I was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art the other day, standing in front of a painting by an artist I much admire, Giovanni Battista Caracciolo (not as good as Caravaggio, but a close second). The painting, entitled “Tobias and the Angel,” is based on a weird story in the apocryphal Book of Tobit. Briefly, Tobit is a member of the tribe of Naftali exiled by the Assyrians to Nineveh. Horrible things happen to him. He gets blinded. His son goes off to try to collect a debt, and the angel Rephael sends him on a journey to Media to help a widow called Sarah who is possessed by the demon Asmodeus. Tobias is attacked by a fish as he crosses the Tigris. The angel tells him to use its innards to scare off the demon. He rescues Sarah and, back home, uses the miraculous innards to cure his father’s blindness. Tobias and Sarah marry, and they all live happily ever after. Not really the sort of book you’d expect to find in the Tanach, and it isn’t.
In the gallery the caption reads, “Based on the Biblical book.” My hackles began to rise because it might be in the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, which include the Apocrypha, but it is not in ours or in most Protestant Bibles either. Couldn’t they get it straight? Then I got worked up about their calling it the Old Testament, for us primitive old fogeys, as opposed to the shiny New Testament for the good guys. And then I thought, “Am I crazy to get worked up by such a trivial issue?”
A few months ago a friend in London involved me in a complaint he sent to the director of the National Gallery about a painting called “The Rich Man being led to Hell“ by David Teniers the Younger, in which the rich man is clearly painted as a Jew complete with kipa and beard, not to mention exaggerated features. The director replied amenably, and tried to put it in the context of the painter and his time. But I did think a few lines added to the blurb might have put the portrait in the context of say “The Jew of Malta”, “The Merchant of Venice”, or indeed “Oliver Twist”, not to mention “Der Sturmer”.
If I am so hypersensitive, why am I so surprised when other people are? I have always been very quick to take offense at any perceived slur against my religion and my people, even if I am myself amongst the first to criticize them when they are wrong. Doesn’t Proverbs say, “Better the wounds of a friend than the sweet talk of an enemy”? Perhaps it was growing up in England where in my youth Jews and Judaism were indeed regarded as not quite acceptable. We were still called Christ Killers, Jew Boys, and Yids and were accused of being devious, rich, unpatriotic foreigners who should “go home”. Except, of course, many Brits didn’t want us to go “home” either!
Yet whenever people made fun of religion in general, pompous vicars or duplicitous priests, I enjoyed the fun. Jewish humor is predominantly self-critical and makes fun of God, Moses, rabbis, and the lot of us. But as society has changed we have been forced to become much more sensitive towards those who suffered from racial discrimination, sexual discrimination, indeed any kind of discrimination.
This weekend the doyen of American writers, Joyce Carol Oates, has been mangled online and in the press because she tweeted, “Where 99.3% of women report having been sexually harassed & rape is epidemic—Egypt—natural to inquire: what’s the predominant religion?”
Some of the criticism has been that Ms. Oates might have mentioned other factors such as social, economic, and historical. It was not fair to blame religion only. But why are some religious groups more prone to sexual assault and violence against women? Might it mot be, in part, because of religious attitudes? We can all see that within religions there are extremes and fanatics and bad guys as well as good guys. If people set themselves up as spiritual leaders, we have every right to expect them to behave as such and take responsibility. Toleration of corruption or distortion must be excoriated. That, after all, is our tradition. The prophets, Mussar, and Torah require self-analysis, self-criticism, and self-discipline.