Sunday, August 28, 2016

Ethnic cleansing is not legitimized by the Torah

Spikes in your eyes and thorns in your side” (1) is what the Torah predicts the remaining original inhabitants of the land of Canaan will be to the Israelites if the Israelites do not drive them out as God instructed them to do when they conquer the land. One man recently interpreted this verse in the presence of a few Jewish people, as being instructive for our times. When we heard him say that, quite a few eyes turned to me for a response and I knew that I must examine this verse and find its meanings. I promised to share my thoughts at my Saturday afternoon ‘Shiur’- Torah learning discussion.

"Say No to Xenophobia", Creative Commons Licenses.
 Harold Cressy High School, Cape Town, South Africa
Let me be clear that this post is not about what people should or should not do practically. ‘This  (guidance about dealing with the Canaanite population) is an exceptional Divine decree in a particular time and context that no human ruler has the right to apply in any other situation’ (2). Although these actual words were not written by any major classical authority, it reflects a common contemporary attitude of religious Jews. As I explained in my Shiur, no Halachic authority of any standing has advocated for ethnic cleansing or mass expulsions of any population anywhere in over 1000 years and even longer. This post is actually about three things,
1) the attitudes Jews might see as reasonable when confronted with Trump type policies.
2) how people both Jewish or otherwise interpret and understand what I would regard as confronting Jewish texts; and
3) a contribution to general understandings about the various ways people interpret what seem to be simple and shocking sacred texts.   

One authoritative classical, 13th century, commentary sees significance in the specific reference to the eyes. “The intention of spikes in your eyes is the same as in the verse “bribery will blind the eyes of the wise”…that (the idol worshipping locals) will cause you to err and you will not see or understand, and they will teach you all of their loathsome  practices and to serve their gods… and as a result of their “being spikes in your eyes” and turning you away from Me [God and ethical monotheism, the Isrealites will be punished by God in that the people would] become thorns in your sides” (3).  While this teaching continues to worry me at a theoretical level, because of its contradiction of pluralism and tolerance, it makes it clear that the context of this verse does not in any way justify building a wall to keep Mexicans out of the US or other exclusionary practices.   

I passionately argued against adventurously and literally applying such teachings from another context to situations today.  I don’t know what happens in every Church and Mosque in Australia. This past Sunday, at an Interfaith event, one Christian speaker suggested some texts are just ignored. At a Mosque I recently heard a speaker deliver a lecture that examined teachings of certain Islamic scholars that many in that Muslim community wished to ignore because of the irrelevance of those teachings to their own lives.One thing I think is a safe bet. Making assumptions about sacred texts without understanding the variety of ways that a particular text is read by those who follow it is often misleading.  

1) Numbers 33:55
2) Comment in Artscroll Chumash commentary
3) Ramban, Nachmanides on Numbers 33:55

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Spirit vs Form - Kavana. Chukat

For 45 minutes I was in another zone as I combined mindfulness and meditation with my ritual morning blessings. I felt spiritually uplifted and filled with a deep gratitude for the wisdom of animals, my eyesight, having all my needs met and the dignity of clothing.

That was another morning.

This morning was a completely different story. This morning I recited the same blessings but I arrived late and feeling stressed about many things. Prayer is meant to be the "service of the heart[i]" but my mumbling this morning was just robotic compliance.

It’s now 8:53 am. I just sat down at my desk at work, but I have been on my way to the office since 7:05 after my uninspired worship. I had the wrong combination for the back gate of the Synagogue, so I missed my bus. Instead I tried the train but neglected to check the sign so I jumped on to the wrong train. 4 trains later I am finally here and I am not so sure that what matters is really love and truth, or if compliance with requirements, times and rules is actually more important than it would seem. Clearly, my work fostering acceptance and belonging depends on attending to these technicalities.

Religion can be inspiring and can engage the heart and mind, but it can also be experienced as oppressive. In our Torah reading this week we learn about the red cow that would be killed and burned; its ashes sprinkled on water to be used as part of a purification ritual[ii]. This commandment is expected to be obeyed because God has decreed it and we “have no permission to question it[iii]”. We are called to subjugate our minds to the will of God[iv] because obedience, not fulfilment is valued. 

