Judaism: Not the Opium of the People

Dr. Samuel Lebens
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Dr. Samuel Lebens

Today, Tuesday July 16, the Jewish world is observing the fast of Tisha B’Av. Refraining from wearing comfortable footwear, sitting on hard surfaces, reading the searing words of Lamenations, we remember the destruction of two Temples in Jerusalem; we remember our exile; and, more broadly speaking, we remember, despite the relative opulence and the comfort that may define our daily lives, that the world we live in is still host to grave pain and suffering.

The German philosopher Karl Marx derided religion as “the opium of the people;” religion was something that numbed the pain of the oppressed, acclimatising them to their oppression. "If you're poor and downtrodden," religion would teach you, "then that is the will of the Almighty. The rich are destined to be rich, and you are destined to be poor and oppressed. That is your lot."

Outgoing British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in various books and publications, has responded to Marx’s critique. According to Sacks, Judaism is anything but an opiate. "Judaism," he writes, "is not a religion that reconciles us to the world. It was born as an act of protest against the great empires of the ancient world, Mesopotamia and Egypt … It was God who removed the chains of slavery from His people, not God who imposed them. It was Abraham, then Moses, then Amos, and then Isaiah, who fought on behalf of justice and human dignity confronting priests and kings, even arguing with God Himself: ‘Shall the judge of all the earth not do justice?’ Opium of the people? Nothing was ever less an opiate than this religion of dissatisfaction with the status quo."

We are not a religion that believes that the world has been saved. Far from it. We are sensitive to the suffering all around us. We recognise that this world is far from perfect; and that's why we believe that there is still a lot of work for us to do; that God is calling on us to finish the job. And, it is on the 9th of Av in particular that we train ourselves to be sensitive to the evil around us, and to its underlying causes.

Famously, the rabbis taught that it was because of the baseless hatred that Jews had toward one another that God allowed the Temple to be destroyed (Tractate Yoma 9b). More recently, it has become popular to say that if the Temple was destroyed by baseless hatred – by people hating one another without cause – then it is time to love people without cause – that baseless love is what will bring us into the Messianic age.

Once upon a time, I was moved by that message. But now, I'm not so sure. I have two seemingly conflicting reasons to think that baseless love might be a bad idea. First: Perhaps there are times at which it is appropriate to hate. I remember a lecture by my teacher, Rabbi Shmuel Nacham. He presented an argument between Nachmanides and Ibn Ezra. According to his reading of the argument, Nachmanides held that hatred is always bad. Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, held that hatred is only bad when it is baseless; but, if you investigate, and find that you have been wronged, and if you give the offender an opportunity to make amends and he spurns you, then your hatred is no longer baseless. You can hate away. Love the sinner, hate the sin – as they say – but still, you're going to be hating something. After all, the Bible teaches us that there is “A time to love and a time to hate” (Ecclesiastes 3:8).

Right now, with rabbis bringing our religion into disrepute, with their racism, their (alleged) criminality, their misogyny (regarding Women of the Wall), and their homophobia, there is a lot of reason to hate. To whitewash all of these shameful incidents behind a glossy veneer of baseless love for our rabbis, and for anyone else, would be to desensitize ourselves to evil; the opposite of what Tisha B’Av is about.

My second reason for disliking baseless love cuts against my first reason. You shouldn't love people for no reason. You should love them for a good reason. Rabbi Yehuda Amital, of blessed memory, once derided the notion that religious people should extend an attitude of baseless love toward the irreligious – as if the irreligious don't really deserve our love, but that we'll love them anyway. On the contrary, Amital said:

"There are many dedicated members of our society … [who are non-religious and deserve our love]: members of the security services who vigilantly protect us, boys who give three years to the army, doctors who work for meager wages rather than seek their fortunes overseas, and many others. If someone does not share our religious commitment, it does not mean he has no values, and it does not mean that he has no just claim to our love."

The challenge isn't merely to love everybody blindly. The challenge is to find grounds in everybody you meet to make your love for them justified.

It may sound as though I am contradicting myself: one the one hand I'm saying that there is a time to hate, and on the other hand I'm saying that we should be able to find grounds to love every single person because of who and what they are. But, perhaps there is no conflict. Perhaps it is possible to hate those parts - character traits or actions - of a person that are worthy of hatred, whilst loving those parts of a person that are worthy of loving. A good place to start with is ourselves.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray as they gather for the mourning ritual of Tisha B'Av at the Western Wall, July 16, 2013.Credit: AP

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