Howard Jacobson: As Graham Greene once put it, kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths

In the end, nothing matters but a quiet life. Give the other person what he wants. Politeness is everything
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The Independent Online

I have told this story before, though not I think in these pages or in times so fraught. My father was a children's magician. His pièce de résistance was pulling a rabbit out of a hat. You'll have seen it done, though rarely will you have seen it done so maladroitly. Because he was anxious not to hurt or distress the rabbit, my father kept looking into the special lining of his jacket where he kept the rabbit to make sure it was coping with the confinement and suspense.

Thus, long before the rabbit was due to appear, the audience had seen my father stroking its ears or feeding it a carrot. This, as we were at pains to explain to him, took somewhat from the surprise of the effect. But a rabbit which everyone felt they knew a bit already, he insisted, was better than a rabbit dead of fright.

One day my father was asked to entertain a party of orthodox Jewish children. Their one stipulation was that he shouldn't do any trick involving rabbits. Though he had no desire to countermand their wishes, my father did want to understand what specifically they had against rabbits, whether rabbits in general were anathematised by orthodox families, and if there were any grounds to hope that this family, at least, could be shifted in its prejudice against his rabbit. Accordingly, he consulted a rabbi.

The rabbi admitted this was not a question he had been asked to pronounce upon before. So he was not going to give a ruling on the spot. He was not himself - no offence intended - a magician. He would need time to consult the relevant sources - the Torah, the Talmud, Mishna, Gemara, the opinions of learned Jews throughout the ages. How long this would take he didn't know. The Almighty, blessed be He, made the universe in seven days; but even the wisest man might need an eternity to decide the rights and wrongs of a rabbit. My father said he hoped it would not be an eternity, and left him to his researches.

Some weeks later the rabbi rang my father. "Mr Jacobson," he said, "Max - may I call you Max? - I have given your question serious thought. I have looked at it this way, that way, and the other way. I have spoken long distance to rabbis living and thought my way an even longer distance into the minds of rabbis dead, may they rest in peace. I have read and read again everything the great scholars of the past have written on this or associated subjects. I have considered the words of the Kabalah and the laws of Halacha. The laws relating to animals, the laws relating to magic, and the laws relating to public performance. And the ruling I have come to is this. Listen - Max - if they don't want rabbits, don't give them rabbits!'

Readers will infer what they will from this. My own view on the subject that has been troubling us all these past two weeks is similar to the rabbi's. If they don't like cartoons, don't give them cartoons. And conversely, if they must have free speech, let them have free speech.

In the end, nothing matters but a quiet life. Give the other person what he wants. Politeness is everything. In human relations, as Graham Greene had one of his malarial characters say, kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths.

There is a Yiddish word without which I believe it is impossible to understand Judaism as it is lived. The word is mishegaas, which literally means madness, but is used most frequently to mean craze or fixation.

As a sort of counterweight to every Jewish prohibition exists the thought that it is a mishegaas. You don't eat ear of lapwing on the third Saturday after Passover or some such mishegaas. Calling it a mishegaas doesn't necessarily mean you flout the law; only that in another unpractising part of yourself you know it for the insanity it is. Thus can you simultaneously be an observant Jew and not.

It was in this spirit, I fancy, that the rabbi told my father to indulge the orthodox their mishegaas. What the word also implies is harmlessness. If they don't want rabbit, you don't give them rabbit, because one way or another, and when all is said and done, the rabbit doesn't matter very much. "Everything unconditional belongs in pathology," Nietzsche said, and that includes going to war unconditionally over a rabbit.

That a religious fundamentalist will resent his faith being called a mishegaas I understand. That a secular fundamentalist will equally resent his devotion to free speech being called a mishegaas I also understand. And once they are dug into their positions there is probably no point in my saying that the beauty of the concept of a mishegaas - a word at one and the same time comical, contingent, understanding and affectionate - is that it can mediate between their obduracies if only they will let it. As indeed - if only they will let it - can art.

Here the secular fundamentalist will claim he enjoys the advantage over his religious counterpart in that art is his element; in the novel and in drama, he will tell you, is to be found not only the liberty of mind he values above everything else, but the very solvent of the fanaticism he abhors: openness, dialectic, ambiguity, uncertainty, contradiction, indeed all the criticism, comedy, contingency I hear in the word mishegaas. And he is justified in claiming this. Art is the enemy of the closed book which is absolute belief.

But he misses out what art also is - a leap of the mind into someone who is not yourself, the ambition, felt as an imaginative no less than a moral and societal obligation, to conceive what George Eliot called another person's "equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and the shadows must always fall with a certain difference". In the absence of which act of the imagination, it seems to me, both religion and secularism should hang their heads.

We can debate until the cows come home the disproportionality or not of the cartoons and the response to them. No, they weren't an indispensable iteration of our freedoms. And no, you don't refute the charge that your God is violent by calling for beheadings in His name. In the end we are one another's creation. Something else Nietzsche said: "He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you."

We all need to find another mishegaas.