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YES, folks, it's that "r-word" again.
No, not the horrid "racism." Not even the nearly as terrible "recession."
I refer to the other "r-word," religion. Yes, religion. Or, more specifically, the intolerant who attack people of faith merely because they are, well, people of faith.
Across the length and breadth of this nation, public displays of faith are under attack -- whether it be a candidate for United States Attorney General, dusty Ten Commandments plaques that have been fixtures at courthouses for decades or, as was recently the case in Ohio, a mere state motto with the very generic words, "With G-d all things are possible."
And now, the crusade for more secularism is making its way to the funny pages. Yes, the funny pages.
Johnny Hart is a believing Christian whom the Guinness Book of World Records recognizes as the most syndicated cartoonist alive. Now, he is under attack by assuredly well-meaning, but thoroughly clueless, comic strip aficionados for -- Heaven help us! -- an Easter-themed cartoon that actually focuses on the spirituality of this Christian holy day, ignoring chocolate eggs and big, purple bunnies. For presenting a theological message, he is accused of bigotry and anti-Semitism.
The multi-framed storyline of the strip, like all art forms, is open to interpretation. An introductory passage notes that the Bible is a "Book of Sevens!" "Seven Days, seven stars, seven loaves, seven vials, seven churches, seven seals, seven feasts." Another frame then continues, "seven trumpets, seven notes in music, seven colors in the rainbow, seven candle stands, seven candlesticks."
Then a lamp, at first blazing seven lit branches, speaks: "Father, forgive them: for they know not what they do." As the strip progresses, the fires of each branch are seen going out. Eventually, one is left. Next to it is a cross. Its fire, too, is smoldering. The last frame is a cross in the distance. Nearby is a cave with a flask of wine and a loaf of bread. The caption states in bold, "Do this in remembrance of me."
As a Sabbath-observant Jew, rabbinical school alumnus and publisher of jewishworldreview.com, the most-accessed Jewish website, I see absolutely nothing wrong with Hart's message.
By now, you are no doubt scratching your head, wondering: "Shouldn't a Jew whose Judaism forms the core of his identity be the most outraged about this strip being disseminated around the world?" Hardly. And there are two reasons why.
If Hart were blaming Jewry for having killed his savior, as anti-Semites have done and some still do, I would be troubled, even outraged. But this "B.C." strip, like most of his other clever installments, is not appealing to emotion, but to intellect. The series' characters aside, Hart is not out to push a message for neanderthals, but the enlightened. Indeed, Hart's message is exactly the opposite of what he is being accused of.
When Hart's lamp beseeches, "forgive," the message advanced is one of love, not hate. I believe Hart is preaching that, despite Christianity being the majority religion in this nation, members of minority faiths need not worry as they must in other lands. Love thy neighbor.
In the strip, there is also nobody extinguishing the menorah's -- i.e Jewry's -- flames, as some of the toon's foes claim. The only Nazis, bigots, or evil personified ... are imagined by those who want to see them.
What is happening, as I understand it, is the menorah is transforming into the symbol of Hart's religion, a cross. The "B.C." creator, after all, subscribes to the wild notion that -- OY VEY! -- Christianity is rooted in Judaism. In fact, he believes that Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism, an idea with which we Jews beg to differ.
He has an opinion. An opinion is not hatred or bigotry. Using the strip's foes's own logic, perhaps we should start waging campaigns against history and theology publishers as well.
The other reason that I do not find the "B.C." Easter strip offensive -- and certainly not anti-Semitic -- is that I am secure in my beliefs and worldview. There are those Jewish organizations that scour America for "insensitivity" or "hate" against Jews with all the devotion of Inspector Clouseau in search of the Pink Panther. We need less of that.
A nativity scene on public property does not bother me, since just as Christians believe they have "Truth" --- capital "t" -- so do I. A comic strip in honor of a holy season that is not my own doesn't send a chill down by spine nor make my blood boil -- even if it includes Jewish symbols.
And if I were to feel uncomfortable, there is always the choice of turning the page. Memo to those worried at not offending religious minorities, agnostics, atheists or whomever: the majority religion in this country is still Christianity, and those who feel queasy about encountering public displays of it must grow some thicker skin. Has the ADL been reduced to attacking comic strips in order to justify their existence? Wouldn't that make the current controversy all the more preposterous?
This is, of course, not to say that non-Christians should be demonized for their beliefs, or their religious needs, or not have their rights protected.
Last week, before the onset of the Passover holiday, I found myself in several Brooklyn neighborhoods taking care of last-minute errands. As the lines inched forward, I struck up conversations with other Jews about this controversy.
I learned, firstly, that Hart has lots of fans who happen to be observant Jews. I also found that Jews, like me, who take religion seriously -- who understand that there is something bigger than ourselves, who use the Torah's teaching to love our fellow humans and have a duty to make the world a better place -- take all religions seriously. And we regard them and their institutions -- and the central role of the family, decency, morality, etc. -- with respect.
Perhaps this notion was best illustrated by the following scene from last week: A father pushing a carriage paused in mid-sentence to remind his 4-year-old to recite loudly and clearly the blessing made before noshing his candy. After answering his son with a heartfelt "amen," he told me, "How nice it would be if every page in a newspaper had that cartoon, instead of sickening stories of babies dumped in dumpsters, college kids overturning cars after sports events and the latest immoral acts of Hollywood celebs."
Binyamin L. Jolkovsky is Editor in Chief of JewishWorldReview.com.