Bible Commentator

Columns

Rabbi Moshe Reiss

moshereiss@moshereiss.org

Identity, Tolerance and Virgin Seekers


Identity:

The literary basis of the identity problem begins in Homer’s Odyssey. The hero travels back and forth in time and space in order to return home. His home as for most of us represents identity. Homer does not tell us that the people Odysseus visited spoke different languages (being written after the event of Babel) and consequently were largely barbarians, with thus according to the Greeks, no real identity. We can surmise from this logic that language is another ingredient of identity.


Odysseus’s identity required him to be home, exile was a real punishment.

The Islamic ninth century historian Taban (writing 2,000 years after Homer) recorded a governor who banned a dissident stating ‘for a man who is exiled from his country becomes less powerful.’ This is no longer true. This radical change is only ten years old.  Saad al Fagih, a Saudi Arabian dissident was exiled ten tears ago to London, he might have lost his identity. But he developed high tech support and through his website has managed to retain a significant identity in his home country. He has recently solicited and received oaths from 99 Arabian tribes of support. In these times exile is not a loss, Saudi Arabia would today have to jail him and perhaps execute him to have him lose his identity.


The high literary point of identity can be seen in the writer Franz Kafka. What kind of an identity does Kafka write from? He is Jewish despite never using the term Jew or Judaism in his writing. (His Jewish name was ‘Amschel’.) When he spoke Yiddish not even his grandfather who understood Yiddish (as opposed to his father who did not) could understand him. His father spoke German but lived in a community that spoke Czech, thus Kafka wrote in German. He feared his father and wrote him a seventy page handwritten letter to explain his fear. He gave it his mother who he loved rather than feared, she read it and never gave it to her husband. Fortunately for us he was obsessed and saved everything. He asked his last girl friend Dora, the daughter of a Hasid, to destroy his notes and diaries after his death. She did; however he left some with his friend Max Brod. He asked him to destroy them after his death, he did not. Some of us will be forever grateful to Brod.


His lack of identity fragmented his personality and his soul. How does one define a fragmented personality or fragmented soul? Kafka did it for himself and for us!


He wrote in this letter to his Father:

‘The world was for me divided into three parts: one in which I lived under laws which had been invented only for me and which I could, I did not know why, never completely comply with; then a second world, which was infinitely remote from mine, in which you lived, . . . and finally a third world where everybody else lived happily’. . . .If a man does not know where he belongs he cannot know to whom he is bound in duty; his need for a clearly defined area of obligation must remain unappeased.  .  .  is not [your] power such that nothing could resist [your] decree.’


He said of his father (in his diary) you `down the Czechs, and then the Germans, and then the Jews. . .and nobody was left except yourself . . . I have hardly anything in common with myself.’


Despair was his inspiration. ‘What is laid upon us is to accomplish the negative; the positive is already given.’


As a result of his fragmented personality and soul Kafka thought of women as both the sacred and the profane.  


Shakira Hussein notes her father had four marriages with women of four different ethnic and religious identities. ‘Last year, I attended the weddings of two of my brothers. In London, my devoutly Muslim brother, born and raised in Pakistan, finally married his straight-talking Sikh girlfriend, having agreed to a Sikh as well as a Muslim ceremony. A few months later, in Australia, another brother married in a ceremony that combined readings from his chosen spiritual teacher, the Indian Parsi Meher Baba, with the bride’s Buddhist faith. Then there is my youngest brother, who is thus far quite happy with his own “God–shaped hole”, but who cheerfully attends Eid at the Islamic Centre with me, or Christmas Mass with our Catholic mother; the sister who is currently considering converting to Coptic Christianity; and the fact that thanks to two years as a live-in housekeeper to an Iranian Orthodox Jewish family, I know how to keep a kosher kitchen and prepare a three-course Passover meal for ten at short notice.’


She asks ‘Does a particular religion look a particular way! Or is it our beliefs, our names, style of dress, physical appearance, even our diet? Are these signifiers as shallow or as significant as any racial marker. My young pink and white daughter is already highly aware of the anti-Islamic prejudice that confronts her, prejudice which has nothing to do with who she is or what she thinks.’  (In Open Democracy – Feb. 25, 2005)


Shakira despite being Jewish under Jewish law (mothers in Judaism determine religion) and Muslim under Muslim Law (fathers in Islam determine religion) does not have a lack of identity but a surfeit of wonderful identities. There is nothing fragmented about her personality or her soul.


