Friday, March 10, 2017

Process, Personality and Positions combine against Violent Extremism and Prejudice - Tzetzaveh

On the 14th floor of an office building this week, I confronted the fact that I will fail to achieve my purpose if my approach is more of the same. My work has been significantly personality driven. Muslim, Jewish and Christian people, often with charisma and great personal qualities have talked to 100,000 students and some others about how we can respect our differences and be friends. Despite the merit and value of this work to date, to changes things to a further extent requires a holistic approach and the collective impact of many factors.

I rode into the city on a crowded bus on Tuesday morning to attend a two day planning process about resilience and violent extremism. One could be cynical about the whole thing. During the second day it was clear that there wasn’t even a agreement about how to talk about the issue or issues; how on earth could we achieve anything?

For many people the words violent extremism equals Muslims, or even Muslim young men. Even some of the people who think that they should not speak this out loud, still think it is true, but are constrained by “political correctness”. Never mind violent white supremacists. Other people are furious about what they see as a soft approach to what they perceive as a massive threat. These people are become increasingly hostile to everything Muslim.

Those of us who work in “the field” know the vast number of young Muslims who have shown no sign of violent extremism. The real risk posed by violent extremism is not denied and is taken seriously because even a small amount of terrorism is too much. Still, we have concerns about the way that innocent people are being demonized, and we are concerned about feelings of alienation and other problems youth struggle with. There are valid questions about what is an ethical, truthful and practical way to articulate these issues.

However one defines the challenges we face relating to prejudice and violent extremism, there are plenty of quality people doing their bit. Yet, lacking a shared understanding or time  to even understand what others are doing, our efforts are often fragmented rather than coordinated or building on each other's work.

In the two days a group representing community, government, academic and business sectors followed a very effective process for thinking through the issues. We identified processes we will need for collaborating and communicating more effectively and being accountable for the degree to which we are contributing to a collective impact. We also considered the personal qualities of people being involved as well as the ways that roles and positions of leadership can be harnessed. I cannot divulge more because of confidentiality requirements but I am confident that something more holistic will emerge and contribute to better outcomes.  

The journey this week resonated for me in light of the Torah reading this week. It is the only reading relating to the time that Moses was alive in which his name is not mentioned. It would appear to be setting up the people for a time after the passing of the charismatic leader (1).

Three different methods appear to be provided for setting up a group of people, called Cohanim or priests, to function in a holy temple to create an institution to foster Moses’ message. The first is providing them with distinctive clothing (2), offering sacrifices and associated induction processes (3) and God himself making them into Cohanim (4).  

The text implies that the special clothing can transform ordinary men into priests or Cohanim (5).  However, many of the traditional explanations find ways around this interpretation. They suggest the clothing would just bring them into the role, rather than being transformative (6). Alternatively, they focus on how the clothing might symbolise the inner personal and spiritual transformation the ordinary men would be expected to work on as they took on the roles (7). Of course “clothings” and positions or formal roles is not enough. Personal qualities and integrity are vital in the people filling roles if they are to have some impact. Similarly, the induction procedures in the Torah for the Cohanim were extensive and highly symbolic (8). To me this reflects the importance of rituals and process in the quest for transformation.

There is no quick fix to any problem. Yet, I am confident that our efforts, following on from the two days this week, will yield even greater fruit as we start to see a new approach to facilitating and brokering collaboration. What will be different is a better mix of the three P’s, personal leadership by people with relevant positive qualities; some of these people will be strategically placed in positions of leadership and following wise, evidence based processes that will be tried, and invariably fail only to be replaced by others. In this, we will see a more cohesive nation with somewhat fewer angry people of any background.

