The Cartoon Controversy: A Jewish Perspective

Respecting the Sacred

Delivered at the Iftar of the Interfaith Dialog Center
Hilton Hotel - Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey
October 10, 2006
Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner

E akshem la. First off, I’d like to extend my gratitude to Dr. Levent Koc, and to all the supporters of the Interfaith Dialog Center. It was my great pleasure to join the Iftar of the Turkish Cultural Center last week in Manhattan at the Waldorf –Astoria and to hear dignitaries such as Senator Hilary Clinton as they took the podium. But to be honest, I feel a lot more at home right here in the Garden State. The food is just as good, you all are much more relaxed and better looking than the Manhattan crowd, and I do not have to pay $45 to park my car.

Our topic tonight is respecting the sacred. It sounds like a noble idea. But what do we mean by the sacred? Or we could ask the question in another way: What is sacred in your community? And how did you learn to see certain objects as sacred?

When I think of that question, I think of my earliest memories. I think of the white tablecloth my mother would spread out on the table for holidays and the Sabbath. I think of the prayer shawl, the tallit, my father would drape over his shoulders. I think of the torah scrolls in the synagogue, which we treated with great respect.

But we can not talk about respecting the sacred without talking about disrespecting the sacred. I want to share two stories that touch on this subject.

Four years ago, a controversial exhibit was opening at the Jewish Museum in New York. I love the museum, and one of my oldest friends works at the museum. And I have also had the wonderful experience to be part of the planning of a particular exhibit at the museum. But this controversial exhibit was raising some difficult issues. The exhibit focused on young artists who used Nazi imagery in their artwork. Knowing that it would spark anger in the community, the directors asked a group of rabbis to preview the exhibit. I happened to be one of them. Most of the pieces in the exhibit were interesting conceptual pieces – a lot of sculpture of one sort or another. It did not anger me in the least bit. But one piece was deeply troubling to me. It made my stomach turn. The piece was a digitally altered photograph. The original photograph, taken by Life magazine’s Margaret Burke White, was a picture of the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp. In the picture are a few survivors, malnourished, their bones poking through their skin, lying on wooden barracks. The artists had used Photoshop software to insert himself into the picture, and he was in the barracks, and he was holding a can of Diet Coke. I did not find this funny. In fact, I found it to be profane. That photo was a photograph of a crime scene in which Jewish people were stripped of their dignity, enslaved, and de-humanized. I had the choice: Do I stage a protest outside the museum? Do I call for the museum director’s resignation? Do I write a scathing op-ed? What should I do to stop such a disgrace from occurring?

When I first saw the cartoons printed in the Danish Newspaper Jyllands-Posten, I thought about how Muslims might view them. I think that feeling that I had when standing in front of that photoshopped piece helped me to understand. Mohammed is depicted with a bomb in his turban? The one whose name is followed by “peace be upon him” is depicted as a madman?

Many Muslims, around the world, were deeply offended by these sketches. But the media chose to focus on the most violent reactions, and the world watched the flames rise and read the reprts -- fifteen Nigerians were killed in riots, two Afghanis, two Iraqis, a Somali teenager. During that time, many people that I spoke with said : ‘see, they do not believe in the freedom of the press’ or ‘see, they are truly violent’ or perhaps the worst: ‘see, Muslims do not value human life like we do.”

At the time, I spoke with a Muslim friend of mine, Nurah Amatuallah Jeter. Nurah was very upset about the cartoons, but she said: “Sometimes the best thing to do is to just keep quiet. The more people complain the more press these people get. Why spend your time burning flags when people are going hungry?”

In many ways, Nurah is right. But should we keep quiet when something sacred to us is disrespected?

Just this week there was more bad news on this front: Danish state TV on Friday aired amateur video footage showing young members of the anti-immigrant Danish Peoples’ party engaged in a competition to draw humiliating cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.The images, filmed by artist Martin Rosengaard Knudsen who posed as a member of the party for several months to document attitudes among young members, show a number of young people drinking, singing and drawing cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohammed. One cartoon appeared to depict the Prophet Mohammed as a camel, urinating and drinking beer.

I have here in my hand, a cartoon that shows the way in which many people probably view this debate. On one side, what appears to be a Muslim man, represented by an Arab headdress, burns a Danish flag. On the other side a Dane, holds a torch labeled freedom of the press. They are both igniting the world around them. Many feel that this is an issue pitting freedom of speech against the claims of religious truth. It is as if the world is a big football game – the secularists vs. the religious extremists. Who are you rooting for?

I want to suggest that this is a dangerous and narrow-minded way to view the world. Our challenge today, In America and around the world, is to find the right balance between traditional religious values and a society which affords us freedom of expression.

I ask this question first and foremost as a parent. I have three young children at home. It is easy to see freedom at work in their lives. My children have been exposed to a world of television, internet, video games and all the rest. They are also taught by living in a free society that kids can say anything, do anything, and buy anything. And my wife and I ask: How do we educate our children to value that which is holy – not just prayer, study, the festivals and Sabbath days, but their bodies. family relationships, obligations to the community, and to society?

