Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Separation & Strife, early seeds of Arab-Jewish conflict? & caution for inter-faithers in Lech Lcha

Pain of Separation
The presentation of Koran's by settler Peace-Rabbi Menachem Fromer this week to a mosque demonstrates that the attachment of Jews to the ancient land of Judea is not incompatible with deep compassion and respect for their Palestinian neighbours. Yet, Fromer's religious/historical links to Judea, along with the attachment of my Palestinian friends including Khaldoun, Ahmad and their families to homes and villages on the other side of the green line will need to be sacrificed if there is to be two-states for two people. I do not presume to have a better option, many experts are convinced it is most likely way to prevent further bloodshed and most likely to deliver dignity to Palestinians.The key proposition here is the need for separation, as a Jew I am curious about what the Torah has to say about separation when things get difficult. 

Command to Separate
The “separation as solution” theme is introduced with the first words when Abraham is encouraged to leave his idolatrous fathers family and community to another place. He promptly complies, but not completely according to one view. 

Partial Failure
this time was to be different from his earlier migration from Ur Kasdim when he took his family with him, but this time he would leave his land and also be separated from his birthplace and even his family (fathers house). …but Lot was attached to Abraham. This is hinted at in the words “and Abraham went as God had spoken to him, and Lot went with him[1]” He did not push him away, instead he waited for an idea about how to (separate from him but) but not embarrass him.

Pretext for Separation
This is why you find that when he finds a small reason (pretext) in the fights of the shepherds he immediately says “separate from me if you will go left I will go right...[2] This matter is strange except that (Abraham) was thinking thoughts of how to separate him (Lot) according to the word of God, so therefore immediately when he found a reason he pushed him away with both hands.

It all fits
And I saw (a proof for) this interpretation in what the verse says “and God spoke to Abraham after Lot separated from him, “lift up your eyes an d see this place...all the land that you see, to you I will give it”. This proves that (God) was sitting and waiting, when will Lot separate from him to show him the land that he said to him at the beginning (go to the land) “that I will show you”  but he did not show it to him till now when Lot was separated from him. This is first statement “go for yourself from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father's house, then I will show you [3].

Round 1 of Arab-Jewish strife?
The separations continue in what might be suggested to be the “original sin” of the Jewish-Arab relationship, if Arabs are actually descended from Ishmael which is a contested idea. After, Sara's offered her maid Hagar to Abraham as a second wife and Hagar became pregnant she lost respect from her barren mistress. Sara's is very upset. She says to Abraham. I gave you my I have become cheapened in her eyes, may God judge between me and you. Abraham replies “here is your maid in your hand, do to her what is good in your eyes”. Sara's  behaviour at this point is a subject of many opinions, the text says “ותענה”, translated as and Sarai abused her[4] and interpreted as either she enslaved her harshly[5], or hit her with a shoe[6]. Hagar flees Sarah.

Abuse was a sin
Te prominent commentator Ramban states: “our mother sinned in this affliction and also Abraham in his allowing her to do this, and God heard her affliction and gave her a son that would be a “Pereh Adam” [7]פרא אדם  a wild man to afflict the (Jewish) seed of Abraham and Sara with all types of affliction. What I really like about this perspective is that it is a Jewish view that see some fault, at least thousands of years ago with the Jewish side of the conflict. The struggle in many arguments to "be the good one" and blaming everything on the other side is unhelpful, a better approach is to look for what each side might have contributed, acknowledge the impact on the other side and seek to improve things. 

Essentialising Ishmael/casting the conflict as inevitable
The Ramban's commentary is not the only interpretation of this and is also problematic in its portrayal of the children of Ishmael as essentially wild men with a destiny of “afflicting Jews”. This raises the same issue discussed in relation to anti-black racism, researchers of racism are clear on the problem of essentialising defects in a particular group as a form of racism. More palatable interpretations of “Pere Adam” an open person who loves deserts[8], or an Ishamelite merchant[9]his hand is in all and the hands of all are in him” to buy and sell[10]. There is nothing inevitable about conflict between Jews and Arabs, many Jews and Arabs form excellent friendships and the history of Jewish in Arab lands might not be perfect but it is far happier than that of the Jewish in Europe. 

Caution for Inter-faithers with high expectations
Ironically, the separation from Lot is disrupted when Lot as a resident of the defeated people of Sodom is captured in war and Abraham goes into battle to save him and Sodom. After Abraham emerges victorious, God tells him do not fear Abraham your reward is very great (Genesis 15:1). What was he afraid of? One explanation is that he had expected that when he saved the people of Sodom they would change their ways[11] and become more like him. They did not and he was disappointed, perhaps it was wrong to save these sinners if they would not change. God tells Abraham not to be afraid, this is not your problem. You did the right thing. Some people go into inter-faith work very much like Abraham did to his battle, expecting the “other” to change. It rarely happens on cue, if it happens at all, it does when you least expect it.

[1]   Genesis 12:4
[2]  Genesis 13:8
[3]  Ohr Hachayim Genesis 12:1
[4]  Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, in the Living Torah.
[5]  Rashi, Genesis 16:6.
[6]  Beresheet Rabba, 45.
[7] Genesis 16:12
[8] Rashi, on Genesis 16:12 based on Beresheet Rabba
[9] Paaneach Raza, similar interpretation also by Chizkuni both quoted in Tora Shleima, Rabbi Menachem Kasher.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ralbag as expanded on by Meshech Chochma, - Mosad Harav Kook edition of Beresheet, page 397, note 11.

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