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Friday, April 27, 2012

The Vatican & Sainthood, Daniel Pearl, Ann Frank & the Mormons

One of the neuroses that accompany a peoples’ minority status is obsessive attention to the majority, for Jews it is a compulsion to view everything through what others think of them.  A second issue that creates disproportionate angst is the theological peregrinations of other faiths but more about both these points later.

It is clear that persecution continues to form us, but if Judaism has internalised these learned behaviours and today reacts without questioning our communal response, then we are truly diminished as a faith.  Unlike Islam, Judaism does not believe that our religion is perfected and therefore unalterable.  Unlike both of the missionary religions of Christianity and Islam, Judaism does not believe that we have to convince others of our worth in order to save either ours or their souls.

So the first issue is the soul. Humanity is still largely ignorant but there was a time when life was short, bleak and harsh (as well as uneducated) for the overwhelming majority of people. Death was often random and capricious. It reinforced the feeling that our collective existence was little better than an act of futility. Scholars vied with each other to postulate reasons for existence and they created stratagems that if they did not help to make us more secure, at least helped to allay our fears.   Gods and goddesses, jinn’s and demons, theatre and ritual all helped us to come to terms with the grievous state of our human existence. The soul was and is impossible to prove but it explained our good health and justified illness. Human beings could be defined by the club to which they belonged and because it could not be seen, touched or felt, the soul could be accessed as a means to excluding a not so intangible adversary.

If the soul is more than our feelings, our thoughts and our humanity, more than simply the result of chemical reactions and electrical connections then this metaphysical kernel remains of dubious ancestry.  It is nice to think that God breathes life into us and that that spark returns to him/her on our death but it is also problematic because it implies that Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot are no more than vehicles for Gods greater plan.  If the immortal essence that is the soul can somehow be altered by our actions then a group is capable of saviour or damnation simply by its choices, or the caprice of others.  If the soul is unalterable then an argument may be made for genocide.  The idea of the soul has been abused by those who seek domination and control.  The soul is a relic of pagan society; a vestigial intellectual device which became the vehicle for the creation of a specious chosen-ness endowing the faithful with pristine qualities and unique advantages.  If we in the modern era are intellectually honest, we will declare this toxic instrument dead; a malignant superstition that should now be consigned to the history of a primitive humanity.

Two issues arise intermittently and we rarely if ever handle them in a way that honours us. As Jews, we are too often oversensitive and defensive.

Daniel Pearl was born to parents who practiced Jewish faith; he was murdered because he was Jewish.  His throat was cut for Al Jazeera. As an aside, humanity has not moved on from its love of gory spectacle.  We remain committed followers of the ultimate exhibitionism of the coliseum while the Islamic world rejoices in this public celebration of bloody barbarism.

Daniel Pearl was baptised in a Mormon ritual nine years after his televised murder. Ann Frank was baptised by the Mormon Church 67 years after her death in Auschwitz.  As individuals who may or may not believe that human beings possess a soul I do not understand why we take issue with either of these post mortem acts of conversion.  As a faith community we should simply dismiss them as without merit.

A joke is told of a Jew who forced to convert to Catholicism, adopts all of the rituals and behaviours of the church but cannot substitute his Friday night meal of roast chicken for fish. So with the impeccable logic of faith, he recites a prayer over the chicken and in his mind, the chicken becomes a fish.   Proxy conversions for the dead are offensive but essentially meaningless gestures of misguided superstition, unless we allow them to become something else.  If our faith competitors physically removed Daniel Pearls’ remains from his grave and re-interned them in a Mormon cemetery that would be an act of colonialism; of post mortem spiritual ethnic cleansing.

Islam is guilty of the colonial rape of our cultural and intellectual traditions and the radical Christian churches through their pronouncements on Jesus Christ’s Palestinian (Muslim) identity are similarly contaminated by this theological and post-historical abomination.  If history is no more than the creative output of the missionary bigot then history truly is at an end, but not as Francis Fukuyama envisioned it. The Protestant churches are increasingly embracing this revisionist neo-colonialism not just in rejecting Jewish identity but in assigning to Jesus an identity he would never have contemplated and this is the fight we should embrace.

The second issue is sainthood. The Catholic Church has declared thousands of its followers to be Saints. These are people who are usually defined by the Vatican (and not just Roman Catholicism) to be of exceptional holiness. Laying claim to possessing superior ethics or greater moral clarity is usually dependent on a Catholic view of human existence. Sainthood is a wonderful tool for engagement and a great way of advertising faith.

In the 21st Century, like post-mortem conversions they are neither a physical threat, seductively beckoning, nor are they of any relevance to the Jewish community. If they provide anything, it is a useful propaganda tool – a comparator. Saints and miracles are instruments of superstition; physical icons, the representative idols of an idolatrous theology.  It is not for us to tell Roman Catholics how to keep the faithful loyal to Rome. In fact, we also have our holy men, our tsadikim and we sometimes revere them as saints (Menachem Mendel Schneerson for example). What we need is a positive argument for staying Jewish, not a confrontational and therefore negative display of anger and fear.

To re-engage with Society on others terms is to accept their theological prejudices. We can only ever lose that fight, irrespective of the value of our arguments. To re-engage with Society on our terms is to force our competitors to justify their behaviour as we showcase our own.  The choice is between perpetual victimhood and asserting our equality in society.

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