  1. Exodus 28:3, & 29:29
  2. Exodus 29:1
  3. Exodus 29:44
  4. The Hebrew word is  לכהנו which literally means to make him into a Cohen. See Rabbi Avraham Mizrahi (1450 – 1526) who concedes that this is the clear implication of the text before opting for a non-literal meaning, also translation by Kaplan in Living Torah. Our sages (Midrash Hagadol, cited in Torah Shlaima Exdodus, Tetzave, p.157, note 24) state that “for all the time that their garments are upon them, their priesthood is upon them and their holiness endures in them, (but if) their garments are not on them, their priesthood is not upon them (either). R. Yona Ibn Janach (995 – 1050- Andalusia, Spain- In Torah Shlaima p154, note 11) entertains two meanings to the word, either to minister or to made to minister eg. to put the work upon to sanctify.
  5. Rashi as interpreted by Sifsei Chachomim, Chizkuni and other suggest we read the word as if it was written without a Vav and means to serve rather than to make into a Cohen.
  6. Malbim  (1809-1879, cited in Lebovitz, p 532), Sefer Hachinuch, the Lubavitcher Rebbe
  7. Midrash Habiur, cited in Torash Shlaima vol 20, p. 215, 68 explain the ritual of putting blood from a sacrifice on the their ears, thumbs and big toes. The ear that heard, on Mt. Sinai, I am...and you should have no other gods, after 40 days (the same ear) heard/was responsive to the voice of the people who demanded “arise and make for us a god” needs atonement. The legs that up to Mt. Sinai and then ran to make the golden calf need atonement. More specifically, the soft part of the ear is the part to use to block out ‘bad sounds’, the thumb & big toes played key roles…(note 68)

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Embracing Uncertainty and Pharaoh’s hardened heart Vayera

Aboriginal and Military men on Australia day on a navy ship
I am feeling daunted. I need to make things happen in a messy context of conflicting beliefs, ranging from relativist/postmodernist to “fundamentalist”/positivist. Some object to Muslim girls in hijabs being on an Australia day poster; others donate money to reinstate the poster and a third group who believe Australia Day itself is symbolically evil because of its celebration on a day when injustices were inflicted on Aboriginal people that lasted for many generations.

In addition, my core team at Together For Humanity is growing to 6. It was not that long ago when it was just 2 or 3. In the course of our work we deal with a range of people including genuine committed people who ‘get it’ and the insincere or misguided who present obstacles to meaningful conversations about contentious issues or our work more generally.  I need to lead this team through all of this ambiguity to get results for students, stakeholders and governments, all with their own sometimes conflicting interests, beliefs and needs.

One comforting thought that came up in discussions with some Muslim applicants during job interviews at TFH  was that “God’s will will be done”. Similarly, one religious response to the rise of a certain world leader who appears to be neither wise nor principled, is that God will guide him in accordance with the tradition that “The hearts of Kings are in the hands of God” (1).

The hunger for escape from uncertainty in faith is similar to the impulse that drives otherwise sane people to embrace a comical con-man and give him power. Yet, this comfort - of a compassionate God controlling the hearts of rulers- comes up against the reality that many rulers, past and present, have done and continue to do terrible things regardless of whatever divine influences are at play.
At a work level I trust God, myself and my team to do good and to navigate the complexities, while acknowledging that some external factors might be too difficult to overcome. I suggest that we are better off acknowledging the uncertain nature of reality (2), and that whatever divine influence there is, is more indirect and complex.  

This is a tricky topic for me. For many years I rejected the argument that ‘God didn’t do the Holocaust, men did’ (3). I grew up with a sense of God being the one that basically controlled everything. I thought: ‘Why would you pray to a God who had left the affairs of humans to the whims of sadistic tyrants?’

Like many things in Judaism there are conflicting views. In the Torah reading this week, we learn how God planned to manipulate the Pharaoh’s emotions by “hardening his heart” (4) so that he would initially ignore God’s messengers of freedom. One authority taught that in matters of the kingdom, the choices of the king are restricted by God and the king is like a messenger of God. “If these matters were given over to his choice completely just as his private activities are, this would be an astounding danger to the nation under the sovereignty of that king” (5).  

