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Jeremy's view

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2004-12-24

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

We live at a time of contrasts, wealth and poverty, east and west, north and south, religion and secularism. Everywhere we are aware of contrasts and yet we are still disturbed and confused by them. Most humans seem to like and need certainties.

Life goes through constant change. You can be a senior cabinet minister and top of the political tree one moment and out on your neck the next. You can think you are going to be President of the United States in the evening and realize you have lost it two hours later. You can be healthy today and be heading for death tomorrow. I am still amazed at how amazed we are!

The  result of the American elections surprised and upset many Europeans. That was because they  wanted to see Bush punished for daring to make political decisions that would clearly go against the interests of certain major European powers. They wanted to see him ejected for the war in Iraq. They looked at America through their own eyes and saw what they wanted to see. And then were furious because they had to face the fact that most Americans had other views on other issues. But that is democracy. You don’t cry foul when it goes against you in a free, honest vote.

Europe fought its battles against the power of the Church two hundred years ago. Since then the Christian democrats and their allies have always campaigned on a religious ticket while the socialists and the communists have always voted on a secular anticlerical ticket. As we saw over the Buttiglioniaffair at this moment the anticlericals have the upper hand. Perhaps in a generation’s time the Muslim vote will swing the EU towards a more religious position. But equally possibly, religious extremism will force a reaction.

At this moment it is true to say that the overwhelming weight of academic opinion in Europe and the USA is antagonistic to Israel. Even in New York, according to the Jewish papers, Jewish students at Columbia University feel cowed and uncomfortable by the aggressive intolerance of anti-Israeli lecturers. On campuses from Canada to California, Jewish students are being made to feel pariahs.  Jewish students in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds universities are under constant attack (in elsewhere there isn’t even a chance of getting another voice heard, however meekly).

But just as repressive morality leads to a libertarian free-for-all, so too a libertarian free-for-all ultimately leads to a counterreformation. In democracies there is constant tidal pull, first one way then another, and it is easy to get caught in the undertow and to believe that the tide only goes one way, forever. The essence of a democracy is debate, discussion and the need to campaign. If not, you will lose by default. Whenever there is a swing one way, inevitably, eventually, there is a swing back the other.

And thus it always been in Judaism, too. One rabbi says ‘Give land for peace.’ Another rabbi says ‘Refuse to budge an inch.’ The two sides pull in different directions and our Jewish world is constantly torn apart and to make matters worse each side hurls crude abuse at the other. Even in a small community like Glasgow the Jewish community is split because one group supporting Israel sees fit to use crude, destructive, even racist language in support of Israel and argues that since the anti-Israel lobby is irrational in its hatred the only way is to respond in kind. When more reasoned Scots try to argue for a more restrained and tolerant approach, they are accused of being anti-Jewish apologists. Wherever I look I see Jews busy slagging each other off. It can’t be good for our souls.

The Viennese writer Stefan Zweig wrote in ‘The World of Yesterday’ about Herzl’s predicament over a hundred years ago, ‘I saw the disrespect of a kind hardly comprehensible today with which his own party associates treated Herzl. Those of the East charged him with not understanding Judaism and not knowing its customs; the economists looked upon him as a mere journalist, the socialists as a capitalist. Each one had his own objection and they were not always the most respectful. The quarrelling and dogmatic spirit, the constant opposition, the lack of honest hearty subordination alienated me from the movement…Once I mentioned this to Herzl and he smiled bitterly and said, “Do not forget we have been accustomed for centuries to play with problems and struggle with ideas. We have not yet had any practice in creating anything real in this world.”’

Herzl was being unrealistically optimistic! Despite the creation of a Jewish State we are still incapable of pulling together on ideas or any other level. And yet in a way this is also a strength. I believe that in the world in which we live we must constantly play with ideas and argue cases and fight for freedoms, knowing full well that we will be fighting against equally powerful forces pulling the other way.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author of ‘The Great Gatsby’, said that ‘the test of intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’

Israel is a good example. We must hold in our minds the right of us, Jews, to have a land and to fight for our survival, but we must also recognize that the other side has rights too. So is Judaism. We must fight for a really committed way of living one’s Judaism, but without sacrificing intellectual honesty or tolerance.

Here's another example of looking at things from different pointds of view. I believe individuals should be allowed to write living wills and even choose to die if the pain gets too much, as was debated in Parliament recently. But I also believe we must retain the Jewish ideal of the sanctity of life. Nevertheless, freedom dictates that individuals should be free to make their own choices. Between both poles we will argue and pull in our own directions, but may have to recognize that the vote can go against us too.

Life in the Bible, too, is all about ups and downs. Cain is favoured son and heir one moment and an outcast the next. Abraham has a lone donkey one moment and can overcome an alliance of four kings the next. Joseph is a spoilt dandy, then a slave in jail, and finally he rises to run the most powerful kingdom of his time. Jacob is a penniless refugee one moment and leader of a powerful group of tribes that will change the universe next.

What is constant is our own responsibility to live our lives as we believe, to fight for our values and to respect differences even when we are fundamentally opposed. And all this so long as we live in a state where the law is upheld for everyone and the democratic process allows things to change.

It is the assumption that we must all think and act the same way that flies in the face of all human experience including the religious. If Hillel pulled one way one moment, Shammai pulled the other the next. And very often they took a vote. And sometimes it went one way and sometimes it went the other. That was the Talmudic way. But they both argued their opposing positions in an atmosphere of respect. Sadly it was not like that politically, then, and has not been so, religiously, for a very long time. I wonder who is to blame?

Perhaps it’s the human condition. Lefties hate Righties, secularists hate the religious and vice versa. So much hatred. So much intolerance. Oh dear. Happy Holidays!!!