On the other side of this argument, in this reading we hear that Moses and Aaron were reprimanded after Moses hit a rock, causing water to miraculously flow. They were instructed to speak to the rock[v] rather than hit it. The symbolism of talking to the rock vs. hitting it is instructive. Forty years earlier, Moses also drew water from a rock when he hit it by God’s command.  But four decades before, Moses and Aaron had been leading slaves; they were accustomed to being told what to do (the dominant approach, symbolized by a stick), but now they were free people. The “stick” approach was no longer needed – now it was time for a “words”.[vi]

The themes of submission vs. engagement of the heart can be discerned in some of the details of the “stick” story. Although God had instructed Moses and Aaron to speak to the rock, He also instructed him to take “the staff” along. This is puzzling: why bring a stick at all[vii]? One answer is that “The stick” they were told to bring along was the staff of Aaron that miraculously sprouted almonds[viii]. This dry piece of wood had miraculously produced water as part of the miracle of the almonds and was to be used as inspiration for the rock that was going to be asked to also produce water. The symbolism of ‘the’ stick (rather than any stick) is not of a lifeless instrument of coercion but of a fusion between obedience and engagement.

The episode with the rock follows the death of the elder sister of Moses, Miriam, from whom Moses and Aaron had previously sought advice. Perhaps her feminine influence could have helped her brothers be more alert to the nuances of God’s command?[ix]. Instead, Moses missed the subtle point about “the stick” of Aaron with the almonds and its implied message and instead hit the rock with “his (own) stick[x]”. One lesson for us from Moses’ mistake is the need for being “very settled” and attentive in carrying out instructions[xi] so that we don’t fail to achieve their purpose, rather than being rushed like Moses was, or jumping on the train without checking the board to see where it was going.

The apparently irrational ritual of the burning red cow is also complex. It has elements that can engage the heart. One theme is the quest for balance and pursuit of the middle path, which can be inferred from the inclusion of a piece of wood from a tall cedar tree and a lowly hyssop plant in the fire. It symbolizes the message that we should not be arrogant like the cedar, nor should we be too humble like the hyssop, instead we must work toward the golden mean[xii]

A message of our reading can be to combine the pursuit of transcendence and spiritual expression with submission to rules and rituals. In fact, I think if I was more obedient to the requirements to always pray with Kavana, to do an intentional ritual hand washing when arriving at the synagogue[xiii] and to be on time, then even on an off day, the morning blessings words of gratitude would have greater power to engage my spirit.  The social justice, inspirational side of Judaism is nurtured by the adherence to rules and rituals and the resulting refinement of the spirit and growth in God’s consciousness.  A bird needs two wings to fly, one is love that motivates our positive activity and the other is fear which motivates obedience to prohibitions and rules[xiv].

[i] Talmud, Taanis 2a
[ii] Numbers 19
[iii] Cited in Rashi to Numbers 19:2, the ritual of the red heifer is the ultimate example of the Chuka category commandments which are not understandable.
[iv] The words “this is the statue of the Torah” is also taken to mean that it would be better for a person to treat all the laws of the Torah as unexplainable commandments rather than try to find reasons for them- R. Mendel of Kotzk, quoted by R. Zeev of Strikov, in Greenberg, A, Y, (1992) Torah Gems, Y Orenstien/Yavneh Publishing Tel Aviv, this is consistent with the emphasis in Chabad Chasidism on Bittul, self-nullification. There is another very strong side of Chasidism that emphasises self-refinement and spiritual engagement.
[v] Numbers 20:8
[vi] Sacks, (2009) Chief Rabbi Jonathan, Future Tense, Hodder & Stoughton London
[vii] Klei Yakar
[viii] Numbers 17:17-23
[ix] Ralbag makes the connection with Miriam ‘s death and the loss of her advice, which he assumes was frequently sought, he does not refer to the feminine aspect which is my own addition
[x] Numbers 20:11
[xi] Ralbag
[xii] Seforno on Numbers 19:2
[xiii] The custom I am familiar with is for Jews to wash their hands when arriving at the Synagogue. Typical orthodox synagogues will have a wash basin near the entrance, but technically one can ritually wash one’s hands at home. Not doing it again at the synagogue is a missed opportunity for a “kavana” enhancing ritual
[xiv] Tanya

