Thursday, January 27, 2011

God's Way -Halacha (Shariah) vs. democracy

Disclaimers: 1) Some people speak from a religious perspective with no authority and limited knowledge. They create false impressions of their faith. 2) Commentary is influenced by historical context, and may not be the prevailing view in another time.

The Match
Last Thursday night I listened to an unrepresentative and unqualified fellow named Ibrahim Conlon, an architect convert to Islam who decided to redesign Australia. He spoke for the affirmative in a debate at a town hall on whether democracy should be replaced by Shariah law[1]. “What basis is there for democracy?!” he asked repeatedly. “What if you had 100 Murderers or Homosexuals? he challenged his opponent (ignoring the difference between the two) “would you still follow the majority?”

The question of the death penalty for apostasy was raised. A young Palestinian-Aussie asked me how Jewish law would respond to some of these explosive issues. Indeed, 1) what is the relationship between God's revealed path[2] and democracy? 2) How does it apply to humanity generally and 3) specifically for adherents of the Torah?

Clash of world views?
It has been argued that the world views of Torah and western are profoundly different[3].  Consider the divergence between Torah’s focus on obligations vs. a society that emphasises rights. This divergence leads to two ways of seeing law.
A) As an intrusion in life that should be tolerated only to the degree that it prevents people’s rights being trampled, so “government is best when it governs least[4]”.
B) If life is about our obligations, than the more laws the better because these laws ennoble and refine us[5] help us achieve our purpose in life[6], to prepare the society of completed people[7] or a home for God on earth[8].

Freedom, while prized in both systems, means different things in each. In Torah it is about the freedom to obey God[9], while in the west it is the freedom to do as we please. Finally, the value of individualism and individual choice in the open society even extends to the approval of civil disobedience to break the law which is not tolerated in the Halacha.  

Compatible or Compartmentalized?
Roth concludes that the divergent approaches can be dealt with by thinking of them as operating within different terms of reference, in different parts of a person’s life. As someone raised is a very different school of thought (Chabad) to that of Rabbi Roth, my subjective and likely very unfair reaction to this resolution is to hear echoes of the idea of a being Jew in the home and a “man” in the street[10].

An attempt at synthesis is made Rabbi David Rosen[11], who argues that if we think of democracy as being about equality and dignity of the individual then it would be seen by Torah as a moral imperative. He points to the fact that in the Torah it is the people who appoint the king[12]. Moses recounts how he consulted the people in his appointment of judges, “bring from among yourselves men of wisdom and understanding, well known to your tribes and I will appoint them[13]”.

When great sages Hillel and Shamai introduced a law that the public did not accept initially, it is not considered valid until a generation later when the community accepted it[14].  In one of our dramatic stories, a sage was asked to violate his own conscience and was humiliated. This was one factor that led to the demotion of the lead scholar of the Jewish people[15]. “If you (despise another person), know whom you despise for in the image of God, He made man[16]” The human being is not seen as little cog in the great wheel of God will, but as one made in the image of God, whose dignity and will deserves great respect. Democracy affirms the dignity of the individuals.

Civil law is binding on believers
Man made law is seen as authoritative and subject to certain conditions is binding on Jews as expressed in the principle of “Dina Dmalchuta Dina”, the law of the kingdom has the status of law[17]. (I cannot speak for Islam, but if I remember correctly, my Muslim colleague had once explained that Shariah would arrive at the same practical conclusion as a matter of implied contract as part of citizenship. He also thinks that Australia is much more of an Islamic state than Iran or Saudi Arabia because of its social policies are consistent in his view with Islam.)

Civil law, fulfilment of Divine Law?
Judaism has a tradition of a set of divine laws for all mankind called the “Seven Noahide laws”, one of these is the requirement to establish of systems of laws and justice. There are two opinions about this commandment a) The content of the laws was also prescribed by God and is essentially the same as the civil laws in the Torah[18]. b) The meaning of a system of “laws” as required by the Noahide code is justice based on national customs and lawmaking[19]. According to the latter view God's law sees the laws of governments as the fulfilment of God's command.

