A great rabbi went into a bar. He overheard a conversation between patrons.
One said to the other, “Friend, do you love me?” “Of course I do,” the second man replied. “We’ve known each other our whole lives.”
“Then tell me, friend,” said the first man, “What hurts me?” The friend had no reply.
The first man continued “How can you love me, when you don’t know what hurts me?”
Deadly images on television tear at our heart. We wish for the violence in Israel to end.
This land, sacred to three global religions, seems endlessly mired in conflict. Does religion just promote division or hatred? Is it because of its religious significance that Israel remains a place of tension? Or is faith, at its core, a force of peace?
If we listen to most voices in the media and pop culture, we would answer this question without hesitation. Religion is bad, primitive, and dangerous.
We would agree with late writer Christopher Hitchens, who said “The Bible contains a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre.”
We would say religion needs to end before peace can begin. But the simple answer is usually wrong. Consider the following:
False assumption 1: Most wars are religious wars.
This argument is simply not true. The Encyclopedia of War (yes, it exists) says that of the 1763 wars, 123 have been caused by religion. That’s 6.98 percent. Hardly a primary cause.
To the contrary, history suggests that the most violent groups tend to be anti-religious. The most murderous regimes of the 20th century—Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia—were explicitly anti-religion. They forbid traditional religious expression. They replaced it with politics and nationalism.
The religion of Nazi Germany was the state, and the religion of Stalinist Russia was socialism. Mao Tse-Tung in China and Pol Pot and Cambodia also disregarded their culture’s traditional faiths.
Religion puts a check on political power, and tyrannical regimes suppress it.
False assumption 2: Religion causes people to hate each other.
This argument has the advantage of having some validity. People have hated and killed others in the name of religion. They continue to do so today.
Yet, people also love in the name of religion. Just look at those who devote their lives to service. Just look at the social service agencies and hospitals established by different faiths.
[callout]If we say religion causes hate, we can equally say religion causes love.[/callout]
The truth is that, as the Jewish sages taught, we are all born with dual inclinations—to love and create, and to hate and destroy. At its best religion fosters the former and quells the latter.
False assumption 3: Religion divides us between believer and nonbeliever.
Once again this argument has some validity. Religion does draw lines between people. Some religions do so more starkly than others.
Speaking from the Judeo-Christian tradition, however, we can religion also presents a soaring vision of human equality. The opening chapter of the Bible tells us every human being is “created in the image of God.”
Without faith we might not arrive at this sublime truth. Nature favors the strong over the vulnerable. Politics favors the powerful over the weak. Faith makes us equally sacred before God.
Religion does not cause conflict. People do. And religion is the only force that has a prayer of stopping it.
In Jewish tradition we have a special greeting for a genius. Upon meeting such a person, we say, Blessed are You, Eternal God, Source of Life, who has given from His wisdom to flesh and blood.
Had I ever met Robin Williams, I would surely have said it.
Williams was a singular genius. He brought joy and comfort to so many. Yet, that same joy and satisfaction continued to elude him.
That’s one of the reasons his death strikes us so sharply. He seemed to have it all. Yet, he suffered from a horrific illness that many continue to speak of in shadows and soft tones.
As a child of a psychiatrist, I know how serious depression can be. Yet, as his wife urged in a statement released yesterday, let us remember Willilams for the laughter and joy he brought so many.
Even though he was not Jewish, his comedy brims with the tones oftraditional Jewish comedy. They include the following:
1. Humor to undermine pretension and pomposity: Robin Williams managed to be lovable and irreverent at the same time. He did not fear offending anyone.
As one of his obituaries reported, he once called out from a London Stage,“Chuck, Cam, great to see you.” Charles, Prince of Wales, and his wife, Lady Camilla Bowles were in the audience. He continued, “Yo yo, wussup Wales, House of Windsor, keepin’ it real!”
2. The Power of the Voice: Judaism is a religion of the ear more than eye. We hear God’s words, as it says in our central prayer, the Shema.
This emphasis on the ear over the eye carried over into modern Jewish comedy. If you watch the Marx Brothers, for example, you don’t even have to see the action to appreciate the humor.
The same was true with Robin Williams. His voice as the genie in Aladdin was instantly recognizable. It conjures up the character of the genie in all its dimensions. And who can forget the powerful voice proclaiming “Gooooood Morning Vietnam!”
3. Comedy as Healing: Jewish history is filled with destruction. Hatred and persecution have plagued us for so long, and they continue to do so in the Middle East and Europe.
One of the great healing balms of Jewish life has been humor. It has helped us maintain perspective, seeing possibilities for joy amidst pain, for sweetness amidst the harshness of life.
Robin Williams’ humor—along with his many acting roles—helped heal so many. His life mirrored the role he played so beautifully of Patch Adams, the doctor who used humor to heal his patients.
4. Comedy as a way of poking fun at ourselves: Robin Williams knew his own foibles. He did not shy away from admitting his struggles with addiction and relationships.
And he would turn those struggles into brilliant one-liners. Indeed, he once described cocaine as “God’s way of saying you make too much money.”
Williams’ apparent suicide is a tragedy. We can never known the pain he felt and struggles he underwent. What we do know, however, is that his life was a blessing.
He fulfilled the definition of a successful life captured so brilliantly by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
I remember my first visit to Israel in 1994. The Oslo Accords had just been signed. Hope reigned. My group was greeted warmly in the Arab market in Jerusalem.
The opposite feelings prevail today. We witness bombings, indiscriminate hatred, vitriol. Dozens of my friends who are there now share words of sadness and despair.
Can we find any basis for hope? We must. Not because it’s easy. But because the alternatives are devastating.
The first alternative is giving up. We simply let violence continue until enough lives are lost that we can’t take it anymore.
The second alternative is to let hate multiply. I support Israel’s right to defend itself, but it is not hard to find grievances on both sides. The longer the conflict continues, the more grievances both sides will have. It is not hard to imagine.
The third and perhaps most tempting alternative is cynicism. We can say this conflict will never end. It may stop temporarily but will resume soon enough. I admit to feeling this way sometimes.
What my tradition calls upon, however, is hope. David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, said that Judaism asks to each of us to “be an optimist against all better judgment.”
What gives me that hope, that optimism, is a God who cares about every human being. God gave us a world to cherish and protect, and more often not, we fail in doing so. But like us, God never gives up hope.
Join me in the prayer written by Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum
…God, Grant me the strength not to despair so that I can proclaim:
Behold, I take upon myself the yoke of the kingdom of life
A language of compassion and peace and love of humanity.
Grant me the strength that my soul not die but live,
And perceive the eternal light as it gradually bursts forth.