Friday, September 27, 2019
The Rabbi's sermon to two twelve year old girls, celebrating their coming of age bat mitzvah celebrations, highlighted the virtue of positivity, but I heard something else. I have often judged myself for not being positive enough. The Rabbi mentioned the fact that people who are deemed to be “complainers” are often avoided by their peers. This reality is not just a personal preference but is linked to a societal judgement that complaining is bad. This pushed my buttons; I agree that in some contexts negative thoughts are unwarranted or unhelpful, but I also think that the common overemphasis on positivity is harmful. I want to reflect here on the value of having a balanced approach instead.
I offer my solidarity to “negative people” with first world problems. We might feel frustrated with a work colleague, or with workplace demands that feel overwhelming. These feelings are ok. No! It is not always right to tell people they just need to be positive.
Yes, there are people who manage to be hopeful and upbeat, despite terrible suffering, physical or emotional. These efforts are rightly celebrated and admired. There are contexts where one can and should push oneself to present a pleasant expression on one’s face, in order to be able to contribute in a workplace or in our families. Some of our sadness comes from a feeling of entitlement, and sometimes it helps to count our blessings, and reject unrealistic expectations of what our circumstances “should be”. However, sometimes, some people can’t be positive. Often, what is called for is a compassionate approach, in response to negative emotions, rather than adding to their suffering with judgement.
This balancing act is tricky. In Judaism we have such great emphasis on gratitude (1), and among Chasidic Jews also on joy (2), that it would seem that we are supposed to always be filled with joy and sweetness. This emphasis on sweetness is also highlighted in the traditional Rosh Hashana greeting, in which Jews wish each other a good and sweet new year.
All of this positivity is challenging for me, whenever I am feeling anxious or self doubt. Feeling a high degree of self confidence seems to be the highest obligation our age. However, I learned something remarkable the other day. It is written that the last words of the great master of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, before he died, was to call for a suspicious attitude toward one self. He told his disciples, that it is only through feeling concerned that one might have sold out to the evil side, that one can feel confident that evil will have no dominion over him or her (3). Of course, excessive self- doubt is destructive, so we need a mix of self-doubt and confidence.
I am particularly concerned about messages to members of minority groups, as well as to women, about expectations to avoid expressing anger or disappointment. The pressure on the former, not to be the angry black man, or the angry Muslim, prevents open and honest listening to legitimate grievances. The demand made of women to be “sugar and spice and everything nice” all the time, is demeaning, unjust and similarly destructive.
Regardless of one’s political opinions, there are valid reasons to be angry and sad, about a lot of what happens between Palestinian and Jewish people, in the holy land of Israel. On one visit to Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem some years ago, I was confronted by something that made me feel terrible, to the point that it was visible on my face. Someone asked me if I was ok. I said that I was not, but I would be worried if I was.
As I join my fellow Jews in two days of prayer, during the Jewish New Year and days of divine judgement, that begin on Monday, I will certainly be praying for all the people residing in the holy land, for all types of blessings and relief from the problems they face. I will pray for all who suffer, regardless of their ethnicity, for them to be relieved of many of their troubles, to find a sympathetic ear, and a compassionate, rather than a judgemental response, to their complaints, as well as finding it within themselves, and us within ourselves, to develop an attitude of gratitude, to count our blessings and adopt a more accepting attitude to some difficulties beyond our control. That would be pretty sweet. May we all be inscribed for a good and sweet new year!
Friday, September 20, 2019
Some Equivalence between Muslim and Jewish ruled societies? Torah prohibition of Jewish presence in Egypt
I was delighted to find a passage, in a Jewish religious text, that shows appreciation for Muslims and Islam. A respected commentator on the Torah suggests, that in one matter of Jewish law, a society ruled by a Muslim king would have equal status to one ruled by a Jewish king.
This teaching was a wonderful find for me, because I live between two worlds. One is the exclusivist Orthodox Jewish one; the other is one that embraces, and even celebrates, a wide range of beliefs and cultural ways. So when these two meet, it gives me great pleasure.
I had better preempt two kinds of fierce critiques, based on inferences that either Jewish and Islamic faiths are equally true or an endorsement of every aspect of Islam. This text should not be read as either relinquishing exclusive Truth claims for the Jewish faith or wholesale endorsement of Islam, neither of which it is addressing at all; it has a particular context.
