On the Abrahamic Faiths in Europe
Preparing for this occasion1 at the Archabbey of Pannonhalma, I was wondering if I could refrain from speaking about football this time, because ever since I was ordained as a rabbi in 2005, I have referred to football in a couple of teachings each month. However, as the day of the conference approached, it became clearer and clearer to me that this was going to be another occasion when I mention football, albeit not in the traditional sense. Before I do that, however, I would like to briefly refer to Moses, the most important figure in Jewish history, whose career culminated between the ages of eighty and one-hundred and twenty, which may offer a glimmer of hope to us all. When Moses was nearing the end of his quite ambitious career, he turned to God with prayer, asking for two things. Firstly, he asked Him to let him see the Promised Land, and secondly, to let him enter it. The answer he received was: ‘Go up and see it, but you are not allowed to enter it.’ It is a matter of judgement whether for Moses this was a case of the glass being half empty or half full, since half of his request had been granted, but his most ardent desire—to take his brothers to the Promised Land—would remain unsatisfied. Based on this, among other things, Jewish tradition draws the conclusion that the granting of half of our wishes may be achieved by prayer. We ‘only’ have to achieve the other half by working for it, but if we pray effectively, at least 50 per cent is guaranteed. This is a sound basis.
Those who went to church or mosque or synagogue last week, and those of our brothers who did not—but who, as followers of Abrahamic faiths, would like to do so later—had to face a serious challenge also last week, as they were hit by a torrent of news. Lots of news, and though we may hope that it will not have an impact on us, I think we are indulging in vain hopes, as this news does have an impact on all of us, worshippers and religious leaders alike. And that impact is far from beneficial. I would like to refer to a specific piece of news, but before I do so, let me say a few words about the number 24.
Numbers happen to have special significance in Jewish hermeneutics. The first thing that would come to the mind of a practicing Jew with regard to the number 24 is that this is the number of books in the Tanakh, or Jewish Bible, or, perhaps, that this is the number of offerings the ministers serving in the temple in Jerusalem in the old days had to be given to ensure their livelihood. So, the number 24—like most numbers—is an integral part of Jewish tradition. Last week, several brothers who regularly come to synagogue mentioned the number 24, but not exactly in a religious context. The Copa América, the South American football championship, is being held this week, and the Brazilian team became, rather unexpectedly, the centre of attention. After one of their matches, someone noticed that they did not have a player with the number 24. I am a rather buttoned-down person, but I really like football; I find it difficult to conceive that when I am watching a match it would occur to me that no one in the field is wearing the number 24 (unless a brilliant player who usually wears that number is missing the match), but I understand there are people in this world who just see things differently. Diversity has been mentioned several times today, so let us accept that someone spotted the absence of the number 24. The absence of a number, and not the absence of a specific person. Someone watching a match on TV failed to spot a player wearing the number 24. Someone who thought it over and concluded that there must be a special reason for this, and called his friends after the match to discuss it, until they realized that 24 is the symbolic number of one of the LMBTQ communities in Brazil. They hastily arrived at the conclusion that the Brazilian national team has probably avoided using the shirt with the number 24 because the Brazilian Football Confederation intends thereby to make a political statement. In a favourable scenario, that would be the end of the story, but in fact it is not, as we live in a world where news stories have lives of their own. This ‘astute’ observation was reported by a French newspaper, and then a German news agency, after reading the French report, turned to the Brazilian Football Confederation to enquire why the number 24 was missing from the matches. In the end, all this was published in Hungarian, and in languages all around the world.
When Moses looked around the Promised Land, one thing he certainly did not see was environmental pollution. Back then, there was as yet no one around to pollute the environment, but he may have spotted a special problem with the environment anyway, as intellectual environmental pollution already existed, under the name of idolatry. That activity had a polluting impact on the intellectual environment, and Moses, by way of his special abilities, may have perceived or felt it. One of the biggest problems we face today is intellectual environmental pollution, which is similar to idolatry in that it distances people from God, but it works in a much more sophisticated and surreptitious manner, and not necessarily intentionally. It is almost impalpable, and though it is happening right in front of our eyes, it is rather difficult to catch it in the act.
News stories like the one I just recounted could be quoted by the hundred, cascading down on Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. We must first protect ourselves from these, so that we can then protect others in turn. We would like to convey values, and when the sea is flooding, coming at us, and swamping us with information like this, it makes our job even more difficult. The only viable method of defence is to offer an alternative to all the mindless news stories, and to make sure that people pay attention to other things, or at least also pay attention to things other than the relentless flood of news. It has been pointed out several times today—and it was good to hear it because I am in profound agreement— that there is no alternative, we will have to join forces. The fundamental concept of this alliance could be an old conviction of mine, which goes back almost as far as my commitment to football: one of the relationships of the highest order that could be established between people who wish to join forces and act together can be defined as ‘loving disagreement’. I cannot imagine, and so far have not seen, anything that is more fruitful or more forward-looking, since when we simply love one another and are close to one another, agreement is a lot easier to reach, via emotional impact and without objectivity. If, however, we do not agree with one another, there will be disputes, but these disputes between parties who love one another can be kept on the right track by that love, and will always take the parties in a positive direction, never a negative one. We should be thinking towards a Europe and a Hungary—and I feel this was also Otto von Habsburg’s dream—where life is diverse indeed, but where diversity does not mean that it is mandatory to keep silent about certain questions or issues, or that you have to be over-polite about them, but it is possible to debate, to disagree strenuously through arguments, not with the intention of destroying or doing away with the other party, but with understanding and curiosity, and with the shared desire of creating better conditions for ourselves and those around us.
