"Do not bow down to their gods and do not serve them. Do not follow their practices. You must tear them down and you must utterly shatter their monuments." (Parashat Mishpatim 23:24)
The above was from last week’s Torah portion. G-d with His infinite sense of humor handed that one down to a people who don’t have much of a hankering for violently pulverizing pagan ideas, altars and places of worship.
How does one reduce idols to mere dust in a civil society, in a modern Jewish state?
Ideally, we Jews should counter idolatry by using our intellect to enable compassionate and just laws which are both considerate of human dignity and in keeping with Jewish tradition. But with Western democracies cramming the mantras of tolerance, political correctness, and freedom of religious expression down our Israeli gullets, we sometimes find ourselves preserving and protecting that which we were commanded to uproot. What’s a Jew to do?
Well, there’s always humor… and it’s been a funny week.
Headlines reported that the results of a survey on Israeli attitudes toward Christianity indicate a sharp division between religious and secular Jews on topics ranging from missionary activity, to accepting funds from evangelical sources, to visiting churches. Despite the sharp divide, both secular and religious Israelis did find some common ground, as only 50% of Israeli Jews agreed that Jerusalem was central to the Christian faith; and 75% believe the state should not allow Christian groups to buy land to build new churches in Jerusalem.
Meanwhile secular Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit of Kadima saw fit to set up a special committee to discuss amending Israel's Law of Return. Sheetrit feels the law has been abused by non-Jews with no connection to Judaism as a way to obtain Israeli citizenship. "In a few years Israel will no longer be the state of the Jews, and I do not want that," Sheetrit said.
But by far the most bizarre interfaith clash of this past week was over a skit, broadcast on Israeli Channel 10, which the Vatican claimed had "ridiculed -- with blasphemous words and images -- the Lord Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary."
C’mon Mr. Pope, Lior Shlein is just a secular Jewish entertainer - it’s not like he is one of your devout and disciplined Catholic bishops. Israel should be the place where Jews can express themselves fully as Jews; and a late night Hebrew program televised on a private channel in Israel should surely be a safe haven for satirists - and out of the sights and clutches of the “Holy See”.
Besides, satire by nature is irreverent, and it’s a given that unconventional artists and entertainers are prone to going over-the-top and dabbling in the tactless, tasteless and insulting. Monty Python, Mel Brooks and Mr. Bean have all pushed the religious humor envelope to the outer limits. Alternatively, politically conservative comedienne Jackie Mason took his rants in defense of Christmas, Christianity and Mel Gibson to the brink, too ( but drew the line in the form of a law suit when Jews for Jesus put out a broadside entitled: "Jackie Mason… A Jew for Jesus?!”)
Were Shlein’s antics heresy? Were they tanamount to “denying Christianity” as Palestinian-Arab-Catholic and Israeli Arab newspaper CEO, Zohir Andreus, claims? Well, Mr. Andreus, we have a dilemma because to acknowledge Christian belief is to deny Judaism.
What is sacred for the devout Christian is oft-times blasphemous for the Jew. Even the currently in-vogue fascination many Christians are having with “messianic hebraic roots” movements and Jewish rituals cannot mask, nor bridge, the very fundamental differences between faiths.
If we adhere to the philosophy of the late and very great Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, then it seems the secular Mr. Shlein did us all a favor with his “blasphemy”. Rav Kook found a holy spark in Jewish heretics and atheists. In their denial of a Creator, they refuse to ascribe form to G-d or define His attributes and character in limited human terms. The heretic does not fall into the trap of creating a false image. This attitude intellectually and spiritually challenges the religious community and compels it to strive for a more profound knowledge and perception of G-d. The Pope should thank Lior Shlein for expanding his horizons, and for giving him the opportunity to grow beyond the confines and imagery of the Sistine Chapel.
We have to remember that it was the patriarch Abraham who, according to Jewish (and Islamic) tradition used common sense and a sense of humor when, as a young boy, he smashed all of his father’s idols except for one, and when asked what transpired replied, “The idols all got into a fight and the biggest idol won." At the time, little Avram must have appeared as a very disrespectful and rebellious blasphemer.
They just don’t make Jewish leaders like they used to. I bristled as Ehud Olmert submitted to Vatican demands and confessed and repented with a public apology, It is so in character for our outgoing Prime Minister to take his final bow facing Rome.
These are dark times and disputes with the Vatican and other Christian denominations over property rights, rights to proselytize, and the right to freedom of Christian expression, appear to be on the increase. Christian influence is growing in Israel exponentially and we Jews had better find our voice and assert our rights to laugh, legislate, smash idols, and bloodlessly slaughter sacred cows.