However, the teaching does reflect a recognition of the fact that some of the virtues Jews strive for due to the influences of Judaism are also practiced by Muslims due to influences of Islam. Of course this is also the case with people with other sources of guidance, both religious and otherwise.
With the disclaimers out of the way, let me get into this teaching. There is a contradiction between the fact that Jewish communities and some of our greatest scholars, most notably Maimonides, lived in Egypt, yet the Torah forbids Jews to live there (1).
The context of the prohibition is a series of laws to prevent kings from becoming corrupt, with the hope that the king’s “heart should not be haughty over his brothers” (2). These laws limit the amount of wealth and horses a king can accumulate. It then adds the following statement: "so that he [the king] will not bring the people back to Egypt in order to acquire many horses.(3)".
I was intrigued to read one authority declare that this commandment only applied for a limited time so that the Jews would not learn immoral behavior from the Egyptians, but did not apply for future generations (4). The line of argument that the prohibition has expired is extended in the writings of an early nineteenth century scholar, Rabbi Meir Benyamin Menachem Danon, who was the chief rabbi of Sarajevo in Muslim, Bosnia (5).
Danon argues that the conquest of Egypt by Muslims is a game changer. “When the king of the Ishmaelites [a reference to Arabs as well as Muslims] conquered the land of Egypt and all its inhabitants he turned them toward their religion [of Islam] and manners/cultural norms. With the passage of time, the Egyptians ...became like the Ishamaelites ...” (6). I wonder how Coptic Chrisitans would feel about this teaching, but let’s take Danon in his Bosnian Context.
Danon’s basis for his argument is in the writing of Maimonides who states that: "it seems to me, that if the land of Egypt were to be conquered by a Jewish king under the guidance of a Beth Din, [a Torah court], the prohibition would no longer apply” (7). Danon essentially argued that it doesn't matter what kind of monotheistic society Egypt would be. He wrote that Maimonides’ reference to a Beth Din is merely descriptive of the typical scenario of a Jewish king going to war, rather than a condition for the law.
One might dismiss Danon’s argument based on the fact that Maimonides ruled that living in Egypt was still forbidden and only tentatively suggests it might be permitted under a Jewish king. If Danon’s view is in accordance with Maimonides’ own view why does Maimonides not state this explicitly? In fact, Maimonides use of the expression “it seems to me” is questioned by two scholars (8) who wonder why he does not simply present his view as law.
I suggest that this tentativeness might offer a hint to Maimonides’ real opinion on the matter. The fact that he was living in Egypt meant that he was personally implicated by this particular law, if he was in breach of it. In fact, it has been claimed that Maimonides would sign his letters, "Moshe ben Maimon, who transgresses three prohibitions each day" on account of his residence in Egypt (9). He could hardly feel comfortable justifying himself, in a novel way. We are taught that “one should not be defensive, in accordance with the proverb that one cannot recognise one’s own faults”, instead one should seek to judge oneself truthfully (10). This ethical principle might explain both Maimonides reticence in justifying living in Egypt under Muslim rule and the tentative language he uses to introduce the monotheistic conquest exception.
Danon’s teaching illustrates a manner of respect between believers that is not merely relativist. Rather, it acknowledges the reality that in some significant ways the religious influences of other faiths on their adherents can lead them to similar outcomes to those achieved through the influence of one’s own faith. There is no need to agree about the big questions of how to get to heaven or please the creator, but for the sake of truth let us recognise the truth about our neighbours, whose beliefs differ from our own, including the non-religious. Surely, this is in keeping with the idea that the Torah’s ways are ways of peace (11).
1) Deuteronomy 17:16
2) Deuteronomy 17:20
3) Deuteronomy 17:16
4) Bachaya, on Deuteronomy 17:16, Ritva to Yoma 38 also takes the law to be non-applicable to his time but his reason is that the prohibition only applies to returning to Egypt from Israel, but moving there from other diaspora lands is permitted. This view seemed to contradict both the Jerusalem Talmud, Sukkah 5:1 and Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 51b which state that the massive Jewish community of Alexandria was destroyed because they disobeyed the commandment against settling in Egypt. Maimonides, Laws of Kings 5:8 rules that living permanently in Egypt is forbidden.