Friday, July 8, 2016

Dangerously Divisive! Korach & Pauline Hanson

Arguments are raging about how to respond to the election of the divisive anti-Islam senator elect Pauline Hanson. On one hand we are being urged to “listen [to,] not lampoon” Hanson and her voters. We are told that although ‘Hanson’s policies are misconceived’ we can must empathise with the economic pain of Hanson’s rural supporters and to accept that their “fears are natural, and understandable”. I suggested on twitter that ‘dialogue with fearful, resentful people must sit alongside ensuring that bigotry is not made respectable’.

On the other hand, there are very real fears that giving credence to bigotry will have devastating effects. Jarni Blakkarly wrote after the election of Hanson: “A lot of my friends who are people of colour and particularly Muslims are genuinely afraid at the moment.” Last time Hanson was in Parliament she made offensive comments about Aboriginal people and there was an increase in racist incidents in her state to the extent where Aboriginal people reported being afraid to travel on buses. A similar effect is currently being felt on the streets of the UK, as a result of the toxic Brexit rhetoric. Tim Soutphommasane correctly asserted that “We have plenty of examples about how licensing hate can lead to serious violence and ugliness in our streets and our communities ”.

In the Torah reading this week we have the example of Korach, a Biblical figure who challenged Moses’ leadership and threatened the cohesion of the Israelites. Of Korach it is written that ‘A man took a divisive stance and lost part of himself[i]’. There is something profoundly diminishing in the stance of hateful divisiveness. Yet, the threat dividers pose is seen as massive, and must not be underestimated. Shakira Hussein argues that Hansonism is part of an international trend and that those who are supporting the approach “are not just seeking to recapture the past. They’re looking to the future — and they believe that it belongs to them[ii]”. In the case of Korach, God himself intervened and had the earth swallow Korach alive[iii].  This reflects the power of words to undermine societal norms and cohesion. Ridicule of Hansonism and of her as a public figure representing offensive views is appropriate and a legitimate part of the battle of ideas.

Like Hanson challenging the Elites, Korach denied Moses authority as a messenger of God and falsely accused him of haughtiness: holding himself above the people[iv].  Yet, we know that Moses was a reluctant leader and is described in the Torah as a most humble man. In speaking the unspeakable, Korach shook the foundations of his society and emboldened others who wished to break free from the constraints of what was previously considered “correct” speech. In our time, like then, it is important for people to strongly distance themselves from divisive figures or risk being seen as legitimising their views. This is symbolically alluded to in the story of Korach when the people are instructed to physically distance themselves from Korach[v] because tho stand near Korach could be understood to be standing with him and his agenda[vi].

On the other hand there is value in a dialogue with Hanson’s voters, but in a way that does not to amplify their voices. Moses himself talked to some of the rebels and sought to reason with them. Moses send a messenger to two of the other rebels who had not approach him to invite them to meet him for dialogue[vii]. In many ways, Hanson’s voters are people like you and me. Many of them are suffering and have genuine concerns about the future of our country. They also have unacceptable and harmful views that need to be challenged. But the best way to do that is to engage with them in an appropriate way without causing further harm to our society. 

The nature of Korach’s punishment is illustrative of the nature of in-fighting and divisiveness. The ground opened and swallowed Korach alive[viii]. This is the nature of conflict, it is consuming[ix]!  When the Israelites saw Korach consumed as a consequence of the conflict they ran screaming[x], because they said: “lest we also be swallowed”. There is a struggle for hearts and minds and the direction we will take regarding differences. Let us fight hard, compassionately and wisely.

