more likely to appear mild mannered, fawning; in fact intolerably kiss-ass in order to pass through the customs checks. There has to be a better way!
But this is not why I am writing today. I confirmed my flight just prior to flying out during Passover and so I ordered kosher meals. In mid-flight the flight attendant asked me if I wanted to open my meal myself or was it OK for them to open it for me? So the first thing I must do is to put the question into historical context.
Excepting for a major hiccup during the second century BCE when the Maccabees forcibly converted a large number of people, the Jewish people have been very conflicted about conversion since biblical times, often warning against it. One major universal aspect of Judaism posits that following the Noahide commandments are sufficient for non-Jews to have an equal place in the afterlife with Jews. (The Noahide laws prohibit murder, theft, adultery, incest and the eating of live flesh and require communities to establish a legal system and courts of law). At the time of Christ, Judaism was a radical, revolutionary faith – which stood many Jews in opposition to the Roman Empire. At least in principle, Judaism freed the slaves and gave a measure of dignity to all human beings and that could never be accepted or comfortably tolerated, at the very least, for economic reasons, by either Greeks or Romans. Judaism gifted the Western World universal education almost 3,000 years before any other nation embraced it, the Decalogue, and a Sabbath day that was universally applicable.
Judea was geographically, strategically important to Rome and intermittently restive. By displaying an alternative to the Roman economic model it potentially compromised Roman control over its colonial empire. Eventually Rome responded with a bloodbath that to paraphrase the 2009 film, Avatar, would sear a memory into the Jewish psyche that would scar the Jews for millennia.
The early Christians were Jews but their leaders soon realized that if they were to become something bigger they would need to discard their toxic Jewish heritage. The Romans feared revolution and they feared dissent. The apostles distanced themselves and their followers from the narrative of Jewish revolt in order to establish their new faith and in doing so they planted the seeds of persecution that have plagued Christian-Jewish interfaith relations ever since.
When Jews were threatened with annihilation they responded by not simply discouraging proselytizing but more pro-actively, they periodically banned it. Justinian Christianity increased the restrictions on Jewish civil rights and centuries later with the foundation of Islam the practice of belittling that which was different and creating a separation between the holiness of the believer and the unclean nature of the non-believer was taken to the logically next and final step. The Koran provides a guide for persecuting and killing any doubters including Muslim ones. By declaring Islam to be the perfection of human faith it closes the door on criticism or improvement and it supersedes everything that came before it.
Today there are many people including the President of the United States of America excusing the inhumanity and ethnic cleansing practiced by Muslim fundamentalists throughout the Near-East. President Obama has said that Christians “did it first” (with the Crusades). What bothers me most about this is that it is a childish argument, philosophically and temperamentally immature. And it has no basis in ethics or fact. For the most powerful man in the world to be saying this is beyond logical comprehension.
We live in the 21st Century, not the 7th and not the 10th. In order to possess any relevance, every case is unique.
The brutal killers of the so-called Islamic State would like to harmonize the modern world with 7th Century Islam, so they crucify children to create fear and demonstrate their superior purpose. The Crusades started out as a desire to restore Christian access to the holy places around Jerusalem something that current Palestinian and anti-Semitic followers of the Arab cause would cynically deny to Jews!
By the 17th Century of the Common Era, Jews had been a persecuted people for so long that few of us alive today can appreciate the despair and sporadic dread they must have lived with. Out of all that squalor Baruch de Spinoza appeared on the scene; the man many people regard as the patriarch of the Enlightenment. In the Western World the intellectual darkness was starting to abate. In that 18th Century intellectual soup Gotthold Lessing, Immanuel Kant and Moses Mendelssohn argued for a rational intellectual landscape that afforded the individual freedom, equality and tolerance. The Haskalah, the 18th Century Jewish Enlightenment was also experiencing its birth pangs.
The Hasidim had a different approach. They did not preach the final coming of the messiah as millenarian cults did nor did they ascribe holiness to charismatic charlatans and theocratic psychopaths. Instead, out of the abyss of gloom and despair they called out to the heavens, they screamed out to God in Heaven for deliverance from their earthly suffering. They did so by encouraging the faithful to pray even harder, but with a twist. Their prayers would be filled with energy and joyful supplication to the almighty. They claimed that if, through their song, they could burst open the gates of heaven then God would hear their cries for help. And they claimed that a holy leader could intercede with God on behalf of the community. This adoption of charismatic leadership was a radical step away from the scholarly approach to prayer and community as practiced by previous generations.
The Hasidim rejected the legalistic, dry Yeshiva approach of mainstream Western Orthodoxy. We could claim they were the original happy-clappie gospel singers; eighteenth century evangelicals whose promotion of spiritualism sought to normalize mysticism as intrinsic to Jewish faith. In this way perhaps they thought that the misery of their lives could be set aside? They raised the hopes of the oppressed, perhaps they were delusional, but fear had taxed their spirits for so long that surely any way must have been better than the present. Fear led them to view prayer as their only salvation. Until that is, the new faith of Secularism began to supersede the old religious faith in the late 19th Century.
And this is where I reconnect with my contemporary story. How does this all relate to that flight attendants question? Ideas around ritual purity can be spiritually uplifting. However, the idea that the touch of a non-Jew might pollute the physical nutrients that sustain our bodies is an ancient fear and it is time to set it aside.
We do have legitimate terrors. We need to focus our fears in the direction of truly deadly contemporary existential enemies whether they are old-new anti-Jewish boycotters, antisemitic regimes posing as carriers of anti-Zionist radical chic or the deniers who are attempting to rewrite our history in universities and journals across the globe.
When I was questioned by the Virgin Atlantic flight attendant I was flustered by the question, and then the rage I felt I could never direct at an airline that was only respecting the archaic practices of a far too long and dark an age in our history. Some of those orthodox traditions remain as fears, to which too many of us blindly cling. Those fears preclude taking the first steps towards religious healing.
I understand that intimidation and the reluctance to move on are fears’ unholy descendants. I understand that a return to a Judaic theology based on moderation and reasonable doubt is not in the interests of current ultra-orthodox communities. Compromise might actually dissolve some of the barriers that exist between many of the sects and sub-sects of Hasidism.
But no one should have to ask me whether I am offended by the touch of another human being – no one should have to offer me the choice of opening up my own food parcel.
It is a question that debases and degrades both of us.