Far too often Judaism is seen through the lens of politics and armed confrontations due to the Israeli-Palestine conflict which dominates the news time and again.
Furthermore, with only about 2,500 members in the Jewish community, a rare few of the 3.5million residents in Singapore ever get a chance to have meaningful conversations with a Jewish person, let alone understand what it means to be Jewish.
How do you see a people for who they are, on their own terms, beyond headlines and stereotypes?
Myth-busting alone is not enough when few have had the chance to humanise such a small minority group. Which is why the Ask Me Anything on Judaism session on 11 November started with a mini-cultural fair before the panel and dialogue sessions began.
Over 100 people decked the hall at Asian Civilisations Museum, visiting various booths that showcased various aspects of Jewish culture from food to beliefs and a photo booth even.
There was a table with various cultural artefacts like the shofar, menorah, and kiddish cups laid out. The shofar for example, is an ancient musical horn carved out of a Ram, and it’s used for religious ceremonies. The kiddish cups also have religious ceremonial functions. Perhaps the menorah is the most well known; the seven branched ancient Hebrew lamp.
There was also a wallpaper depicting the Wailing Wall from the Old City of Jerusalem. The wall is a holy site for both Muslims and Jews. Participants were encouraged to write short notes and paste it on the replica wall. At the end of the event, the organisers would collect the notes and send it to Jerusalem to be pasted on the actual wall - a message of friendship from across the world.
Soon, the mini-fair was over and the discussion with four panelists began.
Questions were frank from the get go: The Jewish faith is the oldest of the Abrahamic faiths. What is the Jewish view regarding Jesus for example?
Rabbi Mortdechai was just as frank. He said: “Jesus was born a Jew and died a Jew.” Usually the underlying question is “why reject Christianity”, added the Rabbi.
One of the reasons, continued the Rabbi, is that the Jewish view of the Messiah’s role is to gather all exiles back to Israel, and build the third temple on Jerusalem. While Jesus had an “impeccable and sterling spiritual” character, he did not fulfil the Jewish view regarding the criteria of the Messiah.
That did not mean that other faiths like Islam and Christianity were invalid in some way. If one is born a Muslim or Christian, it’s because god willed it so, there is a purpose.
Another interesting question posed was on the difference between Judaism and Zionism, a movement to establish Israel.
“Judaism is our faith and Zionism is part of it… to sever Zionism from Judaism will make it an empty shell,” said the Rabbi. It is god’s promise to Jews that they will be able to return to their land from exile.
Unfortunately, the modern version of Zionism that is in the popular mindset is a heavily politicised one, “very sanitised” of the Jewish faith and religion. However, even the most secular Jew “will have to come back to Zionism,” added Rabbi Mortdechai, an Orthodox Jew. (There are two other broad branches, the reform Jews and the Conservative Jews, which were not on the panel that day.)
Raphael shared about his childhood home in Singapore where his grandfather left a patch of unpainted wall as a reminder that there could be no perfection for Jews until they are returned from exile.
Which is why, said another panelist, during passover (a major Jewish festival), all Jews in the diaspora sing “next year in Jersulem”. It’s a yearning to return to where they belong. “It’s in our DNA… to have a link to the land of Israel.”
The honest tone throughout the panel set the stage for open discussion in the breakout groups. Lead facilitator Farid Hamid reminded participants that the small group session was not a question and answer platform but was instead a space to share their personal stories on faith.
Each group of about 10 to 12 participants from diverse faiths were led by a facilitator. One of the activities required participants to write on a blank card, three core values they held very dearly. The cards were then randomly issued and everyone had to guess to whom the card belonged.
Participants soon discovered that without any prompting, many of them had ended up writing similar values, regardless of religion. Love, compassion, courage, discipline, were some of the words that many shared.
A young Christian lady for example, shared about how the struggle for faith meant so much to her. Another young lady, who considered herself a freethinker shared about the struggle for trust that she continuously strived for.
A Muslim man said that struggle and doubt itself defined his faith for him. Faith has no meaning without doubt, piped up a Jewish man in agreement. So not only were there similar values, but the religious experiences between different faith groups had a common thread as well. Perhaps people are not that different after all?
The day ended with a difficult question for the closing panel: What was the Jewish experience with anti-semitism in South East Asia?
There is not sustained legacy of anti-semitism here in their personal experiences in this part of the world, said the panelists.
One panelist for example shared that all three synagogues in Calcutta were taken care of by Muslims. Up to 90 per cent of the students in the only two Jewish schools there were Muslims.
Another panelist shared that his son was in the football team in school where most of his team mates were Malay Muslims. When the team went to Malaysia for matches, his teammates would wake up early for the prayer at dawn. Jews too have a dawn prayer and his son would wake up at the same time, wear his jewish religious garb and conduct his own prayers. Never had the child any cause for worry. In fact, his best friend is a Muslim!
Rabbi Mortdechai added that he had travelled extensively in the region in the past 20+ years and had never personally faced anti-semitism. The anti-Jewish rhetoric that one hears from time to time in this region is from the “political” class and not the average person he meets, said the Rabbi.
The Rabbi had earlier emphasised that Judaism is a path for Jews alone and so proselytisation is a sin. That does not invalidate the rest of the world because “all of humanity has a role to play”.
The event ended with a gift to all participants. The Jewish community had flown in from Israel, Hamsa for everyone. It’s a small amulet, designed to look as if an eye is embedded in a hand, to ward off the Evil Eye. At other times in history, other faith traditions had similar amulets. In some pagan faiths, it was an amulet for fertility. For Muslims in some parts of the world, it was called the eye of Fatima, the youngest daughter of the prophet Muhammad.
It was a fitting end to the day, a gift with a shared heritage, to ward of all that is evil.
“If I could do it every month, I would do it”, said Rabbi Mortdechai to this writer with reference to event. While the Jewish welfare board held regular events, they did not have so diverse a “spectrum” of people in their outreach efforts.
Such events are especially important for minority communities, said Shahrany Hassan, the co-founder of The Whitehatters, the NGO which organised the session. The aim, as always, is to go beyond headlines, beyond mere talk, to have an appreciation of what it means to be of a particular community, added Shahrany.