The Tragic Deflation of Language and Symbols

Recently a Haredi IDF soldier sued a cartoonist for defaming haredim who serve in the Israeli Military.  The picture which has been widely circulated on the internet depicts a bearded IDF soldier crashing through a wall in pursuit of wide eyed terrified little Hardei children. If you look closely you can see that the soldier is attached to a string that is held at the other end by a hand belonging to someone who stands outside the frame of the picture. The implication is clear, the few Haredi soldiers who do serve in the IDF are nothing more than puppets on a string being pulled by the surreptitious hand of the secular State. What is also abundantly clear, is that the soldier is cast in the role the dreaded Khaper of nineteenth century Russia. The Khapers literally ‘snatchers’ were Jews who colluded with the police of  Tsar Nicholas I in snatching innocent Jewish children to serve under brutal conditions in his military for a minimum term of twenty five years. Many of the victims who were torn from their families and communities were never heard from again. The Cantonists, as they were called, are the subject of one of the darkest periods in Jewish history. 


This is not the first time Haredim have exploited some of the most harrowing images of collective Jewish history for their own political causes. It wasn’t all that long ago that scores of Haredim in Israel donned yellow stars and concentration camp garb to highlight their “victimisation” by secular Israelis who by implication are cast as Nazis. And it’s happened yet again only recently when Rabbi Shalom Cohen of Yeshivat Porat Yosef publicly condemned the National Religious  knitted kipah wearing Jews  as “Amalek” the biblical foe of the Children of Israel and the prototype of all Anti Semites to follow.


This trend is disturbing for two reasons.


The first is that it precipitates a deflation of language and symbols. When I was a kid Nazis were demons, Tsarist colluders were cruelty itself and Amalek was the embodiment of Evil. As a result of Haredi misuse these terms and symbols have become cheapened. Does it matter? It certainly does because language and symbols are important ways in which we convey history. When they no longer mean what they used to mean it undermines our collective memory. The very image of a ruddy cheeked, well fed Haredi child wearing striped pyjamas and a yellow Star of David on a balmy Jerusalem night undercuts the potency of real holocaust era photographs to convey the horror of that period.


The second thing that is disturbing is how this trend excludes other Jews from Judaism by equating them with Judaism’s sworn enemies. And once this begins the exclusion zone gets broader and broader. A year and a half ago the Haredi concentration camp garb protest implied that secular Israelis were persecuting the Jewish people and by implication not really Jewish themselves. Now we have Rabbi Cohen with his Amalek comments extending the exclusion to Non- Haredi Orthodox Jews. The Haredi Cartoonist has gone even further to exclude fellow Haredi Jews who serve in the IDF. It’s only a matter of time before various haredi sects start denouncing each other in the same way.


Perhaps if Haredim insist on staying with the holocaust theme they would do well to read and reflect on Martin Niemoller’s famous poem “First they came for me.” Hopefully they will get the message before they have excluded from Judaism all other Jews who are different from them. At the very least they should take note of Avtalyon’s dictum: “Sages, be careful in what you say, lest you incur the penalty of exile and find yourself banished to a place of evil waters, where your disciples who follow you may drink from them and die, with the result that the name of Heaven will be profaned.” (Mishna Avot 1:11)



Feasting and Fasting: Insights into Ramadan and Tisha B’Av

Today many observant Jews as well as Muslims are hungry. Muslims find themselves just over a week into the month long fast of Ramadan while Jews find themselves observing the 24 hour fast of Tisha B’Av commemorating the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

While fasting has always been a component of many faiths the reason behind this practice is not always well understood. At least in Judaism there seem to be two disparate ideas associated with fasting. The first understands fasting as a form of self –mortification, a means of punishing the body so as to affect divine absolution for sins committed. In this school of thought fasting is often joined with other physical privations and mortifications. While still accepted by ascetics this idea lost its hold on the wider population by the start of the modern era. Far more popular today is the mystical notion that fasting is a means towards transcending, if but for a brief time, the material self in the hope of attaining a deeper awareness of the Divine. I’m not sure how many people actually experience the Divine but the notion of at least pursuing it is distinctly more palatable than inflicting self punishment.

