Monday, July 23, 2007

8 ’Av 5767: National Vanilla Ice Cream Day


Today’s news and commentary:In place of a weird thing, since today is during the Nine Days, I am going to do a little sermonizing.

Recently I finished reading Sabbatai Ṣevi: the Mystical Messiah, 1626-1676 by Gershom Scholem. Shabbethay Sevi was hailed as Mashiah (the Messiah) in 1665, and his movement took the Jewish world by storm, spreading across Europe and the Middle East with astonishing rapidity. Convinced that the Messianic era was at hand, there was an unprecedented outbreak of repentance and pietism. Much of this took the form of asceticism—extended fasts, self-flagellation, rolling around naked in the snow, and the like—according to the strictures of R. Yishaq Luryah. The overall level of observance increased. Men let their peyoth grow out. The unmarried got married. People made sure to support the needy. Commerce came to a virtual standstill as people devoted themselves to Torah study full-time. I am unaware of anything remotely like this since the days of King Hizqiyyahu (Hezekiah).

Even though it turned out that Shabbethay Sevi was not Mashiah, one may ask why this period is not remembered today as Jewry’s finest hour. On the contrary, there has been a deliberate effort to blot out the memory of this episode to the fullest extent possible. And this is because this event had a tragic downside: it was also a time of great internal strife. Belief in Shabbethay Sevi, though common, was not universal; there were nonbelievers and those who were unsure what to believe as well. Unfortunately, Shabbethay Sevi and his would-be prophet, Nathan of ‘Azza, demanded blind faith that Shabbethay was Mashiah—a demand sure to alienate anyone rational who did not reach the desired conclusion. To make things worse, Shabbethay and his followers were not above using violence and terrorism against nonbelievers. This only raised the animosity between believer and nonbeliever. Since the new movement did not end with the apostasy or even Shabbethay’s death, the animosity between the two parties went on for over a century. Even at the time of the Vilna Ga’on (1720-1797), the charge of being a Sabbatian was still considered a serious one. With the high levels of mutual animosity, those who still clung to the belief that Shabbethay was Mashiah eventually went underground, growing ever more radical, and many apostatized themselves and have been lost to the Jewish people. I am not clear whether they they have survived at all to the present.

The lesson from all this is that intolerance is socially destructive, a lesson that people in general still have not learned and which should be obvious to anyone with any idea of what goes on on Earth. It is all too easy to forget that being even flat-out wrong is not the same thing as being evil and that being even clearly right is not the same thing as being good. Furthermore, using violence to try to enforce one’s being right only makes a mockery of it; for if one cannot prove one is right by evidence and argument alone, how can one expect using violence or silencing one’s opponents will make one genuinely more convincing? While tolerating those who disagree may be a less dramatic approach to the battle for truth, it is at least an approach we can all live with.

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