Friday, August 23, 2019

A Palestinian In The Synagogue - God Cares About “Goyim”


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.
6)    ibid.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Love of Others and God – Sugar in Milk, Sex Workers and Sinners


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).

1)      I have told the story as I heard it ; a variation of the story can be found at https://www.npr.org/2008/03/20/88505980/sugar-in-the-milk-a-parsi-kitchen-story
2)      Toldot Yaakov Yosef, Vaetchanan 5, p. 619.
3)      Rambam, Hilchot Deot, chapter 1, halachah 6.
4)      Leviticus 19:18.
5)      Toldot Yaakov Yosef, ibid.
6)      Tanya chapter 32.  A motif throughout the talks of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Journeys of Failure and Anger, Determination and Vision - Maasei



“You are always so happy”, the smiling bald Christian man with the glasses said to me. While it is true that I generally tend to be cheerful and even joyous, I also often struggle with feelings of sadness, anger and fear, though I did not tell him that . As I reflect on that, I remind myself that these feelings are an integral part of journeys toward realizing bold visions.  

These thoughts were sparked by a poem titled ‘What am I for?’, by a thoughtful Poet named Mirriam Hechtman, that was presented at the Social Justice summit at Bondi beach (1). Her question inspired me to articulate what it was that I was 'for', instead of the default angry expression of what I might be against. However, what she was inviting us to do was more complex than that; she told us how she tapped into her anger, but turned it around to articulate a vision of what “she was for”, as part of an “Australia reMADE” project (2). Her anger is part of the fuel for her inspiring vision.

In my own work, my anger motivates me alongside my hope . I am angry about how Muslims are demonised. I was disturbed to read a Muslim mother write “When a seven year old boy in my son’s class tells him doesn’t belong in Australia because he is Muslim, it breaks my heart to see the confusion and pain on his face” (3). Hatred and demonisation of Jews also makes me angry, as do other forms of bigotry. Ill conceived decisions that detract from school student’s ability to learn to reject prejudice frustrate me. All this anger can sometimes drain me, but like Mirriam, I usually turn it around so that it energises me instead. The first step in compassion is to be present with the pain, the second is to take action to alleviate the pain of others, or oneself (4). 

At the same social justice summit, I heard from Andrew Kuper. Andy founded LeapFrog Investments in 2007. Now, in 2019, LeapFrog’s companies serve 157.4 million people across Africa, Asia and Latin America, with products such as a service to send money overseas at a cost of 2% instead of over 15% and quality pharmacies. They also support 122,518 jobs (5). He told us that, in his experience, failures were the most productive times, that galvanised his team, and that times success were the most dangerous. With Together For Humanity recently having been awarded a $2.2 million dollars by the Australian Government, it is time for me to be a little afraid about the risks of opportunity, and then to turn that fear into carefully considered action.

My thoughts are drawn to the Torah reading this week that records all of the 42 journeys of the Jewish people through the desert (6). The text opens with a statement that “these are the journeys of the Israelites as they left [slavery in] Egypt”. It then mentions each place twice, eg. "they travelled from Livna and camped in Risa. [Then] they travelled from Risa and camped in K’hailata" (7). The verses consist of what appears to be a mind numbing list of trips. Yet, I think it offers some wisdom about our own journeys of affirming and working toward a vision.

The repetition of the names of the places they stopped reflects the reality that the journey to success is iterative, as Andy Kuper argued in his talk. The stops along the way are therefore also journeys in their own right (8). Each place is not just a stop along the way, but both the destination of the last journey and the start of the next. Every time we got delayed in the desert can be thought of as a “journey” like all failures and setbacks that can take us a step closer to where we seek to go.
Another approach to setbacks along our journeys is to appreciate any support we are fortunate to receive. I know some people battle alone, so I give thanks for the many who have helped me in a wide range of ways, advice, a listening ear and practical support like donations.

One explanation of the listing of all the journeys compares this recount to the reminiscing of a father whose child had been ill and had to be taken to a far away place for treatment. On their way back the father would point out to his child what happened on their way, here your head hurt etc. (9). The religious purpose of this list is to draw the attention of the Jew to the expressions of fatherly love shown to us during these journeys and this will lead to wholehearted worship of God (10). Gratitude for past support, from humans or from God, can also strengthen our resolve in our service to our fellow man.

Another perspective relates less to the greatness of God and more to the virtue of the people. God wanted all the journeys to be recorded in order to praise the Jewish people, who had followed him blindly out of their familiar surroundings, through the desert where nothing grew (11). This is also relevant to our remembering our own past courage and how we have tackled the obstacles behind us as we consider those still ahead of us.

It is written that our future march toward redemption, perhaps in our own time, will mirror these ancient miraculous journeys, as history is repeated, and we make our way in the modern “deserts” and difficult contexts (12). A metaphoric interpretation of the stations of these life journeys include going from “Marah” (13) (literally 'bitter [waters]'), which represents destructive misinterpretation of sacred texts. The subsequent journey from there to a place with twelve springs and seventy palm trees”, symbolises a shift towards correct understandings, which quench our spiritual thirst (14). The journey from “refidim” (15) represents moving away from laziness and a slackening of determination, on to Sinai, representing the Torah (16). Another journey is from a place called “Graves of Lust” to “Courtyards” (17), which represents a shift away from lust, to an attitude that sees our mortal lives as less important and temporary forecourts, in comparison to eternity and the afterlife (18).  The sheer quantity of journeys necessary to get from the lowly state of Egypt to the elevated situation of the promised land is significant. To shift our consciousness is not so much a once off leap to a higher plane, but a series of steps and changes (19).

3)     Jones, K, (2018), Step Up, Embrace the Leader Within, Busybird Publishing, Victoria, Australia, p. 9.
4)     Gilbert, P. and Choden, (2013), Mindful Compassion, Robinson, London, p.xxv.
6)     Numbers 33:1.
7)     Numbers 33:21-22.
8)     The Chida, Nachal Kedumim, cited in Torat Hachida, parshat Maase, 2, p. 244. See also Likkutei Sichos Vol. 2, p. 348.
9)     Rashi on Numbers 33:1.
10)  Gur Aryeh ad loc.
11)  Seforno and Alshich (who goes into far more detail than Seforno)  on Numbers 33:1.
12)  Micah 7:9, כימי צאתך מארץ מצרים אראנו נפלאות, Abarbanel who adds the phrase the “desert of nations”, Bris Avarham, cited in Chida, p. 226, 6.
13)  Numbers 33:9.
14)  The Baal Shem Tov in Degel Machne Ephraim.
15) Numbers 33:15.
16)  Rabbi Klonymos Kalman Halevi Epstein, (student of Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk) in Maor VShemesh (?), interpreting רפידים as hinting to ריפוי ידים.
17)  Numbers 33:17.
18) Chasam Sofer on Maasei with an allusion to Pirkey Avot 4:16,  and Maor Vshemesh (?).
19)  R. Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, in Toldos Yaakov Yosef, Maasei, p. 424.



Friday, July 26, 2019

Violence and Resilience of the Aggrieved - Leader and Survivor Kathryn Jones (Pinchas)

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. 

Notes

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.




Friday, July 19, 2019

Turning Between Co-religionists and Others - Reflections on my participation in a Muslim schools conference Balak 2019


A bearded Muslim man, Dylan Chown, was talking to a woman with a face-veil. He paused his conversation with her and turned to greet me warmly.  Dylan then turned back to her and apologised, with real feeling in his voice:  I am sorry that I was rude to you”. These brief interactions occurred as participants were arriving to the Australian Islamic Schooling Conference. I observed the exchange and thought: this is what Muslims call “Adab”. I had learned at the conference, that Adab was something more than mere manners. Adab might be described as a set of religious, respectful and sensitive practices. The two  ‘turnings’ (towards me and back towards her) can also be used as a metaphor for the challenge of balancing attending to the priorities of our faith communities, while also relating to people outside those communities.   

Afeefa Syeed, the founder of Al Fatih, a Muslim school in the American state of Virginia, spoke about an example of how her students expressed solidarity with oppressed fellow Muslims. They visited George Washington’s cemetery at Mt Vernon, as part of their study of History. They had learned that some of the “slaves” (or, perhaps more appropriately, enslaved people (1)) had been Muslims. They asked to be directed to where those slaves were buried. This request was met with surprise: “why would anyone be interested in seeing that?” The graves were neglected, but the students said a prayer there (2).

This anecdote touched me. Alongside our concerns for humanity, there is a need, and great virtue in solidarity with one’s own community, be that a community based on faith or place. One of the Torah’s villains, the evil prophet and sorcerer Balaam, is described as being “without a nation” (3). Furthermore, this absence of national or communal ties is deemed to be indicative of exclusion from heaven (4).

At the conference an Imam, an Australian Muslim school principal, a Catholic educator (5) and I conducted a breakout session together.  One activity involved exploring quotes from Islamic and Jewish sources with similar messages. One set of these quotes was the following pair:

……..and to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy, the near neighbor, the neighbor farther away, the companion at your side, the traveler, and those whom your right hands possess. (6)

...if a poor person and a rich person come to borrow money, the poor person takes precedence. ...If it is between one of the poor of your city and one of the poor of another city, the poor of your city takes precedence. (7)

In a similar vein, we heard how the Al Fatih students showed care for their non-Muslim neighbours by adopting and cleaning the road near their school for the benefit of all the locals and passing travellers. 

I told the conference that navigating my ties to my Jewish community and others has challenged me. I cited the verse: “You shall not mistreat, nor oppress the stranger, as you were strangers in [Pharaoh’s] Egypt” (8). As a younger man, I was good at embracing the second half of the verse, with my acute awareness of millenia of persecution of the Jews, including my own grandparents. It was only later in life that I engaged more strongly with the first and main point relating to the treatment of “strangers”. Justice for members of minority groups requires proper conduct not just in deed but even in word and thought.  Indeed the story of Balaam’s curses (9) is a dramatic example of how words, spoken or prevented from being said, matter.

Speaking positive words and thinking kind thoughts about “Strangers” can be difficult when there is conflict them and one’s own community. Afeefa shared an inspiring example of how her students engaged with people who appeared hostile. During the US presidential election many of her students felt concerned about how Muslims were being talked about by Trump. The students were encouraged to seek to understand, rather than demonise Trump supporters. They approached voters on election day, and asked them who they voted for and why. They heard from people who had lost their jobs and experienced other hardships, voting out of pain, not hate.

We were asked at the conference if in the work of Together For Humanity we talk about differences, or just the similarities. I explained that we certainly discuss both. To do otherwise would be dishonest and ultimately not helpful to building trust between communities.

Juggling similarities and differences is key to our work, and was also part of my preparation of the quotes for the conference. I was aware of the Islamic teaching that “...if anyone slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole people. And if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people” (10). There is a Jewish quote that is very similar, but with one significant difference. It compares the saving of a Jewish life to saving the world (11). Fortunately, I was able to find authoritative sources for universal versions of the same teaching, that equated saving any life with saving humanity (12).

There was yet another hurdle for me with these two quotes. One of the Imams I consulted about these quotes pointed out to me that the full verse includes a critique of some Jews failing to fully embrace this teaching. The full verse in the Quran has an additional statement at the beginning and the end, it states: “We ordained for the children of Israel, that if anyone slew a person ...Our messengers came to them with clear signs, but many of them continued to commit excesses in the land”. The Imam pointed out that it was not a comment about all Jews but some.

Notwithstanding the challenges along the way, seeing the quotes side by side was heart-warming for participants in our session, as they could see evidence of common values in our two traditions. This commonality and the goodwill between me and conference participants does not cancel out the differences between faiths and nations, or the many challenges. Sometimes we will upset people in our own communities or people outside them. We cannot be 100% focused on both at the same time. On those occasions we will apologize like Mr Chown did, but we will persevere with doing the right thing by both. Indeed, we must. 