Despite the risks of out-of-control rulers, I was delighted to read the work of one of our great authorities who challenged the simple understanding that God manipulated Pharaoh’s emotions. This scholar dismissed attempts to justify divine control as very strange and difficult! (6) Instead he argued that the choices of kings are not manipulated in a puppet like fashion (7). Rather, God acts in such a way that can lead the ruler to make a particular choice. In the case of the Pharaoh, God indirectly hardened his heart by bringing plagues on the Egyptians in what seemed to be happenstance: a plague began but was not sustained. This created an opportunity for the Pharaoh to dismiss the significance of the plague as a natural occurrence.   

Another view about this is the punitive approach that explains the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as an exceptional punishment for his wickedness (8). However this implies that normally kings do have free choice (9). All in all, it is fair to conclude that Judaism’s teaching about the nature of God’s intervention in the affairs of rulers is complex and that is ok.

I read a delightful thought this week about embracing complexity. “The dilemma of rigor or relevance. In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp.  On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solution through the use of research-based theory and technique.  In the swampy lowlands, problems are messy and confusing and incapable of technical solution.  The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large,...while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern…” (10)

So it is clear, that a lot of what matters is inherently unclear but that is where the opportunities for contribution lie. So I take a deep breath and dive into the swamp. I am comforted by the belief that in some mysterious way my heart will be guided.   

  1. This often quoted Jewish teaching appears to be based on Proverbs 21:1 states: A king's heart is like rivulets of water in the Lord's hand; wherever He wishes, He turns it. The book of Ezra 6:22 it states: And they celebrated the feast of unleavened bread seven days with joy, for the Lord made them joyful and turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward them to strengthen their hands in the work of the House of God, the God of Israel. Rashi’s commentary on Ezra 6:22 makes clear that it is God who turned the heart of the King of Assyria. Ibn Ezra’s commentary on the verse is less clear. He points out that Assyria had previously destroyed the land of Israel, but now his heart was turned from his evil thoughts to good and this is the reason to strengthen their hands. It is not clear if Ibn Ezra agrees with Rashi that it is God who turned the hearts or with Sadiaa Gaon in note 7 that kings turn their own hearts. I found some of these references at
  2. See the work of Donald Schon who sees reality as inherently uncertain and complex.
  3. Harold Kushner in When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
  4. Exodus 7:3
  5. Ralbag, on Proverbs 21:1,
    אילו היה פועל המלך מסור בליבו לאלו העינינים בשלמות כדרך המסור לבחירתו פעולותיו לעצמו, היה זה העניין סכנה נפלאה (= חמורה) אל העם אשר תחת המלך ההוא" וכו'
  6. Abarbanel on Exodus 7:3
  7. Abarbanel, see also Rabbi Saadia Gaon who characterised the idea that there is some kind of supernatural divine planting of thoughts in the hearts of kings is an exaggeration, instead it is the king himself who turns his own heart as he desires, in Emunot Vdeot, Maamar 4, close to the end.
  8. Shemot Rabba, 13:4- cited in Torah Shlaima, on Exodus 10:1, parshat Bo, page 1, Rashi on Exodus 7:3, Maimonides, introduction to Pirkey Avot, chapter 8. This formulation is articulated as being withheld from repentance, although this concept is also explained psychologically by Ohr HaAfelia, (Torah Shlaima, on Exodus 10:1, parshat Bo, page 2- in note 2 from previous page) that being entrenched in a particular sin is itself the active factor in being withheld from repertance.
Schon, Donald

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Spiritual Striving, a Rich Litvak, a Chechen Warrior: An Inclusive 47th Birthday Farbrengen

The “Rich Litvak and the Merchants” parable was discussed at a ‘farbrengen’ at my house this week celebrating my 47th birthday.  A farbrengen is traditionally a time for Chasidic men to sit together, sing, eat and talk about the challenges and emotions of living and service. My farbrengen also featured men, but it included two Christian clergy, and an assortment of Jews with a range of identities; gay and straight, Buddhist, Rabbis and non-religious. Unfortunately, none of my Muslim male friends that attended in the past joined us this year.

We talked about the vastness of some of the challenges we encounter, how to have such a strong centre as not to lose heart.

I reflected that there were others whose lives did not endure for 47 years including a young man who recently died, aged 23, whose brother I visited the previous night. Life is fragile. Aside from whatever we do or don’t achieve in our lives, I give thanks that I am alive! I am grateful for my heart that has been pumping blood and the rest of my body that has worked for 47 years. I give thanks for the huge amount of food that has been produced and provided to me over all that time. And still, despite all the blessings I have received, I am unsure how to manage the anxieties that I and others grapple with.

So I talked about the parable (1) of the rich Litvak (Lithuanian) and the Polish businessmen who lodged in the same inn. The Litvak put his backpack down on the ground and fell asleep instantly. The merchants fussed with pillows and bedding but found sleep elusive. The Litvak explained to them in the morning that he could fall asleep because his bag was his own while their bedding belonged to others. In addition, the merchants were focused on whatever pleasure they could have on the road. There was no pleasure waiting for them at home, only aggressive creditors that would tear at them to retrieve their money. But the Litvak’s pleasure focus was ‘at home’ so what happened on the road was just a means to an end and didn’t stress him out. The purpose driven person can be less impacted by troubles along the way. “He who has a ‘why’ to live for, can bear almost any how.” (2)

I burst into some Chasidic songs of longing and spiritual striving, some words, one in yiddish. Those who didn’t know the songs just experienced the vibe of the songs.
A few of the participants talked about striving to do good boldly but facing great obstacles. I repeated a story I heard at a conference in Indonesia from a Muslim man from Dagestan about a great Chechen warrior of the mountains named Shamil (3). Shamil had been leading the war for independence against the Russians but now found himself a prisoner in a wagon. As the wagon travelled for days, Shamil kept asking his captors ‘where are we?’ The answer every day was the same: Russia. When Shamil finally realised how vast Russia was he said that if he had known how big it was he would not have tried to fight it. Sometimes the darkness seems too formidable. Jock, one of the Christian Farbrengen participants suggested that the story might relate to the way God leads us to do great things without allowing us to see the vastness of the challenge beforehand so we don’t give up before we start.

As I start my 48th year I am determined to do what I can to bring people together despite the challenges to that task. The Farbrengen was a delightful experience of people from different walks of life, exploring the common experience of seeking to be great human beings at the same time as being only human.

  1. R. Yaakov Yosef of Polnoy, in Toldot Yaakov Yosef Vayechi.
  2. Friedrich Nietzsche, in Frankl, V. Man's Search for Meaning

Friday, December 2, 2016

Shame: the case of Old David & Abishag the pretty virgin

This week I spent a day with a group of mostly Muslim high school students, and restorative justice leader Terry O’Connell. We heard about a 14 year old boy, “Garry” who knocked Terry down to the ground with a punch when Terry was a young police officer. Terry found out that the teenager was stuck in a cycle of shame and lashing out at others. We learned about “the compass of shame” that leads people to attack others and/or self, withdrawal and avoidance (1). I wonder if shame and self loathing on the part of some men plays some role in the disregarding of the dignity and rights of women in their lives. To understand the mind and heart of offenders is not to condone their choices (2) but might help prevent them reoffending.   

These thoughts were on my mind as I tried to make sense of a Biblical story that was recited last Saturday in my Synagogue about King David as an old man. David was very cold and being covered by clothing failed to warm him. Avishag, a very beautiful girl, was found and brought to the king, because his servants thought having a beautiful virgin lie in his lap would warm him. Although Avishag served David, and perhaps did lie in his lap (3) “the king did not know her” (4).  

In one elaboration of the story (5) Avishag said to King David, “‘Let us marry,’ but he [David] said, ‘You are forbidden to me.’ ‘When courage fails the thief, he becomes virtuous,’ she mocked”. She was obviously resentful of the proposed arrangement. This version of the story implies that Avishag was not ok with the arrangement of being the king’s body warmer if she wasn't going to be his wife and appears to legitimize the objectification of women. However this ancient story would generally not be taken as license by Jewish religious male readers, as it violates relevant Jewish laws (6). It is likely that the moral messages of the story (7) would be the one that are received by most readers, rather than what comes up for readers viewing it from a critical literary lens.

One interpretation of the story brings us back to the “compass of shame”. David’s “weakness and his exceptional coldness was due to the “many troubles and wars that never left him all the days of his life, sleep was driven from his eyes in the ways of the warriors...His sin with Bathsheba [who he saw bathing and lusted after] and Uria [her soldier husband whose death David hastened] was always on his mind (8) and he would cry about his sins and worry about them a lot all day and all night” (9). His unresolved shame appeared to lead him to attack himself constantly in his mind and combined with possible post traumatic stress, and grief (10) profoundly unbalanced his mind .  

David's response to shame is further highlighted in a contemporary analysis of our story (11). In contrast to the bold, decisive, even impulsive younger king, we see a withdrawn, avoidant, passive man paralysed by his guilt about Bathsheba. He said and did nothing when his son raped his daughter (12) and when her full brother killed his half-brother rapist. Even when his advisers suggested the young virgin he said nothing, he just allowed them to proceed without permission or protest.  He was also oblivious to one of his sons, Adonija, presumptively, claiming that he will succeed David as king (13).  

Shame might also explain what has been described as a far fetched (14) explanation of story in the Talmud that the reason for David's predicament in which his clothes didn't warm him was a punishment for his cutting off the corner of King Saul’s robe (15) many years earlier. This was deemed as a “sin against clothing” (16). David had little respect for clothing and the dignity they confer on the wearer. At another time in his life, David danced wildly before God, allowing parts of his body to be uncovered (17). The symbolism of clothing is quite linked to shame, in fact clothing is first introduced as a means of dealing with shame (18). David doesn't manage shame well.
In the end David's shame was overcome. Avishag’s role in the palace had been hidden, she was ostensibly the king’s treasurer (19). However, in a dramatic moment, Bathsheba walked in on David and Avishag in bed together, as Avishag warmed the old King (20).  Bathsheba confronted the king with the subject of his shame; his sin with her. She reminded him that he and she had been so overwhelmed by shame and fear of stigma after their first born son died that she didn't want to be with David anymore. But they had overcome their feelings when David made an oath that their next son together would succeed him as king (21). When he heard Bathsheba, he came alive again. He decisively directed the coronation of the wise Solomon as king as he had promised. This doesn't make everything ok, but by dealing with his shame he is able to function and net his obligations.

Returning to 14 year old Gary. Terry, the caring cop, met with him and his mother. There were tears running down his mother's cheeks and healthy shame for this young man about his mistakes. He dealt with it and broke the cycle, he sat up a little straighter and was given opportunities to make things right. Shame is powerful, it can be terribly destructive but it can also redeem.

