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Gideon Paull
At some point in life, in order to find happiness, to find love, it is OK to throw out convention and adopt the unconventional, what others think about that is irrelevant.

Religious supremacy: Enabling baseless hate

Baseless hate caused by religious supremacy

Recently, I was working on a web project that was intended to bring the art of Torah chanting to everyone for free. It was a good project that democratized the learning process and enabled literally anyone to learn how to chant a complete Torah portion or just a few lines in any traditional tune. While working on this project, I wanted to team up with a couple of people who were able to chant and had a good recording voice. Orthodox people I engaged with on the project loved what I was developing and even went as far as to call it “avodat Ha’shem” – God’s work.

One such individual was very excited to work with me on the recordings. It was a win-win situation. I got to have a complete set of recordings while he got to make money and get his voice out there with credits. During one of our conversations, I casually mentioned that many groups such as Conservative and Reform congregations use the Triennial system of Torah reading (each parasha – portion is divided into thirds with the complete Torah reading taking three years instead of one year). He asked me, “will this site be used by non-Orthodox people?” I answered, “yes, of course, conservative and reform congregations make up the largest denominations in the US and probably the world, I can’t ignore those groups”.

At first, his response shocked me but almost at the same time it didn’t. Having lived in Israel for many years and been involved with the Orthodox community, I was aware that many of them hold other Jewish denominations in great disdain, and some even go as far to consider them non-Jewish.

He replied to me, “I don’t want non-Orthodox people to hear my voice”. I kept my calm and responded, “In the end we’re all Jews and we are all just trying to spread Mitzvot and Tikun Olam”. He thought about what I said for a while and then responded, “you make a good point. I need to ask my Rabbi and think about this”.

Many months later I heard back from him that he wasn’t at ease letting non-Orthodox Jews hear his voice. I wasn’t surprised.

Like many other people I was upset but not surprised to hear Rabbi Meir Mazuz, head of the Tunisian Jewish community in Israel and an influential figure in the world of ultra-Orthodox Sephardic politics, call Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman “worse than Nazis”. Why did he do that? Because he disagrees with their worldview and the actions that they are taking in the best interests of all the people of the State of Israel.

It has become an all too familiar scene that repeats itself. If you don’t believe what I believe, then you are wrong and therefore you must be working against me and my interests. In this case, Rabbi Mazuz’s interests are very narrow; the continuing funding of his schools which refuse to teach life skills or any secular subjects. Therefore, they are not preparing their students for any participation in society as a whole.

What is happening in the Jewish communities is not happening in a vacuum. The same is happening in other religions, in politics and in society in general.

What is all too prevalent today is what I would term as, “Religious Supremacy,” meaning, the way I practice my religion is the right way, therefore anything that deviates from my practice must be wrong and is therefore not associated with my religion.

This is exactly the same phenomenon that we can observe in politics – if you don’t believe what I believe then you are wrong and therefore against what I stand for. This is evident in Israel, the US and many other countries, this division of ideas is causing a very dangerous split in society.

Much has been written about this split and social media’s role in enabling divisions in society. Social media and some newer cable TV stations enable what is termed “narrowcasting.” In contrast, broadcasting is presenting a wide range of ideas to a large population – this is what radio and TV did in the past. Narrowcasting is presenting one set of ideas to a specific group of people who already agree with that point of view, thereby validating and solidifying their beliefs.

If you are no longer exposed to other ideas through broadcasting and are continuously pounded with the same messages through narrowcasting, your worldview shrinks. It is no longer acceptable to have a political discourse in many societies. Many people will only talk politics with others whom they know hold their view on any specific subject. People have become so entrenched in their own narrow outlooks, that they are no longer able to discuss any potential political topic with others. What this creates in society is silos of political and social affiliation.

If we can’t listen to other ideas, we will never understand other people living in our society and this is a catalyst for societal breakdown.  When public discourse is no longer acceptable, people become radicalized in their own sound box of ideas – this is the cause for the destruction of a society.

We need look no further than American society where guns are killing 321 people every day – 22 children are shot every day – yet there is no political solution. Society is too fractured to enable a solution. Every person has taken their place at the extreme edges of the debate – there is no middle ground anymore where meaningful compromise could be reached.