In Hebrew, God’s name is Ha-kadosh – the sacred. And if you simply know that one word, kadosh, that one root, k-d-sh, then you know the sacred. (In Arabic the word for Jerusalem is Al-Kuds – the Sacred, same root.) When my wife and I stood under the wedding canopy more than a decade ago and said our vows, it is called Kiddushin, when I perform any ritual commanded in the Torah I say a blessing with the word Kidishanu, when I mourn I recite the Kaddish, when I enter into the sabbath the time is called kodesh. For Jews, the sacred is not something far off in some sacred mountain hideout or locked up in a box, but is woven into life itself. The sacred is with us here in the food we eat, in our friendship, in our very breath. It is in that context that we try to raise our children.

God is ha-kadosh – the sacred. And we, who are created in God’s image, are vessels for this sacred. For this reason, the greatest disrespect of the sacred is to ridicule, torture, or murder a human being. The other major violation of the sacred is to abuse, or wantonly destroy the fruit trees and earth that enable us all to live and thrive. This is something we are reminded of with the dates of the Iftar dinner.

After God, humans, and the natural world, the sacred in Judaism focuses on those objects which serve to remind us of our connection and obligation to God. The most holy object is the scroll on which we write the Torah. We value language, and the scrolls on which we write the torah, the mezuzot we place on our doorposts, and the tefillin we wear during morning prayer, become signs of God’s presence. For us, teaching our children these words is the primary responsibility of a parent. Literacy is holy, and we celebrate our children’s entrance into the world of books and rejoice when our daughters and sons chant from the Torah for the first time.

If you feel that words are powerful, then you know that they can heal the world or they can tear it apart.

And this takes us back to the controversy over art and cartoons. Art deliberately take us out of the world of words. In some ways, that is their unique gift. The poet Charles Bukowski once wrote that “An intellectual is a man who says a simple thing in a difficult way; an artist is a man who says a difficult thing in a simple way.”

Because art is simple, it has emotional power, and it can invoke both tranquility and anger. But it is with both emotions and words that we respond. In the words of Marcel Duchamp, “The work of art is always based on the two poles of the onlooker and the maker, and the spark that comes from the bipolar action gives birth to something - like electricity. But the onlooker has the last word.”

We have the last word – our reactions to those who provoke us are vital. And for this reason, dialogue is so important. When I was confronted with the Concentration Camp art that I saw in the Jewish Museum, my emotions wanted a street protest, in fact what I really wanted to do was tear down the artwork. But what I ultimately wanted was a change in people’s hearts – I wanted that which I felt was sacred to be respected as a result of a dialogue. Luckily, I was able to work with some people at the museum to invite in people across faith traditions to discuss the works before the exhibit opened. We then worked on a guide to the exhibit and we spoke with reporters and we wrote op-eds and we got the word out. It was an opportunity to promote understanding. It was a healing dialogue.

And I sense that you here tonight, who support the great work of the Interfaith Dialog Center, are doing the same by hosting this gathering and by supporting works throughout the year that help many Christians, Jews, and Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs from many nations to understand what it means to be a Turkish – American Muslim. You are doing work of healing. Healing us from the sound-byte culture that grabs our attention for a moment but robs us of our humanity. We do our work because we believe that if we are in dialogue – if we speak to one another, if we learn what each other sees as sacred, then our words have more power than any art or cartoon.

I want to end with a story. Each year, at Auburn Theological Seminary, we sponsor a youth program that brings together Muslim, Christian and Jewish youth from the U.S., the Middle East, Ireland, and South Africa. It is a program called Face to Face/Faith to Faith in which we bring enemies together to the same table. We spend three weeks together in intense dialogue. At one point, I helped to bring all the participants to a Mosque, Synagogue and Church in NYC. In the program, the greatest tension is between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And right after the program this year, war broke out in Lebanon and Israel. But during those intense weeks of bombings and missiles, one of the Israeli participants, a fifteen year old from Jerusalem, sent an email:

“I have a mosque 200 meters away from my house—the mosque of Beit Sira. Every Friday the prayers come out of the mosque and throw stones and patrol bombs at Israeli cars, after their imam washes their brain against us. In the past few years things have become so out of control that the prayers entered my neighborhood and put bombs outside the doors of some apartments. Someone from my neighborhood opened his door when a bomb exploded, and he lost his hand.

Only now I truly understand how unbelievably important Face to Face is because, to be honest, before I came to camp and met all the Muslims who came there, and before I visited a mosque, I was exposed only to the darkest side of Islam.When I came to Face to Face I met the other side of Islam and now I know that peace is possible.”

We need to meet one another Face to Face to know that peace is possible. I thank you all for making this work happen through the Interfaith Dialog Center and I bless you in your efforts build an America where religious freedom and religious diversity are celebrated.