Jew stay out of court?
In spite of this, the courts of law established by non-Jews are not seen as the appropriate venue for Jews to seek justice[20], for various reasons. A) If their law is different to Torah law and money changes hands this would be considered theft[21]. B) The case of an idol-worshippers court even if in a particular law their laws would be identical to Jewish law because of a desecration of Gods name and honours the names of idols to praise them…when our enemies (are our) judges, this is a testimony to the superiority of their (object or religious) fear[22]. This would be the case even with a secular court, which by virtue of it replacing a Torah court would still be seen as denigrating Torah. An exception to this is when a Torah court gives permission to Jewish litigants to attend a civil court. From a legal perspective, my understanding is that in most cases, this should not be an issue if the litigants agree to appoint an arbitrator or mediator out of court.

Death Penalty for Unbelievers?
In practice Jewish law does not have the death penalty in spite of the fact that the law for executing an idol worshipper is still on the books. It is only because of the downgrading of rabbinic authority that we do not have the power to act on this. (Phew, how, very convenient).

Some of our ideals can be better realised in parallel with democracy, rather than within it. Still, democracy is one important and practical way to progress Torah’s vision of a just society. The Lubavitcher Rebbe referred to the United States as a “kingdom of kindness”. If a Jew argued for the destruction of democracy, he would be reminded that in theocracies, Jews were burned at the stake. A ‘Jewish Conlon’ would be told that as a democrat he had the right to say what he pleases, but as Jew he had an obligation to shut up and recognise the Torah case for democracy. Unless we knew for certain that he would not listen because he thinks he knows better, in which case the Mitzvah is to leave him alone. I would assume that in the actual case of Mr. Ibrahim Conlon, Australian Muslim religious leaders will counsel him in a similar way, if they think he is open to guidance. I hope with the additional information about our own tradition, we can respond more appropriately to the type of challenge I faced last Thursday night. 

With much appreciation to the scholars who have come before me, especially Rabbi Dr. Sol Roth and Rabbi David Rosen

[2] The Hebrew word for Jewish law is Halahca, which relates to the word “going”, or the ‘way to go’, the Muslim word is Shariah, which means the path.
[3] Roth Rabbi Dr. S (1990),
[4]  John Stuart Mill, cited in Roth
[5]  Mitzvot were not given (for any other reason but) to refine the creations/Israel, Vayikra Rabba 13.3, Beresheet Rabba 44, Midrash Shmuel 84, also central to approach of Sefer Hachinuch
[6]  Based on Pirkey Avot, everything God created, he created only for his glory
[7]  Derech Hashem, Rabbi Moshe Chayim Lutzato in the introduction
[8]  Midrash Tehilim, as explained in Chabad Chasidism  
[9] As expressed in Pirkey Avot 6:2, “there is no one who is free other than one who studies Torah”
[10] Jacobs, L, “As late as the mid­-nineteenth century the Russian maskil, Judah Leib Gordon, could still proclaim as the Haskalah ideal: “Be a Jew in your home and a man outside it,”,
[11]  Rosen, D, (2001), Democracy: a Moral Imperative in Judaism
[12] Deuteronomy 17:15
[13] Deuteronomy 1:13
[14] Talmud Shabbat 17a and Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat chapter 2, cited in Rosen.
[15]  Mishna, Rosh Hashanah 2:8-9, story of Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua, where Rabbi Yehoshua calculated a different date for Yom Kippur and he was ordered to appear before Rabban Gamliel with his staff and wallet on the day he believed to be Yom Kippur.
[16] Beresheet Rabba 1:24
[17]  Talmud, Gittin 10a
[18]  Ramban Commentary on Beresheet, 34:13
[19] Rabbenu Yaakov Antoli (whose book has been used by the Orchot Chayim, Kol Bo and Meiri) in Melamed Hatalmidim, brought in Torah Shleima Miluim to Parsha Mishpatim p. 218
[20] Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 26. (Quoted by Ira Yitzchak Kasdan -
[21] Chidushei R. Akivah Eiger, Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 26:1 "Uv'arkaot shelahem."
[22]  Rashi on Exodus 21:1.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Kaddish for Palestinians – a Memorial for Stella Cornelius

