American idols

Fewer maritime evangelists have been thumping bibles, and more of them are proclaiming political beliefs.

new testament 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
new testament 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I already have a title: "Ferry Tales." Now all I need is the time to write the book in my head about the interesting things I've witnessed over the years on my daily commute aboard the Staten Island Ferry. Not long ago on the boat, for instance, I was trying to concentrate on a page of Talmud. The din of nearby conversations doesn't disturb me; the voices commingle and provide a sort of white noise actually conducive to withdrawing into a difficult text. But when someone enamored of the right to free speech and animated by a cause undertakes to pace the aisles and loudly share his convictions, well, it's a little harder to focus. Usually he is of a religious bent, orating about heaven and elsewhere. (One memorable fellow brandishing a New Testament was fond of referring to one of the ferry's termini as "Satan Island"). Not, though, this guy. "The war in Iraq is about OIL!" he announced. Over and over. Louder and louder. "Get our troops out NOW!" and "Bush is EVIL" came the next refrains, similarly repeated and amplified. Of late, I realized, fewer of the maritime evangelists had been thumping bibles, and more of them proclaiming political and environmental beliefs, like opposition to the war, the president or global warming. What struck me, though, was the similarity in tone of voice and body language. Whether the prophet was speaking in the name of the Lord or of George Soros, only the words were different. The eyes, the gait, the tone of voice, the air of certitude, were all indistinguishable. Which observation led me to wonder if perhaps social or political causes have come, for some, to replace religion. Or, to muse further: Have they become religions themselves? I WAS apparently not the first to think the thought. MIT Meteorology Professor Richard Lindzen has labeled environmentalism a religion (not intending a compliment), as its devotees are convinced "that they are in possession of a higher truth" and are intolerant of "heretics, or 'climate change deniers,' to use green parlance." Author Michael Crichton has asserted much the same, even paralleling environmentalist credos with Biblical accounts of the Garden of Eden, the fall of man and an eventual Day of Judgment. "Environmentalism," he told the Commonwealth Club in 2003, "seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists." I don't know if anyone has made the case for a religion-parallel among those passionately opposed to the war in Iraq or those who label President Bush the scourge of humanity. But the fervor of some of the sentiment out there - like that of the politics-preacher on the ferry - would seem to lend the contention support. None of which, of course, is in any way to implicate reasonable environmental concerns or political positions. By political "faiths" I mean the all-consuming elevation of a concern or position to the status of Ultimate Truth. It's the difference between enjoying an occasional glass of wine and alcoholism. The morphing of social or political beliefs into quasi-religions was noted in the mid-1930s by a renowned, sainted Orthodox Jewish scholar (who, although he was in America shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, refused to abandon his students and returned to his yeshiva in Poland, where he and they perished at Nazi hands). Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman warned that "isms" - he mentioned, among others, socialism, communism and various forms of nationalism - are modern-day "idolatries." Although the primal urge to pay homage to wood and stone no longer exists in our world, a residue of idol-worship persists - in the form of such "isms." Were he alive today, Rabbi Wasserman might well add "liberalism," "conservatism," "feminism," "environmentalism" or "pacifism" to the roster. Some say that contemporary "isms," unlike earlier ones, are innocuous. But one is given pause by things like a paper recently published by a British environmental group, Optimum Population Trust, which promotes the prevention of babies, positing that "the most effective personal climate-change strategy is limiting the number of children one has." Or by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which claims to have sunk ten whaling ships and whose leader has called human beings the "AIDS of the Earth." He explained further that "curing a body of cancer requires radical and invasive therapy, and, therefore, curing the biosphere of the human virus will also require a radical and invasive approach." One can't help but wonder just what he has in mind. The 18th century Jewish scholar and mystic Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato famously explained that human beings seek pleasure, even beyond our biological needs, because we are created for pleasure - not the ephemeral and elusive sort so many mistakenly pursue, but the ultimate, eternal one attainable only through closeness to the Divine. Perhaps, similarly, what impels people to embrace idolatry, whether of the ancient sort or the modern, is the recognition, deep in their souls, that there is in fact something worthy of devotion. What is ironic is that, in the eyes of Judaism, the first step out of any environmental or geopolitical morass is recognizing just what that Something really is. The writer is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.