Print | Email  

Style over content

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2007-06-01

Rabbi Jeremey Rosen

Rabbi Jeremey Rosen

The English historian R.G. Collingwood once said, ‘There is no such thing as history, merely historians’ (The Idea of History ).That used to be one of my favourite quotes. But it implies that historians at least have a professional standard.

If Holocaust deniers can claim to be historians, if Ilan Pappe can entitle a book about Israel in 1948,  ‘The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine’, claiming it was a general policy (in which case how come over a million were still there when hostilities ended), then we know the term ‘historian’ is meaningless.  If the UN Human Rights organisation can find only one state, only one crime, in the whole of the world to condemn, and that is not Sudan, Myanmar, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, or states where rape and honour killing are condoned, then we know we are dealing with sub-intellects at best, sub-moralities at worst.  If British academics can find only one state’s universities to boycott, then the term ‘academic’ in Britain becomes synonymous with ‘charlatan’.

The world is getting smaller. Communication is generally so easy. There is so much information that in fact most humans seem to be retreating into small little worlds in which they only watch programmes that they know reflect their own views and prejudices. They read what they are predisposed to read and see  what they want to, blog with the likeminded, look onto websites that reflect  existing opinions. We live in a world of sound bites. That’s how we get our news, how our politicians win elections, how clerics, including  rabbis, promote themselves and how opinions are formed, on little, inaccurate, oversimplified, dishonest sound bites. Spin.

In every area of science, supposedly objective, scientific experts can and do accuse each other of all sorts of heinous crimes. Einstein unlike most of his younger contemporaries rejected quantum theories. Creationists accuse evolutionists of distortion and they in turn are guilty of wishful thinking. Some environmentalists think nothing unusual is going on with our climate. Isn’t it amazing that we ever get anything right!

Heavy duty religious excoriate the secular as drugged sex maniacs who think only of money, have no values, and care nothing for anyone else. If you are a Dawkins (‘The God Delusion’) or a Hitchens ( ‘God is not Great:How religions poison everything’)  you only describe an aspect of religion that most believers do not subscribe to, or a version that went out of fashion in medieval times, or a distortion that is advocated nowadays by a crazed and demented minority, and you will quote ancient texts out of context as if it they were never then or subsequently interpreted.

Chris Hedges, on the other hand, in attacking Dawkins and Hitchens,  whitewashes the awful record of organized religion insuppressing individual freedom of thought, imposing the most improbable of dogmas and putting power and authority over honesty and sensitivity. The fact is that the ills of humanity are the result of humanity’s own misuse of virtually everything it gets its hands on, religion, politics, even football. Call it original sin or just an evolutionary mutation.Everyone seems to think that the only way to validate one’s own position is by demolishing everyone else’s.

Most people in Western societies do not trust other people very much. According to a YOUGOV poll (although you know by now how I do not trust polls), 80% of Britons do not trust politicians. That comes as no surprise, of course. Politics has become synonymous with lying. But family doctors, schoolteachers, judges, police officers, and even heads of charities are steadily losing trust. As for government officials, union officials, newscasters, newspaper journalists, they are all regarded as untrustworthy by at least three quarters of the population. Americans are slightly more credulous. According to the Pew Research centre, only 60% do not trust their politicians. In Europe less than 15% do and in Israel, of course, I’d be surprised if you could find anyone who trusts politicians, including themselves.

Most of us, if we are honest, know our own failings, our own misdeeds, our dirty habits, and all the things we hope the world does not see. So there you have a depressing analysis of the state of the world and mankind.

Is there a solution? I suggest there is. Remember ‘The Life of Brian’? You may be swinging on the cross but you can still sing ‘ Always look on the bright side of life?’

At the centre of each major religion, you find one core, consistent and repeated theme: Love your neighbour. The trouble is that every ideology, religious or not, somewhere down the line started interpreting this simple idea into: ‘Love your neighbour only when he agrees with you.’ You don’t need to love your neighbour if he doesn’t accept your definition of God. You don’t need to love your neighbour if his politics differ from yours, or if he wears a different hat or gown, or sings a different anthem, and all the other petty little caveats we humans are capable of, taking a lofty idea and so qualifying it to the point of cancellation!

Two thousand years ago in the Midrash Rabba (Gen.24.7.) Rabbi Akiva said the major principle in the Torah was ‘Love your neighbour’ and I don’t think he meant to include the Romans. Ben Azzai replied that this quote can be qualified too easily to mean only your neighbour when he agrees with you. The most important line in the Bible, he said is ‘This is the story of mankind.’ Because unless we try to rise above our differences, we forget that we all came from the same place.

‘Lovely in theory’ you might say. We know it doesn’t work in practice and the media would rather report ‘Jew Kills Arab’, or vice versa, than ‘Arab and Jew Meet over a Cup of Coffee to Console Each Other’.

Yet there are other people who do just that. There are people who do not play the hate game and are not so eager to be fed pap. There are good humans in all religions who really want to care and stop hatred and visit the sick and help the poor and try to spread a little love.

I frankly don’t care what the ideology. If people cannot be honest and loving and put humanity first, then as far as I’m concerned they are all as bad as each other regardless of the game they play. Thank goodness for those few human beings who are not.  Religion still remains the largest breeding ground for saints as well as sinners.

Visit Rabbi Jeremy Rosen on the web: www.JeremyRosen.com