Have you heard about the sacred text in which the Almighty says, “Stand back from this community so that I may annihilate them in an instant?”
What about the king who gives permission to a people “to destroy, kill and annihilate the powers of any people or province that oppressed them, [even] young children and women, and to take their spoils.”
How do you feel about stoning a rebellious child?
That isn’t our religion! That’s not Judaism. It must be from some other religion’s holy book, right? Wrong. Actually, these come directly from the Tanach. Respectively: Numbers 16:21, Esther 8:11 and Deuteronomy 21:18.
Religious literature – heck, all literature – has concepts that might shock or offend. What about ideas that one doesn’t understand? Many educated people don’t read these sections as the literal truth. Thousands of years of commentators, in all religions, help us understand ideas that perhaps don’t make sense to modern sensibilities. These uncomfortable statements are sometimes proving a point by hyperbole, or creating metaphorical relationships to prove a point.
Many of us don’t take literature or anything we read – never mind the Torah – literally. We also know that, when something seems dubious, we should look it up. Use a dictionary, an online encyclopedia or even … a book.
Awhile back, an acquaintance sitting at a Shabbat table said something that seemed outrageous about Islam. His language and vehemence made me wish that there weren’t kids playing nearby. The man insisted he quoted the Koran correctly – nonetheless I felt concerned. Was he taking it out of context or distorting the point? When I got home, I looked it up. How? Easy, I have a copy of the Koran on my bookshelf. I took a whole course on the Koran as an undergraduate at Cornell.
Much of the time, we are too gullible. We believe what we read or hear from others or what we see reported in the news. We take it as true without thinking about it critically. We’re not always thinking about the words used in media reports … was the killer in Las Vegas a “lone wolf” or a “terrorist”? Does religion or race matter when it comes to how the media portrayed him? It does matter. A white man with Christian origins often doesn’t get called a terrorist or an extremist.
In that vein, many – including politicians and media commentators – feel free to make comments about Islam without actually reading the Koran. That sometimes results in a pretty skewed understanding of that faith tradition. Why am I talking about Islam? We live in a multicultural society. It’s important to know about our traditions and those of our neighbours.
Recently, Dr. Ruth Ashrafi gave a series of lectures to Catholics in Winnipeg about Judaism and the New Testament. She did it in connection with the Manitoba Interfaith Council, an important community organization. The president of the Interfaith Council is Belle Jarniewski, another member of the Jewish community.
These types of outreach efforts benefit everyone. Both Christianity and Islam have Jewish roots. Many Christians and Muslims want to learn more about Judaism. Further, Jews could learn a thing or two about others’ beliefs. Mutual understanding and education go a long way towards bridging differences and building on our common values. Ignorance breeds hate. We could all do with less of that, so let’s work on education.
It is easy to get whipped into a fervour when dealing with media reports or reading the newest bestselling polemical book about another people’s faith traditions. Yet, we aren’t experts in those traditions – unless we start from the beginning, read their holy texts, understand their customs, holidays and values before reading the newest polemic. Most of us aren’t even experts in our own traditions. When I was required to read the Hebrew Bible from beginning to end in graduate school, there were definitely upsetting things I read that I hadn’t known before. I had to read commentaries (both Jewish and non-Jewish ones) in order to get a better grip on what it contained.
I’m reminded, when seeing hot media rhetoric, of how my twins tell me about one of their fights. I hear the dramatic narrative from one side, and an entirely different tale from the other. The truth – or my understanding of their fight – lies somewhere in between all the different versions of their stories.
A friend of mine reads the news in multiple languages. If he has particular interest in one issue, he might use one piece of paper to take notes from all the international news sources. When he’s finished, he has created something like a Venn diagram. The news everyone seems to agree on, no matter the language or political agenda of the news source, is somewhere in the middle.
It’s only through study, asking questions and gaining knowledge that we become educated enough to understand difficult conflicts, religious disputes and political issues. We’d benefit from the programming of organizations such as the Manitoba Interfaith Council. As well, we can take time to read our sacred texts and others’ holy books in order to understand ourselves and our neighbours better.
Living an upright life as a Jew includes seriously taking responsibility for engaging with our foundational texts. Then, maybe, we’ll be living out our mandate as the People of the Book.
The next time you read a polemic against someone else’s religion (or your own) or hear a skewed media report and believe it without further research, remember that Venn diagram as a way towards better understanding.
We’re People of the Book. Maybe it’s time to crack some open? We can always learn more.
Joanne Seiff writes regularly for CBC Manitoba and is a regular columnist for Winnipeg’s Jewish Post and News. She is the author of the book From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.