Father Aleksandr is a Greek Orthodox Priest with a parish in Jerusalem with partly Arabs (most Christians in Israel are Arabs) but a largely Slavic congregation. His original name was Abraham ben Baruch. His mother, a German Jewess survived the Majdanek extermination camp in Poland, his younger brother and his maternal grandmother were killed in the camp. His father, also a Jew survived while part of the underground resistance in France. He was born after the war. His mother rejected ever speaking German or setting foot on its soil, but also insisted that he speak German perfectly without accent. He Did. As a child he studied the Hebrew Bible and Talmud, spoke Hebrew and Yiddish. Later in University he studied comparative linguistics, Rabbinic Studies and the Jewish French Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. At age 25 he converted to Greek Orthodox Christianity. Since his parents were Zionists he chose and as a result of his fluency in Hebrew, the Slavic languages and his Jewish knowledge, was accepted by Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem. (Most of the Christian Slavs in Israel have partly Jewish blood and knowledge. Consequently his Judaic knowledge was an advantage in understanding that community.)


He considers himself part of the Jewish nation. He has never sought Israeli citizenship nor acceptance under the Law of Return. He reads the liturgy 80 percent in Hebrew and the remainder in Russian or Ukrainian (a version of Russian). The Greek Orthodox Bible is the ancient Septuagint, translated by the Jews for their Greek co-religionists in Alexandria. Father Aleksandr preaches using the section of the Hebrew Bible Jews recite for that week. When appropriate to his particular congregants who have more Jewish knowledge that usual he uses certain Jewish Hasidic masters. Despite his Jewish family rejecting his conversion when he mother was about to die she allowed him to assist her in her final hours. After his mother’s death he placed his father in a Jewish home for the elderly. He helped arrange for both of them to be buried in Jewish cemeteries under Orthodox Jewish law. He never tried to convert his parents. For Christians he is considered to have a Jewish identity. The author who knows Father Aleksandr can attest that his personality, if not his soul, are holistic.


Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, an early nineteenth century Jewish Hasidic Rabbi wrote of a holistic soul.  ‘If I am I because you are you and you are you because I am I, then neither you nor I truly are; but if I am I because I am I and you are you because you are you, then both I am you truly are.’


Can Brother Daniel of the Carmelites, born of a Polish Jewish mother and Jewish father, but converted to Catholicism have a Jewish and Christian Identity? The Israeli Supreme Court said No!

Father Aleksandr never sought citizenship under the Jewish Law of Return and consequently the Israeli Supreme Court was never asked to rule.

Cardinal Lustiger, Arch Bishop of Paris was born of a Jewish father and Jewish mother, burnt at Auschwitz; claims Jewish and Christian identity. The Cardinal has never been to Israel and his identity was never subject to legal scrutiny.

Since Jews, Christians and Muslims claim the same father – Abraham – can one identify oneself as a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim? Since Islam is based on patrilineal descent perhaps; since Judaism is based on matrilineal descent apparently not.


Tolerance:

Tolerance is related to Freedom of Speech. To tolerate those who agree with you or whom you respect or whom you love is appropriate but not related to tolerance. To tolerate those with whom you disagree or whom you disrespect or whom you even hate is Tolerance. Tolerance does not require respect. To be accused of Blasphemy is the opposite of Tolerance.


If I proclaim myself on a street corner in Hyde Park or at the Wall in Jerusalem to be the new Messiah, you are within your rights to ridicule me, but not to beat me and certainly not to execute me. The right to offend is in fact Free Speech. I am under no obligation to respect your beliefs. Respect is earned.  Who decides? Each of us. Respect is not an entitlement. I am however obligated to tolerate your beliefs.  


A recent BBC television broadcast of an Opera written by Jerry Springer produced enormous controversy; almost 50,000 complaints about foul language were received; some of the complainers threatened BBC executives. They were either 300 or 8,000 words or somewhere in between, according to the complaints. The distinction depends one on whether one considers ‘nipple’ and ‘poop’ as foul. A second discrepancy is whether the same word sung by the 27 members of the chorus counts as one word or 27 words. 1,800, 000 saw and listened to the broadcast, the complaint ratio is thus less three percent. Yes some, perhaps more people were offended but did not complain in writing, by phone or by Email. Oh yes 40% of the phone calls were complimentary, according to the Guardian newspaper. Was anyone forced to watch or listen? I do not live in Britain and was thus not able to see the broadcast. But if it was available to me I might or might not have seen the broadcast, probably not; I do not like opera. Is my view relevant; are the 50,000 people who complained relevant? Yes to marketing people, not to censors.

