Sunday, September 30, 2012

Persia and Judaism then and now

Text: Esther: 7: 1-6, 9-10; 9: 20-22 (Esther saves the Jews in Persia)

Six years ago, I was working at a community information agency in Toronto when it hired a new Information Technology manager; and there was a lot about this new colleague which intrigued me. She had an unusual name -- Reema. She had just immigrated from San Francisco but had a British accent; and she looked Middle Eastern despite her red hair.

Reema and I had lunch one day, and I asked her about her background. It turned out that she had been born in Baghdad in Iraq and had lived there till she was five years old. But when she was five, her family had fled the regime of Saddam Hussein, and she had grown up in London.

I then asked her about her family's religious background. To my surprise, she told me that she was Jewish. Like many of Iraq Jews, her family had fled Iraq in the early 1970s when the government of Saddam Hussein began to discriminate again Jews as part of its opposition to Israel.

Reema's story reminded me of something that I had forgotten-- that the Middle East is not an exclusively Muslim territory. Although Islam has been the main religion there since the time of the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th Century, the region continues to have big communities of Christians and Jews as well.

Our reading today from Esther also reminds us of the presence of Jewish communities throughout the Middle East. It tells the story of a Jewish community 2500 years ago in Persia.

What was called Persia then is today called Iran. And unfortunately, there is great tension today between Iran and the Jewish state of Israel. Once again this week at the United Nations in New York, we heard predictions of attacks, of nuclear weapons -- the ones Israel already possesses and the ones that many fear Iran is trying to develop -- and of the coming again of war.

Our reading reminds us that the tension between the different peoples in the Middle East goes back a long way. It also tells us of a time when those tensions were diffused and Jews were able to live within Iran and its empire in freedom. Esther intervened for her people. The King of Persia listened, and they were spared a genocide . . .

One of the most hated people in the world today-- at least in the West -- is Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He threatens Israel with elimination, and sometimes has seemed to deny the historical reality of the Nazi Holocaust of World War II. But Ahmadinejad, when interviewed this week in New York City, talked about the continuing existence of a Jewish community in Iran. He also said that he would be OK if one of his children married a Jewish person.

The Prophet Mohammad who founded Islam 1400 years ago decreed that the so-called People of the Book -- the Jews and the Christians -- be tolerated under Islam. The policy exists with good reason since much of Islam is based on the stories of the Hebrew and Christian Bible. The Islamic holy book, the Koran, upholds Abraham, Moses, and Jesus as prophets of Islam.

Until recently, most governments in Muslim majority countries have followed Mohammad's lead and tolerated Jewish and Christian communities.

Unfortunately, much of this toleration has withered away in the the last 60 years. With the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, with its expansion into Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria in the wars of 1948, 1967, and 1973, and with the massive military support for Israel by the United States -- despite Israel's defiance of 45 years of United Nations' resolutions on illegal occupation of Palestinian land -- tensions between Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities have grown.

There used to be large Jewish communities in countries like Iraq and Iran. But over the last 60 years, they have become much smaller. The same thing, to a lesser extent, is true of the region's Christians. It is a sad tale told in many parts of the world in the 20th and 21st centuries -- ethnic cleansing.

Thank God, then, for countries like Canada where people like Reema can come and build a new life after years spent in Iraq, England, and the U.S. . . .

The book of Esther, from which today's reading is taken, is an unusual one. It is one of only two books in the Bible named after a woman. (The other one is Ruth). And it is the only book in the entire Bible that doesn't mention God, not even once.

For both these reasons, many religious leaders in the ancient past, both Jewish and Christians, argued that Esther should not be included in the Bible. But due to popular pressure, a Jewish council in the 3rd Century finally agreed to include Esther in the Hebrew Bible. By the end of the fourth century, Roman Catholic councils in the West accepted that decision by the rabbis. And at the end of the eight century, Eastern Orthodox councils in Constantinople (now the city of Istanbul in Turkey) also agreed to include Esther in their Hebrew Bible.

The popular pressure to include Esther in the Bible came from ordinary Jewish people. Esther is a short, skilfully written drama about how Esther and her cousin Mordecai foil a plot to kill all the Jews in the Persian empire.

Esther was the Queen of Persia. Unknown to her husband, King Xerxes, who married her for her great beauty, she was also Jewish. The story told in Esther is the basis for the joyous Jewish holiday of Purim, which usually falls in February or March. Purim is the only Jewish holiday that doesn't link back to Moses.

There is a shadow side to the story of Esther, though. When the Jews received the support of King Xerxes 2500 years ago, they went on a rampage against their enemies. Not only was the evil adviser Haman hanged. According to the biblical text, another 75,000 people were also killed. Unfortunately, this sort of tale -- where one injustice leads to a reaction that is also unjust -- is not unusual.

After World War II, one of the main reactions to the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust was the establishment of the state of Israel, which seems just and understandable. But Israel's development, in turn, has led to the expulsion of Palestinians from their lands, many wars, much loss of life, and ongoing problems.

While violent reactions and counter-reactions might be understandable, they are hardly the way forward for either Israeli Jews or Palestinian Muslims or Christians. And as news reports this fall again highlight, conflicts in the Middle East continue to unfold in very scary ways.

The United Church of Canada got a lot of negative attention in the media for the focus given to the Israel-Palestine conflict at its General Council meeting in August. But I think that there are good reasons for our church's focus on Israel and Palestine: our long-standing relationships with Palestinian Christian churches, the fact that Jesus was Jewish and carried out his ministry in what is now Israel and Palestine, and our desire to stand up to racism against both Jews and Muslims in Canada and elsewhere.

Another good reason to spend time and attention on the conflicts in Israel-Palestine is the danger those conflicts pose for further war, even nuclear war. Israel-Palestine is not the only place where Western diplomatic and military might confront the resentment and anger of people who are victims of Western power. But it is probably the most volatile one and the most dangerous for world peace.

This past Wednesday was the most important Jewish holiday of the Year, Yom Kipuur, or the Day of Atonement. This is a day when religious Jews confess their sins and seek repentance and forgiveness. All of us -- Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or none of the above -- have much in our history or lives for which we feel regret. We have much for which to seek forgiveness from God.

Each religion worships God in its own distinct way. But all who trace their roots back to the God of Abraham and the Hebrew Bible are reminded by their traditions that all people are children of God and worthy of respect and love. With the Psalmist, we can say "Our help is in the name of the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth."

So as rumours of war swirl around us today, let us remember that all the diverse people here in Canada and in the volatile regions like the Middle East -- Jews, Muslims, Christians, and people of no religion -- have lived together in harmony in the past. And with God's help, we can live in harmony together again.

Finally, let us all pray for a world filled with peace with justice for all no matter how we or our neighbours worship God.


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