Context: Stella Cornelius, a woman I admired greatly was founder of the Conflict Resolution Network, a tireless peace activist[1] recently passed away. Below are my remarks at her memorial service. The cause of peace is advanced when members of groups involved in conflict question aspects of their own sides response. An Imam I know, corrected people on his own side in the middle of the Gaza war who were saying "God should kill all the Jews'children", he said "no this is not what the Koran teaches us". Neither he nor I have our head in the sand, we are both concerned about the harm caused to our people and realise that we can't agree about some things, and yet this does not prevent us from articulating teachings and principles relating to how people on our own side might respond better.  
Kaddish for Palestinians – a Memorial for Stella Cornelius

Yitgadal Vyitkadash Shmai Rabba. “May the great name, expand and be sanctified”, so begins the Jewish prayer called Kaddish, recited for the souls of the departed.
It was this prayer that Stella was looking for a Rabbi to recite 15 years ago for Palestinians. She planted a seed then; that became my life’s journey. Before she passed away, she requested that I speak today about our shared concern about peace between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. I will honor that request by considering positive action rather than apportioning blame.
Stella insisted that as Jews we were not superior, but we had added responsibility because we should know better. As a Jew I think of God’s name being expanded in the world, as progress toward the time “when nation will not lift a sword against nation, nor will they learn war anymore”[2], especially in the holy land.
V’yamlich Malchutei, V’yatzmach Purkanai, V’ykarev Mshichei. May God’s kingdom reign, may his help sprout, may his Messiah come close. Stella, like other great peace workers imagined the world that could be, not just the one that we saw in front of us. The ancients described lions and lambs lying together, Martin Luther King Jnr. painted a picture of his dream and Stella pioneered  a different way to deal with conflict. None of these visions are complete, but each has already changed many lives, and will continue to do so.
Yehay Shlama Rabba Min Shmaya, Vchayim Tovim. Let there be great peace from heaven and a good life for us.  A worker negotiates with an employer for more money. The boss offers less than the worker needed, for more results than he could muster. The employee agrees because the boss has power, and he has none. A year passes, the needs do not vanish and the promised results do not materialize, so they repeat the deal. Results he could not deliver, for a price he could not live with. The third time this happens, the Boss declares, “you are just like the Palestinians, you don’t keep your part of the deal, and you always want more”.  An imbalance of power and agreements that don’t really meet people's needs, doesn’t work. Peace and a good life, come together.

Bchayechon, Uvyomechon, bizman kariv. In your life time, in your days and in a near time. I am watching the disappearing sand in the sand clock of hope. 33 years ago, Autonomy for Palestinians was discussed at Camp David, 17 years ago additional expectations were created in Oslo. Anyone under 30, grew up with these promises, as yet unfulfilled.

Osay Shalom Bimromav Hu Yaaserh Shalom Aleinu. He who makes peace in His heights, may He create peace for us and all Israel. Divine kindness and justice were both infinite and intolerant when first created in the spiritual world of chaos. Kindness could not bear to see any judgment. Justice, could not bear kindness, insisting that justice must always be served. These unstoppable forces crashed and shattered.  But God makes peace between them by introducing a higher purpose, the will of God. As Stella would say, they are brought together by “the shared task”.

We talk of peace for Israel, and this will happen when the needs of Palestinians are also met as both pursue the common good. A woman from Sderot, Israel, the town that faced rockets fired from Gaza, wrote to me about helping Gaza Youth when they published their frustration and demands. “I live in Sderot and I feel their trouble is my trouble”. 

The people who were touched by Stella, we will build on that thought, perhaps invert it, so the peace and dignity of Palestinians will be our peace. Shalom Aleinu V'al kol Yisrael Vimru Amen.

[2] Isaiah 2:4

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Authority Trashed, Tucson & Tunisia – problems and opportunities of democracy of opinion

In rejecting elitism and in pursuit of freedom, we now face the idea that all opinions, not just people, are of equal value. Is this the democratisation of opinion combined with a breakdown in authority a contributing factor to the madness in the world?