  1. Nathanson, D. L. (1992), Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self, cited by O’Connell, T, in resources prepared by Real Justice.
  2. An argument I first heard being made by UK prime minister John Major
  3. This is the view of Radak, Metzudas David and Rashi commentaries to 1 Kings 1:4 and 1:15, Abarbanel wrote:  While by nature King David loved women and was driven to sexual relations, [at this point of his old age] he was already so deficient in his powers that he had no intimacy with her [Avishag] and did not draw close to her to lie with her…
  4. 1 Kings 1:1-4
  5. Talmud, Sanhedrin 22a, the Talmud goes on to relate David’s response to her mockery “Then he said to them [his servants], ‘Call me Bathsheba [his wife]’”. He had intercourse with his wife numerous times to demonstrate that he was still virile”. This raises a further objection as the old King proving his sexual prowess by summoning his wife also doesn't come across as being infused with love and equality between two people.
  6. Jewish laws does not allow a man and woman who are not of the same nuclear family to touch each other or being in a room alone with the door locked unless it is a medical situation for example.
  7. See Siegelbaum, C. B, quoting her teacher Rav Carmel, that takes an approach articulated by Rabbi Shmuel Yerushalmi in Yalkut Me’am Loez Moznaim, p7, citing Ralbag (although I can’t find it in Ralbag). They argued that this incident was a way for David to demonstrate that he had repented from the incident with Bathsheba in which he succumbed to his lust. The highest expression of repentance involves “overcoming the desire to sin despite being in the exact same situation with equally powerful temptations as when originally committing the transgression (Maimonides, laws of Teshuva, 1:1). This anecdote shows that David had indeed repented in the very highest way, and that it was not because he was too old that he held himself back from taking Avishag
  8. Psalm 51:5
  9. Abarbanel
  10. Abarbanel also mentioned David's “troubles with his son Amnon [who raped his sister and David's daughter] Tamar, and Abshalom who rebelled against David weakened his heart and spirit.”
  11. 2 Samuel 13
  12. 1 Kings 1
  13. Radak commentary to 1 Kings 1:1
  14. Talmud Berakhot 62b
  15. Yalkut Me’am Loez, p. 5
  16. II Samuel 6:16-22, metzudat David commentary to 6:20
  17. Ralbag
  18. Radak to 1 Kings 1:15
  19. Radak, to 1 Kings 1:13

Friday, November 25, 2016

Religious Texts divide us? & sky-high and deep conversations with Sheiks - Chayeh Sarah

Sitting on a plane to Perth with an Aboriginal elder on my right, and a Muslim Sheikh on my left, it was only natural that my thoughts turned to coexistence. One of the oft repeated comments about Muslim-Jewish relations (and the relationship between Muslims and others in general), is that although Muslims and Jews got along well in the past, this was only the case when the Muslims had higher status and the Jews were subservient, or “Dimhi”. This argument dismisses the golden age of Spain as being irrelevant to coexistence in the West today.

Good intercultural understanding practice requires finding out what Muslims think about these assertions. Ideally, by talking to an actual Muslim person directly, rather than by performing a Google search. My own community, in St Ives, was recently maligned based on some of my neighbours’ findings on the internet in the recent Eruv controversy (1).

Fortunately, I was sitting next to a learned Sheikh on this flight to Perth. He explained to me that the word “Dimhi” means “under protection”. He told me that: “one statement of the prophet Muhammad (in the Hadith) declared that a person who harms a Dimhi will not smell the fragrance of paradise” and that protection of religion/s was a core purpose of Sharia. The Sheikh acknowledged that he is not surprised by the alternative interpretation of “Dimhi” by people like ISIS, but such groups don't just have a problem in their attitude to non-Muslims but with anyone, including Muslims, who thinks differently to them. They regard everyone unlike them as not being ‘rightly guided’.  

Another useful approach is to explore this notion of acceptance as being conditional on subservience in my own Faith. Abraham's son Ishmael is said to have become a good man later in life. We know this because in the report about Abraham's burial, Ishmael is mentioned after Isaac (2). This sequence is taken as proof that Ishmael, father of the Arabs, honoured Isaac by allowing him to go first (3). Hmm. Something about people in glass houses comes to mind.

My first inclination was to look for alternative interpretations. I found one that highlights the fact that the Torah mentioned the obvious fact that Isaac and Ishmael were Abraham's sons, in this context, in order to hint that they were both equal in their honoring him [Abraham] (4). I was happy to find this interpretation that emphasises equality rather than superiority.

