“Rebuild the Temple speedily in our days and grant us a portion in your Torah”

— Popular Jewish song

“There are two kinds of Jews,” the rabbi told me. It’s swelteringly hot, and we’re clanging along some back road in Israel, around 20 or so students packed into a coach. We’re on the way to go hike at some ruin, and I’m pumped at the chance to get out of the library in Jerusalem and stretch my legs in the North. He looks straight at me from the next seat and continues. “Those who judge Judaism by the standards of The New York Times, and those who judge The New York Times by the standards of Judaism.” I nod, listening carefully. I’m soaking in everything from the people I meet, trying to adjust to this world that is so utterly alien from the tranquil, England where I grew up.

The NYT represents the humanist values the Western intelligentsia prides itself on upholding. If a Jew is judging his faith by the standards of the NYT, is he really a Jew? Or is he actually a humanist in culturally Jewish clothing? Wherever Judaism starts to differ from that set of values, in issues of women’s rights, gay rights, circumcision, he is going to find a way to alter the religion to fit in. By contrast the Jew who is rooted in Torah doesn’t care what the NYT thinks. He looks for answers on how to live within his tradition and finds them there.

Any seriously religious person holds this way. We do what it says in the book. An observant and committed Christian, Muslim or Jew would never be able to accept the kind of nation-less, godless, free-wheeling, sexually liberated kind of humanism being pushed by the left today under the rubric of “universal values.”

If there is a clash, of course it’s better to try and find a reasonable way around the clash. But in the end result, it’s the modern world which must bend and submit to the yoke of heaven, not the other way around.

After all, we’ve been doing this for roughly 3,000 years. Modern human rights values are barely 70 years old, although you could make case that the ideology they stem from dates back to the American and French revolutions of the late 18th century. We don’t know if these ideas have any staying power and they’ve never yet had the chance to run a whole society unsupported by Christian foundations. Wake me up when they have some staying power. Until then, I’ll stick with what I know works thank you very much.

We therefore​ hope in thee, O Lord our God, that we may speedily behold the glory of thy might, when thou wilt remove the abominati​ons from the earth, and the idols will be utterly cut off, when the world will be perfected​ under the kingdom of the Almighty,​ and all the children of flesh will call upon thy name, when thou wilt turn unto thyself all the wicked of the earth. Let all the inhabitan​ts of the world perceive and know that unto thee every knee must bow, every tongue must swear.”

— The Aleinu prayer, recited three times a day by Orthodox Jews.

This is what makes the current spats between the faithful of the three great Abrahamic religions so silly. We agree on so much.

  1. We all share the goal of bringing God consciousness into the world, elevating the sacred, fixing on the transcendent and divine as the highest good and demolishing the ego which chains us to the fickle pleasures of this world.
  2. We all (correctly) see the contemporary state of Western consumer capitalism as vapid, meaningless, corrupt, degenerate and degrading. It is money worship and empty ego.
  3. We all agree that the sexual revolution has brought skyrocketing divorce rates and a lack of proper care and nurture for children while both parents work themselves into the ground. We want less pornography and ten year old drag queens on TV and more stable marriages bound together in holiness.  

However where it becomes a little “problematic,” to use that exquisitely passive aggressive word, is that the books in question (Bible, Quran) endorse a range of views utterly antithetical to modern ideas of human rights. Both biblical Judaism and classical Islam endorse slavery, sex-slavery, wholesale slaughter of civilian populations under certain conditions, the destruction of non-monotheistic places of worship, the death penalty for homosexuality and female adultery, corporal punishment of children, a marital framework in which the husband rules over the wife and a binary division of the world into the chosen people of God as opposed to the undifferentiated mass of humanity (although there is an idea of righteous non-believers).

No amount of intellectual gymnastics can escape the obvious fact that these ideas are right there, embedded in the texts themselves and endorsed by the greatest sages of the tradition.

Atheists will normally say at this juncture “yes, you’re right. Religion is the worst and poisons everything. Why can’t you just give it up?”

Well, for two reasons. Firstly religious approaches to life have worked for a very long time. They bind together families, build communities and establish rituals which aid in personal growth. It is by no means obvious that whichever new system is going to be better. The second reason is that religion provides meaning, direction and beauty in life. Religion places the transcendent and unknowable virtue at the center of the universe, whereas atheism places the self at the center. It’s not for nothing that 12 step programs to recovery from addiction demand submission to a higher power as one of the steps. It works.

The many many positive elements are not diminished by the existence of a few questionable elements. So most religious people simply choose to keep going within the tradition and either find a way around the parts they disagree with, come up with a justification for why those parts are no longer relevant, or just live with the contradiction of ignoring parts of their faith.

There will, however, always be people who want to take the whole thing literally.

Acknowledging that reality is the first step to building positive relations. Unless we can face up to the dark side within our own traditions, lasting peace will always be a distant prospect.

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