 

Tolerance to be real must be embedded in ones soul. Tarek Heggy, an Egyptian, stated that unless one accepts that all human beings are members of Humanity this discussion is a dialogue of the deaf. (He was referring to Christian Copts in Egypt.)


Intolerance is offering justification to the killer of Theo van Gogh, whose sin was to have made a short movie about the mistreatment of women in Islamic societies. Intolerance is offering justification for the slaughtering of 350 children in Beslan, or of 200 commuters in Madrid. And for the execution of Margaret Hassan, the Irish-born Iraqi citizen who devoted her life to humanitarian relief and opposed the prewar sanctions as well as the invasion itself. Intolerant Jihadists, it turns out, issue no exemptions for humanists when drawing up their lists of those deserving execution. They have an insane obsession with honor and vengeance that has infected their minds. And yes I have read their supposed God given justification. There God does not resemble my God! And my Old Testament God who specified in that same book over forty times about the kindness and equality owed to the stranger is supposed to be intolerant.


Neither Kafka, Shakira Hussein nor Father Aleksandr are intolerant, despite two having holistic personalities and one a fragmented personality. Since the next section ‘The Virgin Seekers’ is about those who choose to bring in the ghastly Horsemen of the Apocalypse can we understand something about their personalities? We have already written about suicide bombers (October 22, 2004). We noted that the major reasons used suicide bombers was the zealous defense of honor and vengeance. To honor ones parents is a positive commandment in the Judeo-Christian tradition. But to murder for honor is not part of that commandment. To take vengeance is a sin, ‘Vengeance is mine, I shall repay’ said the Lord (Deut. 32:35 and Romans 12:19) again in the Judeo-Christian tradition. A zealot personality is an intolerant personality (When Senator Barry Goldwater stated in his acceptance speech for the nomination of the President of the United States on the Republican Party in 1964 that ‘extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice’ he was wrong. Zealotry of any sort is wrong and condones Evil.)


A key belief in the Judeo-Christian tradition is ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ and ‘love the stranger as yourself’. Love is more than tolerance it requires respect and acceptance of the ‘other’. If your neighbor or the stranger sees God’s face differently than you do you still have to love him? Apparently so. If her model of the good life differs from yours do you still have to love her?


Intolerant personalities come in all religions, all colors, all races and as Shakira stated in different styles of dress and diet. These personalities cannot envisage that other ways of life (whether other religions or forms of secularism) can be models of the good life. They are illegitimate. Since, in their view, there is only on truth and it is absolute, all other views are sinful and those following them devil worshippers; legitimately subject to death.


In the Orient one can be a Buddhist and a Christian. (Most Buddhists in America are Jewish by birth.) In Africa one can be an Animist and a Christian. In the Caribbean Islands one can be a Voodooist and a Christian.

 


The Virgin Seekers:

The identity and personality of those intolerant Jihadists can be surmised by their supposed reward; going directly to heaven and meeting seventy doe eyed dark haired virgins. They are macho sex fiends as well as cowards.


Two examples of macho sex fiends and cowardice should suffice. According to Kanan Makiya an Iraqi dissident, he saw a copy of the index card of a security officer which described his activities in Arabic as ‘violation of women’s honor’ – an official government sanctioned rapist (‘Cruelty and Silence’).


The second example is that of Mukhtaran Bibi, a young Pakistani woman. She was accused of having a brother – 14 years of age – who was seen in public with a girl from another tribal family; this rumor was never confirmed and Bibi denied it. She was judged by a Tribal Elders Council of six men to be punished for her brother’s sin. She was sentenced to be gang-raped. The sentence was carried out by five men, her neighbors. Hundreds waited outside her she was gang raped. She was then send home naked in the streets. Amazingly and with great courage Mukhtaran Bibi went to the Courts seeking justice. The four men were originally convicted of the rape. A recent court had overturned the conviction as illegal. The requirement for conviction of rape in Pakistan’s family law is that four men (all Muslims) have to testify they witnessed the event. The four witnesses in this case the rapists, were unlikely to testify against themselves. Would four men who forcibly rape a young woman still expect virgins in heaven? The Highest Islamic court overturned the acquittal of the five rapists.


