From Where I Sit
From Where I Sit

The Views and Personal Opinions of Joel Block

The Jewish New Year 5765 is almost upon us, and it is traditionally a time for reflection. For obvious reasons, I have been thinking a lot about religious fundamentalism. Religious fundamentalism bases itself on an uncompromising interpretation of the scriptural writings of a given religion. In my view, religion must be based on three pillars in order to meet the needs of humankind - holy writings, the mind and the heart. In case of point, I would like to share with you two stories that I heard from my grandmother concerning her days as a young girl in the Ukraine. Since people were not really up on record keeping in those days, I cannot provide dates, only a timeframe – the late 19th or early 20th century.

Grandma grew up in the small town of Ilintsi in the Ukraine. One year, there was a terrible drought, and the people suffered from hunger throughout the year. On the Shabbat before Yom Kippur, the village rabbi, during his sermon, announced to the congregation that they were NOT to fast during Yom Kippur, since, because of the drought, they had already fasted enough during the year.

The second story concerns the Jews of the village, the son of the local nobleman, the village priest, and the local nobleman. I should say before going on that the relationship between the Jews and gentiles of Ilintsi was rather good, considering the general state of things in czarist Russia at that time.

It all started when the son of the local nobleman went into a Jewish-owned store in the village and helped himself to some cigarettes. When the storekeeper asked for payment, the reply came, “Why should I pay you? After the pogrom, you won’t be alive to enjoy the money.” When word of this got around the village, a delegation of Jews went to talk to the local priest, who was more enlightened than many of his colleagues in the Russian Orthodox clergy of the time. Upon hearing the story, the priest organized a procession of villagers, which he led directly to the house of the nobleman. When the procession reached the house, the nobleman came out to see what the commotion was about. The priest then told him the story. The nobleman listened patiently, and when the priest was done speaking, he called his son out from the house. When his son came out the nobleman slapped him hard in the face in front of the villagers, made him pay for the cigarettes that he had taken, and announced in no uncertain terms that there would be no pogrom in his village.

Both the rabbi and the priest were men who were well versed in the scriptures of their respective religions. Both men also had heads and hearts and used their religious knowledge for the general good of the people, and not just for select groups.

Religion that bases itself only on uncompromising interpretation of a book becomes perverted in ways that were previously unimaginable, and we are only now beginning to understand. Heartless, mindless faith never has, and never will, benefit anyone.

I wish you all a Shana Tova U’Metuka (a Good and Sweet Year).

Joel Block, 2004

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Joel Block is a long-time friend of Rabbi Cassorla and has lived in Israel since 1968

Reprinted by permission.