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Blood Libel and the Human Limitations of Reason and Worship

Updated on January 13, 2014

A Miscarriage of Justice.

The scales of justice, empty at the start.
The scales of justice, empty at the start. | Source

Russia: the Final Frontier of a Form of Religious Animosity

In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917, a woman of the underworld by the name of Vera Cheberiak was shot to death on orders from the Kremlin. Oskar Vipper, a prosecutor, was taken prisoner. Later, he died behind bars. At the same time, the Bolsheviks executed erstwhile Minister of Justice, Ivan Shcheglovitov. How come? A big hint is contained in the fact that all the people cited above were involved in a blood libel case from early 20th century Tsarist Russia. Those fortunate enough to have lived in a more enlightened country or political climate at the time should take heed. At some point, the tried and true will simply stumble and fall. It does not matter what. In specific, as far as the case at hand is concerned, the idea of stirring up a wave of anti-Semitism for the sake of a flagging Tsarist regime had worked before. This time, it did not actually fail either, except that the Communists, who came into power a handful of years later, rejected the entire court proceedings. To them, they made a mockery of modern justice. Unfortunately for the devout, the empowered Communists threw the baby out with the bathwater. Everything having to do with religion was unceremoniously scrapped.

I came across this case after having taken an interest in another blood libel incident that occurred in 12th century England. They are both similar and dissimilar. The English case accused the entire Jewish population of Norwich (allegedly acting on orders from Spain, no less). The Russian case named an individual, Mendel Beilis. In both, an actual murder had been committed: that much had not been fabricated. The Russian boy's body had been discovered on Sunday, March 3, 1911. It had then been systematically put to use to incite one segment of the nation's people against another. It was said to have been, while living, deliberately drained of its blood -- approximately five glassfuls. It had forty-seven punctures. The prosecution somehow linked them to the Old Testament. At the beginning of my inquiry I felt capable of being able to handle the general requisites and expectations of an amateur sleuth. Why had the boys been murdered in both the 12th and 20th centuries? I knew the knee-jerk reactions that are usually brought forth. They were killed in some sort of ritualistic fashion so as to implicate a minority that did not subscribe to the greater, dominant belief. And rubles had passed hands, too, presumably to bring about this outcome. But what if the murders had been the result of something else, maybe having nothing to do with religion, or, as the Communists would have it, superstition?

Ultimately, my own mind sputtered out. There is so much "evidence", or, lacking any real credibility, "testimony", that there is no way the truth of what happened will ever manage to somehow mystically appear. I eventually gave up. I cannot solve a crime to save my life anyways. I kept my interest, since I have become something of an eclectic intellectual (pseudo or not, I won't argue) over the years. But I could not tell if these sorts of murders were meant to fan the flames, or, as I was hoping to suggest, cover up a misdeed that had absolutely nothing to do with either Christianity or Judaism -- or the two combined, confluent and exploited. That is to say, I was inclined as I perused each book, whether having to do with the Russian boy or the English boy, to keep in mind the remote but viable possibility that the boys had been murdered for extra-religious reasons. This was the approach I favored. I did not want to believe in either a Jewish occult, real or imagined, or a Christian form of hyper-extremism, also real or imagined, sharing the responsibility or claiming same.

But this was naive. I don't even really know why, looking back, I read these accounts, except that there is a kind of mischievous lure by virtue of the medieval mentality some obscure literature exposes. Just think how fabulous it would be to be able to converse with the religiously-obsessed from centuries ago. Especially from the 12th century account, but also the 20th century version, one can actually time travel and read, first-hand, the rationale behind a way of thinking that would never be sanctioned today -- and for good reason. At least I was theoretically correct to keep an open mind. Maybe there were things relevant to either case or both together that books had never brought out, if only because they were lost to time. There is a tendency today to assume that we possess knowledge, whereas knowledge was beyond reach in times gone by. Scholars used to study philosophy; now they prefer science, as if one negated the other. Actually, knowledge is no more the domain of today than yesterday. Only a shift in focus has been achieved, the trick behind the magic. To think that the two boys had been murdered for the sake of a turf war no holier than that between the Jets and the Sharks, or a theological dispute, too mind-bending for objectivity, was, for me, too crude as well as overly transparent. Nonetheless, the usual, horrible speculations might be all that could be conjured, since in both cases the murders were not, in effect, solved. All of which goes to show that, like the Ripper, maybe, or another intriguing historical case, we will never know the whole truth.