Americanism and Anti-Americanism are identities. Semites (really Jews) and Anti-Semites are also identities. Is it Americanism or Anti-Americanism that breeds terrorism? Is it Jews or Anti-Semites that breed terrorism? I had not noticed that the murderers of Theo van Gogh, the children in Beslan, the commuters in Madrid or the executor of Margaret Hassan were Americans or Jewish. As the Arab Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, (Manager of TV News of al Arabiya and former editor of the daily London based Arabic Asharq Al Awsat) noted ‘It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslims. Does all this tell us something about ourselves, our societies and our culture?’  


Within the American identity noted above there are sub-identities; Red and Blue Americans. Red Americans are right-wingers and Blue Americans are left-wingers. (The Red does not apply to Red Indians known in politically correct terms as ‘Native Americans’ since the Red Americans are not likely to have favored those Red ones in the olden of days.) In the recent United States election approximately 50 million Americans voted for the Red’s and approximately 50 million Americans voted for the Blues; it was not (to use a sporting metaphor) ‘a sudden death overtime’ since the Reds won by a slight margin, thus electing George W. Bush. A great deal has been written about these differences in the days since the elections, so I will not bother you with these distinctions, but while one should not disregard  those differences; another election will come soon enough.


What are the Americans to do? What are the Jews to do? Neither Americans nor Jews have committed suicide missions. Presumably neither Americans nor Jews are enticed by the seventy virgins (doe eyed and probably blonde haired for Americans) in heaven. They prefer their own wives and children here on earth.


Arik Sharon is not, in my opinion a nice man, I never have nor ever would consider voting for him. But can he be compared to Yasser Arafat, an evil corrupt venial man who allowed his own people to suffer endlessly for his narcissistic and ‘noble’ minded victim-hood? Who has committed ‘crimes against humanity – Sharon or Arafat? I may be a suspect witness since I dislike both men, but loving either is more suspect. The not nice man Sharon was trying to protect his people’s lives; and yes he should have been more concerned with innocent civilian Palestinian lives and especially children. He did many things I as a Jew and as an Israeli citizen am not proud of. But can he be compared to Arafat who did not care for any people’s lives, his own or mine. He favored the macho virgin-seekers.


Continuing with Sharon (I will continue with Arafat in my next article), none of us is perfect, neither Sharon nor his public. His vices have recently become more obvious to the Israeli public. Apparently when Israeli civilians and soldiers were being killed by suicide bombers and Palestinian soldiers and when the Israeli economy was in the dregs Sharon’s popularity was quite high, in fact he was a Hero. Since the deaths have significantly been reduced and the economy has improved his popularity has declined significantly.


Even before when he was an opposition politician he was held by the public as a hero. He could and did always blame the Prime Minister, the ultimate authority. Since becoming Prime Minister four years ago he had no one to blame for events. He was the ultimate authority. Who is he and the public to blame for untoward events. He has now lost half his party and had to add the opposition into his coalition. He and his entire family including not only his two sons but his dead wife Lily are being cursed. If fact the curse towards Lily is that her bones be overturned. One of choices approved by his opposition in his own party and among other parties is for him to back to his Ranch. In this way he can be compared to his friend George W. Bush who some or many Americans also wish would go back to his Ranch (the weather is even comparable.)


I will attempt next time to elaborate on the ‘Israeli Palestinian Conflict’. I accept the moral equivalence of the rights of the Palestinians for their land as compared to the rights of the Israelis for their land. I do not accept the moral equivalence of the deaths perpetrated.  My major question will be, given that the Israeli’s have a democratic and mixed government will the Palestinians be allowed to choose their own system of government – Islamic, secular or mixed – by the Palestinians themselves. It is obvious – whether you choose to believe that or not - that Israel is withdrawing from this fray – not immediately but in the near future. How many more lives (Palestinian and Israeli; Jewish and Muslim) does the six percent or so which Sharon refuses, wrongly, again in my opinion, (but perhaps understandably) to concede really worth? Neither my children nor my Arab friend’s children.