Religious freedom: a confined policy

Freedom of religion is an established right in the United States; the First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees it to every person.  In the U.S., no person may be discriminated against on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, or gender.  Equal opportunity is among our most cherished tenets; it is the product of much national soul-searching, and it did not arrive without a struggle.  It has brought tranquility in a diverse nation.  In the U.S. today, it is legally irrelevant whether a person is male, female, Mormon, Jew, Christian, Muslim, White, Black or Asian.

Americans know that a human being is rightly judged on character alone, but they abandon that knowledge when they consider foreigners.  Americans have allied themselves with many governments around the world that hate American rights.  Israel, for instance, would not dream of placing the Arab and the Jew on equal footing.  Many American allies in the Islamic world treat non-Muslims as second-class citizens.  The U.S. has also supported many autocracies that discriminate against (or even exterminate) political dissidents, and it continues to reward the perpetrators of these atrocities with weapons and cash.

When we treat certain people as inferior beings based on religious differences (or condone such treatment), we give credence to the very evil we aim to suppress, and this ignorant practice has brought more wretchedness to humanity than all other evils combined.  It will continue to bring Americans trouble in the forms of anxiety, fear, terror, and war.  U.S. policy is philosophically unsound, for it is a philosophical contradiction to support religious freedom and the establishment of any religious state–Islamic, Christian, or Jewish.

All those who espouse the doctrine of religious statehood, may be included within the following descriptions: the interested, who are not to be trusted; the weak, who cannot see; the prejudiced, who will not see; and a certain set of moderates, who think better of the religious state than it deserves; and this last class, by an ill-judged deliberation, will be the cause of more calamities to this world than all the other three.

The difference is, we are all the same

From the rightfully honored pen of Thomas Paine, religious diversity is a natural and wonderful reality, and sounds like this (from Rights of Man, 1791):

“If we suppose a large family of children, who, on any particular day, or particular circumstance, made it a custom to present to their parent some token of their affection and gratitiude, each of them would make a different offering, and most probably in a different manner.  Some would pay their congratulations in themes of verse or prose, by some little devices, as their genius dictated, or according to what they thought would please; and, perhaps, the least of all, not able to do any of those things, would ramble into the garden, or the field, and gather what it thought the prettiest flower it could find, though, perhaps, it might be but a simple weed.  The parent would be more gratified by such variety, than if the whole of them had acted on a concerted plan, and each had made exactly the same offering.  This would have the cold appearance of contrivance, or the harsh one of control.  But of all unwelcome things, nothing could more afflict the parent than to know, that the whole of them had afterwards gotten together by the ears, boys and girls, fighting, scratching, reviling, and abusing each other about which was the best or the worst present.

Why may we not suppose, that the great Father of all is pleased with variety of devotion; and that the greatest offence we can act, is that by which we seek to torment and render each other miserable.  For my own part, I am fully satisfied that what I am doing now, with an endeavour to conciliate mankind, to render their condition happy, to unite nations that have hitherto been enemies, and to extirpate the horrid practice of war, and break the chains of slavery and oppression, is acceptable in his sight, and being the best service I can perform, I act it cheerfully.

I do not believe that any two men, on what are called doctrinal points, think alike who think at all.  It is only those who have not thought that appear to agree.”

Word.  Paine was–so far as I can presently tell–at least two centuries ahead of his time, if not three or four.  His objections remain untended; his solutions remain untried; his warnings remain unheeded.  Even in America, where the political winds sing his song, the politicians still refuse to dance to it.

Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem (05.14.08)

I continue to be frustrated by the nature of holocaust conversations.  The sole intent of such discussions is almost always the provocation of emotional reaction and attachment.  To me, if we simply become attached to the victims emotionally, we unwittingly blind ourselves to the condition of the perpetrators.

Our guide Moshe asks, “How could people have allowed this to happen?  How could they have done it?”  He then admits he has no answer, and seems never to have searched for one, for a brief inquiry into German history will quickly cure his perplexion.

In a democracy, successful politicians must carefully place the blame for societal maladies on anyone but themselves, and offer solutions to those problems.  After nearly a half century of relatively dormant anti-Semitism, Germany faced great economic and political strife after World War I, and the political establishment of that country was in need of a scapegoat, the identity of which was chosen out of convenience more than anything else.

The facts that are ignored at Yad Vashem–the most important lessons of the Holocaust–and which are also ignored by most supposed torchbearers of the phrase “never again” are these

  • Governments lie
  • Governments kill
  • Government propagandize
  • Governments exist in spite of the goodness of human society, and seek primarily to maintain and grow themselves.
  • Governments get the benefit of the doubt when the subject of truth is in question.
  • No government is immune to these diseases.
  • When a government requires secrets, NO ONE is safe.

Going hiking (05.16.08)

Yesterday we went to Zevat, a beautiful old city with a history of violence.  I bought a photograph (artistic double exposure) of a man praying at the Western Wall.  The drive north to Zevat was highlighted by the border fence between Jewish Israel and the Palestinian Authority.  There is a quiet but undeniable animosity between the Israeli Jews and the Palestinians, that seems certainly unnatural–if not an abomination–and allows for an easy segue into the most interesting event of the day, the Kabbalah lecture in the gallery of David Friedland.

David talked about Kabbalistic mantras of non-dualism and universality.  Many members of our group were unmoved by David’s words, but I found myself in profound agreement with him.  Are we really so incompatible–the Palestinians and Jews?  Both religions value the same characteristics–the oneness of God, humility, respect, love–but still manage to fall victim to the soul-corrupting forces around them.

