Thursday, October 20, 2016

My Slavery Sermon: “Fat", Privileged & Uncaring

People just don’t care - I often find that infuriating!

But, the reality is that I don’t care enough about some things either, like modern day slavery for example. This sad fact came to my attention as I prepared to deliver last Saturday’s sermon as part of an interfaith initiative to combat modern day slavery.

I had prepared this sermon long in advance in collaboration with Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky (1) for the organisation, “Stop the Traffik”. So I began with the staggering figure from the 2016 Global Slavery Index which reported that nearly 46 million human beings are currently trapped in slavery.  This is the highest number of slaves in human history. I then shared the following anecdote.

Ashani’s (not her real name) father was sick, but the family had no money to pay for needed treatment. Ashani accepted a loan that she believed she would repay by working in a Mumbai factory, but when she reached Mumbai she discovered that her job would not be in a factory but in a brothel.

Trapped, powerless and penniless, she suffered in this place until finally she worked up the courage to escape. She returned home and soon married. However the brothel sent men to find her and force her back. They beat her up. When her husband tried to protect her, he was beaten too. She found herself not only back in the Mumbai brothel – but also pregnant. When her son was born, she was fortunate to get him back to his father.

Ashani owed 20,000 rupees, or around AU$400 but she was earning only a few dollars each day, and she was forced to pay rental for her cubicle in the brothel and for her room, board and clothing. She would realistically never be able to pay off the debt. She was enslaved. Ten women from Stop the Traffik readily agreed to pitch in $40 each to buy Ashani’s freedom.

I am ashamed to admit that Ashani’s story speaks to my mind but not to my heart. Perhaps this is related to what social scientists have discovered about the nature of empathy. Research has revealed a clear ‘empathy gap’ whereby our empathy is essentially geared primarily toward people we identify with, eg. neighbours or others who seem to be ‘like ourselves’ (2). This quirk of nature means it is harder for me as a white middle class Jewish Hasidic man to connect with the experience of an impoverished, brown skinned, non-Jewish, woman forced to work as a prostitute.

The challenge of the empathy gap must be met with a principled engagement with causes such as modern slavery. I look for inspiration from the prophets. Only a few days ago on Yom Kippur we read from Isaiah (3) about a person who cried out to God, "I have fasted but you have not seen!” God replied, “You fast but with a clenched fist!”  This is not the fast God desires. Instead, God demands that we “Loose the chains of let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke.”  The highest form of charity is not to share more crumbs from our tables but to ensure that more people have a seat at our tables of plenty.

My faith does condemn or shame me for having abundant material possessions. On the contrary, commentary tells us that God made the Israelites “ride on the high places” (4) (plural), giving them both material and spiritual blessings (5). Privilege, like power is an opportunity that can be harnessed for doing good but which also carries risk and responsibility. The Torah phrases the danger as the Israelites having become “fat and kicked” (6) also becoming “thick”, losing capacity to understand “fine truths” (7). Equally, privilege can dull people’s capacity to connect with the  brutal reality of the 46 million slaves who are, of course, really people just like me.    

The products of modern day slavery are found in the homes of ordinary citizens in every western city and town. They are present in our shops and supermarkets. Some years ago I was inspired by a teacher  who told me how her students learned to look for a Fair Trade label (8) on a soccer ball, so that when they play sport they are part of the solution rather than part of the problem.  

The Torah calls us to “cry freedom in the land for all its inhabitants!” (9). This phrase is surprising because the context is freeing slaves rather than everyone. However, a 17th century scholar explained that “in any country where freedom is incomplete even if only a few are slaves, all the people are slaves. Slavery is an affliction which afflicts both slave and master” (10).

Having focused on these traditions, I have jumped the empathy gap and now care more about my fellow humans who deserve freedom as much as I do. I commit to doing what I can to advance this cause.   

