Middle East

     Apr 8, 2005




Identity, tolerance, and the virgin seekers
By Rabbi Moshe Reiss

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, according to the Greeks, with no real identity. We can surmise from this logic that language is another ingredient of identity. His difficulty in returning after his 20-year voyage has been defined by a Hebrew poet as follows: "The words he had taken with him as provisions on the path of his voyage had died meanwhile" (Haim Gouri, translated by Dan Pagis).

The high literary point of identity can be seen in the writer Franz Kafka. From what kind of an identity does Kafka write? He is Jewish, despite never using the term "Jew" or "Judaism" in his fictional 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; Kafka wrote in German. He feared his father and hand-wrote to him a 70-page letter to explain his fear. He gave it to his mother, whom 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 girlfriend 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."

Shakira Hussein notes that 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 Center 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 10 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." (Open Democracy, February 25.)

Shakira 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 made up partly of Arabs (most Christians in Israel are Arabs) but largely Slavs. His original name was Abraham ben Baruch. His mother, a German Jew, 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 serving in 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 an accent. He did. As a child he studied the Hebrew Bible and Talmud, and 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 to live in Israel. Given his background, his fluency in Hebrew and the Slavic languages and his Jewish knowledge, he was accepted by the 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% in Hebrew and the remainder in Russian or Ukrainian. 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 than usual, he uses certain Jewish Hasidic masters. Despite his Jewish family rejecting his conversion, when his 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 a Jewish cemetery 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, is holistic.

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 is related to freedom of speech. To accept those who agree with you or whom you respect or whom you love is appropriate but not related to tolerance. To accept 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 British Broadcasting Corp television broadcast of an opera written by Jerry Springer produced enormous controversy; almost 50,000 respondents, some complaining about foul language; some of the complainers threatened BBC executives. There were either 300 or 8,000 "foul" words or somewhere in between, according to the complaints. The distinction depends on whether one considers "nipple" or "poop" to be foul. A second discrepancy is whether the same word sung by the 27 members of the chorus counts as one word or 27 words. A total of 1.8 million saw and listened to the broadcast; the complaint ratio is thus less than 3%. Perhaps more people were offended but did not complain in writing, by phone or by e-mail. 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 had been 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 one's 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 on Iraq as well as the invasion itself. Intolerant jihadis, 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 and wrath that has infected their minds as well as their souls. And yes, I have read their supposed God-given justification. Their God does not resemble my God. And my Old Testament God, who specified in that same book more than 40 times about the kindness and equality owed to the stranger, is supposed to be intolerant.

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, then do you still have to love him? If her model of the good life differs from yours, do you still have to love her? Clearly so! If you cannot love your neighbor, Rabbi Hillel suggested another version, which he claimed was the essence of Judaism: "Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you." If you cannot love, at least do not harm.

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 one truth and it is absolute, all other views are sinful and those following them devil worshippers, legitimately subject to death.

The virgin seekers
Neither Kafka, Shakira Hussein nor Father Aleksandr is intolerant, despite two having holistic personalities and one a fragmented personality. The "virgin seekers" are 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 (
Suicide bombing, the theology of death, October 22, 2004). We noted that the major reason used by suicide bombers was the zealous defense of honor and vengeance. To honor one's 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 (Deuteronomy 32:35 and Romans 12:19) again in the Judeo-Christian tradition. A zealot personality is an intolerant personality.

The identity and personality of those intolerant jihadis can be surmised by their supposed reward: going directly to heaven and meeting 72 doe-eyed, dark-haired virgins. (One or two virgins might be interesting for some men; a harem of 72 makes the whole reward system a fantasy and theologically incoherent.) They are macho sex fiends as well as cowards. Living is courageous; killing oneself and murdering others is the coward's way out.

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 that 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 supposedly 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 as she was gang-raped. She was then sent home naked in the streets. Amazingly and with great courage Mukhtaran Bibi went to the courts seeking justice. The men were originally convicted of the rape. Recently a court 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 rapist witnesses were unlikely to testify against themselves. Would men who forcibly rape a young woman still expect virgins in heaven? She was not a virgin, having been divorced. The highest Islamic court overturned the acquittal of the 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 who breed terrorism? I have not noticed that the murderers of Theo van Gogh, the children in Beslan, or 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?"

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 72 virgins (doe-eyed and probably blond-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, venal man who allowed his own people to suffer endlessly for his narcissistic and "noble-minded" victimhood? 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 people's or mine? He favored the macho virgin seekers.

Continuing with Sharon (I will continue with Arafat in another 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. A strange public!

Even before, when he was an opposition politician, he was held by the public as a hero. He could and did always blame the sitting prime minister, the ultimate authority. Since becoming prime minister himself four years ago, he has had no one to blame for events. He is the ultimate authority. 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. The curse toward Lily is that her bones be overturned. One of the choices approved by his opposition in his own party and among other parties is for him to go back to his ranch. In this way he can be compared to his friend George W Bush, who 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 with 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 Israelis 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?

Rabbi Moshe Reiss is a graduate of Oxford University and was assistant rabbi at Yale University. He was the first rabbi invited to teach in the Department of Theology at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium (founded 1425), and has lectured in various countries. He has posted three books on his
website on Judaism, Christianity and Islam. His book on Judaism is being published by sections in the Jewish Bible Quarterly. He now lives in Israel.

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