A Lament For My People’s PR
Recently I have been fortunate enough to have been given an incredible platform that enables me to share my ideas about Jewish matters to a significantly larger audience than at any time since I began teaching. Though I didn’t know all that much about it before, the Huffington Post is an extremely sophisticated blog that posts scores of blogs daily on a large variety of subjects. It has a larger readership than the NY Times and the Wall St Journal, and as such really represents the word on “the street”. Sadly, I have been a bit taken aback at what some folks out there have to say about my religion (and religion in general). Each article has a “comments” section that allows readers to freely express their thoughts on what you have written and though I have always abstractly known that there was a substantial antipathy to Judaism, few people have been willing to “say it to my face” , until now.
The experience of having something you deeply care about denigrated is always a painful thing. Try as you may, it’s sometimes close to impossible to open people up to something they have decided (or assumed) to be a certain way. In college, we had weekly live music at a campus coffee house – usually rock or folk. Being the Jazz snob that I was, I decided to get my teacher’s quartet to come one week and show people what music really was. I had envisioned a rapt audience quietly twisting their necks in that “yes and no” fashion common to Jazz fans. Instead, 45 seconds into the performance, one of the “jockey” types of guys standing there loudly declared “jazz sucks!” and everybody kept talking over the music. I was stunned. How could they all not see the inherent beauty in this music – it’s complexity, the agility of the players and the originality of the composition? It was but one of very many experiences that showed me that some of the most valuable ideas and experiences in life are routinely ignored, opposed or ridiculed.
It’s not just Jazz of course; great symphonies, years in the making, can elicit yawns, strolls though the world’s great art galleries might hold someone’s attention for half an hour and exposure to classical philosophy could easily be met with a “bor-ing”! Though I don’t really like it, I can deal with indifference or dislike of cultural matters.
I have a harder time when it comes to Judaism – the injustice strikes me as just too great. Here you have a spiritual/cultural tradition that has obviously transformed the world for the better – providing Western Culture with most of its concept of morality and proper conduct in the world, promoting the value and rights of the weak and helpless, possessing an astounding record and system of charity, education and personal growth – only to be dismissed as “bunk”, “patriarchal”, “racist”, “backwards”, “barbaric” and “outdated” by people who have little to no real knowledge of the subject matter.
One of the big issues, I realized, is that many folks out there have had some exposure to our Torah – what they know as “the Bible”. This exposure allows them to read it in the most dermal way and then form independent conclusions about what they think it means. Of course we live in a free society and they are perfectly at liberty to do that. The issue is that the Torah doesn’t work like that and anyone who takes that approach is bound to miscomprehended what has been written.
We have a fast day called Asara b’Teves (the 10th of the month of Teves) and one of the things we are mourn over is the translation of the Torah into Greek. 2200 years ago, Ptolemy forced 70 rabbis (at knife point) to translate the text of the Torah. The Talmud recounts that the sages agonized over this task, not least of which because they knew the text – with all of its subtlety, nuance and layered meaning – would be misunderstood. They did the best they could, but the deed was done and now the world was free to mistranslate, misinterpret and misapprehend. They managed to get the text, but not its methodology. Since then other religions have co-opted and appended the entire text to their own. Many have read it and many have thereby drawn the wrong conclusions about it. For instance, the text clearly says “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Doesn’t that indeed sound like some brutal medieval doctrine? Well…what would a Jewish court do if an eyeless man went around poking out other people’s eyes? Could he just do so with impunity? Obviously that wouldn’t work and as we know from the Talmud (the key to understanding the text of the Torah), it has always meant a monetary payment and the text only means to imply that the perpetrator deserves to loose an eye, but he won’t.
There are countless example along these lines. I feel fortunate to have made it my life’s work to reframe these and other misconceptions about Israel, Judaism and the Jewish people. At the Aish Center, it’s our organizational goal to teach these ideas properly and then empower others to share the message as well. It’s a painfully slow process, but it’s working. I feel that our stage is beginning to expand and that our message will soon resonate in many diverse and exciting new forums in the coming months and years.
“First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.”