5) http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/4891-danon-meir-benjamin-menahem chief rabbi of Sarajevo in Bosnia, author of "Be'er ba-Sadeh".
6) Be'er ba-Sadeh, on this verse, published in Jerusalem in 1846
7) Maimonides, Laws of Kings 5:8
8) Torah Temima, Levin, A. in Hadrash VeHaiyun, Shoftim, Maamar 125, p. 150 ff.
9) Rabbi Ishtori Haparchi (1280-1366), in his encyclopedic work Kaftor v'Ferah, (ch. 5), cited in Loewenberg, M. May a Jew live in Egypt?, http://www.jewishmag.com/173mag/jew_live_in_egypt/jew_live_in_egypt.htm
10) Chida in Nachal K’domim, in Torat Hachida, shoftim, p. 129
11) Proverbs 3:17
Friday, August 30, 2019
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On the 26th of July I posted about having felt afraid at an important meeting, and talking too much because I felt anxious (1). This week I met with some of the same people, about the same issues, but I was quite calm and tuned in to the people I was meeting with. In this blog I explore my experience with fear and some of Torah’s wisdom on the topic.
After the meeting, I reflected on the difference between the two meetings I had. In the first I was quite high-energy and my thinking and talking was fast paced, and, on reflection, I was driven by an unprocessed fear of failure, to get the results I was hoping for. In the second meeting, however, my pace and energy level were moderate, or even subdued, and I was completely present to what the people I was meeting with thought, wanted and needed.
One factor that was different was mindfulness. At the second meeting I was aware of my various thoughts and motivations. Another factor was awareness of some Torah wisdom. The Torah calls us to do both what is proper, from the perspective of people, and what is good, from the perspective of God (2). The wording here is precise: while humans are capable of determining proper conduct, by ensuring we follow upright processes (3 ) and contribute the initial inputs to those in an ethical way; only the prescient God knows what outcomes will truly turn out to be truly “good” (4). This lowers the stakes. I don’t need to try to force an outcome. The outcomes are truly out of my hands and, therefore, are not my responsibility.
Another teaching that helped me relax, was the idea that I learned yesterday that if one can put aside selfish motives, then one can be confident of being guided to the right choices (5). So I need to focus on being altruistic in my motives and intentions, and leave the outcomes to God I combine these teachings with the secular idea of working “with” people; rather than trying to bend people to one’s will, which is incompatible with productive collaboration. Thus, I can choose to trust people, who have their own choices to make and their own wisdom in making those decisions; and I need not feel responsible to push for a particular outcome or conclusion.
Another strategy, is to initially embrace the fear, rather than run from it. Once I have accepted that I feel the feelings that I do, I can then open myself to support from others. Moses tells the Israelites in the desert that, ‘if they feel daunted by the challenge of conquering people, who [they estimate to be] more numerous and stronger than themselves, they should not be afraid because God will help them’ (6). Commentary makes the point that it is precisely when you acknowledge your fear and vulnerability, that you can trust God will help you and in this way you're able to put aside your fear. However, if one suffers from hubris and is overconfident, then he should not expect divine assistance, and had better be afraid (7).
6) Deuteronomy, 7:17-18.
7) Chida, in Torat Hachida, Ekev, 25 & 26, pages 76-77.
Friday, August 23, 2019
Last night Munzer Emad, a Palestinian man told his story at a Sydney synagogue. I felt grateful to be present, because I this was the first time I had seen this dialogue in a Synagogue in my community in St Ives. Munzer spoke from the heart, and his Jewish audience engaged with his story, despite the fact that “it was very difficult to listen to”, as more than one audience member reflected.
