Sunday, January 18, 2015

This Christmas, Let’s Learn the Dignity of Difference

(This was published in a shortened French version in Le Devoir)

Quebec has come a long way since last Christmas.  A year ago, we were mired in the ugly debate over the so-called “charter of values”, a proposed ban on religious symbols in government jobs that divided the province. A bizarre illustration of the 5 banned religious symbols made religious minorities feel like they were on the Quebec’s “Most Wanted” list. Even worse, the PQ was willing to countenance open bigotry. Later in the campaign, Pauline Marois said nothing while absurd tales about “Kosher taxes” and “rich McGill students” were circulated by prominent PQ supporters.

In the beginning of December last year, the city of Cote Saint Luc protested the Charter by inviting a Priest to light a Christmas tree and a Rabbi to light a Menorah in front of city hall. I was at the rally, and as an Orthodox Rabbi, it was the first time I had ever attended a Christmas tree lighting.

So what was I thinking when the Christmas tree was lit? To be honest, Jews have some uncomfortable baggage regarding Christmas. In medieval Europe, Christmas was a time of fear and loathing for Jews. Violence against Jews often occurred during Christmas, from blood libels in the 1200’s to a pogrom in Warsaw in 1881. But today, the situation is quite different; on the contrary, modern Jews experience a “December Dilemma”, when virtually everyone else celebrates Christmas, and Jews are left feeling like an ambivalent guest at a party, the man standing outside in the cold pressing his face against the window to see what’s going on. Because of this, in the past I wasn’t 100% comfortable listening to Christmas carols. 

But this time I profoundly moved. Here we were, at a rally to protect the religious rights of Sikhs, Jews and Muslims, and a group of Christians were lighting their Christmas tree in solidarity! Instead of being a divisive force, religion was bringing Jews and Christians together and demonstrating that religious belief can be a force for unity and dialogue.

Undoubtedly, many of the charter’s supporters were political opportunists, and some of them were out and out bigots and demagogues. But there were some idealists who truly believed secularism can bring greater peace and tranquility. They see religion as a dangerous force in the world, the cause of war and strife. So in the Charter they set out to marginalize religion, in order to foster greater unity.

What I saw at the joint Christmas tree and Menorah lighting is precisely what these idealists missed. Their assumption is unity is based on similarity; if we can get everyone to have the same beliefs and share the same culture, we will have a peaceful society. But this is profound mistake. Unity is possible without unanimity; in fact, we have a stronger unity when we learn how to embrace diversity.

After the World Trade Center attacks, the former Chief Rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks, was challenged to explain how religion can avoid violence. In response, he wrote a book entitled The Dignity Of Difference. He argues that the desire to universalize one’s worldview is the primary cause of political conflict; the more we demand everyone to act alike, the more likely we are to fight over differences.

Sacks makes a strong case for the idea that diversity must be respected in order for man to live in harmony. (He sees this lesson in the biblical narrative of the Tower of Babel). Sacks also utilizes the Talmudic phrase “ways of peace” to serve as the paradigm of interfaith relationships. He reminds us that peace is a powerful religious value in itself, and the ability to bond with people who don’t share our beliefs is a primary religious responsibility.

This lesson is an important one for Quebec, and for all Canadians. At this first Christmas after the defeat of the Charter, we need to remember the dignity of difference, that good will for all is a critical ethical and religious value. And for myself, a Jew living in a sea of Christmas celebrations, Christmas reminds me of the friendships that respect I share with people of all faiths and all backgrounds.

A few years ago, in an article in the New York Times, several Jewish professionals told the reporter how they cover shifts for their Christian colleagues to enable them to celebrate Christmas at home. Dr. Robert van Amerongen, an Orthodox Jew who is director of pediatric emergency service at New York Methodist Hospital, told the newspaper that “although he is senior enough to be able to take Christmas off, he said, he always works. ''That just infuses good will,'' he said”.

This example is one we need to embrace. Good will is another expression of the “ways of peace”; and as we learned in Quebec in the last year, good will is something precious. Hopefully this Christmas, we will continue to embrace the dignity of difference.

No comments: