Karol Sidon: "The gap between civilizations
Written by: Anita Lišková & Klára Smolová
Photo by: Vojtěch Vlk
He was a dissident, laborer, writer, and screenplay writer.
Thanks to his experiences, this Czech country rabbi has authority
beyond the Jewish community, so we spoke with him about the roles
of religion, values, and the war on terrorism.
Judaism remains surrounded by many mysteries. Do you think
it's necessary to communicate more, to elucidate the
differences between religions and what they have in common?
What are you, as a rabbi, doing about it?
The whole time I've been a rabbi I've tried to demystify
Judaism. Of course it has a touch of romanticism, but Jews
are normal, they have one head and two eyes, like everyone
else. Their only differences are their beliefs, their faith,
and their approach to education. Hardly anyone knows that
since the first century AD Jewish children have had mandatory
schooling, and education has been seen as very important.
People are more concerned about what they don't do than
what they actually do. This has created legends that are
bound to anti-Semitism, because in its own way anti-Semitism
is a legend, too.
Why is the Jewish nation so hated?
Jews became the focus of envy, which is baseless. Anti-Semitism
attributes to Jews certain exaggerated characteristics, resulting
in a theory of a general conspiracy against the poor other nations.
It's nonsense, but very persistent, it goes back to ancient times
- anti-Semitism is traced to Egyptians in the third century BC.
Does religion have something in general to offer today's youth?
It evidently offers them something; see the development of Islam
in recent years. But what good does religion offer? I think that
in religions, even Islam, one can find common points. I'm not
talking about theology, I'm talking about family, about respect
for parents, and about sexuality. Religions look at everything
that's ailing in western society differently, but they have much
in common. Their influence on youth, if it were intelligent,
could certainly help our society, which suffers from the blight
of western European cultural values.
But many religious practices and rituals can seem obsolete. Don't
you think they should develop with the times?
There's always conflict between tradition and the new things time
brings. But you have to be careful, because traditions are verified
by many generations. We're living through the technological revolution.
Indiscriminately rejecting technologies is stupid, but accepting
everything without analysis of what it is and how it's used is
But let's look at the position of Jewish women, for example. They
can't study the Talmud, they have limited access to synagogues,
and their sexuality is essentially limited to reproduction. Why
should modern women accept something like this?
The Jewish religion is built mainly on laws - rights and obligations.
Women are exempted from time-linked obligations. They aren't obligated
to pray thrice daily, only once, whenever it suits them best. Synagogues
were originally really for men, as they are obligated to pray together.
The study that requires concentration and time is the obligation
of men. But that doesn't mean women mustn't pray thrice daily or
study! But through their entire character, women are much more
bound to caring for their families, and this function is highly
venerated in traditional Judaism. In my opinion this is the basic
problem of modern culture - women are not as appreciated in their
female roles as they deserve. The key is in satisfaction in service
to society. It doesn't work here, and women can gain renown and
success only by acting like men.
It doesn't work that way in Jewish families?
There are problems everywhere, but that doesn't mean women shouldn't
get an education or work. They can work part-time. Men must earn
more, but that doesn't mean they can't help out at home. When
I discovered this world I was ashamed, as a man, as a central
European, and I felt like a barbarian who'd discovered civilization.
The Czech Republic was recently praised by EU representatives
for its care of Jewish monuments - they said it could be a model
of cultural relations for many other countries. Do you share this
In principle, yes, but not that it should be a model. The cemeteries
and synagogues were returned to the Federation of Jewish Communities
in deplorable condition. Without the help of the non-Jewish communities
and towns, we'd never have been able to do so much work. Today's
relations with the Jewish community are good. I'm just concerned
that under the stronger influence of western European countries
the Czech Republic will become more like them. We've always thought
that anti-Semitism is, at least for the west, a thing of the past
- but now, under pressure from Islamic minorities, their politics
towards Jews are changing. Today it's in fact harder for Jews to
live in France than in the Czech Republic.
In today's multi-cultural France, they have many problems with
religion. For example, they recently passed a law that children
must not wear external symbols of their religions at school. Are
you afraid of such pressure here, too?
I had a similar case here recently. One of our boys went for his
internal passport photo. He was wearing a yarmulke and encountered
a policeman who insisted it was an official act. But he wanted
his picture with his yarmulke, as he's obligated to wear it. The
complaint reached the Senate, and me as well - I had to make a
statement. I discovered that he was right, because nuns can be
photographed with their heads covered. I don't think the French
solution is correct. Parents will take their children to their
religious schools, and the influence of emancipated France will
be much weaker on this generation. Worse, these children will be
much more heavily influenced by crazy spiritual leaders.
The international situation is becoming harsher. Do you think
the terrorism that is becoming more widespread is a legitimate
means for the weak to fight against far more powerful enemies?
Unfortunately, the western world is terribly selfish. When only
anti-Israeli terrorism was involved, everyone pretended nothing
was happening. But they gave terrorism the green light, and today
it's spreading, so their heads are spinning. It may be too late.
Unfortunately, now it's a general habit to make demands, and to
force victories through illegitimate means. Somehow it no longer
applies that there are limits that must not be crossed. On the
other hand, I think the western, globalizing value system gives
an opportunity to Islamic radicals. It's basically built on the
libido of the individual, which is also reflected in the western
concept of human rights. The gap between civilizations is widening.
What can be done about it?
life in numbers
||born on 9 August
from the Film Faculty of Academy of Performing Arts
||signed Charter 77
to Judaism and adopted the name Efraim.
||emigrated to Germany
and studied Judaism in Heidelberg, SRN
the rabbitical seminary in Tel Aviv, Israel
||Czech country rabbi since 9 November
of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk from president Václav Havel
It's crazy, but nothing's to be done. Security forces and the army
have to handle terrorism. However, the drivers of globalization
should be aware that not everything they stand for is good. The
blindness and momentum are so great that probably nothing can
be done. Maybe representatives of various religions could still
play positive roles, but they prefer spending their time on theological
dialogues, and instead of working together to create an atmosphere
for an internal transformation of the views of their citizens
they argue about what they can't agree on anyway.
Do you think intervening from outside in the matters of a given
country is justified, even when - by western standards - the citizenry
is denied basic human rights? Such perceptions can be very relative,
It isn't a question of western standards, but rather of experiences
that are even specifically Czech. If at the time when Hitler was
gaining power there had been a force to oppose him, it would have
saved tens of millions of lives. If the western world had then
stood up against Nazi Germany, it would have certainly been good.
There would have been the same arguments as there are today against
the war in Iraq, and many people would surely be wavering as to
whether it was right, because they wouldn't know what would happen
it they failed to act. But we know now. If the west intervened
only militarily, without trying to interfere socially by exporting
their consumeristic value system, and if the military presence
didn't last longer than it had to, it would be OK.
Although very young, prime minister Gross has surrounded himself
with people connected with communism. Does it frighten you, as
a person who had very negative experiences with the former regime?
I basically see no threat. I don't know Mr. Gross, but I get the
impression that his political methods reflect the upbringing of
his generation under late communism. The politics simply captured
the generation that came of age when lying and stealing were part
of the values, and now it's showing up. I don't see much in high
politics, and I don't particularly want to.