Ah yes, St. Valentine's Day... Or just "Valentine's Day" to all you modern Catholics and non-believers. A day when we celebrate love, peace and tolerance for those of other races and creeds. Here are two items from today's news.
Lots of Westerners don't know this, but the largest Muslim country in the world is actually Indonesia. The huge archipelago [there's that word again! Ed.] has significant Christian and Hindu minorities, whom the Muslim extremists in and out of government keep trying to suppress. They can't help it -- or won't help it -- because that's the nature of Islam.
Anyway, on Wednesday Indonesian officials and Muslim clerics called for young people to skip Valentine's Day, saying it's an excuse for couples to have forbidden sex. Not to mention buying gifts for persons of the opposite sex, which was also banned in the province of Aceh.
The deputy mayor of a town on the outskirts of Jakarta called on parents not to give their children any chance to celebrate Valentine's Day "because they may be expressing love to their lovers more freely.… It could lead to forbidden sexual relations."
He called on residents to make their children take cold showers. When told that almost no-one in his town had hot running water, he advised taking the children to Islamic religious activities instead.
OK, premarital sex is forbidden (in theory, at least) by the Church too. But what's wrong with giving gifts? Well, a prominent cleric of the Aceh Ulema Council says, "It does not reflect love in accordance with Islamic teachings.… It's the same as promoting faiths other than Islam." So there.
Meanwhile, Father Raymond de Souza reports from the Promised Land on the struggle between ultra-Orthodox Jews and the rest of Israeli society.
You don't have to be religious to be Jewish. One can be a Jew, culturally, and yet be an atheist or an agnostic. And amongst religious Jews there is a broad spectrum of faith and observance, ranging from the the ultra-liberal Reform branch of Judaism all the way to the ultra-Orthodox -- the ones with the hats and lots of kids.
That's fine in America, but in Israel, Father de Souza tells us, many people feel that while there are many Jews, there are too few synagogues. That is, there is a lack of pluralism. There is only the ultra-Orthodox Judaism which meshes with political Zionism.
The norms that regulate prayer and deportment at Jerusalem's Western Wall are set by its chief rabbi. The rabbinate of the Western Wall is controlled by the ultra-Orthodox and, over the past years, the regulations have become increasingly reflective of ultra-Orthodox practice. For the large majority of Jews, both in Israel and globally, who are not ultra-Orthodox, how they are permitted to pray at the Western Wall has become a priority both practical and symbolic.
On Monday, Father de Souza goes on, a group called Women of the Wall held a prayer service. The service was in reality a demonstration against the ultra-Orthodox strictures imposed upon them there, including the space allocated to them and the prohibitions on women praying aloud and wearing prayer shawls. The Women of the Wall did both of those things, and for their pains, got themselves arrested.
The dispute at the Western Wall touches a deeper issue in Israeli society: should Judaism in Israel be defined by the ultra-Orthodox? Israel desires to be a Jewish state, but for which kinds of Jews? As noted above, there are many streams of Judaism, but the only official synagogue belongs to the minority ultra-Orthodox.
The issue can thus be seen as one of basic religious freedom. How can it be that Jews (who happen to be women) can be arrested at the Western Wall for praying as they do at synagogues in London or Los Angeles? Yair Lapid, leader of a party which one 19 Knesset seats in last month's election, asks, "Can it be that the only place in the Western world that Jews do not have religious freedom is at the Western Wall?"
So, outside of politically correct North America, it would appear that prospects for religious pluralism and the celebration of diversity are as dim as ever.
Memo to "Peter the Roman" (or whatever the next pope will call himself): All paths of faith do not lead to the One True God.