The Greatest Threat To Judaism Is Ignorance
Almost 30 years ago, Metallica penned the lyrics “Arrogance and Ignorance go hand in hand” for their song “Holier Than Thou.” Now, Metallica may not be the place most people go to for thoughtful Jewish discussion, but the lyrics have been running my head since the question of what threatens Jews the most was asked by the Forward. I argue that ignorance threatens Judaism most.
Ignorance comes in two types. The first type of ignorance is simple ignorance: the lack of knowledge of a thing’s existence. Jews, like many other minority faiths in America, are often the victim of ignorance of their actual beliefs and practices. Sure, everyone who has seen a Mel Brooks film thinks they “know” Judaism. However, Judaic philosophy spans many different sects and cultures, thousands of years and texts and the modern thoughts of the 16-million-person debate society called Judaism. While not alone in practicing respect for others, Judaism does not require similarity of belief to go on to What is Next after our lives end. Many Christians, Muslims and others likewise do not believe one need have the same faith as they to get to Heaven, but some of their strictest adherents believe such. They instead rely on their perceptions, or even stereotypes, of whom Jews are. This creates simple ignorance for which the antidote is education.
The other type of ignorance is much more dangerous: willful ignorance. The willfully ignorant person has had the opportunity to experience Judaism, or other faiths and cultures, and still chooses to believe in stereotypes or prejudices, which often lead to hatred. Whether they cannot get past prior learned stereotypes from family, religion or politics, or simply would rather let hatred and ignorance rule them, willful ignorance is dangerous. Judaism’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness when facing people with rigid minds: Judaism grows, evolves, and doesn’t conform, whereas the far right and the far left seek conformity to their ideas.
The leaders of these extreme factions of the Alt-Right and Far Left find the simple ignorance in their followers and turn that into willful ignorance and hatred. Often, the ignorance is mixed with a need to blame others for some perceived slight. What’s the solution? Every ignorant, angry screed must be challenged. There are two ways to challenge it: counter-protest is good when dealing with awareness raising or when a show of public solidarity serves to support the oppressed or to speak to an issue that doesn’t get adequate coverage. The other method is suffocation: don’t show up to a Milo Yannopoulis or Richard Spencer speech, hold a talk far away from the venue where they speak. Give these people no air. Let them speak to empty places so that the echo of their speech is the only thing they’ll hear.
Above all, we must be willing to talk about the broad spectrum of Jewish thought, to engage others and help reduce ignorance, including our own. Hillel said that “The ignorant cannot be pious.” Judaism has a good basis in Torah and in modern philosophy to encourage shared learning with our fellow Jews and non-Jews alike. While it may not be our responsibility to educate those who are bigoted, finding a willing ear can help. Ignorance doesn’t always have to be so, and when we have the chance to share knowledge, by listening and learning through acts of positive engagement, we might just stop or reverse willful ignorance.