Reading The Divine Comedy as a non-Christian

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Though Dante intended his magnum opus as primarily the story of his spiritual reformation and redemption, and presumed most of his readers would be Christians or future converts, you truly don’t have to share that religion to enjoy it. Many of the themes and lessons can be interpreted in alternate ways, just as Krishna famously tells Arjuna there are many different names and faces for God, and paths to her/him, but none are wrong, so long as one has a pure, devout heart and soul.

However, despite Dante treating righteous non-Christians very respectfully, struggling with his era’s teaching that only baptised Christians could attain Paradise, avoiding antisemitic tropes about Hell, and saving a few so-called pagans, there are certain things which are still a challenge to read. This isn’t a reflection on Dante, but rather my own background. Life gives all of us a different frame of reference based on so many things, religion included.

My family background and my own personal religious history are too complicated and private to get into here, but the most pertinent thing to know is that I’ve been living a Jewish life since I was eighteen, after years of longing to reclaim my spiritual birthright. The religions I feel closest to after my own are Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Jainism.

Theologically, Judaism is closest to Islam. They were even closer before Prophet Mohammad got pissed off that more Jews weren’t converting, and changed things like how many times a day one should pray (from three to five). Again theologically speaking, Judaism and Christianity are like oil and water. So many important things radically contradict one another; e.g., Jews don’t believe in Original Sin or the divinity of Jesus.

This is a topic for another post, but suffice it to say, interfaith relations weren’t very good until about 1950. At the heart of the antisemitism which culminated in the Shoah was the deicide charge. And while I’m really glad the only Jews depicted in Inferno are Judas and Caiaphas, thus avoiding grotesque stereotypes and slanders, it’s hard to not be bothered by the deicide charge in Paradiso VII. There’s also this tercet in Paradiso V:

“If evil covetousness cries out to you,
be men, and not foolish sheep,
so that the Jew among you does not laugh!”

YIKES!

Intellectually, I can explain and contextualise these statements to take some of the sting off. Dante cannot be divorced from his time and place, no matter how modern and relevant he feels in many ways. He also believed other things we now know to be false, like the Donation of Constantine and Prophet Mohammad originally being a Christian, since there was no widely-available information debunking these claims.

And compared to many other Medieval writings (e.g., the Prioress’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales, the chilling end of The Song of Roland), this is really tame. Out of 14,233 lines, these comments are a tiny drop in the bucket. Dante also questions why, if Christian doctrine says the Crucifixion was necessary, the Second Temple then had to be destroyed and the Jewish people forced into Diaspora.

But emotionally and personally, it’s really hard to read that, knowing the deicide charge formed the basis of almost 2,000 years of horrific antisemitism in Europe, and that even those few seemingly off-handed comments were part of a much larger picture that really added up.

Judaism and Christianity also radically differ on the subject of the Pharisees, who are mentioned in a negative light in the Commedia. Though all evidence from multiple sources attests to Pharisaic beliefs and practices forming the basis of post-Temple Judaism, and indeed being the very reason we were able to survive the loss of the Second Temple, their reputation in Christianity is far different.

Long story short, each of the four Gospels is successively less Jewish and more Christian in character. As time progressed, the two faiths diverged more and more, and it became obvious there weren’t as many Jewish converts as hoped for. Thus, it was felt necessary to draw strong lines between the two traditions and seek converts from other populations.

Judaism has no concept of Limbo. While there are many conflicting views on the afterlife, who goes where, if very wicked souls stay forever in Hell, whether Gehenna or Sheol is the place for the worst sinners, and what exactly all these places are like, one thing everyone does agree one is that the righteous of all nations have a place in HaOlam HaBa, the World to Come. We don’t believe only our people can attain Paradise.

Dante heavily leans towards this view too, as he struggles all through the poem with the idea that only baptised Christians (plus the righteous people of the Bible) are worthy of Paradise. What about people who live in places like India, where Christianity had no presence, or who lived before Jesus, like his dear Virgil? Indeed, he saves a few so-called pagans (Cato, Trajan, Statius, Ripheus the Trojan), and depicts a few Muslims among the righteous in Limbo.

He also says many people of other faiths, or of no faith, are closer to God than actual baptised Christians.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s prayer to Mary, which opens Paradiso XXXIII, is pure beauty, power, emotion, and devotion. Remembering back to Inferno II, Mary is the one who ultimately set Dante’s journey in motion. And given that Dante lost his mother when he was five or six years old, it’s easy to understand why he felt such devotion to Mary.

