Sunday, September 17, 2006

Slichot, the Pope, Palestine and Repentance


Last night I attended slichot services. These are the nightly “forgiveness” services that Jews say in the month (Sephardi tradition) or week (Ashkenazi tradition) before Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year. For Jews the New Year, and entire High Holiday season, is not a time for wild partying, but rather a time to take stock of the last year and make resolutions for improving in the next year. It is a time for self reflection, and Tshuvah – repentance. The slichot services are supposed to prepare us by getting get us into the proper mood and proper frame of mind.

Central to the spirit of the period, is a laser like and honest focus on our own deeds, public admission of fault when found, acts of remediation as much as possible, and acts of charity and justice as atonement. Furhermore, we are to focus not just on private deeds, but on the acts of the collectives (guild, city, state, nation) to which we belong as well.

On the days preceding the slichot service became aware of three items. It struck me that two of them were examples of how not to engage in the self reflection demanded of tshuvah, while the third give me and my fellow Jews an opportunity to engage in the self examination, remediation, charity and justice required of us by the season.

The first item was the Pope’s now infamous speech in which he said – among other things – that Mohamed’s innovations in religion were “only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” What an incredibly dumb and insensitive thing for the leader of a major faith, who claims he is trying to promote interfaith dialogue - to say! Much has been written about that aspect of his words, and I don’t need to add anything in that regard. But it occurred to that his whole speech (see the full text here ) was an example of how not to focus inwardly; of how intellectual achievement can be brought low by the arrogance of self righteousness and the lack of introspection.

To be sure the speech is well constructed and demonstrates an intellectual understanding of history of western religious thought and philosophy. It was, at its core a defence of the power of Reason to elucidate religious truths, and an impassioned call to once again engage in theology – the search for transcendental and ultimate truths – by way of rational thought and reason; rather than leave it to, what the Pope clearly understands to be, poorer methods, based on taste and cultural relativism, pragmatism, irrational faith, or force of coercion.

But who does he accuse of these wrong headed approaches to religious debate. The post modern academics – and their popular followers – of cultural relativism, modernist positivist philosophers of pragmatism, the Protestants of irrational faith, and the Muslims of coercion.

Everyone is guilty of not appreciating the proper role of Reason in theology. Everyone but the Catholics. As if: Catholics never engaged in coercion (and all those Central and South American natives converted because of rational argument;) Catholics never engage in pragmatic arguments to promote religious principals (what about the argument against homosexual marriage because – they say – to allow it will destroy the proper functioning of the family and society;) Catholics never appeal to blind faith (and all the simple Catholic pilgrims praying for miraculous cures at various shrines are there by reason alone;) and Catholics never engage in cultural relativism in explaining or spreading their religion (just look at the various syncretic Catholic practices in South America, and Africa).

My point is not to criticize Catholics for these things. It is just that if the Pope wished to attack non Rationalist tendencies in theology and religious proselyzation, he could have found many examples at home. He would have been more credible if he had.

Clearly the Pope is not attuned to what the High Holiday season demands of us.

The second negative example of Tshuva that I came across, was an email circulated in the Jewish community, designed to build Jewish self confidence in light of the Lebanon war. It contained such gems as:

I'm proud to be a Jew because Jews don't kidnap.

I'm proud to be a Jew because Jewish education does
not consist of teaching martyrdom …

I'm proud to be a Jew because even when Israel is
wrongly and falsely accused of killing innocent civilians, Jewish
leaders apologize immediately for any loss of life …

I'm proud to be a Jew because the Israeli Army is
so, so good, …

And I am proud to be a Jew because when we proclaim
that God is on our side, we have the book to prove it.

I, on the otherhand am ashamed when I read this sort of stuff. None of the above statements is true. Further, the uncritical self congratulatory tone is the exact opposite of the tone required by the High Holliday season. Nothing useful can be learned about our behaviour from such clever self promotion, and no improvement in the future is possible when no fault in the past is admitted to.

Clearly the Jews who write and forward these emails are not attuned to what the High Holiday season demands of us.

The third item that came to my notice these past few days – and one that gives Jews an opportunity to be deeply self critical, and at the same time do something positive to improve things, is the arrival of a new shipment of Zatoun olive oil from Palestine.

Zatoun
is a project designed to improve the economic status of Palestinian farmers living under Israeli occupation. The olive oil is tasty, and the money goes to help people who, thanks to the Israeli occupation, have no easy way to sell there oil at a fair price and to make a decent living. Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza, including land expropriation, unequal allocation of water, disruption of shipping, blockades, up-rooting of trees, denial of permits, etc., have reduced most Palestinians to poverty.

This is not only immoral, it is against Israelis own self interest. Hungry desperate people are also angry and violent people. The comfortable bourgeoisie or prosperous farmer is not so prone to self destructive military adventurism. Moreover, Israel’s anti-economic policy vis a vis the Palestineans is inhuman, and it is un-Jewish. It is vindictive and short sighted. (For some of the details Israel’s policies in this regard and of the Palestinians economic plight see the award winning article in Ha’aretz by my old friend Bradley Burston- Let their people go ; or this one from the New York Times - Cut Off, Gazan Economy Nears Collapse.)

For a Jew at Rosh Hashana time, buying Zaitun olive oil and soaps can be an act of Tshuvah. It is a critical inward look, admitting that we – collectively – have caused great economic hardship to our Palestinian neighbours and cousins; it is an act of partial restitution, paying back for some of that damage; and it is an act of justice allowing people to live with dignity and hope for the future.

Perhaps too, it will be an act of peacemaking, allowing the year 5767 to be a better year than 5766.

For more information on Zaitun and how to buy see here.

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