Notes:

1)       Khaldoun Hajaj, in a facebook post on 15.07.2019 challenged my comment about these human being “slaves”. He wrote “my contention concerns the use of the word Slaves. No one is a slave ... some of us are enslaved”.
3)       Talmud Sanhedrin 105a. It is a play on words, with the name בלעם (Bilam or Baalam) linked to being בלא עם (Blo- Am, without a nation)
4)       The Maharal, cited in Valdman, C. Y. in his commentary  Yosif Chayim on Ein Yaakov Hamevuar, pub. Machon Torah Mitziyon, Manchester, p. 446
5)       The Imam was Farhan Khalil, the Principal was Samir Halbouni, also a board member of Together For Humanity Foundation, and the Catholic was Kate Xavier, Senior Education officer of Together For Humanity.
6)       The Quran 4:36.
7)       Talmud, Bava Metzia 71a.
8)       Exodus 22:20. 
9)       Numbers 22:2-24:25.
10)    The Quran 5:32.
11)    Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a.
12)    Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:1 (22a),  states: whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world. The context of this teaching is a warning to witnesses in capital cases to speak the truth. It is a reference to the murder of Abel by his brother Cain and how this murder destroyed not just one man but practically half of the future of mankind. This context supports the Jerusalem universal version.  There are several additional versions of this teaching that are universal, these include, Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer ch. 47, Eliyahu Rabbah 11, Yalkut Shimoni on Exodus 166, and manuscripts from Parma, Italy in the mid-13th century, and from Cesena, dating to about 1400. See http://talmud.faithweb.com/articles/schindler.html and https://mosaicmagazine.com/observation/history-ideas/2016/10/the-origins-of-the-precept-whoever-saves-a-life-saves-the-world/

Norman Rothfield Dissent for Peace Justice and Dignity for All -Parshat Korach

Disclaimer: In this blog post I wrote about a man who dedicated himself to the needs and rights of his fellow man both within and beyond his community, as he understood them. I request that readers do not infer an endorsement of every political opinion that this passionate and prolific man stood for. It is not my intention to say anything other than what I wrote below. Zalman

Arno Michaelis is a former white supremacist leader, with tattoo covered arms - turned peace advocate. Arno walked into a Sydney Kosher restaurant to join me for lunch recently. He struck me as a passionate, joyful man. Soon after he was seated, he requested the super hot Yemenite spice called Srug, which he clearly loves. Over lunch, Arno quipped that he enjoyed “pissing people off”. “It is what led me to those activities back then...''. And “I still do…” he said. “Recently, I had 400 kids singing Salaam/Shalom in Arabic and Hebrew at an event in Milwaukee, I know it really infuriates the extreme right”. Arno clarified to me that although he has some “contrarian tendencies...I'm not contrary to people. I'm contrary to the ideas that found violent extremism, be they from either side of the political spectrum, or racial, or religious. My opponents are ideological and spiritual illnesses, not the human beings stricken by them”.

I have been reading the memoirs of the late Australian Jewish peace and social justice advocate, Norman Rothfield. In contrast to Arno’s comment to me, which appeared to make light of the hostility of his old peers, Norman expressed sadness about the loss of old friendships. He wrote that “...more painful was the attitudes of a few long-standing friends. Invitations gradually came to an end, to some homes we had visited for thirty years or more” (1).

I am intrigued by the motivations of those who get involved in communal affairs. Perhaps this is due to the influence of the Muslims that I work with, who emphasise intentions. Rothfield shared two key motivations in his book. One was personal; while growing up, he was confronted with his father’s “neglect of Mother... his failure to share responsibility and his vile temper”. There was a severe shortage of money and young Norman was disturbed by the unjust way that his father dealt with this. When his mother asked for money to pay the bills, his father “would lose his temper...he would accuse mother of incompetence and extravagance, which was nonsense. Her personal 'extravagance’, compared with his, was trivial… He had dozens of perfectly tailored suits…” Norman’s father would angrily “storm about, bang doors, then get in his car and disappear. I would then find my mother weeping bitterly, and moaning ‘what can I do?’” (2). These experiences led him to develop a determined approach to organising and acting against injustice.

A second motivation was a passion for justice, with deep roots in his Jewish tradition. While Norman lost his faith in some of Judaism’s Truth claims, he still embraced its ethical teachings, notably; the pursuit of justice, sensitivity to the wishes of one’s neighbour, and a vision of peace  (3). He rejected the argument that his not believing in the divinity of the Torah meant he had no right to quote the Torah. Indeed, the Torah is the heritage of every Jew (4).

It hurt him that he was falsely accused of being a traitor to his people. His work exemplified the principle “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?” (5). He cared passionately and advocated for his fellow Jews, in his work on the Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism and many other forums, over decades. However, his concern was not limited to his own people but extended to Palestinians, Aboriginal people and others. Norman called for people in the different communities to “recognise the bravery of the other side and recognise that they need help in reducing tensions” and find common ground between faiths (6). He vehemently rejected the formula of “my side, right or wrong” and courageously spoke his truth, even as he observed others fall silent under pressure to conform (7).