This second interpretation does not cancel out the first. I slept on this matter and my discussion with the Sheikh. It occurred to me, lying in bed after midnight, that perhaps it didn't make sense to impose secular literary political analysis on a religious text. The text is working from the assumption that it is a matter of absolute fact that Isaac was profoundly righteous. Ishmael honoring him is evidence of him humbly disregarding his status as an older brother, which serves as a lesson in humility for us. In fact it is written that Ishmael’s humble gesture earned Ishmael the merit to enjoy a place in heaven (5).

It was something the Sheikh said on the plane the previous day that inspired me to step back and question my critical approach. We were discussing portrayals of the Jews in Islamic stories. I asked if he could tell me the ratio between positive and negative portrayals. He told me that this kind of analysis had not been done. Instead he shared one story with me about a very pious Jew who met an outcast Jew. The outcast noticed that the pious man was enjoying the shade cast by a cloud hovering just above him. The outcast sat down near the pious man but was arrogantly sent away. God then forgave the outcast and canceled the pious Jew’s merit so both were at square one (6). On reflection this Muslim story is primarily a lesson for Muslims about humility rather than a commentary on Jews. It was more useful to understand what the story means to those who are guided by it than to impose an external lens to view it through.

On my return to Sydney, I had a chat with another Sheikh to plan an activity to foster interfaith understanding. Our conversations followed media articles sparked by references to another Muslim story also involving Jews, which were made during a lecture presented by this Sheikh. In this story, a murdered wealthy man was temporarily miraculously brought back to life by Moses  to identify his killer: a greedy nephew. Jewish villagers who were relieved of suspicion by this miracle still failed to believe in Moses despite his performance of this amazing miracle. The punishment meted out to the Jewish villagers 3000 years ago for their lack of belief was that God hardened their hearts (7). None of the context of the 3000 year old story was clear to those who viewed a YouTube video of the lecture. To them the Sheik appeared to be saying that “the Jewish [people- presumably in any time and place] have hard hearts] with no mercy, only envy and hatred”. There is no way to know for sure if even some of the members of the original audience also failed to understand the strictly contextual nature of the remarks. Sacred text is read by imperfect humans with various opinions and possibly, prejudices.

In conclusion. Curiosity and dialogue is crucial. There is value in resisting the temptation to rush to judgement. On the contrary, we are taught to be patient in judgement (8). Some traditional teachings might not appear compatible with modern principles of equality and embracing diversity. Let us continue to grapple with these.

  1. See my blog post….
  2. Genesis 25:9
  3. Talmud Bava Basra 16a
  4. Yalkut Ner Haschalim, manuscript, cited in Torah Shlaima, vol 2, p.998, note 34
  5. Midrash Hagadol, cited in Torah Shlaima, vol 2, p.998, note 34
  6. Imam Ghazali, in revival of the religious sciences
  7. This kind of punishment is also found in the Torah, in Exodus, in the case of Pharaoh whose heart was hardened after he chose the path of defiance instead of letting the Hebrews go free.
  8. Ethics of the Fathers

Friday, November 18, 2016

Dignity, Dialogue and Donald Trump

Human dignity is greatly emphasized in Judaism. The threat that Trump’s election poses to the dignity of women and minorities is very serious. As one Trump supporter put it: “the effect of Trump is that everything becomes permissible” (1). The risk is that Trump will normalise bigotry and hate-speech to the extent that we are less aware and less questioning of hurtful and humiliating behaviour in the future. However, our solidarity with minorities does not require dismissing the indignities of those doing it tough, including rural white voters who voted for Trump in overwhelming numbers. . Furthermore, I suggest we even take a moment to think about Trump’s own indignity. I know, I ask for a lot from many who are outraged about this election, but there is a time for everything, (2) and now more than ever is a time for dialogue and exploration rather than building walls.  

