Monday, August 15, 2011

Judaism, Christianity, Culture and Conversion: for Donald Michael Kraig

Since Donald Michael Kraig kindly mentioned my earlier post on the Usenetification of American discourse, I thought I'd return the favor.  DMK's blog contains a number of gems and is well worth perusing, but I particularly enjoyed his Beltane post on "How Not to Communicate." He provides therein a touching and telling story from his youth:
I was chosen by my synagogue to be among the young Jewish students to visit a church for a “Jewish-Christian Dialog.” The purpose, supposedly, was “to promote mutual understanding.” 
I went there, excited, to share my religion and learn more about Christianity directly from Christians. That was my goal. The other Jewish students I talked with had similar goals. To this day I believe that communication results in understanding and understanding results in tolerance. 
So we naively went to the Church, willing to share our beliefs and learn. The purpose of those Christians, however, was not to share and learn. They had been indoctrinated in the concept that their faith was the best for everyone. It was clear that they looked down on us and their main purpose was not communication, it was conversion.
From its earliest days, Christian followers felt driven to spread the faith. Much of the New Testament consists of letters to and from missionaries.  And most frequently these conversions involved the extirpation of earlier indigenous beliefs. (I mentioned Charlemagne's forced conversion of the Saxons and the later Wendish Crusades in an earlier post).  For most of its history Judaism has shown little interest in seeking converts.  Other than Khazaria, there are few examples of kingdoms or tribes converting en masse to Judaism through force, coercion or evangelization.  And even today prospective converts to Judaism must first overcome resistance from their prospective teachers.

Christians seek to go forth and make disciples of all the nations and Muslims have expanded the ummah through both conquest and missionary activity.  Within both Christiandom and the Islamic World proselytizing (a term originally used to describe enthusiastic Greek converts to Judaism) has been, and in many places still is, punishable by death.  Wary of promoting even more ill feeling after the Destruction of the Temple and subsequent exile, Jewish scholars began discouraging conversion, seeking instead to preserve their cultural identity by enforcing elaborate taboos on dress, diet and lifestyle.  These preserved the Jews as a people set apart and helped ensure against the dissolution which struck down the Carthaginians, Thracians, Babylonians or other contemporaneous civilizations.

We see a similar dynamic at work today in the conflicts between British Traditional Witchcraft and American Neopaganism.  The first is based on a coven model. Dedicants separate themselves from the "cowans:" their spiritual techniques and spiritual revelations are intended only for a select audience.  Gardner and later writers were only able to speak as openly as they did thanks to the 1951 repeal of the 1735 witchcraft laws.  A few might go public concerning their beliefs: none suggested their inner secrets should be shared with the public.

Contrast this with some important dates in the history of American Neopaganism.  In 1968, a year when folks were flying their freak flags high, Oberon Zell began publishing the Green Egg newsletter.   A year before Scott Cunningham released 1988's Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, six gay activists began plastering posters around New York City proclaiming Silence = Death.  What started out as a hierarchical mystery tradition became in America both more freeform and more public.  While much technique and terminology was preserved, the definitions and explanations shifted wildly. Today a BTW HPs and an American High Priestess might well use the same words to mean very different things. Understanding this ahead of time and taking appropriate steps toward clarification might go a long way toward mutual understanding and dialogue.