If you want to reach compromise, you must read and understand the opposition – there is no other way. Understanding your opposition opens your eyes to their point of view, their logic for believing what they do. It enables people to find middle ground and therefore meaningful compromise.

It’s the same in religion: silos of religious belief. Religious supremacy is not limited to Judaism, it is becoming more and more prevalent in Christian denominations. Many Evangelicals see their way as the only way forward for America – this is Christian Supremacy. United Methodists (the second-largest Protestant Christian denomination) recently agreed to split over the LGBTQ+ question. They couldn’t find middle ground to compromise – each faction went to their extreme corners even though it was in the clear interest of everyone to find a meaningful compromise.

Within Jewish denominations, the ultra-Orthodox have almost always segregated themselves from the rest of society, living in their own neighborhoods, reading their own newspapers, listening to their own rabbis, dealing with their own social issues – basically living a very insular life. It is no wonder that they have very little regard for what goes on in society as a whole. The exception to this is of course Chabad, which makes it a point to go and live in the world, interact with other Jews, understand them and use this as a vehicle for bringing them closer to Judaism.

Unlike the ultra-Orthodox, Modern Orthodox do participate in society. Many combine their religious practice with work and they are therefore exposed to society and ideas that differ from their own. This doesn’t compromise their religion or their political and social world views, it does however enable them to understand other people in society and will foster respect.

I used to work with a lovely Orthodox man in a hi-tech company. We were good friends and would have amazing conversations. One day he exclaimed that I was drinking coffee with milk after eating meat sometime before. I mentioned that my tradition was to wait 3 hours and that time had since passed. He responded that the law was 6 hours and that if I kept anything different from that I was not considered Jewish. This was the first time in my life that I had been told by a fellow Jew that I was not considered Jewish in his eyes. This exchange left a lasting impression on me and I have often returned to understand why another Jew in Israel would consider me not to be Jewish.

In Los Angeles, I belonged to a Conservative synagogue. One block down the road there’s an Orthodox synagogue. The members of that synagogue won’t set foot in the Conservative synagogue’s sanctuary. Why? Because they feel that it is a desecration of God. Women sitting with men, women reading from the Torah or leading a service. The use of passive microphones on Shabbat. I guess that any of these are sufficient reasons.

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1,952 years ago the second temple was destroyed – the reason for its destruction is said to be “sinat chinam.” Sinat chinam means groundless hatred. (The verb soneh means to hate, as in the command lo tisnah at ahicha blevavecha, do not hate your brother in your heart, Leviticus19:17)

Chinam comes from chen, grace. Sinat chinam is therefore hatred that is gratis. It refers to the internecine strife which is unfortunately too common in Jewish communities, whether between Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox; Ashkenazim and Sephardim; or personalities within the synagogues such as the rabbi and the cantor, the president and the board, members of the community.

When I think about the episode I opened this post with, there is nothing that demonstrates baseless hate more than the disdain that this person showed to his fellow Jew just based upon the fact that they practice their religion a little differently than he does. What is the difference between this Orthodox man’s point of view and that of Catholics burning protestants? With one sweeping gesture, this person reduced the members of his religion to those who think and believe just like him. Unfortunately, we see this all too often in religion and in society.

This division of us vs. them only causes a greater chasm between opposing ideas and only fosters a culture of intolerance and hate.

Locally, here in Los Angeles, we have an annual interfaith service, we get together with the Protestants, Catholics, the Muslims; the objective is to understand each other, build consensus, and give thanks for everything we have in our lives. At these services, everyone is represented with the exception of the Jewish Orthodox community, which does not consider other Jewish denominations Jewish enough to represent the religion.

If they deemed to speak with us, they would find that we have more in common than all the differences in how we practice our religion. In the end, we are all praying to the same God, we all walk our own path through our religion to find God.

As we commemorate the destruction of both temples on the 9th of Av, as we think about Sinat Chinam, as we fast and pray for the rebuilding of the Temple, we should also be thinking of whether we as a society, as a religion are worthy of that moment.

About the Author
Gideon Paull is an engineer and developer of websites related to Judaism and Jewish practice. Gideon, who resides in Santa Clarita, California, identifies as a practicing Jew and is married to a Korean United Methodist Church Pastor. Being in an interfaith, intercultural marriage has presented its own set of unique and diverse experiences.
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