Despite not being Christian myself, I’m very moved by the image of Mary as a loving, universal mother figure. Many people who lost their mothers are particularly devoted to her for this very reason.

While specifically Christological beliefs do nothing for me and have no parallels in Judaism, most of the poem is a rich, fertile ground for inspiration. Dante intended his magnum opus as a spiritual guidebook, and despite his own strong Catholic faith, he frequently thinks of other kinds of people. Indeed, the penultimate word is l’altre, the other (in plural form). The Love he believes in, which powers everything in existence, includes a vast rainbow of perspectives and experiences, not just one.

Yes, we do bleed when you prick us

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As I’ve mentioned before, I am so disgusted, angry, and hurt at how a lot of people have been showing some very ugly true colors since the latest terrorist attacks on Eretz Yisrael in May.

The horrifying story screencapped above is far from the only such incident of this nature since the explosion in worldwide antisemitism since May. Many politicians, organizations, businesses, schools, sports teams, etc., who issued statements against antisemitism and in support of the Jewish people have been dogpiled on social media. People are absolutely ranting about how one-sided, bigoted, politicized, and uneducated they are.

Shamefully, there sometimes followed retractions and apologies.

Just as all these “intersectional” clowns are trying to recast feminism as a feel-good social justice free-for-all where everyone but actual women are centred in our own liberation movement, so too have Israel-bashers tried to force-link condemnation of antisemitism with Islamophobia and anti-Arabism. God forbid we get a voice all our own!

If you don’t feel the need to condemn anti-Asian hate crimes without also mentioning prejudice and crimes against gays and lesbians, African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, Haitians, and the disabled, there’s zero reason for you to “All lives matter” antisemitism.

One, nice Ashkenazocentrism. About 80% of Jewish Israelis are Mizrachi, from the Middle East or North Africa, and therefore NOT white-presenting like Ashkenazim! Have you ever seen an Ethiopian Jew?

Two, nice job blatantly lying about the history of Israel. The Jewish people are indigenous to the land, and were there thousands of years before any Arab tribes arrived. You’re living in a fantasy land if you truly believe everyone lived in Kumbaya harmony until 1948. There were a number of pogroms committed by Arabs, like in Hebron in 1929.

The antisemitic Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was also buddies with Hitler, and his thugs convinced the British to severely limit Jewish immigration when they most desperately needed to escape Europe.

Arabs in Israel gladly sold their marshy, desert, unused, uninhabited lands to olim (immigrants), who proceeded to transform them into modern cities and fertile farmland. More Arabs began moving in when the land became habitable and desirable.

Many Shoah survivors were met with anger and violence when they returned home. Their houses and belongings were stolen by former friends and neighbors after they were deported. Some people were even murdered. Hence, why most survivors immigrated to Israel, the U.S., Canada, the U.K., or Australia as soon as possible.

Every single war Israel has ever been involved in was started by the surrounding Arab nations. They even attacked and invaded the very day Israel declared her independence and the British Mandate finally ended! How dare you defend the firing of 4,500 rockets and say it doesn’t constitute a conflict!

All of these things, and many, many, MANY more, are well-known, easily-verified historical facts. They’re not hidden away in obscure folios only hardcore scholars know about.

And by the way, the “anti-Zionism” screed comes right from the USSR’s playbook. They knew damn well open antisemitism was no longer socially acceptable after the Shoah, and so reinvented it under the guise of just bashing our liberation and decolonization movement. In the Middle Ages, we were hated, persecuted, and murdered because we wouldn’t convert to Christianity, and in the 19th and early 20th centuries, we were hated because of our so-called race. (Judaism is actually an ethnoreligious group, or, as Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan called it, “an evolving religious civilization.”) Now that both religious- and racially-based hatred are out of favor, we’re hated because of our country.

Helpful tip: If you replace the word “Zionists” with “Jews” in what you’re saying or writing, and it sounds very obviously antisemitic, you know damn well you’re not just innocently criticizing specific policies of the Israeli government.

I never see these obsessed clowns even mentioning real human rights abuses in countries like Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Venezuela, China, Turkey, Russia, Libya, and Nigeria. Just the only democracy in the Middle East, the only Jewish-majority country that’s ever existed. And to make it even worse, they often use Holocaust inversion and soft Holocaust denial in their propaganda.