I have not listened to the ramblings of the Tucson murderer yet I feel quite comfortable to assert my view about this. Asserting a view, no matter how ill-considered and regardless of qualification to do so is socially acceptable. In this post, I will mostly stick to what I know and write about attitudes to authority, equality and thinking as these are discussed in the Torah.

Legitimacy of Government Authority
When Jethro, Moses' father in law notices how Moses is wearing himself out he suggests the appointment of a judicial system of men of accomplishment, God fearing, men of truth, who hate bribery[1]. A system of authority is created in the desert. We are instructed to “pray for the welfare of government because if not for its fear, men would swallow each other a live[2].

The inequality in free societies is a terrible injustice, but to make the jump to government and police just being there to protect the rich is untrue and unfair. If the cops are so evil, why don’t their radical critics move to parts of Mexico, where tragically people can be shot up at whim, with no protection from the law? 

Limits of legitimacy
The toppling of a dictator in Tunisia this week reflects the reality that authority is not always a good thing. The Torah warns Jewish kings to write a Torah scroll and carry it with him so "That his heart not become haughty over his brethren.”[3] A judge is warned against judging alone[4]. The classic story of the Iconoclastic, young Abraham, smashing his father’s idols and rejecting the gods accepted by all, including the elites tell us that we cannot simply trust the elders or the government to get it all right. Our law addresses the scenario of a government that is no better than a thief and a thug, but this exception to the principle of “the law of the rule is law” has strictly defined criteria, such as a king whose rule has not been accepted by the people[5] or who does not comply with his own laws[6].

Submission to non- ideal
Authority does not need to be perfect to be seen as legitimate.  There is plenty of realism, perhaps even cynicism in our tradition about government. “Be careful with the authorities, as they do not draw a person close to them for any reason but for their own needs, seems like they love you when it is for their pleasure, but do not stand by a man when he is pressed”.[7]  In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, we are taught, that we need to submit to the judge that is available to us in a given time, even if he is not of the stature of greater leaders. “Like Yiftah in his generation, like Samuel in his generation[8]”. The erosion of legitimate authority is not consistent with the teachings of Judaism.

Wisdom of the Elders
Our tradition would lead toward the privileging of wisdom and intellectual rigour over the democratisation of opinion. In an inversion of ageism, we are advised not to discriminate against the young, “Please pleasant to the black haired[9] so strongly would we naturally defer to the wisdom that comes with age that we need to ensure we don’t dismiss someone because of their youth. One activist recently reflected, “Our defiant motto was “don’t trust anyone over thirty”…this motto deprives us of much wisdom[10]”.

And all the people saw the thunder, and the lightning, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking and when the people saw it they moved and stood afar[11]. The people stood far away only saw the external trappings, the thunder and lightning, while Moses entered into the thick cloud were God was[12].

Following your heart
My pet hate is the expression; “I feel that”. Shouldn't it be, 'I think that'?! Unless, we don't need to think any more, we can decide everything by intuition, and just follow our hearts. There is a time for everything, Rabbi YY Schneerson's portrayal of the arrogant self described “kop mentch”, who is cold about everything and refuses to get excited is a devastatingly accurate description that shows why there are some times when we should indeed follow our heart. In fact, one great quality of our animal-like aspect is our ability to get excited and do good things because we feel that they are right and we avoid making all the calculations that might prevent us from doing it[13]. Perhaps, 'feeling that' is useful some times, but dangerous at other times.       

Believing in yourself vs. Humility
It is one of the few rules left, you must believe in yourself. Our tradition tells us, do not believe in yourself until the day you die[14]. While in Tunisia, backing one’s own judgement gave people courage to pursue justice, in Tucson the mad murderer might have hesitated if he grew up with the values of deference and humility. God desired an altar of earth, not silver or gold[15].  If only he could have learned the interpersonal insight that it is ridiculous to think that “davka” according to his own mind is the truth[16].  Instead, a culture of worship of self and an unwillingness to give any credit to the legitimacy of established norms might have contributed to a sick mind giving itself permission to kill people, justified in part on some hair brained ideas dumped on the internet about grammar and government control.