Rabbi Gad Krebs, who initiated this encounter for his community, reflected on his own journey that led to last night. Around the year 2000, the Rabbi, then a much younger man, was, by his own admission, very right wing politically. The Rabbi told us that he was greeted by a stranger with a pronounced Arabic accent, in Hebrew, while watching the Olympics on a big outdoor screen in Sydney’s Darling Harbour. The two men engaged in conversation. The Arabic speaking man initially said he was Egyptian, but later told the Rabbi that if he had told him where he was really from that would have been the end of the conversation. He then shared that he was actually a Palestinian from Gaza, and that previously whenever he had disclosed this fact in a conversation with a Jewish person that ended the conversation. Rabbi Krebs did not run away and instead continued the conversation. The two men lost contact, until a recent chance meeting when Rabbi Krebs and Munzer met, and after a while Gad realised that Munzer was the stranger he met in 2002.
Munzer is a softly spoken man. He argued passionately for connections between people. He argued that, although humans were not meant to fly or swim, we have beaten nature to do both of these things. On the other hand, despite being wired for connectedness, we override our nature in order to be fragmented. He reflected on the way that groups in conflict dismiss each others experiences and deal with the other as an enemy. He shared a surprising anecdote about the time he was around ten years old and Israeli soldiers marched through the street where he was playing; he felt confused and angered by their forceful presence. He threw a soccer ball at an Israeli soldier. The soldier smiled shyly and threw the ball back. A glimpse of the soldiers humanity that did not fit the narrative of this young boy. But a little connection happened anyway.
As a teenager, Munzer was mistaken for one of his brothers who was very active in throwing stones, so Munzer was taken into custody. When Munzer was interrogated, he was blindfolded. He asked his interrogator to remove the blindfold and make eye contact. On Sunday night he got much more than that, his generous spirit was mirrored back to him by his receptive audience.
I don’t think religious texts are key to war or peace, there are other significant drivers that I think are more central, but they are not irrelevant either. The day before Munzer’s talk, I was confronted with a text that seemed to suggest that God does not care about non-Jewish people. Thankfully, there is usually more than one way to read a Torah text.
Moses told the Israelites that “when you look up to the sky, and behold the sun and the moon and the stars ...you must not be lured into ...serving them. These the LORD your God has set aside for all [the other?] nations everywhere under heaven” , but as for you [the Israelites], the LORD took and brought you out of Egypt... to be His very own people (1).
This has been taken to mean that God has set the nations up to worship the stars, and it is only the Jews whose worship is important to God (2). This seems wrong, surely God would not lead people astray (3). As an Assyrian Bishop told me the other night, in his church they don’t pray that God should not lead them into temptation, because surely God would not do that. Instead they pray not to be tested by “trials”.
A story about this text is an early example of the influences of interfaith contact on interpretations of text. A group of Jewish sages were tasked by King Ptolemy to translate the Torah. When they got to this verse they modified the translation to say that God set aside the sun, the moon and the stars to provide light to the nations (4).
Further commentary suggests that the planets are so valuable for all the nations, that they can never be destroyed, and this presents the risk of them being worshipped (5). Alternatively, the nations of the world might believe in a fragmented concept of the universe, so they see the sun and moon as being more important than earth. However, the Jewish people are invited to think of earth as central, as it is the place where humans worship God (6) and make ethical decisions. Such decisions include to deeply honor and cherish all human beings regardless of ethnic or religious identity. This was the invitation Munzer extended to his audience. It was glorious being part of a room that transcended the divide between the Jewish and Palestinian peoples, and filled with such warmth and goodwill.
1) Deuteronomy 4:19.
2) Talmud, Avoda Zara 55a.
3) See Torah Temima to Deuteronomy 4:19, notes 41 and 42.
4) Talmud 9b.
5) Chasam Sofer on Vaetchanan.
Friday, August 16, 2019
A precious life was taken this week in Sydney. Once more, the question of whether this murderer was a Muslim and a terrorist has been taken up. Most reasonable people already know to avoid premature assumptions and tarring all Muslims with the same brush. This time, I want to focus on the victim, rather than the perpetrator. One factor that was different this time, is that the murdered person, Michaela Dunn, was a sex worker. Impassioned pleas have been made that we ensure we relate to her as a full human being. This got me thinking about the degree to which we truly value all human beings regardless of differences. Do we really? Or perhaps there is some threshold of similarity that we look for, before we truly embrace someone.
