Friday, November 11, 2011

Intolerance Update

As if recent reports of inter-religious desecration of places of worship were not bad enough, we now learn that ultra-orthodox Jews ("Haredi") in Jerusalem have been demeaning and intimidating Armenian Christian clergy: typically, by spitting on them. It's not a new phenomenon; witness this report from 2004.

Old or new, it's a disgrace. It's also a shame that the thuggish young perpetrators do not sufficiently know and value their own tradition. Or to be more precise, they unknowingly perpetuate only part of it.

Although Jews at first understandably tended to regard members of the dominant and hostile Christian culture as idolaters (because of the Trinity and graven images), that eventually changed. And in any case, Judaism, unlike Christianity, did not insist that it was the only path to salvation. It had long held that anyone—even a pagan—who observed the seven moral commandments dating from the time of Noah would earn a place in the "world to come." As Israel Abrahams told us over a century ago in his marvelous compilation on Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (1896):
Such tolerance goes far back in Jewish history. 'He who communicates a word of wisdom, even if he be a non-Jew, deserves the title of wise.' [a citation from the Talmud; JW] 'Christians are not idolaters' was the burden of many Jewish utterances . . . 'He who sees a Christian sage,' says the Shulchan Aruch [code of ritual law; JW], must utter the benediction: 'Blessed art Thou, O Lord, King of the World, who has bestowed of Thy wisdom on man.' (415)
He notes: "though the greatest Jewish authorities of the middle ages unanimously declared that the term 'idolater' did not include Christian or Moslem, many of these ceremonial laws remained in force with the masses." (411) Ironically, "the Christian masses were on the whole more tolerant than their priests and rulers. But the Jewish masses were less tolerant than their spiritual and intellectual heads." 

The authoritative tradition thus commands that one should respect and honor a priest. Spitting on "idolaters"? Truly, a custom more honored in the breach than in the observance.


O Rosenberg, "Israeli public figures apologize to Greek patriarch for ultra-Orthodox spitting incidents," Haaretz, 23 Nov. 2011

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