Is All Hope Lost? Seeking Peace, Love, and Understanding
In the spring of 2000, I spent a few weeks in India. Upon my return, a non-Jewish acquaintance, who was raised in South America, asked me what it was like to be surrounded by so many people who are "abominaciones de Dios" (abominations of God). I was stunned and horrified by her question. Raised in a liberal home and at that time studying comparative religion at a liberal arts college, I think that may have been the first time that I had experienced firsthand such blatant prejudice. I told her that I didn't believe that was the case and that in no way would I even consider the possibility that one-billion human beings were abominations of God simply because they weren't "people of the book." (Not to mention the other billion living in China. The populations of both are even larger now, of course.)
Standing on one foot, I struggled to explain to her, in Spanish, why I vehemently disagreed. I suggested to her that religion is like prescription glasses: if, in order to see God you need 20/20 vision, each one of us needs a different prescription to achieve that. For example, Chinese "religion" is not about belief in God, but rather a focus on philosophy and a way of life. Buddhism is more a state of being. Our spiritual needs as humans differ based on our surrounding culture, but as we learn from Genesis, each of us is created "b'tzelem elohim," in the image of God.
Now, I'm a hippie at heart. I believe in peace and love. I can't help but belt out The Youngbloods lyrics, "Come on, people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together try to love one another right now!" Love is about respect, not who is right. Absolutist thinking is against everything we stand for as Reform Jews. It is arrogant for anyone to assume that there is only one way, one path, one prescription, and that we actually know that way.
I have always carried serious pride for my alma mater, Vassar College. I speak about this bastion of creativity, liberal study, freedom of thought and gender equality with great nostalgia. This month, however, I am no longer sure how to feel. Recently, Vassar College was listed #10 of the "10 Worst Anti-Semitic Campuses" by the David Horowitz Freedom Center. Particular incidents of the past year were cited, including the Vassar chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine posting a German cartoon from the Nazi regime on its Tumblr account and harassment of students taking a course involving a trip to Israel to study water supply issues.
This past week, I taught an introductory class on Islam for my synagogue's lifelong learning series. I began the class by stating that I am in no way an expert on the subject. I shared with my class the most fundamental facts, history and development of the Islamic faith. The class was well-received, and congregants are asking to continue courses on Islam by bringing in guest speakers who will be capable of answering deeper questions about the faith and current events.
I found it fascinating to be looking at Islam once again as a student, but a student with many more years of both scholarly work in the study of religion and life experience in the practice of religion. I feel much more keenly the heartache of seeing sect upon sect of peoples of faith fighting, warring, and killing in the name of God. Cultural and religious differences, instead of adding richness to our understanding of human development, have been, historically, the source of hatred between peoples.
Nick Lowe, 1970s singer/songwriter, asks, "Is all hope lost? Is there only pain and hatred and misery?" His song, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?" has been covered by numerous artists including Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, and, recently, Israeli musician David Broza. Broza recorded the song at a Palestinian recording studio in East Jerusalem and enlisted the voices of the Jerusalem Youth Choir, the only choir that includes both Israeli and Palestinian teens. American, Israeli and Palestinian musicians worked together to spread their message of hope. Their voices and their faces express the prayer we all hold in our hearts for true shalom, wholeness.
The Kabbalists, the Jewish mystics, taught that human beings are incapable of even contemplating the true essence of God. The father of quantum physics, Werner Heisenberg, speaks to the ineffability of God, even though he specifically addresses the mystery of the universe: "Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think."
We are taught that the Israelites were instructed not to celebrate the death of the Egyptians as the parted sea closed in upon them for we are all God's children, certainly not one of us an abomination. Until people can see beyond our own limited perception of humanity, I believe God waits patiently to show us the true beauty of the mysteries of our universe.
A version of this article first appeared in The Shalom bulletin of Temple Beth Torah of Wellington, FL.