Rabbi Abby Jacobson
Special to The Sun
OKLA. CITY —
What do I really know about the Canaanites — the ancient Near Eastern tribe that inhabited what is today the Land of Israel before the time of Joshua? Actually, I know quite a bit about them. I know that they were polytheistic — the chief god of their pantheon was called Ba’al. They used stones and carved idols, in which they believed their gods manifested themselves, during their worship. One of their gods, Moloch, required the sacrifice of human babies, burned alive. They used to marry their children to one another in order to keep their lands together after inheritance.
I know these things about them because they are described in the Hebrew Bible. We are told many times not to pass our children through fire to Moloch, and we are warned that the Canaanites’ actions displeased God so much that God threw them out of the Land. Do not act like the Canaanites, do not let them tempt us into idolatry, do not do the things that made the Land “vomit them out.”
I know quite a bit about the Canaanites. Don’t I?
Actually, the only things I know about them are from the Hebrew Bible, and the Hebrew Bible mostly refers to them in the context of things that Jews are not supposed to do — justifying the choice of the Jewish people to worship God in our way, rather than to worship the Canaanite gods in the Canaanite way. In reality, I know nothing about who the Canaanites really were or how they lived, and if there were any left for me to meet, I would not have the first idea of what we might have in common.
As a religious minority here in Oklahoma, it worries me that many people have never met a Jewish person before. To some people, we Jews are simply characters from their Bible, or from the evening news, or from PBS documentaries, or from learning about the Holocaust. These sources of information may be accurate, or they might not be accurate. Either way, it is no substitute for having a Jewish friend or neighbor.
In my small hometown in central Florida, there was a very well-liked teacher of agriculture and of drafting. Mr. B was a great man and a great teacher. Many of the teachers in our area had never met Jews before. To some of them, that did not matter. Others got upset trying to figure out how to treat us, like we were strange and unknown creatures. “What shall we do with you while everyone else makes Christmas cards?” “I don’t know anything about Jews, but I know a joke about the Holocaust.” Not Mr. B, though.
Mr. B had been in the Army during World War II, and even though my family was the only Jewish family around, Mr. B had served with a Jewish soldier. He knew my brothers and I practiced a different religion than his other students, but it was not the first thing he though of when he saw us. He never made us feel strange or out of place, and he was never as uncomfortable around us as some of the other teachers, who worried about everything when they saw us because all they could see was how different we are.
We have a lot of ways to learn about people who are different from us. We can read books, watch documentaries, ask our friends, or look on the Internet. Still, you can never really know about another group of people until you know some of them personally.
ABBY JACOBSON is the rabbi of Emanuel Synagogue, 900 N.W. 47th St., Oklahoma City. She may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.