What reason has the peaceful farmer of one country to put down his plow, and lift up sword against the peaceful farmer of another, but through the means of a false authority?  This is a useful question that, I believe, is at the heart of what David Friedland was trying to convey.

To talk of the “peaceful farmer” of one nation with any true authority, one must first know that man exists, and I do.  One of the soldiers in our group, Tzahi, led us to his family’s farm, just three kilometers from the Lebanese border.  Here was a small farm not unlike the one my grandmother grew up on, decades ago in rural Tennessee.  The family was a peaceful and welcoming bunch.  They allowed us to ride their horses, eat fruit from their trees, and collect eggs from their hen house.  I would be willing to bet there are peaceful farms like this one, on the other side of the border, with peaceful, welcoming families, who are also mournfully propagandized by a false authority that pits humankind against itself in war.  It seems to me that this cannot be the will of God, but a result of the human ignorance thereof, or a human arrogance that would assume rule over God’s domain.

Last night we stayed in cabins, and the common area had a basketball court and picnic tables.  We played basketball and guitar, and sang–“Freebird” and “The Most Beautiful Girl in the Room” were my humble contributions.  Today we hike and swim.

Judaism Discussion and events (05.17.08-05.18.08)

Is Judaism a religion or a nationality?  This is a controversial question in this controversial nation. 

For me, it is only a religion.  The establishment of any “religious state” contradicts principles necessary to a free society, yet claims of freedom abound in this country, as if the word’s meaning has been altered entirely.  The claim that people may have different definitions of freedom is as absurd as the arbitrary proposal that some people should be more free than others.

It is unpardonable that we, as Jews and humans, should practice the faults of government that we recognize as deplorable in others; the hypocrisy is too obvious not to be seen, and–were it not a serious matter–the absurdity would be too great not to be laughed at.  It is an idiotic and blasphemous rejection of God’s gift of reason to take the proponents of any religious state seriously.

We were asked about a decision of the Israeli supreme court that involved citizenship for a man whose Judaism was in question.  The attempts at answering this question with pure moral conviction were amusing if not frustrating.  My answer, of course, was that the law itself was a bad one.  First, laws difficult to be executed generally cannot be good, and second, it is unnatural that a pure stream should flow from a foul spring.

We were also given a list of activities that Jews consider important, and asked to list them in order of importance for our group.  This set the stage for an argument between myself and Joe Gatorade.  For me, the most important given activity of being Jewish was reading books about Judaism.  Joe believed it was to call oneself Jewish, and iterated that there was little importance in reading about Judaism.  Taken to its logical end–ambitiously assuming it has a beginning–his argument is that it is most important to identify with a word that one cannot even define.

Leaving politics and religious doctrine to the criminals and feeble minds they attract, I will turn to the events of reality.  We went to a pool next to the hostel yesterday.  Then we discussed Judaism.  Then we travelled to Afula for dinner (shwarma, falafel, or pizza).  Today we leave the hostel and travel to Jerusalem.

Dead Sea and Masada (05.20.08)

Today we went to Masada and the Dead Sea–both were beautiful and unique.

Masada’s history, which glorifies religious terrorism, is more than a little ironic.  Historically, we regard Jewish terrorists with reverence, but presently, Islamic terrorists are considered lower than the salt floors of the Dead Sea.

Standing atop Masada, one can look down on creation, and almost see the word of God.  It is the closest view of revelation I have ever experienced.  What so-called religious scholars have defined as revelation, or the literal word of God, is nothing more than hearsay.  Revelation is by definition direct, from creator (or creation) to individual, and cannot be designed in human language.  Therefore the only experience one can rightly call revelation is a direct individual experience that requires neither language nor interpreter.  Creation and creator speak for themselves, and are best understood through the studies of science and philosophy, as well as rational individual existence.

IDF Base (05.21.08)

Yesterday we went to Ben Gurion’s grave.  We rode camels–surprisingly friendly animals.  We enjoyed Bedouin hospitality, which included sleeping in tents and eating good chicken, meatballs, pita, hummus, vegetables, rice, and of course, bug juice.

Last night we were treated as new recruits in the IDF by our Israeli soldiers.  They made us run, stand at attention, do push-ups, etc., which was not fun, but perhaps an enlightening experience for some of the North Shore Jews among us.

Then the soldiers performed a dramatization of situations that occur at Israeli border checkpoints, illustrating the gravity of the situations in which these young soldiers are expected to work.

Today we stopped at a memorial park, and discussed the difficult decisions made by some young Israeli orthodox girls to join the IDF.  The girls were not unlike many young Americans at heart–humble but strong, rational but inexperienced, and rebellious though indoctrinated.  Here is Israel’s hope–these young women have already defied their rabbis, and may find the wisdom, compassion, and courage to foster real peace for the region.

We went to Paz’s military base, where he maintains hummers.  The soldiers took us to the firing range, showed us some medical techniques on–forgive the pun–an advanced dummy, and told us all the Israeli government’s secrets (kidding).

Then we went to Mount Herzl, the military cemetery.  I was saddened by the stories of war and deaths–senseless creations of a false authority.  It is a strange sort of idolatry, to allow fear and superstition to control public policy, and it can only affect itself in a society that believes that man created God in man’s imagination, when the truth is quite clearly the other way around.  When a young face becomes a lifeless body, there is no avoiding an emotional reaction, but rather than putting out small fires, Israelis should focus on slaying the dragon that breathes them.