My speech at the Conference on Persecution of Faith in the world – Prague, Czech Republic
Today I would like to dedicate a moment to reflect on the persecution that is incited and perpetrated in the name of religion to others who believe differently or for their lack of believe.
Religion provides us with values that are of paramount importance for a life of happiness, respect, freedom and spirituality. Organised structures like religious institutions are some of the most efficient ways to achieve humanitarian and peaceful actions with a large impact.
Religion nurtures community, it unites family, it guides us through challenging times and gives us hope to rebuild. Fear and awe of god means that we ONLY fear god and makes us fearless. Belief in god means that you do not bow down to any megalomaniac autocrat. Your loyalty is to truth and the god of the universe. Love of god means that you are committed to the wellbeing and respect of humans who are created in the divine image. The true love of god s the love of your fellow.
Faith can give limitless energy and allow you to accomplish your life mission.
For that reason, it is worrying when these very ideas are exploited to persecute and bring suffering to others. And the fact that all too often we witness the phenomenon of persecution in the name of faith, begs the question: how come religion is so easily manipulated into violence when we claim that faith and religion is pure love? Pondering on this should awake in us more responsibility for the ultimate outcome of our faith and focus less to blame politics or outside factors.
Much of the persecution of faith comes from other religious groups who represent the majority, other times by governments and political entities that utilise religion or ideology to advance their agenda and oppress those who ascribe to different faiths or schools of thought.
We have seen throughout history that those who seek to oppress, denigrate, and persecute another group, first they devote a long period to convince their own people to dehumanise that group.
The Hutu government in Rwanda spend years leading up to the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi using all its propaganda machinery to spread bigotry and hatred of the Tutsi. Tutsis were now called inyenzi – cockroach.
The Nazis spend more than 6 years spreading propaganda against Jews before 1939 in a psychological strategy to corrupt the minds of Germans with the dehumanization of the Jews. They called them “Jewish parasite” and “Untermenschen” – less than human.
In both cases the genocide would have not been possible without the cruel dehumanization period. The actual genocide is just the final result. To perpetrate their assault on humanity, they first need to attack the psychology and sanity of their own people so they can later attack others.
As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said it: Hatred does more harm to the hater than to the hated.
Religious groups who oppress other minorities use similar strategies. From young age they inculcate the hatred to the “unbeliever” or the “idol worshiper” so the members of the group stop seeing the others as mere humans. They now view them as an enemy of their faith.
Although the intentions are not always as nefarious as in the 2 cases mentioned earlier, they focus on the same means with the end of solidify their group identity through the hate of the other. Too often it results in physical violence and mob behaviour.
Therefore I would like to rethink with you, the place of institutions in society. Perhaps when we understand their intrinsic value, we can identify the outer layers around them.
Let me share with you a Chasidic teaching: When god commands the Hebrews to build a Temple in the desert and eventually culminates with the Temple in Jerusalem: The Torah says: Veasu li Mikdash – And you will make for me a Sancrtuary, Veshachanti Betocham – And I will dwell in their midst.
The rabbis of the Mishnah noticed something here and comment the following: The Torah did not say “And I will dwell in IT” in the sanctuary. But “in THEM-in their MIDS” . So the Rabbis deduce that the true dwelling place of god is not the temple but BETOCH KOL ECHAD VEECHAD in the hearts of every single person.
Rabbi Menachem Schneerson goes on to explain this further: Why did the rabbis state their opinion in the negative form when they said, “In IT its NOT written” when they could have just state the point in a positive fashion, they could have said it this way: “It is written In their Mids so as to teach us that The divine dwelling place is in the heart of every single person”.
He argues that the negative statements: In IT – In the temple – IS NOT written. It is a powerful statement on its own.
The place of God is not in the sanctuary. Institutions do not own the presence of god. God dwells in the heart of those who let him in. In the minds and positive doings of people who do their humble contribution to better this world.
Once this fierce spirit is present with determination in the people, it can also be reflected in the Sanctuary – It can be represented by the institution. But the institution is a mere reflection of the divine fire of faith, love, and hope that people nurture inside them.
And not from the institution to the people.
Allow me to extrapolate here. Organised religion, Political groups, Governments, and ideological movements should be servicing free minds. Leaders need, more than anyone else, humility to understand their position as a servant to their members, they create an environment where people can connect, have more freedom, respect each other, foster education and cultivate more lucidity and wisdom.
A true leader makes leaders, not followers.
So, an organization is a tool in service. But sometimes that relationship can become distorted, the tool becomes the master and it starts demanding the sacrifice of the owner for its own sake – In religion we consider that situation as Avoda Zara – Serving Idols – When we become confused and the harmony in our relationship with the natural world is broken.
An obvious question arises here: If you want your tool to perform the task impeccably, you need to dedicate it time cure it, oil it, sharpen it and why not decorated it and add that special touch. Nothing wrong about that. Since prehistoric times humans like to beautify their tools beyond their level of productivity. We call that art and its beautiful. Where do we draw the line between enhancing an instrument and worshiping it?
So the question is: How do we distinguish who is serving who?
The answer can be quite simple: The tool is a passive object and has no agenda. The hammer does not aspire to grow a bigger head or to hit better nails. The hammer is ready to serve for the construction of the builder.
The midrash puts it this way: when you see a house you praise the builder not the hummer.
You can appreciate and recognise the high edge machines used for the house but you congratulate the Maker.
Tristan Harris in the “Social Dilemma” Netflix documentary, was asked about exactly this ’’Tool dilemma’’ concerning modern technology and social media and I found his answer very enlightening: The moment your tool starts having its own goals you should ask yourself who is serving who in this relationship of interest. When you or your attention become the product, you may be the one serving the tool and not the other way around. When Social media platform start mining your attention to sell more ads, they stopped being a mere facilitator to your social interests.
I feel we encounter similar challenges when we create institutions and interact with them.
The answer lies within us. We can learn to have a better harmony interacting the world around us.
The name of god shall be used in coherence with what it represents. If the ultimate mission of your group is to make good, see to it that no means are used that contradict the higher end.
The clearer this is our minds, the more we live up to a life of honesty and courage, the greater the impact will be. We have to choose and support organizations who promote the values of respect of the other.
Religious groups that support persecution should hear the voices of discord and disagreement, especially from their own members. Staying silent is condoning.
We can deconstruct hatred. We must inculcate freedom, respect, and transmit that every time we see a human face, we are seeing in her or him the divine image. Created with godly faculties and potential for love, freedom, knowledge and wisdom.
Step by step, person by person and action by action, we can shape cultures and ultimately it becomes the norm.
May god protect and bless all those who suffer and are persecuted for their ideas and for who they are.
Rabbi Avi Tawil