DON'T EXPECT to see Louis Farrakhan wear a yarmulke at the Million Man March he's organizing in Washington next Monday. But there's still the slightest chance he'll put one on, a bright white one. I know. I gave him that yarmulke during dinner at his home in Chicago in mid-June.
I met with Mr. Farrakhan because I'm writing a biography of him. During the meal -- and I must say he is a fine and gracious host -- he brought up the march: One million men dedicated to reforming themselves. To making amends for their trespasses. To dedicating themselves to monogamy, fidelity, sobriety, civility, enterprise.
And black women, who are not invited to the march, would refrain from going "downtown," as Mr. Farrakhan called local business districts, and instead go to their churches, where they would pray for unity and strength. Also attending those churches would be politicians, just as they go to synagogues to hear their constituents' grievances. But instead of wearing yarmulkes, as these politicians do when in synagogue, they would wear kufis -- small, round African hats -- in the church that day.
At that point, I reached into my pocket and withdrew a gleaming white yarmulke, which I handed to my host: "Minister Farrakhan, would like you to wear this at the march." Visibly moved, Mr. Farrakhan held the yarmulke briefly between his palms: "I know what this means, Mr. Magida. I thank you."
He did not promise to wear the yarmulke at the march -- or any other time. But just a brief moment, a millisecond, the gesture of reconciliation -- his and mine -- short-circuited the verbal mayhem that has been waging since 1984, when his comments about Hitler being "wickedly great" and Judaism being a "dirty religion" unleashed a war of words that has yet to cease.
There was another gesture of reconciliation that evening: The March, said Mr. Farrakhan, would be a "Day of Atonement, a Yom Kippur," for black males: "We can learn from Jews' strengths, traditions and cohesiveness." Publicly, Mr. Farrakhan
has called the march a Day of Atonement; as far as I know, he has used the Hebrew words for the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, only in private conservation.
A theological syllogism
Not expectedly, Mr. Farrakhan's language has raised many an eyebrow: This hater of Jews, this two-bit Hitler appropriating Yom Kippur for his own twisted and self-serving purposes? The nerve! The chutzpah!
But what passes for arrogance is the extension of a theological syllogism that's at the heart of Mr. Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam:
* God chose Jews because they suffered.
* Jews are now wayward and undeserving of Chosenness.
* God has a new Chosen people: blacks, whose suffering eclipses Jews'.
By equating his march with Yom Kippur, Mr. Farrakhan is simply reiterating, in different language and on different terms, his presumption that Jews had foolishly ceded all aspirations to Chosenness to blacks. What Mr. Farrakhan apparently does not realize (or does not care about) is that this triumphalism has been discarded by every esteemed religion on the globe. Even the Vatican, for centuries one of the more strident voices of the anti-Jewish New Jerusalem, has retreated from the slander of deicide. The current pope has called Jews the "elder brothers" of Christians and affirmed a "respect . . . based on the mysterious link which brings us close together, in Abraham and through Abraham, in God Who chose Israel and brought forth the church from Israel.
Islam, which Mr. Farrakhan professes to represent, is also part of the Abrahamic chain: Muslims trace their ancestry to Ishmael, the son Abraham had with his wife's handmaiden, Hagar. But, of course, Mr. Farrakhan's Islam is a singular type: he has deified the founder of the Nation of Islam, Fard Muhammad, as Allah incarnate; and enshrined its late leader, Elijah Muhammad, as the messiah: "This is the man that Jews have been looking for and that mine were not looking for because we did not know that such a man should come to us. . . . I'm saying straight out that he is the Jesus of the New Testament. He is a great man and a divine man and the messiah."
The triple heretic
Which makes the Nation of Islam, as a so-called religion, and Mr. Farrakhan, as a so-called religious leader, heretical to three major world religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This feat should not be underestimated: Alienating in one fell swoop so many tens of millions of people is no mean feat.
As much as Jews, Christians, Muslims and people of good faith everywhere are irate about Mr. Farrakhan being racist or anti-Christian or anti-Jewish or a black supremacist, they are 100 percent mistaken when claiming the Million Man March will legitimize him.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. In his eyes, he is the one legitimate voice in this country. He alone speaks truths. He alone is allied with the power of God. He alone can redeem his people and lead them to the Promised Land. As a prophetic voice of our day, it is Mr. Farrakhan who confers legitimacy on the black brothers and sisters or on anyone else who comes within his orbit.
Surely, sanctioning the Million Man March risks sanctioning today's pre-eminent rabble-rouser. But not sanctioning the march means risking, from Mr. Farrakhan's vantage, apocalyptic punishments of vast biblical proportions: Floods and plagues and famines and furious, vindictive, unrelenting judgments from on high.
Possibly because of the very grandiosity of Mr. Farrakhan's vision, he is a powerful, riveting presence among blacks: More than 60 percent view him positively; 70 percent say he speaks truths the country needs to hear; 53 percent say he is a model for black youth. Only 34 percent dismiss him as a "racist or bigot."
Whether Farrakhan has the courage to use his march -- and his influence and his vast charisma -- for interracial, interreligious healing and reconciliation, not divisiveness and bitterness, remains to be seen. One sign of an emerging "new" Farrakhan may be whether he dons a yarmulke next Monday, not as a sign of supplanting Jews, but of reaching out to them and others.
Don't count on it.
Arthur J. Magida's biography of Louis Farrakhan, "Prophet of Rage," will be published in February.