Fasting is difficult because you can’t ever entirely wean yourself off food.  One can, at least in theory, give up smoking cold turkey and never smoke again. The same goes for alcohol, coffee or chocolate. Over time it becomes easier to avoid these substances as the body adapts. The thing with food is you have to keep returning to it and that’s what makes it so hard to give it up occasionally. Philosophically speaking fasting and food present a dialectic in which one is forever vacillating between two points. This is particularly true for Judaism and Islam which also prescribe many ritual feasts. And so it’s a dialectic of feasting and fasting.

Fasting teaches a person of faith to maintain a creative tension between living in the real material world with all of its imperfections, compromise and disappointments while at the same time trying to transcend it. Neither polarity is desirable or sustainable in the long term but rather they depend on each other for balance. An exclusively materialist reductionist approach to life is devoid of all spiritual meaning while a wholesale rejection of the material world renders faith irrelevant. Yet as with all polarities one can leverage the inherent tension. Practically this means that a person of faith must navigate a dialectic of advance and retreat. Occasionally retreating from, or rising above, the material reality in the hope of experiencing and articulating an ideal vision of reality. Sustained with this vision however one must eventually advance back into the material, imperfect world to contribute to its betterment. Retreat without a corresponding advance can be very seductive for idealistic young believers disillusioned with rampant materialism and so they throw all their weight against one pole upsetting the delicate balance of faith. This is called fundamentalism. By sitting down to a meal this evening at the end of the fast we discredit such skewed and dangerous inclinations. Our retreat over, we commence our advance, reaffirming our commitment to participating fully in this imperfect, troubled world in the inspired hope of making it just a little more habitable each day.

A Heavenly Concert in the Gates of Hell

On Sunday I attended a concert at Auschwitz. The former Nazi extermination camp was host to over ten thousand people, including dozens of bishops, rabbis and politicians all assembled to listen to the orchestra and choir of the Neocatechumenal Way perform a symphonic-catechetical in memory of and in solidarity with the suffering of the innocents.

The Neocatechumenal Way, founded in Spain in the 1960’s in the aftermath of Vatican II is dedicated to Catholic renewal and to improving Judeo-Catholic relations. This particular piece of music, performed by one hundred musicians and eighty choral singers, honours the memory of innocent Jewish victims of the holocaust by invoking the image of Mary crying along with Jewish mothers at Auschwitz and other concentration camps.

The Spanish artist and theologian who composed the music, Kiko Arguello described it as an act of love and reconciliation and a musical gift to the Jewish people. In a Vatican Radio interview Rabbi Dr David Rosen Honorary President of the International Council of Christians and Jews said “This concert has been an example of fantastic solidarity; it has expressed a profound understanding of the historical suffering of the Jewish people. From this point of view it helps us to overcome the wounds of the past.” 

 I had never previously been to Auschwitz. I am unfamiliar with Catholic sacred music and more importantly Catholic theology. I went partly because my instinct told me this was going to be a meaningful event and partly because the indefatigable Lorenzo Lees, one of the key organisers who invited me, wouldn’t take no for an answer.

I arrived early and under a blazing sun, I trekked in silence across the vast and bleak  expanse of Auschwitz – Birkenau unable to grasp the magnitude of this former death factory. Later in the afternoon a cool breeze brought relief as I listened attentively to the strange and beautiful music of this extraordinary concert.

In many ways it was foreign to me; musically, liturgically and theologically. Orthodox Jews eschew orchestral music in worship, we speak to God in Hebrew not Latin and Jews and Catholics have very different views when it comes to interpreting suffering. Yet across this vast audial and conceptual divide I was able fleetingly to appreciate, if not entirely grasp, what these compassionate and thoughtful Catholics were trying to communicate to me in their own language. Often when it comes to building bridges of understanding and reconciliation, be it religious, political or personal we expect the other to conform to a prearranged script that we have in our head. We expect them to use our language and terms of reference. This is often just not possible and it is rarely desirable. We are all shaped by our own perspectives and cultural contexts. Authentic and constructive communication is not about compelling the other to speak in our language but it is rather to listen carefully to the language of the other and to discover within the unfamiliar and discordant notes a deeper commonality that transcends language. For a brief moment I grasped this elusive sense of commonality as Catholics and Jews stood together in the former gates of hell listening to sublime music invoking solidarity, compassion and the universal yearning for heaven. Image