Torah of course believes in absolute Truth, which some people will not embrace. Still there is wisdom in assuming that ‘the truth is out there’, so even if one is not sure about peoples’ ability to find the truth, there are some truths worth embracing. One of these is to learn from a young age to honour one’s imperfect father and mother, doing so impacts on the ability to respect God, because if we can respect our the creators of our own bodies, surely we can respect “our father in heaven[17]”.

In the end, we need to learn to be realistic and question authority, resist it when it is seriously out of line and humbly submit to it when appropriate.

[1] Exodus 18:21.
[2] Pirkey Avot 3:2
[3] Deuteronomy  17:20
[4] Pirkey Avot 4:8
[5] Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law), Choshen Mishpat, 369:2
[6] Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law), Choshen Mishpat, 369:8
[7] Pirkey Avot, 2:3
[8] Talmud, Rosh Hashana 25b
[9] Pikey Avot 3:12
[10] Nagler, M, (2011) Apologies and Advice: A Letter to Younger Activists ,Tikkun Winter, p.58
[11] Exodus 20:18
[12] Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk –in Greenberg, A.Y., (1992) Torah Gems, Y Orenstien-Yavneh Publishing House, Tel Aviv Israel.
[13] Sefer Hamaamorim Kuntreisim Alef, Maamar Naaseh Na Aliyas Kir Ketana, by R,fd YY Schneerson
[14]  Pirkey Avot 2:5
[15]  Klei Yakar on Exodus 20:22
[16]  Heichaltzu, Maamar of Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber of Lubavitch
[17]  Klei Yakar on Exodus 20:12, Ramban follows a similar interpretation

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Faith, Food, Flood & Money (Beshalach)

The following is written against the background of the tragic loss of life in the Queensland floods this week. In addition to the dead and missing is a massive loss of property, homes and crops affecting tens of thousands. Of course, we must all do what we can to help. In addition, the financial impact of the floods raises broader questions about faith as it related to money. 

Worrying about money and the all consuming pursuit of a livelihood often takes up so much head-space, there is very little capacity for empathy or altruism. Relax! “It is false for you, early risers, delayers of lying down, who eat the bread of sorrows, for indeed He will give those he loves sleep[1]”. Despite the obvious need for a balanced approach, like so many people, I find this very hard in practice. Faith in God’s providing for us seems an obvious solution. How do we reconcile faith with our experiences? 

Preoccupation with Providing 
The juxtaposition of two parts of the Exodus story, the splitting the sea and worry about food relates to the teaching that A man’s sustenance is as difficult as the dividing of the Reed Sea[2].

Those of us who have never worried about our next meal, or spared the impact of natural disaster can barely imagine this. With a secure job, food in the fridge and credit cards if not cash, we can afford to think about others’ needs. Still, financial insecurity can dull our sensitivity to the needs of others, or capacity to be inspired. The Jews, having just experienced the miracle of the splitting of the sea faced a situation where they had no food. They cried out, “Oh, who could have given us (the better option of) dying by the hand of God in the land of Egypt as we sat on the pots of meat, when we ate bread that filled us, as you have taken us out to this desert to have this whole congregation die in hunger![3]”.

Real or supposed danger of hunger, makes all principals shaky, silences all better resolution and as long as a man is not relieved…from the crushing burden of the worry about his daily bread there is not place left for a complete realisation of the divine Torah[4]. It would seem that If we are to play any positive role we need to rise above this fear. 

Manna a lesson in Trust
To prepare Jews for a more trusting approach they are given the Manna, miracle food that falls from heaven, that will be “collected, day by day, to test them whether they will go by my Torah or not”[5]. The Manna will only be provided for one day at a time, can we relax after eating the last bit of food we have relying that God will provide for us tomorrow? Moses, may have added an extra rule to reinforce the lesson, “nothing can be left from one day to the next![6] Instead, they must trust in God that tomorrow Manna will come down if any is left it should  be thrown out of the tent[7]. 