[i] Ohr Hachayim, to Numbers 16:1
[iii] Numbers 16:31-33, If I take the story of Korach literally, it troubles me because of what it implies about dissent and challenging authority but I am looking at it in more thematic or Midrashic terms
[iv] Numbers 16:3
[v] Numbers 16:26, Arama, Rabbi Y., cited in Lebovitz, N. Studies in Bamidbar Numbers, Malbim, Hirsch, S.R.,
[vi] Midrash Hagadol cited in Torah Shlaima
[vii] Numbers 16:5-12
[viii] Numbers 16:31-33
[ix] Chafetz Chayim
[x] Numbers 16:34, “screaming” is my creative interpretation/translation of the words in the verse that states “they ran to/for their voices” which is ambiguous. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Did not make me a goy?! Sacred text, prejudice and Interpretation (Bahalotecha)

Bless you God for not making me a goy" (the word "goy" is often translated as a non-Jew 1, but it's meaning is highly contested). These words confronted me in a series of prayers that I have recited every morning since I was five. One morning I was in a meditative mode, fully present and intentional with every word I was saying. I paused. The most obvious inference in this prayer is that I am grateful for not being made an impliedly inferior type of person. But this makes no sense to me. There are many people I know personally who are not Jewish and whom I deeply respect and admire.  If I skipped the prayer, it would mean rejecting the theological/legal system that forms the basis of my Orthodox spiritual life.  So I reinterpret the prayer to mean that despite my acknowledgement of the various paths to personal and spiritual greatness of the Muslims, Christians, Hindus, atheists/agnostics, traditionally spiritual Aboriginals and others whom I so admire, I still thank God for giving me my own cherished Jewish heritage and identity rather than any of those other profoundly beautiful other ways of being.  Afterwards I thought, whom am I kidding? Don’t words have a fixed meaning beyond their creative reinterpretations? Perhaps they do, but that is how I chose to deal with it. 
The blessing about not being a non-Jewish person  is followed by an expression of gratitude for not being a slave. I thought that the two prayers could be interpreted in similar ways. To be a "slave" has a certain appeal. As the CEO of a not for profit charity I carry the responsibility for a mission and a few persons’ livelihoods. It's often stressful. Like the Israelites in the desert, I'm tempted by the freedom from responsibility that comes with being an employee or, in the case of the Israelites, the lack of accountability to God they had as slaves of the Pharaohs. 2  Yet despite the attraction of "slavery" I choose to be grateful for the freedom to pursue my vision according to my own conscience and I am happy to pay the price.

The price of leadership can be high. In our Torah reading this week this theme can lead us back to the theme of prejudice. The Israelites in the desert complained and thereby challenged Moses and God. Moses was so frustrated that he would rather have died 3  than continue with his impossible mission of leadership unless God helped him. One group of people are highlighted as being at fault; these were the multitude among them [who] began to have strong cravings.” 4  The multitude was not of them 5” (the Jewish nation), but joined the Israelites during the exodus from Egypt and in this case the ethnic Jews are said to have followed the lead of the multitude and also rebelled.

But there is an opportunity for a strong anti-prejudice lesson in our Torah reading too. We read that Moses was married to a black woman, in fact as black as a raven 6 and that Moses’ siblings were rebuked for wrongly criticizing Moses on account of his black wife. I would assume that if his wife was black so was his non-ethnically Jewish, Midyanite father-in-law, Jethro. Shortly before Moses descended into despair he begged his father-in-law to stay in the desert. Please don’t abandon us…you have been like eyes for us 7” Moses pleaded.  Moses cherished his father-in-law’s advice. A few verses later we are told that Jethro did in fact leave Moses without his support, and that Moses cried out bitterly about the burdens of leadership.   As our sages taught us, there is wisdom among the nations.8  One of our greatest scholars would rise in honour of the accumulated life wisdom of elderly people who were not Jewish 9, while Maimonides happily incorporated ethical teachings from non-Jewish philosophers in his writing. 10

Yet, these highly plausible interpretations in the previous paragraph are far from unanimous. The words Kushite”/black that describe Moses’ wife are taken to mean that she was not black but undeniably beautiful 11 just as a black person is clearly black. Another commentary argues that in fact Moses didn’t really need his father-in-law’s advice at all and just pretended he needed it out of humility 12.  I suggest that when it comes to religion, especially mine, interpretation is almost everything. So thank you God for making me Jewish even thought I could have been gloriously wonderful in a somewhat different way, being someone else.