  1. for another version of this sermon that was prepared in collaboration with Shoshana, the version on my blog is closer to the sermon I actually delivered.  
  2. Prinz, J, Is Empathy Necessary For Morality, accessed 14.04.2015
  3. Isaiah 58:3-7
  4. Deuteronomy 32:13
  5. Samson Raphael Hirsch on Deuteronomy 32:13
  6. Deuteronomy 32:15
  7. Seforno on Deuteronomy 32:15
  8. Stop the Traffik  is a rich source of information for us when we shop for clothing and for foods that are sadly connected with slavery, including fish, coffee, and chocolate.
  9. Leviticus 25:10
  10. Pnei Yehoshua, Joshua son of Joseph Falk, 1593-1648,

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Physical and mental illness does not devalue a person - Vayelech

I saw his fear filled eyes and anguished face across a crowded room. How long has it been since I saw him last? Thoughts of pity filled my mind. He was clearly suffering from a severe mental illness. Then I caught myself. Did I value him less because of his illness? Did I see the person and respect him for his intrinsic worth or did I see him primarily through the lens of his condition?

Jane Caro once said about ageing: "Your outside deteriorates, but by God, your inside improves". Yet, still, physical strength seems also to be erroneously equated with virtue. In the US presidential election, ‘Hillary’s health’ has been highlighted, not just because it is necessary for a demanding job but, in my view, as way of devaluing her as a person (especially as a woman) aspiring to leadership. Trump’s sniffles at last week’s debate were also jumped on by commentators, for the same reason. I object to that. Surely, there are people whose physical or mental health is not optimal; they might tire more quickly, be unable to walk, be in pain, depressed or anxious, yet they can be intelligent, compassionate and productive. It is wrong to suggest there is something shameful about a loss of physical strength or mental health difficulties. As the late Stella Cornelius used to say; The best things in this world have been done by people who were not feeling well that day” (1).  

The tendency to equate physical strength with virtue can be inferred from the commentary on the following verse. Moses, said simply “"Today I am one hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer go or come” (2). Rather than take this at face value, some of the classical commentators jump in with denial of his physical decline. “You might think that his strength was weakened, so the Torah tells you (in another verse) that although “Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died. His eye had not dimmed, nor had he lost his moisture” (3). His being unable to “go and come” is interpreted as him being denied divine permission to enter the promised land (4).

In one dramatic commentary we have Moses feeling afraid that the people might take his words literally and think that he is not physically strong. To counter this “Moses walked (5) the length and breadth of the whole camp quickly or vigorously to show that his strength at this time (at the age of 120) is the same as it was then (when he was younger)” (6).  

Alternative commentators, however, have no problem acknowledging the changing degree of physical strength or prowess of the great man of the spirit (7). A compromise position is that although Moses was still physically strong at the time he told the people “it is not proper that I fool myself that it will always be thus, because due to my being elderly, despite my current good health, I have no doubt that it will not be this way in the future, per force, weakness will come upon me quickly…” (8) Clearly, there is no shame in physical weakness, it is the way of all men and women, including the greatest.

At this holy time of the year for Jews (leading up to Yom Kippur when our fate for the following year is “sealed”), I wish everyone optimal physical and mental health and strength, and for those of us for whom that might not be possible, let us be spared the pain of stigma and judgement and instead do the best we can. This is certainly virtuous and honorable.


  1. Stella Cornelius, cited in a comment on my blog by Paul Reti, and also quoted to me by Donna Jacobs Sife
  2. Deuteronomy 31:2
  3. Deuteronomy 34:7
  4. Talmud Sotah 13b, based on Sifre, cited in Rashi, and second opinion in Daat Zekainim M’baalei Hatosofot. The interpretation is made more plausible when reading the second half of the verse that mentions the matters of permission: “and God said to me you will not pass this Jordan river”. This argument is challenged by Mizrachi and Maharsha who argue that the letter Vav means “and”, and we don’t find it used as “because”. Tzeda L’Derech counters that in fact in Genesis 2:5 the letter Vav which means: and, is taken to also mean ‘because’. The verse states: “God had not made it rain and, -meaning because- there was not a man to work the land”. Ramban also does not accept the simple meaning of the text and instead suggests that Moses’ comment was (a false) comfort for the people, implying that his imminent death was not such a great loss.
  5. This is the reason for “Moses going”, mentioned in Deuteronomy 31:1
  6. Klei Yakar
  7. Ibn Ezra, Bchor Shor and implied in Seforno
  8. Abarbanel

Friday, September 23, 2016

Speech for son’s High School Graduation - Be Great Men as Jews embracing all people

Like the Israelites in the desert, days before crossing to the Promised Land, dear graduates, tonight you are at the threshold of the next stage of your lives. Like the Israelites who were instructed to bring their first fruit to God and give thanks, you too are called to gratitude.