The lesson is meant to carry on to future generations. It is expressed as a super-natural idea that anyone who fulfils the Torah, God will prepare his livelihood without bother just like those who ate the Manna based on the fact that one verse in the Torah about the Manna contains every letter in the Hebrew Alphabet[8]. More practically, we are told, Whoever has food for today and worries about tomorrow is considered one of those will little faith[9]”.

Be Prepared
Yet, the Queenslanders who did “worry about tomorrow” are probably better off than those who did not.  I suggest that there is a difference between worrying and planning or preparing for risk. In fact, we are taught that being prepared for the future is far better than those to whom could be applied the verse “you will not believe in your life[10]”, this is the one who own no fields and buys their bread from the baker, from Friday to Friday[11].  We are taught that “we do not rely on miracles[12].  Rabbi Yehoshua said a person should learn two laws in the morning, two in the evening and occupy himself with his work the who day, (if he does this) he is considered as if he fulfilled the entire Torah[13]

To prepare, is to play one's part in the natural order that God created and through which God works. To worry is to express a lack of confidence in the benevolence of God.

Acceptance After/Optimism before
Paradoxically, when we suffer or catastrophe strikes we say “whatever God does is for the best”, or “It is not in our hands to grasp the (reason) for the suffering of the righteous or the  tranquilly of the wicked[14] yet when we look to the future we are meant to do so with confidence and trust in God.  It life was supposed to make sense, this would be a major problem. Yet, we give our trust and faith to people we love.  This is why when teenagers accused their parents with “you don't trust me”, the parents feel defensive. Trust is not just earned, it is given as a gift, like a compliment or an affirmation, a suspension of disbelief.

Not only is worrying seen as a lack of faith, money itself is seen negatively. “How do we know that money (כֶּסֶף Kesef) is synonymous with shame? Because the word in Aramaic for Shame is (Kisufa כִּסוּפָא ) [15] and “Why is it called a coin (Matbeahמַטְבֵּעַ )? Because one sinks (טוֹבֵע To-Vay-Ah) in it”[16]. Regardless of the pitfall of money the reality of the place of money in our world is recognised in our tradition. “A poor man is considered as if he were dead[17]”.  Charity, giving away our money is also seen as having the power to redeem us.   

The devastation in Queensland reminds us of the natural forces that can sweep away our possessions in moments, we need to respond with compassion for the victims and awe at the mystery and tragedy of God ways. Our capacity to empathise  is greater if we can trust God that we will be ok and are not worried about our own vulnerability.

Money can destroy us, but it can redeem us. We are simultaneously supposed to work as if it mattered, and sleep as if it won't, because in the end it does and it doesn't. 

May the Almighty and the Merciful watch over the souls of those who lost their lives, heal and help those who suffered loss and grant success to the efforts of the rescuers and carers.

[1] Psalm 127:2
[2] Talmud, Pesachim 118a, discussed by
[3] Exodus 16:3, It’s hard to imagine that the Egyptians were so generous with their slaves menu. This particular complaint may have been from the Jewish overseers of the slaves (Ohr Hachayim )
[4] Samson Raphael Hirsch, on Exodus 16:2
[5] Exodus 16:4
[6] Ohr Hachyim on Exodus 16:19
[7] Ibn Ezra on Exodus 16:19
[8] Baal Haturim 16:16, similar to Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai, in Mechilta.
[9] Rabbi Elazar Hamodaii in the Mechilta
[10] Deuteronomy 28:66
[11] Talmud, Menachot 103b, see Rashi, quoted in Aryeh Kaplan (1992), Handbook of Jewish Thought Volume 2, p.303, Moznaim Publishing, New York
[12] Talmud Pesachim 64b, with slight variation Zohar 1 111 & 112.
[13] Mechilta
[14] Pirkey Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, )
[15] Bamidbar Rabba 14:22
[16] R, Avraham of Slonim, quoted in Rosmarin, R. (2000) Mamma Used to Say – Pearls of Wisdom From the World of Yiddish, p. 199. Felheim Publishers New York 
[17] Talmud Nedarim 7b