Hear Our Voice

The Congregation Shma Koleinu Blog.

On the Pope, Shakespeare and Charlie Hebdo

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So this blog entry was put on hold for me to complete as my son’s Bar Mitzvah took precedence. So now I am returning to a topic that, like so many “here today gone tomorrow” of our day and age, may not be central on people’s minds but is still rattling around in my head. And that is the hubbub that resulted from Pope Francis’ extemporaneous statement following the Paris attacks and subsequent Charlie Hebdo cover.

While I do love Pope Francis and all that he has brought with his papacy, I have to say, “I disagree with the good Pontiff.” On the Papal Plane (I just learned this term and I am assuming it requires capital letters since it’s a proper name) en route to the Phillipines, the Pope, in his usual kindly bravado, shared his thoughts on the recent Charlie Hebdo cover (see blog comments below). He taught, like all good religious leaders should, that it is wrong to act offensively toward another’s religious tradition. It just isn’t nice. And he’s right. And if niceness and politeness and a commitment to non-offensive words and actions were the cardinal (no pun intended) rules for journalism, there would be NO JOURNALISM. (Funny thing about people hiding the truth challenged by those who are seeking the truth – they don’t tend to willingly, share the whole story.) The idea that this “Thou shalt be nice” commandment necessarily pertains to journalists is far too shallow an understanding to be taken seriously.   Moreover, the idea that somehow religious symbolism must always be free of “nay-sayers” is ridiculous as well. There is a difference between constructive critique and offense and defamation. And there is a chasm between challenging the limits of free speech and condemning certain acts as worthy of murder.

Now it shouldn’t come as a surprise, but I am no fan of religious bigotry and can describe with far too much detail its history as it was expressed against the Jewish people. At the same time, I do also strongly believe that the spirit and value of symbols are only as powerful as they inspire us to act. And I firmly believe that when we allow ourselves to be pushed beyond reason; when we feel attacked and threatened by satire and irony, the insecurity we experience is one generated from within. If our symbols and sacred stories and ritual traditions are at all valuable, they must be able to withstand some challenging critique. As a Jew and a Rabbi, I do not say this with ignorance for the ways in which our threatened symbols have become a precursor to threats to our people. But we, Jews, of all people, must understand that symbols that stand unchallenged are at best, worthless and at worst, opportunities for unbridled power. When we are overly offended by words, written or spoken; when we act as if someone’s epithets are so personally defamatory that we are mortally wounded, was it Shakespeare who wrote it? Yes. “Methinks thou dost protest too much.”

If we are to live peacefully in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious world, then by definition, we must learn that there is only zero tolerance for one thing – the subsequent threat or act of violence in any shape and form against others different from ourselves! In the late 20th century, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” went through a deconstruction with teachers, guides, leaders, etc, teaching that this was no longer true. The idea that children can overcome physical wounds just not the verbal ones is a nice idea but in fact we must learn to embrace these words once again. Because there are too many really angry and very upset folks in the world, the suffering from whose slings of arrows is great indeed and life altering indeed.

The role of our religious traditions is to inspire, uplift, discover and behold truths that are easily forgotten and missed. But when we seek to protect the artifice of our religious traditions such that they must remain untouchable, we greatly risk that they become gutted of meaning or inflated beyond recognition.

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