These people distort history, use doctored and decontextualized pictures and videos, and outright lie in their quest to pretend Israel is, as Bob Dylan sang in a song of the same name, a neighborhood bully for daring to defend herself against terrorism and repeated attempts at destruction.

Oh, and fringe tokens like Neturei Karta and JStreet do NOT represent the vast majority of the Jewish world.

Bottom line: I’m sick of non-Jews goysplaining what is and isn’t antisemitism, and the outright falsehoods, slanders, and threats. When you parrot Hamas talking points, you contribute to the international spike in hate crimes.

Get out of your damn woke bubble and talk to people who don’t share your groupthink!

One of the hills I will die on

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Warning: Any hateful, violent, threatening, anti-Semitic comments will be immediately deleted and the commenters blacklisted. If you truly cannot recognize certain phrases and remarks as inherently anti-Semitic and double-standardish, I suggest you leave your echo chamber and stop getting all your “information” from one-sided, biased sources.

I am absolutely disgusted at how many people on my purported side of the political aisle are excitedly celebrating and/or justifying the latest violent attacks on Eretz Yisrael. Many are quite open about their anti-Semitism and desire to wipe out the world’s only Jewish nation (often praising Hitler and wishing he’d finished the job), while others play the “I’m not anti-Semitic, but…” card.

Ever notice how these people are anti-war until it comes to cheering on violence against Jews? How they don’t obsessively argue against the right of any other nation on Earth to exist except Israel? How they’re all about “punching Nazis” while calling for the destruction of the one nation where Jews found refuge from Nazis? How they seem to care less about things like Chinese atrocities against Uyghurs, human rights violations in Myanmar, FGM, and the imprisonment and torture of Iranian women protesting compulsory hijab laws? How they act like Ph.D.-level experts on a complex geopolitical situation and 3,000+ years of history, from the safety of their cushy homes in the West, as they sip almond milk lattes from Starbucks?

Do you hear yourself talking when you say you’re not against Jews or Israel, “just” Zionists? Are you that ignorant you don’t know it’s a classic calling-card of anti-Semites to use the words Jewish and Zionist interchangeably? Have you never heard people routinely affixing words like dog and pig to it? Never seen the hateful rhetoric calling for death to all of us and wanting to drive us into the sea?

I’m a proud Zionist, and so are 95% of my co-religionists! We also have many allies in other religions! Zionism is nothing more than Jewish self-determination in our own nation, and includes diverse streams such as Socialist, Cultural, Synthetic, Labour, Religious, Political, Revolutionary, and Practical. I guarantee there’s a place within Zionism for you that perfectly fits your beliefs!

If you truly care so much for the plight of Palestinians, why do you never speak out against Hamas and the PLO? Their top brass live like millionaires while they keep their people in poverty and use them as political pawns! And after Gaza became Judenrein in 2005, Hamas destroyed all the beautiful greenhouses and used their constant stream of donations for weapons instead of schools.

Why do I never see you sharing stories about Arab Israeli citizens living very successful lives in the Middle East’s only democracy? About how doctors and nurses treat their Arab patients the same way they treat Jewish patients, even when those patients are terrorists? How a Jewish nurse breastfed a Palestinian baby while its mother was hospitalized? How Israelis have taught Palestinians how to farm pineapple? How Israelis have sheltered Palestinians fleeing from Gaza and the West Bank for falling afoul of the thugs in charge? How a popular Palestinian DJ was arrested for attending a Christmas party rave in Ramallah? How Haifa is the country’s best-integrated city and people of all faiths gather every year at the Santa Claus House for a Christmas party? How Israel took in 850,000 Jews expelled from North Africa and the Middle East starting in 1948? How Hitler was buddies with the anti-Semitic Grand Mufti of Jerusalem?

No, instead you only post easily-debunked propaganda, libel, slander, one-sided garbage, ahistorical nonsense, doctored photos, incomplete videos with false claims, lines that come straight from anti-Semites’ playbook.

I’m a charter member of the UMass Student Alliance for Israel. We founded this group in 2002, at the height of the Second Intifada. One night I went to the campus police station with a few friends to report graffitied flyers for our events (including a peace vigil). They all were recorded as hate crimes. On all five of the area campuses, there was a sickening spate of anti-Semitic graffiti, including incitements to violence. Some of these hate-mongers even tried to disrupt a huge community-wide rally against the graffiti!