This is one demonstration of creative interpretation of a religious text that at first glance seems to say one thing but can actually mean something else.   

1. I object to words like “goy” or non-Jew as a noun. I think that a person should be defined by what they are and how they define themselves rather than how they are not like me. The literal meaning of the word "goy" is nation and can have a neutral meaning referring to a person from a nation other than the Jewish nation. The blessing traditionally is understood to reflect additional commandments that Jews are obligated in according to Judaism. 
2.  This comment is based on commentary to Numbers 11:5 when the Jews talked about free fish they age in Egypt, which is interpreted by Sifre, cited in Rashi, as being free from Mitzvot
3.  Numbers 11:10-15
4.  Numbers 11:4
5.  Ibn Ezra on 11:4
6.  Numbers 12:1-9 according to Ibn Ezra and Abarbanel
7.  Numbers 10:31
8.  Midrash Eicha Rabba 2:13 מדרש איכה רבה פרשה ב סימן יג
9.  Talmud 33:1
10.  Maimonides,
הרמב"ם בתחילת הקדמתו למסכת אבות ("שמונה פרקים") כותב: "ודע, כי הדברים אשר אומר אותם באלו הפרקים... הם עניינים מלוקטים מדברי החכמים (חכמי ישראל)... ומדברי הפילוסופים גם כן ומחיבורי הרבה בני אדם. ושמע האמת ממי שאמרה". על הפילוסוף היווני אריסטו כותב הרמב"ם: "הוא אשר לימד לבני אדם את דרכי ההוכחה וחוקיה ותנאיה" ("מורה הנבוכים" חלק ב פרק טו(.
cited in
11.  Sifre, Unkelous, Rashi, and Ralbag, see Ibn Kaspi’s (cited in Nechama Lebovitz) withering critique of these teachings that essentially take the verses to mean the opposite of what the plain text appears to be saying
12.  Ralbag

Friday, June 10, 2016

Religion vs. Art? Values clash and my name is not Asher Lev

Staying awake all night on the anniversary of revelation is one of many commonalities between Jews and Muslims. I only found out about this on Monday, in a discussion with some Muslim teenagers and a Sheikh. At midnight on Saturday this week,  I will deliver a talk to sleep deprived Jews at my synagogue as part of the all night learning related to the Jewish festival of Shavuot. I plan to focus as much on cultural conflict as commonality, which should keep my listeners awake.

I will reflect on the play My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok that was recently performed in Sydney. Asher Lev is an artist who grew up in a Chasidic family in a fictional setting that is based on the community in which I was raised. The play raised questions about cultural clashes between faith and art. Asher endured intense conflict with his father who he accused of being afflicted with aesthetic blindness. His father saw Asher’s drawing as being, at best a waste of time and at worst a manifestation of the forces of evil, or the “Sitra Achra”, the other side. Asher’s decision to paint nudes against the wishes of his parents led his father to accuse him of moral blindness.

The conflict between the ideals of the Western art world and the world of Chabad Chasidim has been dismissed by one Rabbi, who cited the example of a Chasidic artist who was encouraged by the leader of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Schneerson (known simply as “the Rebbe”). The temptation to minimise cultural differences is a common one, but needs to be resisted, just as it is unhelpful to exaggerate the conflicts. The very real conflict explored in My Name is Asher Lev is the conflict between acceptance of the validity of art as an end in itself with its own valid traditions and a view  that art is merely a humble servant of worship, and must be subject to its restrictions.