My call for dialogue does not preclude howling in indignation. On the contrary, it might well be a time “to hurl (assertive but civil and strictly verbal) stones”. To speak of Trump without condemnation is, in most cases, to condone his sins. His rhetoric against Mexicans and Muslims recalls the cruelty of the city of Sodom to outsiders in a xenophobic effort to preserve the wealth of its fertile valley (3). Condemnation counters the normalization of deplorable views, but of course calling people deplorable based on their likely voting intentions is unwise, and it is also wrong.

As Jews we need to emulate Abraham, who welcomed all travelers into his homes even if their beliefs (5) and values were diametrically opposed to his own. On social media, I have noticed a ‘trend to unfriend’ those who support trump by those opposed to him. The research shows that engaging people with prejudices can be effective (6) (see the article referred to in this footnote for one touching example of successfully canvassing for Trans rights through non-judgemental conversation and empathy). In such conversations it is important to listen more than we talk.

I tried some respectful engagement myself this morning in a Jewish Whatsapp group that includes some Trump supporters, where someone posted a racist comment. Instead of moralising, I appealed to self interest by pointing out that the racists who despise Muslims, Mexicans and Blacks also hate Jews. My comments on the Whatsapp chat emboldened other members of the group to also speak out against racism within the group chat.

Some have argued, and I think correctly, that one factor that contributed to Trump’s support was an anger by white rural voters toward  sophisticated city people who talked down to them. This perceived disrespect is part of what drove the anger toward elitism that pervaded American society, that was exploited, by Donald Trump to drive passion and energy into his supporters. This anger doesn’t justify degradation of any group, but we should not ignore the manifest anger that exists. This anger is borne of passion and stems from stories and backgrounds that we cannot always comprehend - but we should try to understand it and address any genuine injustices and needs. The distinction between condoning specific expressions of anger and understanding their sources can be applied when thinking about Trumps relationship with the media.

One of the most powerful articles I read about Trump was by a journalist who observed Trump rile up his rural poor audiences against the “elite” journalists. He recounts: “I was huddled in the media pen with the traveling press, awaiting the moment Trump would point at us and incite his 5,000 minions to jeer... (but) it only now dawned on me, in the final week of the campaign, to my great horror, that the real reason they put us in the pen was so they could turn us into props...He never once failed to invite his crowds to heckle us. He was placing us on display like captured animals. Behold, Trump said to his fans, I’ve rounded up a passel of those elites you detest. And I’ve caged them for you! Allow me to belittle them for your delight. Here, now you take a turn—go ahead, have at it! Do it again, don’t be shy!”.

However, an incident in 2011 suggests there might have been reveal a more personal l reason for Trumps enthusiasm for humiliating journalists, one which exemplifies the cycle of hurt and hate that Donald Trump was once a victim to, but is now perpetuating and leading. During that the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, Trump was repeatedly humiliated by President Obama and another comedian with cutting jokes. “Mr. Trump at first offered a drawn smile, then a game wave of the hand. But as the president’s mocking of him continued and people at other tables craned their necks to gauge his reaction, Mr. Trump hunched forward with a frozen grimace. After the dinner ended, Mr. Trump quickly left, appearing bruised” (7). He had been humiliated by 1000 laughing journalists. His revenge demonstrated that “hurt people, hurt people (8)”. We must break the cycle of hurt and take great care with our words (9). It is a time to heal!

Herein lies one lesson of hope from an otherwise draining election: We must employ a radical empathy and understanding to all those who we encounter, regardless of divergent ideologies. Indeed, Leviticus instructs that “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk.” Thus, despite the hate-filled rhetoric from Donald Trump and his supporters, that has served to embolden hate, and the hostility from city folk toward rural people, now is the time to move past that mood and embrace dialogue over division.

As Martin Luther King said “We’ve got some difficult days ahead..”, however “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”, for all people regardless of their skin color, gender, sexuality or faith. It our task, with patience, listening, compassion and curiosity as well as assertiveness to make sure that it does.

First published on At the Well.


  1. Ecclesiastes - Chapter 3
  2. Genesis 19, Talmud, Sanhedrin 109
  3. Rashi to Genesis 18:4