Yesterday, I spent the morning at a religious leader’s forum, held in the boardroom of Sydney’s main Sikh temple. At my table were Hindu, Catholic, Muslim and Zorastrian religious leaders. There, I heard a story about the arrival of Zoroastrians to India. When the Zoroastian or Parsi priestly leaders sought to settle in Gujarat, the local ruler sent them a bowl "brimful" of milk; to signify that the surrounding lands were full, and could not possibly accommodate any more people. The Parsi head priest responded by slipping some sugar into the milk and sending it back. He implied that the strangers would dissolve into local life, like sugar dissolves in the milk, sweetening the society but essentially assimilating into it, adopting local customs and language (1).
As I listened to the story, I wondered to myself about assimilation - or the 'melting pot' - as a strategy for managing difference. This story can be understood as supporting an assimilationist argument. Of course, it could be interpreted as simply integrating into society - not disappearing entirely. However, for me, the image of the bowl of milk looking exactly the same afterwards, despite the arrival of the new element, was disturbing.
I unexpectedly woke up at five am this morning. I had a lot on my mind and I didn't feel like going back to sleep for just another hour. As I often do, once I was awake I thought of my great grandfather. Whenever he woke up in the middle of the night, rather than going back to sleep, he would study Torah. So I read a few passages from Toldot Yaakov Yosef, a book that is generally associated with a different community to my own. What I read seemed to contradict the teachings of my Chabad tradition, to value people regardless of the level of their observance. A tradition which had me spend time with recovering drug addicts and convicted criminals as a teenager. Yet, this text suggested that the way to come to love Jews less religious than oneself, is to first influence them to become like oneself. I found it very surprising to see such an interpretation in a Chasidic work.
Essentially, the argument put forward by this author - whose material I usually love, by the way - is that the way to fulfil the commandment to love your God with all your heart, is by becoming more like God (2). “As He is merciful, and gracious, so should you be merciful and gracious… and one should seek to be as similar to God as one can”. (3) Once we become more similar to God, we will be drawn to love Him. In the same way, with the commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself (4), the advice is to influence one’s fellow so that she “becomes more similar to oneself” (5), which then enables one to love their neighbour.
I am very pleased that my tradition is very different to this. While we are also called to seek to influence our fellow Jews to obey God, our love for every person, including those who sin, is entirely independent of this aim and is even an end in itself! (6).
Friday, August 2, 2019
Friday, July 26, 2019
The other day I felt embarrassed when I reflected on how I had performed in an important meeting. Unfortunately, I had talked too much and listened far too little. On reflection, as I went into that meeting I felt quite anxious about the anticipated outcomes of that meeting but I was too preoccupied with work to deal with the fear. Dealing with our fears and grievances ensures they don’t fester and explode into an avalanche of words, or even violence. In this blog I reflect on my encounter with Kathryn Jones, a tall woman of Muslim faith and Anglo-Saxon-Australian heritage, who is a survivor of sexual abuse as a child and years of crushing domestic violence (1). She is a passionate advocate for thinking based strategies to counter it. However, I also want to explore how violence and fury might arise not out of mere thoughts but rather out of deeply held beliefs and ideals. As an example of the latter, I examine the case of Pinchas (or Phineas) that opens the Torah reading of this week and appears to approve of the extrajudicial execution of a sinner (2).
Thoughts are powerful. At a recent Islamic Schooling Conference, I heard from Professor Stephen Dobson about one common thread between the Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik and the attacker of the Mosques in New Zealand. In both cases, there were long simmering grievances that we can assume were never adequately dealt with.
At the same conference I had the privilege of listening to Kathryn Jones talk about resilience. In her book,'Step Up, Embrace the Leader Within', Kathryn writes movingly of her profound pain: “My forehead rested heavily on the prayer mat soaked by the flood of tears…" She felt “worn down, beaten and empty”; (3) as her suffering in her abusive marriage became progressively more acute. Despite her childhood and her more recent pain, when I listened to Kathryn I felt a strong and positive energy emanating from her. In addition to her mentoring work with Muslim women, she is also engaged in interfaith outreach work in schools, with the Abraham Institute in Adelaide, South Australia.