Beilis spent over two years in custody. It may seem in 2014 that it could never have been possible a hundred years ago to be stigmatized with a ritual murder that deliberately conflates Communion with Passover, both of which make use of the same symbols. But it was, and the crime itself had a centuries long tradition, with a dazzling array of variations, too. Afterwards, Beilis, one of the last, if not the last, victim of high-profile, ritual murder, could never quite get his life back. He left Russia, settled in Palestine, and then sailed the Atlantic to New York City. But what about the fact, brought out in his commemorative history (the trial of 1913 had attained its centennial in 2013), that after the Russian populace tore down statues of Lenin, they practically deified the boy who had been murdered, erecting a vindictive shrine at his gravesite? Should it be considered a warning? After 1989, more than one and a half million Jews and non-Jews with Jewish ancestry emigrated from what had once been the Soviet Union.

Had the Tsar been right? Did he know the soul of Russia better than the unkempt usurpers who drove him from the Winter Palace? Much the same had happened earlier over the murdered boy in 12th century England. Post-mortem, he was glorified to the heights. This is admittedly a touchy subject. Today, it attracts only a historical and time-bound curiosity. For me, it is important to separate what the free world found offensive about Communism from that which the much-maligned hammer-and-sickle strove in vain to accomplish. Not that the USSR was altruistic, for no political force has ever proved worthy of that quality. Yet Leftish 19th century writers promised with a unified conviction that as an economic system, Communism would have no rival. This has truly failed the test. But will its collapse lead to a resurgence of the kind of human idiocy described above? For that is what was really put on trial in the early 20th century.

A Strange Etiology

From an inauspicious beginning to . . . .
From an inauspicious beginning to . . . . | Source

The Steamroll of Progress Lies

There is almost no point whatsoever in rehashing the weird and reprehensible chapters of history. To accuse a minority of making use of youthful Christian blood to bake unleavened bread -- I am not making this up -- does not reflect well on God's preeminent creation. Blood libel cases strain credulity. But if I am right, there is embedded within our psyches a primitive reflex that can never be totally suppressed, denied, or eradicated. It is inescapable. Strict rationalists seek control over this atavistic phenomenon. And the fight against it is not without wins. For example, it is a sign of hope that there is so much diversity today. People can name their own stripes, as it were. They can tell the world without apology or fear of repercussions that they are Democrats, gay-friendly, true-believers, pro-life, pro-choice, or anti-handgun -- whatever. But deep down, at a certain low, internal level, there is no difference between one firebrand and his or her exact opposite. All are shackled to the primitive. Time can do nothing to lift human beings up from their shared-in-common, primordial slime pit, much less turn them into Teutonic supermen and superwomen. Maybe at one time, the world and the mind were perfectly harmonious -- both undeveloped and uncomplicated. That is not, however, the case today.

Here is the upshot: there is no understanding most of today's bloodiest conflicts without evoking somehow or other the irrational mechanism that I am trying to discuss, against the grain, on a rational plane. It is not precisely the id, instincts, DNA, or another concept or fact extracted from observable biological data, tending toward the past rather than the present or future. But it is not at odds with any of these either. Note how despite their strongholds on so many nations and different cultures, the old guard Communists could not obliterate from the minds and hearts of their foreign and domestic colleagues, willing or not, a passionate religious drive not consonant with reason. And where were atheists all this time anyways? What regime from well back into B.C. almost to the present, with the exception of the 20th century, has done without the assistance of a priesthood?