The argument in the book between father and son also played out between the book’s author, Chaim Potok  and the Rebbe, when he attended one of the Rebbe’s public addresses. The Rebbe declared passionately “that if God has given someone a talent and an ability to write a book,...then regardless of the external form of the book in terms of its content, it must fulfil the purpose of persuading the reader that contrary to the views of the fools that think that the world runs without a Master in which might makes right, ... in the end righteous, justice and goodness will prevail”.

Potok did not respond directly to this argument, but he articulated his own philosophy about creative expression which could apply as much to art as it does to writing. In an interview he explained his choice not to meet privately with the Rebbe. Potok reflected that he “was concerned about how such a meeting would affect what I myself want to write about regarding this group. I didn’t want to meet personally with the Rebbe because it was very clear to me that this was a most unusual human being. I didn’t want to spend 20 minutes or half an hour in a room with him, and then have to rethink, undo, restructure, my imagination after that experience. A writer does the necessary encountering for his or her work, and when he feels that his imagination has enough encounter with the reality that he wants to write about, he walks away from the reality and lets the imagination work. You don’t let the reality overwhelm the imagination”.

For Potok,  art, of the written or visual form, is a process of great perfection and integrity that has roots in reality but must transcend the literal truth of reality, to the greater truth of the imagination.  Or as Pablo Picasso, stated: ““Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.”.

At the end of My Name is Asher Lev, there is a dramatic clash between Asher and his parents.  They come to see his exhibition and are confronted with a crucifixion he pained where his mother is portrayed as Jesus on the cross, suffering the torment of being torn between her husband and her son. Asher’s paternal grandfather was murdered by a Russian peasant in the lead up to Easter in an anti-Semitic act, presumably because of the mistaken belief that the Jews had crucified Jesus. Asher’s father regarded his son’s depiction of  him and his wife in a crucifixion scene as a terrible betrayal. He could not imagine any meaning of the cross other than the one he sees through the lens of his history and faith, both of which have strong objections to the symbol.  

To Asher, he had no choice if he wanted to be authentic. He was guided by artistic traditions about how to express his truth. The portrayal of the artist in Asher Lev echoes the words of the driven prophet Jeremiah: “But if I said; I will not mention Him, and I will no longer speak in His name, it would be in my heart like a burning fire, confined in my bones, and I wearied to contain it but was unable.  Asher’s powerful commentary on reality is inside him and eventually comes out whether he likes it or not. The conflict was intense and appeared unresolvable.

Someone asked me after the play if I agreed that Asher suffered from moral blindness. I said I thought it was more a case of social blindness for both father and son. Neither protagonist can understand the worldview of the other. Particularly in the case of Asher, there is little reflection on the nature of the conflict. Asher appeared to act impulsively in his drawing, or even allowed others to act for him in the case of the decision by the gallery owner to display the crucifixion, which he doesn’t protest but doesn’t explicitly give permission for either. The name of the book, “My Name is Asher Lev”, hints at a justification for hurting his parents in order to be true to himself. .  

I think there is more than one way to be authentic. I found a little while ago that expressing myself freely in an op-ed in the Daily Telegraph without really thinking through what I was saying, how I was saying it and my relationship with some of the people about whom I was writing was an unwise choice. Even as we express ourselves, we can still take the time to reflect on the perspectives of others. In some cases we will resolve to stand our ground and in others to yield. At this point in my talk, I will raise my voice, for emphasis in the tradition of the art of public speaking. I will urge my listeners to ensure that whatever they choose, they should be fully aware of their feelings and principles and awake to the implications of their choices. The louder voice will probably jolt at least one of my listeners from their snoring slumber who will open one eye and wonder what it is all about.  

Friday, May 27, 2016

Plebiscite Restraint, Stigma, Gay Men, and a Blaspheming “Bastard” (Emor)

Last week I participated in a panel with Anthony Venn-Brown, Anglican Priest, Rod Bower, and business leader, Peta Granger, regarding the relationship between LGBQTI people, business and religion. The session was facilitated by LGBT rights campaigner Tiernan Brady, who concluded the discussion with a plea for civility and restraint during the upcoming debate in Australia about broadening the legal definition of marriage. I agree that this is extremely important in order to avoid the negative impact on LGBQTI young people of a slanging match that would demonise and denigrate proponents of both change and the status quo.