Kathryn typically begins her talk by using a bubble machine that creates a continuous stream of soap bubbles that rapidly and continuously appear and disappear. The bubbles serve as a metaphor for thoughts. “Feelings come from thoughts in the moment...” (4) Kathryn told us. Jewish mysticism teaches that emotions are the offspring of our cognitive faculties (5). However, there is a difference between the traditional insight and Kathryn’s point, in that the cognitive faculties are not the same as the fleeting thoughts in the moment, instead they are our underlying processes of cognition, including understanding and knowing, and also encompass convictions.
What Kathryn did next really struck a chord with me. She blew up a balloon and kept blowing until the balloon popped in a loud bang. The balloon was a metaphor for our minds, and holding on to all the air inside represents ruminating and not letting go of painful, shameful and angry thoughts. The pressures that accumulate usually harm the person holding on to those thoughts, and, often enough, also cause harm to others.
I agree with Kathryn that violence often stems from the challenges of the human condition, and that it is wrong to intrinsically link it to any particular faith, as many do in equating Islam with violence (6). However, religious as well as other ideals and ideas have often led to violence. One example of this is the way that the socialist dreams of the Soviet Union led to the purges, gulags and repression that have had a direct impact on members of my Chabad Jewish community including my own grandfather. The Torah reading this week has another example, in which a violent act, done for the love of God, appears to be condoned.
God rewarded Pinchas for his killing of a prominent Jewish man named Zimri and a non-Jewish woman named Kozbi, who had sex during a broader moral breakdown involving prostitution and idol worship among the Israelites (7). Thankfully, the Talmud tells us that Pinchas' act was disapproved of by the sages (8), which implies that this exceptional case should never be taken as license for anyone else to imitate his act (9). Still, this passage disturbs me. A surface reading of it seems to justify killing someone for what appears to be an inter-ethnic consensual sexual act. However, according to one traditional commentary this actually involved coercion. When Kozbi refused to sleep with Zimri, “Zimri grabbed Kozbi by her plaited hair...” (10). Be that as it may, it is still a confronting story.
Without irony, the Torah tells us that the killer is to be rewarded with a covenant of peace for his act of zealotry. His act of violence against a man who transgressed God’s expectations of the Israelites is said to have restored peace between God and the people (11). One commentary suggests that God’s gift of a covenant of peace was “a protection against an inner enemy, lurking inside the zealous perpetrator of the sudden deed, against the inner demoralization that such an act as the killing of a human being, without due process of law, is liable to cause” (12). We can say that while Pinchas acted out of zealous anger stemming from his deeply held beliefs, rather than from stewing in lingering unprocessed thoughts, he was nonetheless at risk of being haunted by the deed after the fact.
Violence can certainly be driven by outrage against a violation of a religious or secular ideal. In many cases there is a need for tolerance of divergent beliefs, in other cases there is a need to stand up to those who violate standards that are worthy of being upheld. On the other hand there are a myriad of grievances and hurts that cause harm to the people who continue to hold on to them; Kathryn’s example of letting it go is often worth emulating. Perhaps as people resolve lingering anger or resentment, it will be less likely to bubble out in violence, or even just expressions of unreasonable irritability with people, harsh words or sub-optimal ways of dealing with others.
Thank you very much to my son Aaron Menachem Mendel Kastel for his editing and assistance with this blog post.
1) Jones, K, (2018), Step Up, Embrace the Leader Within, Busybird Publishing, Victoria, Australia.
2) Numbers 25:11-15.
3) Jones, K. (2018), ibid, p. 7.
4) Jones, K, (2019) Back to the Fitra Mentoring Program - Unbreakable Social Justice Through Emotional Resilience, presentation at the Islamic Schooling Conference, Melbourne Australian, 14.07.2019.
5) Tanya chapter 6, et passim.
6) Jones, K. (2018), ibid, p. 8.
7) Numbers 25:1-15.
8) Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 9:7.
9) Torah Temimah to Numbers 25:13, note 31.
10) Talmud Sanhedrin 82a.
11) Ralbag, Be’er Basadeh, on 25:12.
12) Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Berlin, in Ha’amek Davar, as quoted in Leibovitz, N., Studies in Bamidbar, Pub. Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora, the Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education, Jerusalem, p.331. Cf. also Ohr HaChaim Deuteronomy 13:18 for a similar concept in another context.