Still, had God Almighty, for lack of a better term, not raised up a country that refused to publicly acknowledge His stewardship, the outcome of World War II would likely have been much less agreeable to the Western World. And now, without such a huge watchdog, what substitute is there that would threaten a well-organized and well-armed fascist uprising? At present, the focus is on terror, which is an enormous distraction. Still, what effective means are available to resist a significant national or multinational rightwing takeover? The will itself to do so is non-existent. The "people" will never rise up again the way they did in the 18th century and again in the 20th. They have been lulled into complacency by a placated Europe as well as the impotence of hate groups who are no longer influential. Hopefully, there will be no confrontation. But a stronger, more diplomatic America, with a longer reach and a keener eye, would be a key desideratum.

But all this is biting off more than I can chew. I am not a prophet, though I can see both conservatism and liberalism opening needful doors so that an American-style fascism, creeping and crawling along without notice, enters permanently into the picture. Without having to do anything, neo-fascists gain ground daily by virtue of the various and innumerable global frustrations. Eventually, an iron fist and/or a strong leader on horseback will be called upon to re-establish law and order. Case in point: the Middle East. The same kind of thinking that gave birth to blood libel also informs the lives and early deaths of its inhabitants. The rational mind plays next to no role. Blood libel thinking merely prefers the performance of one ritual to that of another, the singing of one hymn rather than another, and the confession of one belief rather than another. But its methods are obscene and noxious.

Norwich UK

The Insane Storm the Heavens

Throughout Beilis's ordeal, he was not alone. Yes, of course, there was an informant at his side 24/7. That would have been his appointed cellmate. But The New York Times was not silent, nor The Times of London. Appeals to the Russian Orthodoxy as well as the Tsar went unheeded. God works in strange, mysterious ways. This time it was the non-Communists who faced eternal damnation by virtue of their inaction. Their pusillanimity prevented a more critical stance against outdated beliefs professed by a clergy that, in hindsight, badly needed a shot in the arm. Backscratchers all. The word on the street in 1913 was to be vigilant when Passover came round. Nice.

I learned from my research that as early as 1272 Pope Gregory outlawed blood libel. Was the ban effective? To a large extent, it probably was. Aristocratic Russia, which had its own religious authorities, had competition. Poland, for example, could be relied upon to regularly stir up the great unwashed to a fever pitch. But as bad as it got, it could have been worse. For us, as Americans, it is important to take note of Europe's shortcomings in order to better preserve a healthy division between church and state. There is not enough maturity at present and responsibility for such a union. Religions, like politics, have the capacity to bring out the very worst in people.

In the case of young William of Norwich, the motive for his ritual murder might actually have been more secular than meets the eye. Church folk were probably jealous. The Jewish community, small and compact, was protected by the King. Likely as not, his own personal motives were impure and, to the Church, ungodly. He had a lucrative financial arrangement. He was not impressed by the self-abnegations and dubious imitatio dei of Thomas of Monmouth. It was he who had been the monk/chronicler of William's death and subsequent saintly powers. Thomas piously squirreled away in his humble domicile two of the martyr's teeth as well as one shoe. Miraculous cures followed in addition to visions of William in heaven.

Like Beilis's troubles, those of the Jews of Norwich might seem highly anomalous if severe. True enough, but false accusations have not gone out of style. Villification is alive and well. Destroying lives is a legitimate profession right here in the United States. People who hate people are amply rewarded. The higher-ups certainly do not refrain from this misbehavior. The lower-downs might not waste time and prefer a bullet. Their reputations are already foregone conclusions. But the overall thrust of this superficial dip into a historical oddity is that the human race has not transcended its proclivities toward idiocy. If it can achieve material and/or spiritual gain (and the latter is a devious aspiration, to be sure), nothing is non-negotiable.

St. Petersburg Russian Orthodox Church

Quite an eyeful apart from all this.
Quite an eyeful apart from all this. | Source

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