Israel’s right to exist and defend itself against terrorist attacks isn’t an issue I can agree to disagree on. Your performative virtue-signalling puts Jewish lives in danger.

WeWriWa—Surprise houseguests

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m now starting snippets from the book formerly known as The Very Next, the chronological second of my Atlantic City books, set from March 1939 to the dawn of 1940. It underwent a radical rewrite in 2015, and I recently completed the fourth and final version. I plan on a late February  or early March release.

The book opens when best friends Cinnimin and Sparky (real name Katherine) are baking hamentaschen, three-cornered cookies stuffed with various fillings and traditionally eaten on the holiday of Purim. They’re quite surprised to see two strangers coming into the kitchen.

Cinni grabbed a dollop of chocolate chip cookie dough and snuck it into her mouth, then helped herself to some apricot jam. Sparky saw what her best friend was doing and shook her head as she continued to roll out cookie dough.

“You’re so lucky you ain’t bat mitzvah age yet,” Cinni said. “I can’t imagine fasting mosta the day. My stomach would be rumbling after the first missed meal. It really stinks that Gary has to fast on his birthday of all days. That should earn him a get out of fasting privilege.”

“It’s a holy obligation; Queen Esther fasted before she approached her husband to plead for the lives of her people, so we’re supposed to do it too. When I’m old enough, I’ll have to do all these fasts, both minor and major. You’re just not used to the idea ’cause your religion doesn’t do fasts.”

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish this scene.

The girls stopped talking when a strange blonde girl, who looked about Cinni and Sparky’s age, and a brunette woman, who looked to be in her twenties, came into the kitchen through the open back door. The older one bore a surly expression and crossed her arms as soon as she dropped her heavy suitcases with a big thud, while the girl looked around in silence. Both wore wool dresses almost down to their ankles, with wrist-length sleeves and the highest collarbones possible. The brunette’s dress was a sickly, dour shade of green, and the blonde was in blue the color of dirty, stagnant dishwater.

“Are you lost?” Cinni asked. “Maybe I can help you find the address you’re looking for. I know a lot of people in this neighborhood, since I’m Most Popular Girl, and my family’s lived here for centuries. My name’s Cinnimin Filliard.”

WeWriWa—Jakob’s jackfruit chanukiyah

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

My second Chanukah snippet this year comes from And the Lark Arose from Sullen Earth, the sequel to And Jakob Flew the Fiend Away. It’s now December 1946, and 20-year-old Jakob DeJonghe and Rachel Roggenfelder are enjoying winter vacation at the Cape Cod cottage they honeymooned at in summer.

Jakob and Rachel civilly married in The Netherlands in May 1945, but almost immediately had to separate due to Jakob’s continuing military commitment and Rachel’s expedited immigration to America. They were finally reunited in June 1946 and had their long-awaited religious wedding that month. Rachel is now 24 weeks pregnant.

All this time later, I can’t remember if I deliberately gave them the names of a famous couple, or if it were a romantic coincidence.

Chanukah 1943 in the Westerbork detention camp

Rachel watched her husband going into their bedroom and coming back with a strange-looking chanukiyah. She couldn’t figure out what in the world it was made out of, and why he’d bought such a thing. It looked like a child’s school art project.

“I made it in the Indies last year. It’s made of hollowed-out jackfruit. It meant more to me than an expensive thing from a fancy store. Would you like to use it for our first Chanukah together?”

She reached out for it and turned it over in her hands. “I can’t believe you kept this makeshift thing. It must’ve meant a lot to you if you kept it all this time.”

The ten lines end here. A few more follow.

“Isn’t it beautiful? I made it all by myself, and took care so all the fruit was gone. I didn’t want it to rot or mold and get me a reprimand from my commanding officer.”

“Very creative and original. The two Chanukahs I spent at Westerbork, the inmates made them from hollowed-out potatoes and turnips. I don’t think anyone came there with a real one, at least not one they were willing to display openly. I’ll never understand that camp, so many contradictions and hypocrisies.”

“The only thing I understand about that place was that I found my dream girl there after I thought I’d never see you again.” He slipped his hand under her blouse and traced his fingertips along her ever-increasing breasts.