July 16, 2009
ABC’s Middle East correspondent Anne Barker visits Jerusalem and feels the presence of the numinous:
Orthodox Jews are angry at the local council’s decision to open a municipal car park on Saturdays - or Shabbat, the day of rest for Jews. It’s a day when Jews are not supposed to do anything resembling work, which can include something as simple as flicking a switch, turning on a light or driving.
Some of you may recall this story involving strict observance of the Sabbath and some bothersome stair lights. The combination of self-inflicted debilitation and cosmic vanity is not without comic potential. What follows, though, isn’t quite so funny.
I was mindful I would need to dress conservatively and keep out of harm’s way. But I made my mistake when I parked the car and started walking towards the protest, not fully sure which street was which. By the time I realised I’d come up the wrong street it was too late.
I suddenly found myself in the thick of the protest - in the midst of hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews in their long coats and sable-fur hats… As the protest became noisier and the crowd began yelling, I took my recorder and microphone out of my bag to record the sound. Suddenly the crowd turned on me, screaming in my face. Dozens of angry men began spitting on me. I found myself herded against a brick wall as they kept on spitting - on my face, my hair, my clothes, my arms. It was like rain, coming at me from all directions - hitting my recorder, my bag, my shoes, even my glasses. Big gobs of spit landed on me like heavy raindrops. I could even smell it as it fell on my face. Somewhere behind me - I didn’t see him - a man on a stairway either kicked me in the head or knocked something heavy against me. […]
I was later told it was because using a tape-recorder is itself a desecration of the Shabbat even though I’m not Jewish and don’t observe the Sabbath.
When people take it upon themselves to be aggressively offended on behalf of some hypothetical deity, this is rarely a good sign. (You’d think any deities that exist could take care of themselves, such being the nature of deity. And if these hypothetical beings have egos to bruise and a need for vicarious payback then I fear we’re all in trouble.) Electing oneself as a Local Agent of the Lord can easily lead to some fundamental confusion and a sense of grandiose entitlement: “His will is my will, therefore my will is His.” And when the alleged cosmic grievance extends to car parking and tape recorders, I think we can safely assume we’re in the presence not of the numinous but of mortal psychodrama. Being drunk on Jehovah’s breath is, if nothing else, a wonderful license to indulge those vindictive inclinations.