“Disgust is one of the six basic human emotions that any healthy adult can experience and recognize. Emotional disgust is the only one, among living creatures, that’s unique to humans, and the only one that has to be learned.” (“What We Find Gross, and Why,” Robin Matrantz Henig, a review in the NYT 1/20/12 of That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion by Rachel Herz)
After reading the review of Herz’s book, I also heard her discuss it on NPR and I began to wonder about our collective willingness to actually express disgust, especially in public. My intellectual curiosity was painfully transformed into an immediate experience of complete and utter disgust when I opened an e-mail and its embedded link to a YouTube of the recent blessing offered to Bishop Eddie Long.
The video clip begins with the full-throated hucksterism of a self-proclaimed ‘rabbi’ who has ‘dual citizenship’ from Israel and the Jewish people. He asks two men to bring out a Torah scroll, the Five Books of Moses-written on a parchment, and then he shamelessly claims that this particular scroll was found outside Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland. (I offer you the choice of watching and listening to the vulgarity of how the Hebrew Roots ministry abuses literally everything that Jews in 2012 finds sacred.) Who has the temerity to unroll a Torah scroll so it can be used to wrap the pastor of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in the word of God?
Religious syncretism has always been a lighting rod for active participants in Jewish-Christian dialogue. This has become even more painfully common as Messianic Jews have gained credibility among Evangelical Christians. Long’s well-known mega church near Atlanta, which claims a membership of 25,000, enthusiastically participated in a truly disgusting act of religious fraud and desecration of the most significant Jewish ritual object, a Torah Scroll.
Herz argues that disgust “has to be learned” in humans, but I need to bring the topic forward as an urgent plea. What do we teach 21st century religious communities in order to provoke the appropriate expression of disgust that this ceremony deserves? If we don’t collectively find the video disgusting, then I must ask what would be disgusting—if nothing is disgusting, and then is nothing sacred either?
If Jews publicly celebrated as a self-proclaimed “priest” of the Gentiles held aloft a chalice of consecrated ‘host’ and then ate them as crackers—reclaiming them as the matzoah of ancient Passover, surely there would be an outcry of both disgust and rage that the most sacred component of the Lord’s Table had been mocked and vulgarized.
Such an act would be especially contemptuous if only Christians found it disgusting, suggesting that Jews were either in denial or silently duplicitous of how this vulgarized Christianity. I have waited for a statement from Christian leadership or Christian institutional authority that the use of a Torah Scroll by Christians is always inappropriate.
Long himself apologized in a letter to the Anti-Defamation League of Atlanta, saying that he denounced any act that depicts him as a king. The Director of the ADL said that he took Long’s apology as sincere. His apology completely misses the point, he permitted and participated in a ceremony with the use of the Torah Scroll.
CNN added legitimacy to the ceremony by reporting the viral video claiming more than 600,000 viewings and by quoting the so-called “rabbi” who used the Torah. They interviewed a local rabbi who called the ceremony strange. A professor from Candler Seminary at Emory University was similarly restrained by calling the ceremony a strange mix of very different symbols.
The responses from the media, local clergy and even Long’s apology to the ADL have done nothing to blunt my deepening disgust laced with anger and cynicism. People sang, rejoicing with their hands aloft in prayer, all while a Torah Scroll was wrapped around a person who preaches that God chose to become incarnate in His Only Son. The original ritual behavior, its viral video and the media’s follow-up continue a vulgarizing syncretism. Such behavior requires that our interfaith work immediately set reframe our dialogues to teach each other with bold transparency what we find disgusting.
Our civic and political discourse is so highly polarized that it has influenced our interfaith discourse. Simply put, Christians must take responsibility when their dominant culture publicly abuses the identities of Others. Jews and Muslims in America are minorities both numerically and culturally. Jews expressing their disgust over such a vulgarizing use of a Torah Scroll need more support in the public square.
As long some Christians engage Jews with shallow tolerance but no real respect there will always be interfaith tension. There have been enough time and resources invested in interfaith discourse that Jews can expect Christians to hold Christians accountable for disgusting behavior. If the Christian community with all of its diversity does not understand why it is disgusting that Bishop Eddie Long is wrapped in a Torah scroll, then the last 50 years of Jewish-Christian dialogue has tragically been wasted.
I do not want to add a single person to the hundreds of thousands who have already seen it, but I need Christians who are serious about Jewish survival to watch the video, again and again and again, because disgust requires a community of support.
Joseph A. Edelheit
Director of Religious and Jewish Studies
St Cloud State University