All forms of religion make special claims. After all, there have to be special advantages for offering your loyalty and sometimes your life to a religion. For Christians, among others, the most special of all claims is that of redemption. The narrative begins with the human species cast into sin (the fall from grace brought about by Adam and Eve), and history thereafter is the struggle to regain that state of grace. Jesus and the self-sacrifice he made provides the moral leadership and relieves mankind (sic) of the burden of guilt, paving the way for being redeemed and qualified for entry to paradise.
One consequence of this is that Christianity becomes an intercessory religion, which is to say that a priest is need to ‘intercede’ between the person and God in order to negotiate their way into heaven. The priest has the qualities of purity that allow him (her) to play this role. Christian prayers are collective, led by the priest.
For Jews, the burden of redemption is lifted. There was no ‘fall’, no opening deficit to life. On the contrary. Jewish liturgy has it that Jews are the ‘chosen’ race, selected from among other peoples as a leading moral light. This gives Jewish people the right, on birth, to enter heaven – so there is little role for and intermediary. Judaism is not an intercessory religion. The Rabbi has no special status, other than being more learned and well-read. When a Jewish person prays this is a personal conversation directly with God. Jews do pray together, but as a collection of individuals.
Various ritual assumptions and practices reinforce the Jewish sense of separateness – one being dietary practices. Jews cannot (easily) eat alongside non-Jews – meat and milk products have to be carefully kept apart, for example, and what can be eaten and how is carefully prescribed in some detail. Jewish males are circumcised. These same apply to other religions – there are many overlaps between Jews and Muslims, for example (unsurprising, given how close together these two ethnic groups have lived historically, their common ancestries, and how much mutual conversion has gone on between them).
In summary, Jewish people assert their difference and set themselves apart. I was raised in a thriving Jewish community and kept apart from non-Jews. There were areas of Liverpool where it was unlikely to find a Jewish family, and I never entered those areas – for the most part, living in that part of the city (Allerton/Childwall) where most Jews lived and travelled only to my school and back. Oddly, I still think of the No. 3 bus as one that I would never catch, for it took you to the heart of Catholic Liverpool. I was raised by socialist, activist parents who, nonetheless, gave me an enduring sense of being different. I sat outside with other Jewish boys during the early morning Christian school assembly, filing in at the end under the silent gaze of everyone else to hear the day’s administrative announcements. My difference was on daily, painful display.
But that sense of difference has been a positive force in my life, in what you might find an interesting way. It fed directly and consciously into my role as an educational researcher. The role was one of impartial observer of educational events. For example, I might enter a classroom to look at the quality of a new curriculum, let’s say. In order to discover the quality of education in that classroom, rather than go in with pre-set standards against which to judge it, I have to be impartial. I might well see a sparse classroom in Summerhill School with most kids choosing not to attend, or else a classroom with full lines of kids sitting silent under the authoritarian rule of a strict teacher. In neither case do I assume ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ – I am merely interested in effects, their underlying causes and the kinds of learning that arise. It may well be that, under the circumstances, kids sitting quietly compliant and subdued are learning lessons about their lack of agency under regimes of authority, while kids in the Summerhill classroom (or outside building a tree-house) are learning freedom of expression and self-discipline. The more separated and ‘disinterested’ I can be, the more open I am to possible interpretations and understandings – some of which others committed to certain viewpoints might well find less than savoury.
Having been brought up in a discrete community – something, I suppose, of a social ghetto – gave me a sense of living behind a boundary. I was accustomed to looking ‘across’ a boundary at life’s mainstream – it was this that allowed me to be impartial looking in at classrooms
In my youth antisemitism was a live and public issue. I remember antisemitic graffiti on walls and defiled cemeteries, being shouted at – something I, at least, have not been aware of for many years. This merely reinforced my sense of difference and even ‘specialness’. Though useful intellectually in the way I describe, it is something I regret. There is nothing special about me or my fellow Jews. As I have explained a few times in these Blogs, there is certainly no genetic/racial distinction between me and non-Jews. Ethnically Jewish people are distinct in that we have certain beliefs and practices – a culture – that is unique. But this is no less true of Muslims, Gypsies, doctors, circus clowns and a tribe in Papuan New Guinea. We are the same in our difference, and we celebrate our difference, and we feel more comfortable in our own version of difference. We are habituated to it.
That we choose to be separate is another matter. Fair enough, all cultures patrol their boundaries so as to be sure that they retain what is distinct about them. Jewish people don’t like their children marrying non-Jews; doctors will not let someone practice medicine who has not been appropriately qualified. The easiest way to maintain a boundary is to claim exclusiveness and to strive to be separate. That’s understandable. But it is not helpful in the pursuit of Humanism. It too easily leads to claims of being not just different but ‘better’ or ‘preferable’, and it does sometimes lead to suspicion and envy – it encourages others to wonder just what goes on behind the closed curtains of a cultural boundary. What conspiracies, sins, exploiting unfair advantages, and so on. Antisemitism thrives on it.
Perhaps the overriding danger – and one aspect of antisemitism, Islamophobia and other hostilities towards ethnic groups – is that the claim of cultural ‘specialness’ can be felt to create a sense of ‘otherness’. Any cultural claim, belief or practice involves a denial of those who don’t belong to that culture – those who are held to be ‘other’….those separated from, those without the ‘specialness’, those living outside the boundary. This may be especially true of those who may not be aware of their own cultural boundary, who do not have the same opportunities to celebrate their difference. This often defines a host culture, the mainstream, the majority. Ethnic minority groups and cultures typically and constantly reaffirm their difference through observed rituals – eating rituals, common prayer, dress-codes, marriage rites and so on. Difference, habit and specialness are front and forward in the consciousness. A host culture may not seek that constant reaffirmation and not have it as a continuing celebration of cultural identity.
In our inequitable society there is a cost to separateness, and that cost is the potential for prejudice and hostility. This is not at all to blame those who choose to be separate. All forms of prejudice against cultures, religions and ethnicities are absurd and abhorrent and show a failure of imagination. But it highlights the distinction between difference and separateness.