Despite the opposition, and later his advanced age, Norman continued his advocacy. In a touching tribute his son David gave his father at his eightieth birthday, he acknowledged the longevity of his father’s advocacy. “You are old, and for some twenty leap years, you have fought for one cause or another. Can’t you rest on your laurels? Take three jolly cheers and live calmly without any bother?” (8). However, endurance in controversy is linked in our tradition to the purity of motivation (9). This matters, because unlike Rothfield, the Biblical contrarian, Korach was driven by less altruistic instincts such as his arrogance, and lust for honor and money (10). Challenges to communal consensus should be evaluated, at least in part, by the motivations and track record of those offering dissenting views. Rothfield deserves the benefit of the doubt on both counts, with his positive intentions demonstrated in his vast amount of activity in close collaboration with fellow Australian Jewish leaders, over many years.   

Another consideration is timing. Moses tried to slow down the pace of the confrontation between himself and Korach, and suggested that some of it wait until the next morning (11). Their conversation was in the afternoon and at the time wine was a common drink consumed during an afternoon meal. “It is a time of drunkenness”,  Moses told Korach (12). However, Moses was actually hinting at the “drunkenness of controversy” (13) rather than that caused by wine (14). Like the example of Arno at the beginning of this article, contrariness or the drama of conflict can be a motive in fighting against others in a community. This is delicate work that requires the clarity of heart and motivation symbolised by morning. Over lunch, it became clear to me that Arno is overwhelmingly motivated by the joy of embracing and affirming the differences of his fellow human beings, his contrariness being merely secondary.

Notes:

1)     Rothfield, N, (1997), Many Paths to Peace, The Political Memoirs of Norman Rothfield, Yarraford Publications, Melbourne, p.183.
2)     Rothfield, N, (1997), p. 5.
3)     Rothfield, N, (1997), p. 176-177 and in many other parts of the book.
4)     Deuteronomy 33:4.
5)     Hillel in Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14.
6)     Rothfield, N. (1998), The Trial of God, Hudson, Hawthorn, p.226-227.
7)     Rothfield, N, (1997), p. 137.
8)     Rothfield, N, (1997), p. 186.
9)     Ethics of the Fathers, 5:17.
10)  R. Vidal Tzarfati,  quoted in Chida, Torat Hachida, Korach 11, p. 100. See also SHaCh, quoted in Chida, ibid 4, p. 97: Korach was of the tribe of Levi which was the poorest Jewish tribe among those who left Egypt. Eleven of the twelve tribes had been enslaved by the Egyptians, the Levi escaped slavery. Therefore, when members of the eleven tribes saw the riches left by the Egyptians who drowned in the sea, they rightfully helped themselves to these treasures as compensation for unpaid wages. The Levites refrained as they had no rightful claim. Despite the disparity of wealth the Levites were not jealous of the other Jews. There was one exception, Korach, who lusted after money.
11)  Numbers 16:5.
12)  Rashi on Numbers 16:5, based on  Bamidbar Rabbah 18:6.
13)  Mizrachi supercommentary, on Rashi’s commentary to Numbers 16:5.
14)  Isaiah 51:21.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Reflections on Spirituality and Mental Health A Panel of a Rabbi, Imam and Psychologist at Limmud Oz 2019



“What draws you to this topic?” With this question, our impressive session facilitator, Shirli Kirschner, began our conversation at the Sydney Jewish ideas festival, Limmud Oz. For me,  mental  health is very important as a prerequisite for living my life effectively. I usually start my day with a walk in the forest. Like most people, my work involves stress. In my case, it can feel like I am pushing a boulder up a mountain as I do my work of fostering connections between people of different faiths.