In that spirit, sitting here on this blessed land, I begin by gratefully acknowledging the Bidjigal and Gadigal people, who have cared for this land we meet on tonight.

Remember to be grateful for hard work of your parents and the dedication of your teachers. Be grateful for the ladies in the office, such as Sara who does the sometimes thankless task of fee collection that is vital for our school to work, for the college president who dedicates heart and soul to keep our school going and the cleaners who give us an environment conducive for learning.

I love this school. It is so different to mine. I went to a school in Brooklyn in the 1970s and 80’s. Everything was simpler there. We played dodge-ball on concrete, and practically all the teachers were Jewish men from Russia, mostly they were named Horowitch, I kid you not, 3 out of my first 4 teachers were named Horowitch. Even the handyman was a Jewish guy from Russia named Shagabayeh.

Your school is more complex and diverse: An outstanding Jewish studies program combined with excellence in general studies with students and teachers from more varied backgrounds than my school was. Your teachers are both caring and demanding. You have been well prepared for getting a good number on your ATAR as well as cultivating more intangible qualities.

You are going to be living your lives at a time of dizzying speed, tasks to do and the dominance of numbers. It has been claimed that we now produce as much content in one day as humans had previously created in over 5000 years, five exabytes of content, is the actual figure (1).

I urge you to ignore the gigabytes of half baked ideas and shallow comments- often instantaneous reactions to a post on Facebook or a What’sapp message. In fact, part of that statistic I mentioned is, itself an example of rushed thinking, and ultimately false information that is out there (2). Instead I urge you to slow down and embrace nuances, and paradoxes. Try to appreciate the baffling idea of the ‘sound’ of silence’ that Elijah the prophet encountered in the cave, the קול דממה דקה. As Michel Abesehrah said in dedicating his book to his father, “he taught me with silence all that I have tried to accomplish here with noise” (3). Just sit with that contradiction for a moment and process it. Communication and wisdom that goes beyond words, conveyed through silence.

Silence and reflection relates to the importance of going beyond just doing what is right, to embarking on a quest for being the best Jew you can be, the best human being you can be.
Picture this. Reb Elichyaim Roitblat, a very short, skinny old Chasid with an absolutely angelic face, shining eyes, and a long white beard who sat at a long table at a Farbrengen with 60 Yeshiva students during the month of Elul. From the depth of his soul, he cried out in a sing song voice that we must daven (yiddish for pray)! By which he meant that we must pray in a transformational way in which we are moved to excitement about the greatness of G-d and a longing to be closer to Him. As Reb Elichayim was saying this he looked up and noticed the clock. It was midnight and the doctor told him, that he must go to sleep at midnight for his health. Without changing the tune or stopping his sentence he said in yiddish “M’darf gain shluffen, one must go to sleep”. To him it was all about his duties as a Jew. To transform himself, and to obey the doctor were his duties. There was no difference. But then he caught himself and he laughed.
Dear graduates, The Torah demands that you become that guy. Yeah. You are supposed to become a variation of Reb Elichyaim Roitblat! The Torah states:  קדושים תהיו “you should BE holy”. Strive to be a selfless person, a thoughtful, generous, gentle person who truly cares for another. The guy who gets as animated about learning as a sports fan when watching a game.
And as you strive to be the best you can be, the best Jew, here is another paradox. Our Torah reading talks about being God’s treasured people. However, you need to combine awareness of the awesome gift of being a Jew while also relating to people who are not Jewish with absolute respect and care.  Remember the relationships you noticed between your teachers, Rabbi Chaiton for example and your teachers who are not Jewish, remember how he modeled complete respect and friendliness.

One of our great scholars (4), wrote that God said: although all of the human species is dear to me…as our sages stated, beloved is the human for he was created in the image [of God], still you [the Jews] will be for me a treasure from all of them., and the difference between you is [quantitative, in degree] less or more, ...and the pious of the nations of the world are dear to Me without a doubt.
We need to embrace being special as Jews and living up to what this entails while absolutely respecting and valuing our neighbors who are not Jewish. We need to strive for greatness while being humble before everyman (5). We need to get things done, and some these tasks are measured in numbers, but there is so much you are called to than that which can be counted. This is a bit complicated, but you have been well prepared. Go forth into your promised land, with gratitude, and stay humble while becoming great men!


