Thursday, January 19, 2012

Can extremism ever be Kosher?

Rabbi Marc Rosenstein writes the Galilee Diary in the Union for Reform Judaism's 10 Minutes of Torah e-mail and blog. Today's struck me as particularly worthy of sharing and inviting your commentary. He references a bill put before the Knesset by MK Anastassia Michaeli of the Yisrael Beiteinu party. This bill seeks to make illegal the sound of the Muezzin's call to worship for Muslims. Again, I am concerned about the extremes to which some people believe we can go in our intolerance. I will not be blogging on the Haredi riots over the arrest of some in their community for collecting tzedakah money for fraudulent causes. We need to be a light to the nations, not another example of extremists perverting their own belief system. But read what Marc has to say. And weigh in.


Call to prayer
by Marc J. Rosenstein
...With the realization that our brothers are capable, in their moral qualities, of relating in this way to the members of another people and of crudely desecrating their holy places, I am forced to wonder, if the situation is like this now, what will be our relationship to others when we finally do achieve ruling power in the land of Israel. If this is the Messiah, then "let him come but let me not see him."
         -Ahad Ha'am, in a letter on news from Palestine, 1913.
Typically, a village mosque has two religious functionaries, an imam, who leads prayer, preaches, teaches, and provides pastoral care and communal leadership - and the muezzin, a sort of combination of cantor and shammes, who deals with the day-to-day administration and upkeep of the mosque.  The major function of the muezzin is to call the public to prayer, five times a day, from the tower of the mosque (and to relay other important communications as they come up, most commonly death announcements).

In Israel, both of these functionaries are government employees, like [Orthodox] rabbis.  In many villages, one or both are part-time positions, and I know imams who also work as gym teachers, auto mechanics, etc.  I think that most muezzins are autodidacts; most imams receive some kind of professional training - at seminaries in Jerusalem or Jordan or Egypt; some, as in the Orthodox community, are privately ordained by a local teacher.  The division of religious affairs in the ministry of the interior, which is responsible for non-Jewish religious services, provides in-service courses and occasional seminars and enrichment programs for imams and muezzins.

The reason that mosques have minarets is to provide a high platform for the muezzin to chant the call to prayer so that it will be heard far and wide; indeed, traditionally, the municipal boundaries of a village were considered to be defined by the area in which the muezzin could be heard.  Today there are loudspeakers mounted on the minarets, and the muezzin chants from downstairs - and can be heard over a much wider radius than in former, unplugged, times (in answer to one FAQ, by the way, the chanting is still live, not recorded).

The advent of electronic amplification has led, it seems to me, to a diminution in quality of life for village residents.  Often I have been visiting near a mosque - in a school, on the street, in a living room - when it was time for the call to prayer, and been frustrated and annoyed by the blast of sound that makes conversation impossible for several minutes (think of a low-flying jet).  And for the locals, this happens every day, five times.  I wonder if this nuisance is seen as a result of incompetence, a manifestation of religious assertiveness, or simply a fact of nature/culture that is taken for granted.

Our home in Shorashim is on a hillside overlooking the Hilazon valley; it is about a mile across the valley as the crow flies, from our bedroom window to the minaret of the mosque in the village of Shaab.  When we first arrived, we were very conscious of the muezzin's call, especially the one that comes between 4:00 and 5:00 am.  However, it didn't take long for us to tune it out; if I happen to be awake at the time of the morning call, I notice it, but I don't think it has actually awakened me in many years.  Indeed, I find the plaintive chant pleasing.  And while my Arabic is rudimentary, I can identify a funeral announcement and generally even make out the name of the deceased.

Not all our neighbors are as laid-back about this as we are, and one hears complaints about "noise pollution" and the disturbance to sleep caused by the muezzin's call.  Now, a number of them are enthusiastic about a bill proposed by a member of Knesset to enforce decibel limits on the loudspeakers of houses of prayer.  Needless to say the bill was not submitted by Arab parliamentarians concerned about quality of life in their villages, but by Jewish lawmakers seeking to protect Jews from Muslim noise pollution.

All those centuries we had to suffer from the wailing of the muezzin - or the cacophony of the church bells every hour; finally we have our own state so we can shut them up.  Somehow I don't think that this is what Herzl (or Achad Ha'am) had in mind.