In preparation for the panel I read; A Life of Unlearning: a preacher's struggle with his homosexuality, church and faith by Brown which he had given me. I found it quite unsettling. The impact that shame made on his life over a period of many years has been devastating. The secret life he led as a gay person left him exposed to exploitation, prone to making self-destructive choices and caused him terrible suffering. Eventually, when he disclosed his sexuality, he was shunned and his family was abandoned by the Christian community of which they had been a part. 

One aspect of Brown’s story, as well as the broader history of the experience of gay men in the 60s and 70s, led me to revisit something I had written in 2011. At the time, I was critical of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s view expressed in a letter written in 1976 that “the whole world despises homosexuals...... and that gay men also despised each other[i]. While no one needs to pretend that the Torah does not prohibit homosexual acts, I argued that it was “hard to believe that this conclusion was based on intensive interviews with a representative sample of homosexuals[ii]”. Yet, Brown writes about the significant impact of stigma, and shaming on gay men in the early 70s that led to a split between activists who wanted to focus on politics and others who sought to focus on improved self-image.

I must concede that Feinstein did have some factual basis for his assertions that were at least true at the time he wrote his letter. Where this Halachic authority and reality part company is in his wishful conclusion that stigma would lead same sex attracted men to avoid homosexual sex[iii]. Brown’s experience illustrates that stigma had no such impact on him, but that it did have an extremely damaging impact on his life. Negative self-perception has also been linked to diminished religious adherence[iv], which is another reason some orthodox Rabbis who are concerned about alienating LGBQTI people have opted for restraint.

The relationship between stigma and alienation from religion comes up in commentary at the end of our Torah reading last week. We read about “the son of an Israelite woman, and he was the son of an Egyptian man, went out among the children of Israel, and they quarrelled in the camp… The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the [Divine] Name and cursed. ...They took the blasphemer outside the camp and stoned him[v]”. Commentary tells us that the blasphemer of mixed heritage ‘was known until shortly before this episode, as the son of an Israelite woman among the other Israelites he had chosen to identify with. His mother had concealed the truth about her son’s birth by an Egyptian father that she slept with while married to another man, because of her honour. Somehow people began to talk about the fact that he was, in fact, “the son of an Egyptian”’[vi].  At that time, he sought acceptance and dignity by being allowed to pitch his tent among his mother’s tribe. However he was rejected and this lead him to lash out against God and ultimately to his death. 

While I am pleased that capital punishment is no longer practiced in Jewish law for blasphemy or any other crime, I think there is a lesson in this story about stigma and its impact on LGBQTI people. Drawing on Brown’s experience as well as the Biblical blasphemer, I think there is a particularly strong lesson relating to those who also seek a home within orthodox Jewish communities and other conservative faith communities. The Israelites in the desert lost a man who desperately wanted to belong within their faith community but instead turned to blasphemy. There is a big difference in tone between Feinstein’s writing in the 70s and the empathy shown by Rapoport, an orthodox Jewish scholar whose book was published thirty years later[vii]

Also at the forum, leading politician Penny Wong talked about the importance of considering where public figures’ words land and their impact. She could have quoted the Talmudic advice; “Wise people, be careful with your words[viii]”. I hope Tiernan’s call for civility and restraint on all sides of this debate will be heeded.  

[i] Feinstien, R. Moshe, (1976) Igrot Moshe, Orach Chayim 4, p. 206, in a letter dated 1 Adar II, 5736
[iii] Feinstien, R. Moshe, (1976) p. 205 and 206
[iv] See Tanya chapter 1
[v] Leviticus 24:10-23
[vi] Abarbanel p 281
[vii] Rapoport, Rabbi C, (2004) Judaism and Homosexuality, Vallentine Mitchell, London & Portland
[viii] Pirkey Avot 1:11