  1. The assertion by Gunelius, based on a comment by Google, Eric Schmidt, is refuted in this article by Robert J. Moore
  2. Abheseara, M, 1992, The Possible Man, Swan House,
  3. Seforno Exodus 19:5
    והייתם לי סגלה מכל העמים. אף על פי שכל המין האנושי יקר אצלי מכל יתר הנמצאים השפלים, כי הוא לבדו המכוון בהם, כאמרם ז''ל (אבות) חביב אדם שנברא בצלם מכל מקום אתם תהיו לי סגולה מכלם: כי לי כל הארץ. וההבדל ביניכם בפחות ויתר הוא, כי אמנם לי כל הארץ וחסידי אומות העולם יקרים אצלי בלי ספק
    "And you will be for me a treasure among all the nations": although all of the human species is dear to me more than all lowly existing beings, because he [humans] alone is the intended [purpose] of all, as our sages (May their memory be a for blessing) stated, beloved is the human for he was created in the image [of God], still you [the Jews] will be for me a treasure from all of them. "Because all of the earth is Mine", and the difference between you is [quantitative, in degree] less or more, because indeed all the earth is Mine and the pious of the nations of the world are dear to Me without a doubt. SFORNO, OBADIAH BEN JACOB (c. 1470–c. 1550), was an Italian biblical commentator and physician. his commentary on the Pentateuch, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes, first appeared in Venice in 1567.
  4. Pirkey Avot, Ethics of the Fathers.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Loser! Reay

Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license
Does success validate a philosophy,faith, or way of life?

Does failure discredit it?

If the answer to both questions is yes, what kind of success qualifies as proof?

If the measure of success is prosperity and power, then my answer to the first set of questions is no!

The opening verse of the Torah reading this week invites us to look at the choice before us between the blessing and the curse (1). The blessing will be granted to us only if we are good. I have a vague memory from the time when I still lived in the US, of reading an article in the Christian Science Monitor that essentially argued that Australia, the UK and the US were prosperous because they were virtuous and pleasing to God.

This approach is also reflected in discussions of the warning against worshipping the idols of the defeated Canaanites. This warning is puzzling to one of the great commentators (Alshich), who thinks it ridiculous that any Israelite could be drawn to the gods of a defeated people. The resolution of this perplexing scenario is that the people might be drawn to the idea that the falsity of the gods was not the reason for the defeat of the Canaanites, but rather the failure to worship them correctly(2). There are echoes here of the madness of (essentially) doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Absent from the discussion is any doubt about the validity of success as the measure of value or authenticity.

The difficulty with this kind of approach was clear to Jewish thinkers trying to defend Judaism at a time when the Jews were persecuted and downtrodden. In the narrative of the Kuzari, the Jewish scholar tells the king. "You condemn us on account of poverty and misfortune. But surely the great men of these nations prided themselves on just these things. For do not the Christians glorify in him who said: He who smites thy right cheek let him smite the left one? He and his disciples achieved wonderful things after hundreds of years of suffering and scorn and this is their glory. The same applied to Mohamed and his disciples. It is of these individuals that they boast and on which they pride themselves and not on haughty kings of mighty empires and wonderful chariots" (3).

In the reading this week we are also taught to ignore a "prophet" even if s/he succeeds in pulling off a miracle, if the message they are sending is wrong. Not every winner is worthy of our respect, in fact some winners rightly attract the contempt of their communities. Not every loser is evil or wrong. Let us not flatter flawed successful men lest we reinforce their hubris. Let us not denigrate decent and sincere people on "struggle street" - they deserve our respect.  Perhaps the "losers" are actually winners, if we change our scoring to celebrate the virtues of integrity, altruism and love.

1) Deuteronomy 11:26
2) Alshich on Deuteronomy 12:30-31
3) Rabbi Judah Halevi in Kuzari cited in Nechama Leibowitz, New Studies in the Torah Devarim, p.133

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