Reply to Jonathan Sacks: But It’s the Tradition!

The UK’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes a plea for tolerance:

The real question, which has echoed time and again through the corridors of history, is whether we can find ways of living together, despite the fact that we can’t find ways of believing or worshipping together.

That is what the Bible teaches in its very first chapter, when it says that we are all, every one of us, in the image of God. Our love of God must lead us to a love of humanity.

I find it extraordinary that in an age in which globalization is forcing us together, all too often, across the globe, faith is driving us apart. We should be fighting environmental destruction, political oppression, poverty and disease, not fighting one another, least of all in the name of God whose image we all bear.

But he himself knows it’s easier said than done:

The Chief Rabbi’s speeches are never dull and always contain some good jokes. This is the one he told the EA:

‘You know that in the middle of our synagogue services we have what we call the reading of the Torah- the reading of a scroll- a section of the pentateuch and some Rabbis rule that when this is to be read you stand and others rule that when its read you sit.  A stranger came to a new community one year in America and went to the local synagogue that Sabbath.  It was wonderful- everyone was welcoming and the praying was wonderful until it came to this bit in the middle of the Torah reading of the scrolls.

‘To his amazement and horror half the congregation stood, half the congregation sat and they started yelling and screaming at each other.  The people that were standing were saying, “ignoramuses, don’t you know when the Torah is being read you have to stand” and the people who were sitting were saying to the ones who were standing, “Heretics! Don’t you know when the Torah is being read you have to sit?” This crazy pandemonium carries on; the reading comes to an end, peace reigns and etcetera. The same thing happens the next week and the week after.  Finally, the stranger cannot stand it any longer. The town is currently without a rabbi so he travels to the nearest town where there is a rabbi, a distinguished rabbinical scholar and he is ushered into his presence.  An old, wise, grey bearded scholar surrounded by books.

‘He says, “Rabbi, I have a question for you.  Tell me, when the Torah is being read, do you stand?”

‘And the sage stroked his beard and said, “No, that is not the tradition.”  So he said, “Well tell me Rabbi, in that case, when the Torah is being read, do you sit?” And the sage shook his head and said, “No, that is not the tradition.”  And the man said, “Rabbi, you’ve got to help me here. Because in my Synagogue, half of them stand and half of them sit and they all shout out nasty names to one another.” The Rabbi nodded and he said, “Yeah, that is the tradition.”

There are always some things you can count on…

Beyond that, the problem is that religious differences frequently mask secular ones, such as economic disparity or ethnic tensions.  If you don’t fix those, there isn’t enough tolerance to cover things up.  You’d think that “rational” secularists would figure this out, instead of blaming religion for everything.  Sacks doubtless know this.  I’m coming to see, however, that “rational secularists” is as great an oxymoron as “Protestant theology.”

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