Imam Farhan spoke movingly about a time when he felt deeply depressed after being abruptly fired from his first job as an Imam. He was told right after a controversial sermon to pack his bags and leave the Mosque. The Imam had a double message about faith and mental distress. On the one hand, he insisted that it was ridiculous for members of his community to expect the Imam to deal with everything. It is as ridiculous as expecting the Imam to do heart surgery! On the other hand, Imam Farhan spoke of the solace that faith can bring. He gave the example of the story of Moses, as told in the Islamic tradition (1). In this telling, Moses fled Egypt after he killed an Egyptian taskmaster, who was beating a slave. He sat under a tree and felt desperate, so he cried out to God for assistance. The assistance came quickly with a marriage proposal, a father-in-law and a job for ten years.

Listening to Farhan talk about Moses was delightful. Not just because I really like him and his humour and style. There was a feeling of an additional connection between us as Jews and Muslims by virtue of the fact that we both valued the same story, essentially. In the Torah’s version of this story (2), there is no mention of sitting under the tree, nor of the desperate prayer. However, the idea of Moses feeling emotionally low is expressed in another story in the Torah. In our reading this week, Moses’ beloved father-in-law and mentor left Moses to return home to Midyan (3). After his departure, when faced with complaints by the people, Moses fell into despair to the point of spurning the mission that had been entrusted to him by God (4). He cries out: “Alone, I cannot carry this entire people for it is too hard for me. If this is the way You treat me, please kill me (5).”

Our traditions can bring comfort for people in mental distress. However, they can also be a source of distress. The psychologist on the panel, Professor Amanda Gordon, reflected on her experience of the relationship between faith and grieving. She had long recognised the benefits of traditions of grieving,  such as the practice of Shiva, in which Jewish people will spend seven days at home after the death of a parent, child or sibling. Yet, when it came to her own experience of grieving for her mother, it did not go as conveniently as she might have expected. During the festivals, the Yizkor memorial prayer is read in the Synagogue. For Amanda, who had her first Yizkor this year, it was an alienating experience: she found that the feelings one might expect to feel, could not be activated on demand. Amanda cautioned that the same rituals that bring comfort to some people, can create challenges for others.

Expectations are a source of much sadness. Acceptance can provide us with relief. There are three important elements of acceptance: a) To accept ourselves as we are. A large part of the struggles people experience with mental health is tied up with the question about whether “we are good enough”. Tanya consoles us with the idea that אני לא עשיתי את עצמי - I have not created myself. We cannot blame ourselves for what we are! (6). It is God, who is responsible for our essential nature, not us. b) We need to accept our past mistakes and let go. God has an infinite capacity for forgiveness (7) and if He has forgiven me, I can forgive myself (8). C) A third acceptance relates to work-related stress. We are instructed to rest on the Sabbath, but in six days we should do “all our work” (9). This means that on Friday, when we finish work, we are encouraged to regard our work as complete and avoid thinking about it on the Sabbath (10). Any work not done in the previous week, is irrelevant to the week that passed. It is next week’s work! The psalms said it best: “It is a falsehood for you, early risers, delayers of sleep, eaters of bread of tension! Indeed He [God] will give sleep to those he loves” (11).   

Apart from acceptance, one of the most important elements of well-being, according to Professor Gordon, is connectedness. Imam Fahran talked about the importance of reaching out to people. He gave the example of someone who stops coming to the Mosque. It is important that people check if that person is ok. He linked this with Islamic teachings about the obligations to one’s neighbours, which “...apply to forty houses like this and like this and like this” – and he pointed to the front, to the back, to the right and to the left” (12). The Imam also talked about the alienated young people he worked with as a prison chaplain, and how they can go off in dangerous and violent directions. I shared the experiences young people have in Together For Humanity - experiences that build connectedness, not only between students and their peers, but with the wider community and people of different backgrounds and faiths. In fact, when I asked one Principal what the main benefit of our work was for her students, she said it was developing students’ connectedness.

Notes

1.       The Quran, Surah Qasas(28), Verse 22 to 28.
2.       Exodus 2:11-21
3.       Numbers 10:30
4.       Akedat Yitzchak Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, (1420-1494)
5.       Numbers 11:11-15
6.       Tanya chapter 31, see story of the “ugly man” in the Talmud, Taanis 20a&b,
7.       As we say in the Amida prayer. Blessed is God who graciously, forgives in abundance
8.       Tanya chapter 26
9.       Exodus 20:9
10.    Mechilta cited in Rashi
11.    Psalm 127:2
12.    Haddith, Narrated by Sunan Abu Dawood, Hasan Al Basri.