There was an outstanding scholar of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who was very knowledgeable about both Jewish and Muslim culture. His name was Ignaz Goldziher, and he discussed, among other things, what the place of religion—including the Jewish religion—should be in the modern world. He said the following:
We will not concern ourselves with the Judaism as a matter of archaeological interest, without a living link to our age, and we will not regard it as an object of piety either, which would be nothing but a sentimental reaction without any essential content. Nor yet should we regard it as something antique, nor as a relic, but rather as a living organization, in which we have our individual part, and which we are part of, which is not merely a subject of study but is our lives, not an inventory of the past, but the very atmosphere in which we breathe and exist. We do not look back into the past, like Lot’s wife in the Bible, to be turned into a pillar of salt for doing so, but draw conclusions from the facts of the past and the progress made, for and concerning the present, and, more importantly, the future as well.
For as long as we see religious life somewhere, we are witnessing development. Once it comes to an end, we are no longer faced with a living organism, but an embalmed mummy, which may be the object of respect, piety, or even perhaps romantic yearning, but about which one thing cannot be said: that it lives, that it cultivates life, and that it is destined to have an impact on reality.
All this was stated by Goldziher about 115 years ago, but it is perfectly valid today as well, for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. We have to try to find the key to addressing both the religious and non-religious halves of the world effectively, so that we have the opportunity to convey and represent the values which may constitute the foundation of a more valuable life, a life of better quality.
The event which defined the events of the world took place in the year 2448 according to the Jewish calendar, that is, 3333 years ago. That event was the Revelation, the giving of the Torah. When the giving of the Torah took place, God disregarded one thing: then-current needs. If there had been a survey, conducted by a committee, of the needs of that time, then—just think of the Ten Commandments—several requirements would have caught the attention of experts which would not have brought massive popularity and thousands of likes for the Eternal God. Such a survey was not conducted, because the Creator’s plan was to define his expectations in a way that transcended existing needs. This attitude is rather unpopular, usually, and is not destined to succeed. Thanks to the Archabbot, unpopular ideas, including obedience and humility, have been already mentioned today. All of these unpopular ideas come from the place of Revelation, Mount Sinai, as God himself decided to act in the spirit of this unpopular concept—rather horrible from a campaign perspective—that the level of expectations should be set much higher than what would be required according to the current needs of the era. It is no accident that following the great event, the Jewish people had to wander for forty years. It was not easy to understand, let alone internalize, what had been said. In connection with this, Maimonides, the eminent medieval Jewish philosopher claimed, ‘human nature is such, simply, that it would not learn from slavery, from making adobe, and from making bricks. Our ancestors spent forty years wandering in the wilderness to become stronger, and to give birth to a generation which is not used to subservience and slavery.’
Although forty years have not passed since the political transition in 1989, a parallel of sorts can be found. Here in Hungary we are wandering together, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and during our wandering we depend on one another. We depend on one another, because we will only be able to comply with, spread, and strengthen God’s will if we act together for a common cause. If the will to act together based on respectful and loving disagreement is missing, the consequences will dissipate our energy, splintering us.
There is a Hebrew concept I would also like to mention: halacha. It is sometimes translated as religious law, but halacha is, in fact, the road to take, since when the Eternal One handed over the Torah to the Jewish people He refrained from mentioning a few specifics: how to do business, how to marry, and a great many other important things, which became important subsequently, and halacha essentially covers them in detail. Nevertheless, in view of the fact that these rules are not mentioned in the Torah explicitly, Jews started to argue with one another about how life should be lived exactly, how one could meet God’s expectations as accurately as possible. Totally amazing! Those reading the news today cannot believe that disputes, tension, and conflicts may exist within the Jewish community, but it happened before. One of the first major disputes occurred between two excellent men and their schools, who argued about how to use the large amount of wisdom handed over to us by God, how the divine tenets, the celestial emanation, can be converted into daily practice. One of them was called Hillel, the other Shammai. The representatives of the two schools were in that state of ‘loving disagreement’ mentioned earlier, and they tried to convince each other of what road they should take with regard to specific issues. Three years is a long time, but at the end of those three years, they were exactly where they had started, still unable to decide which road should be taken. But then something happened, something that has rarely been experienced over the last two thousand years: a Bat Kol, a divine voice, said that both sides spoke the word of the living God, but that halacha shall be as Hillel said. We would be terribly grateful for such a divine voice, now and then, to decide on important issues, but the divine voice is either simply out of use, or, perhaps is only temporarily suspended. There and then, when the divine voice said who to follow in terms of how practice should be shaped, the wise still asked, ‘all right, but if both spoke the word of the living God, then why is it only Hillel who should be followed?’ This is typical of Jewish nature, to ask one more question than what others want to hear. The question was raised, at least, and there was an answer, too: ‘Because Hillel and his companions are humble.’ Is that not just great? There are situations when protracted issues can be closed with a few very simple words, and this sounds like just such a case… What does it mean that they are humble? The Talmud provides an explanation. The humbleness is manifested in the fact that Hillel and his companions preserved the minority opinion; they not only wrote down who the rules were set by, but also preserved the ideas of the other party, that of Shammai, who were in the minority. Just think about it! How beautiful it would be if the culture of debating could be like this in the twenty-first century! If it did not only involve people trying to prove they are right by arguing and raising their voices, but people who take care that the other party’s opinion is also put on the record. It could be the beginning of a better world if such debates multiplied.
Not that I think Jews are not unique representatives of mankind in this respect. From time to time, love runs out in our circles as well, just like with everyone else. We run out of love, and our conflicts intensify. The Talmud also records that the conflicts between the two schools, Hillel and Shammai, grew more intense when lack of expertise was part of the picture: up to that point, well- prepared men had conducted the debate and conflicts were not as pointed. When the level of preparedness was significantly lower, conflicts became fractious, first intellectually, and later physically as well, even though there was no Jewish sage, or any layman for that matter, who was unaware of the teaching in the third book of Moses: Veahavta lereacha kamocha (thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself). But in spite of this commandment, although no one denied the truth of the verse in the Torah, emotions got out of control more and more often.
We should try to understand, somehow, what God meant when He gave us this extremely difficult commandment that we should love our neighbours as ourselves. We cannot be sure what he meant; whoever claims to know is on the wrong track and/or is a worshipper of idols. We may have our hunches, but whoever has a secure channel to the Almighty should go to see a doctor. What may He have meant when he gave us this commandment? After all, if I look around here, I am positive that statistically no more than five per cent of those in attendance are able to love each and every neighbour as themselves, and I am afraid the majority of us love certain neighbours more, others a bit less, and there are certain people we do not love at all. God, however, will not assign impossible tasks because he is merciful enough to define rules which man can observe. In this spirit, the sages tried to translate this commandment into practical terms. Hillel, who I referred to earlier, said the following: ‘What is hateful for you, you should not do to your brother!’ There is very little poetry in this interpretation, and very little talking to the heart. It is a lot nicer to say ‘love each other’, and ‘everyone should love everyone else’. It appears to be a lot more elevated than the lean interpretation: you should not do to others what you do not like.
Still, what I am praying for is that this approach should be accepted as a minimum package by as many people as possible, both Jewish and non-Jewish, because if we manage to get to this point, it would represent a major step forward. A major obstacle to this is, as was already mentioned, that we live in the age of likes and dislikes. A special feature of the last few decades is that we can (or must?) respond to almost everything, without deeper study or any time devoted to it. Like or dislike. Let us imagine for a moment that someone stands on Mount Sinai listening to the ten commandments, and says, ‘I am the Lord thy God, okay, I like this; Thou shalt have no other gods before me, I dislike this…’ We have to get beyond this frame of reference of likes and dislikes. Religious institutions have the means to teach in very broad terms that it is worth expressing our opinions on things that matter, that it is in fact only possible to express relevant opinions if significantly more time and study is devoted to what we would like to give our opinions on than what is required for these rapid likes and dislikes. Because freedom of opinion is also a trap, requiring less and less expertise, and only results in wasting words, creating pseudo-problems, and generating specious solutions. This sort of boundary-crossing can only be reversed if we start to reinforce a culture, a faith, a system of thoughts in harmony with Europeanness, which requires that if you really want to comment on a subject, then you should read the ten thousand pages that you are supposed to read to be able to formulate an informed opinion; which requires caring about what other people think; which requires the knowledge of how to love, how to like people with whom you will never agree, and requires believers to stop considering their religion an antique object or a relic and to start thinking of it as something that is alive. And if this happens, then we can say that the dialogue that began long ago—in which our event may be an important step forward—reaches its desired goal, and the Abrahamic religions may indeed contribute to a better world. I am convinced that this should be our common goal.
Translated by Balázs Sümegi
1 Talk given on 4 July 2021 by Rabbi István Darvas at the conference organized by the Otto von Habsburg Foundation in the Archabbey of Pannonhalma, Hungary, on the tenth anniversary of the death of Otto von Habsburg.