Friday, November 30, 2007

Cultural and Religious Prisons

I've had a couple of interesting experiences on this trip that illuminate something I find particularly disturbing about fundamentalism in any religion or rigid cultural rules. In both cases, it has something to do with eliminating one's own responsibility to make decisions, instead abdicating that responsibility to a black and white interpretation of a spiritual principal or cultural standard.

It has happened before that when I come to Jerusalem and stay in Steve's apartment, that some of his fundamentalist (my word, not Steve's) Jewish acquaintances accuse him of breaking Jewish law, by having a woman staying in his apartment with him. There is also a 'rule' prohibiting a Jew drinking alcohol with a non-Jew of the opposite sex (which of course we do every Shabbat when we have wine with dinner.)

Steve doesn't care what these people think or say, but I still find it fascinating that after all these years, and all the good that has come out of me coming here, being here and the relationship I have with Steve and Azmi, that these people would not moderate their opinions about the SIN that Steve commits by letting me stay here. I think about all the good that has come from me being here over and over again. Not only what I have gained from my friendship with Steve, and the ways that he has benefited from our friendship, but all that I've been able to contribute to others by being here. I would have never been able to be here so many times, or for so long, if I didn't have my family relationships to Steve and Azmi... and access to this apartment as my 'home base' in Jerusalem. I don't believe it would have been 'better' for anyone, or made God any happier, if I hadn't stayed here over the years. I find the very idea that God wouldn't have wanted me here to be... ludicrous.

There are some positive, good aspects to the principal that underlies this rigid and unyielding interpretation. Preventing 'improper' relations (as defined by the religion and/or culture) is a good and appropriate aspiration. The goal of preventing Jews from mixing with non-Jews in ways that could lead to marriage and/or the creation of children... I find offensive. (That is what the prohibition of drinking alcohol with members of the opposite sex who are not Jewish is aimed at.) I find that offensive in any race or religion, actually. There is something that smacks of prejudice and racism inherent in those types of prohibitions. While I understand people wanting to maintain their heritage and tradition, rules that make it against a religion to fall in love with someone who is different, simply offend me and my personal sense of equanimity and embrace of all peoples. I do not believe in the superiority or any particular race or religion. I find it offensive when any group makes themselves 'special' to the exclusion of all others. Having a 'preference' is different from making it a crime or sin for people to 'mix' with others who are not 'their kind.' That is a slippery slope that leads to very bad places for society and the world.

I'm reminded of the criticism and persecution that Jesus received for healing people on the Sabbath (and for allowing his disciples to pick corn to feed themselves on the Sabbath.) His response (Mark 2:27) was "And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath." The rules are made to support us on our spiritual path, not to become a prison by which we harm ourselves or others. We are not to check our compassion at the door in order to 'follow the rules.'

If my family prohibited me from mingling with people of races different from my own, I would not hesitate to break that rule no matter what the cost. I would never deny my friends to satisfy any religious or cultural tradition, rule or boundary.

While the underlying principles might be worthwhile and appropriate, the dogma that gets built up around those principles are where the danger lives. Critical thought is a valuable asset that every human being should posses. Without it, we create our own prisons to try to keep ourselves on the straight and narrow. Living in prison is no way to live. Blindly following 'orders' or 'rules' without independent, critical thought is what leads to a lot of the problems we have in this world of ours, including wars, oppression, dehumanization of 'the other,' racism, abuse of all types and many other societal ills. It starts with simple things, like the two situations that I have experienced since my arrival.

I encourage all of us to challenge the 'rules' that have been handed to us from our cultures and religions that while well intended, create hurt and harm when we blindly adhere to them. I believe it to be part of our evolution as human and spiritual beings to learn to evaluate more critically everything we are taught. We can honor the underlying principles and lose the dogmatic implementation that creates division and bad feelings. Black and white rules rarely are broad enough to encompass the complex reality that we find ourselves living in today's world. To free ourselves from self created prisons we must utilize the faculty of thought bestowed upon us by our creator.

Salam-Shalom-Peace from Jerusalem. Shabbot Shalom.

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