Francesco Sisci replies to David Goldman
Why are the Jewish people still here and still so important? Many mighty nations, as David Goldman argued in his How Civilizations Die, have long disappeared with their cults in the fog of history, like the Sumerians, the Trojans, or the Hittites, once masters of large empires.
More nations, home to large religions and peoples, are now verging on the brink of extinction, or even if they are not, they are insignificant in the international debate. For instance, there is noble Zoroastrianism, for centuries the state religion of the Persian Empire, one of the leaders of the world. In the 2nd century AD, it was about to become the state religion of the Roman Empire, and in the 7th century, it was very popular in China and India. Now its followers are perhaps less than a million and are politically insignificant.
Or for instance the mysterious Bon, the religion of ancient Tibet that stirred 7th-century warriors who descended from their highlands to threaten the most formidable empires of the time: the Tang in the east, the Umayyad Arabs in the west, and the Uygur Mongols in the north. Now Bon is the dwindling faith of Tibetans who do not trust the Buddhism of the Dalai Lama or neo-materialism of Beijing.
Or even without going too far one can think of the once fearsome and arcane Druid cult, fought by Caesar and still so scary after 20 centuries as to move 18th century musician Bellini to write his Norma about it. Now it is reduced to folkloric rituals performed by young people in search of ties with nature. Or Jainism, a faith that predated Buddhism and is possibly as old as the religion of Mesopotamia, but now is limited to just a few groups of hermits in India.
Why has the Jewish faith then not simply survived on the fringes of history—like so many of its fellow minority religions—but at times thrived for centuries, being quite central in the cultural and religious life of the Mediterranean? It may be because God wanted the religion to survive, and then it is proof of the Jewish God. This may be true, but like many religious tenets, it is not open for discussion, and so perhaps we should dismiss it here.
Looking for more mundane reasons, perhaps it is not because of the extreme discipline required of the Jews. A) Many religions demand extreme discipline from their followers, and this didn’t avert their extinction. B) Many Jews keep their identity even without much religious practice for a couple of generations.
Maybe then, unlike other religions, which were worlds unto themselves, Jews were not isolated. Jewry had two wings, Christianity and Islam, religions that did not simply spring out of the Jewish faith but also constantly kept close contact with Jewish scriptures and theology. Relations of Christians and Muslims with Jews have been contradictory for sure, crowded with envy, jealousy, admiration, hate, love, and worship. But both Christians and Muslims studied not simply the Jewish sacred book and their language, Hebrew; but also kept a keen interest in what rabbis had to say about their “common” faith and its roots.
Judaism is then the foundation, the mother of Christianity and Islam, the religions that have now managed to convert over half of the world. If Judaism is important to them, then it is important to the world. Moreover, Christians and Muslims have known for centuries that without the Jewish roots their faith is not simply weaker, their faith would wither and die, like a tree without roots. So, despite all the tormented contradictions, the attention of Christians and Muslims has helped Jews to live and at times thrive.
Then anti-Jewish sentiments popping up around the world have to be viewed through this perspective. The fight against Jews is a fight against the roots of Christianity and Islam, and it is thus ultimately aimed at killing Christianity and Islam as they have existed for many centuries. Then to be against the Jews is suicidal, or it is smuggling in a new heathen faith under a coat of pseudo-Christianity or pseudo-Islam.
The people now setting Central Asia and the Middle East on fire, killing anybody who crosses their paths and calling them “infidels,” are actually followers of a devilish cult of destruction, and we should simply not consider them Muslim and ignore the fact they call themselves so. People who join their ranks may do it for a number of reasons, both nationalistic (they hark back to an original identity against western-massification) and political (they may want to take with arms the wealth they cannot get through other, more peaceful means). Their practical roots can be addressed and discussed, but their creed of blood has nothing to do with traditional faiths.
Here, in this common root there is another element: with Islam is under siege by this cult of the devil, will the many peaceful Muslims be the first likely victims of these bloodthirsty pseudo-Muslims? Can Christians and Jews help peaceful, pious Muslims in this very difficult moment?
But also, with this devilish threat, can the faiths of Jewish origin now think of their future in a different fashion compared to past centuries?
The Catholic Saint John of Damascus (675 – 4 December 749)—a Syrian, native Arabic speaker, and son of a senior official of the Umayyad Caliph—was the first Christian to vehemently denounce Islam. Yet he did so in a list of about 100 Christian heresies of the time. That is, Saint John, later considered the father of Scholasticism and with intimate firsthand knowledge of the Arab Empire and its new religion, saw Islam still as a Christian faith, although unorthodox, like the many heresies that had been spawned from the Christian trunk over centuries. The Muslim belief in Christ as a prophet of God (not his son) and the refusal to have images of God were common in other Christian sects. Seven centuries later even Dante in his Inferno cast Mohammed in the ring of heretics: he did not consider him a heathen. Mohammed was, yes, a traitor, but someone who came from the same family. After all, Muslims in some ways might be considered closer to mainstream Christianity than Mormons.
So perhaps the questions are the following: in a moment when Popes are reaching out to so many other branches of Christianity, can they leave behind old fights against heresies that once had reasons, but in the present world hide the many common features of these faiths of Jewish origin? Can they also reach out to pious Muslims under threat of death by the bloodthirsty pseudo-Muslims? Can pious Muslims be open to greater collaboration with Christians in the common cause of the fight against pseudo-Muslims?