Thursday, February 10, 2011

Egypt – what is the right question for a Jew?

Elation and ambivalence
For many Jews the chaotic uprising in Egypt elicits our natural affinity with the oppressed, perhaps even evokes the drama of our own Egyptian liberation, complete with the chaos of the plagues. For some the joy is tempered by fear. What are the right questions for a Jew to ask?

It is good for the Jews?
Perhaps this is not the best question. It is one that survival instincts have programmed in Jewish minds.  Jews have paid a bloody price for events that were not “about us” regardless of what was happening, be it crusaders setting out to capture Jerusalem, or Chmielnicki rising up for the peasants. Times have changed, we are no longer the 'niggers' of the world. Yes, anti-Semitism persists but the power dynamic and scale of persecution is dramatically different.

Jewish woman: The black taxi driver called me a kike (when he was not happy with the tip).
Black Woman: You can get a taxi, when I wait for a cab they don't stop[1].

With the changed circumstances, I think the balance must shift a bit more to the second half of the great teaching. “If I am not for myself, who is for me, but if I am only for myself what am I?[2]

Pre-emptive self defence
Some would argue that the imperative of being “for myself”, not relying on others for our survival is the most relevant point here. I have never faced the horrors of war. I do not have the expertise to ascertain the potential threat of extremists cancelling the peace treaty with Israel and a renewal of major wars.  Instead, I will explore more generally relevant principles and sources.

The principle of self defence is articulated as follows. “If a thief will be found in a tunnel (that a thief might digs under the walls of a house), and he will hit and die, he has no blood. If the sun arose on him, he has blood”[3]. This is the source for the principle that if “someone comes to kill you, arise and kill him”. At the time this was written, there was no home insurance, banks or welfare so the assumption the thief “knows that a person will not stand and see his money being taken and be silent, therefore (the thief) came on the basis that if the owner of the money will stand up to him he will kill him”[4].  The exception to this principle, is if it is clear to the home-owner (represented by the metaphor of the rising sun) that thief will not kill him, the self defence justification for violence falls away[5].

This suggests that a clear risk justifies violence or other harsh defensive acts. How much risk justifies pre-emptive measures needs to be considered with a full understanding of the situation.

Respect and Suspect
Our guidance varies in relation to caution and trust. We are taught to judge every man to the side of merit[6]. Yet, we are told that “always, let every man be seen by you and a thief and (at the same time) respect them as if they were (the great) Rabban Gamliel[7]. A story illustrates this idea.

A man visited Rabbi Yehoshua, who gave him food and drink and showed him to (a place to sleep) on the top of floor. Rabbi Yehoshua removed the ladder beneath him. What did this man do? He got up at , spread out his robe, took vessels (belonging to R. Yehosha) bundled them into his robe, tried to go down, fell and broke his elbow. In the morning R. Yehoshua came and found him. Empty one! This is what people like you do? Said R. Yehoshua. “I did not know you took the ladder from under me”, the guest replied. He said to him, “don’t you know we were careful about you from yesterday[8].

We are also taught if one suspects the innocent they are punished in their body. As we see with Moses[9] who suspected that the Israelites “will not believe” him[10].  A judge is told to see litigants as wicked when they stand before him but as righteous after they have accepted the judgement[11]. I have not yet managed to get clarity with this[12] in general much less in the case of Egypt.

Is it good?
I think a better question is simply to ask if what is happening in Egypt is good. The answer must be yes, when we are talking about the removal of a tyrannical dictator, who reportedly employed 2 million secret police, yet failed to adequately protect minorities such as the Copts.

Judaism believes there are seven obligations for all people on the earth and one of these is the establishment of justice. I cried when the statue of Sadaam fell in Bagdad, as will so many liberated Egyptians when Honsi creates a space for justice to be pursued[13].

Freedom for any depends on freedom for all
Proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants[14] the Torah states in relation to freeing slaves. Yet, surely the proclamation is one of freedom for slaves, why does it say “all its inhabitants? Penei Yehoshua explains, in any country where freedom is incomplete even if only a few are slaves, all the people are slaves. Slavery is an affliction which afflicts slave, master and by-stander. In todays global village, I think this can be applied more broadly.

As a Jew, I am thrilled that men and women in Egypt will soon be free. I pray this will indeed be the case and that will be good not only for the Egyptians but also for my brothers and sisters in Israel.

[1] Goldstein, T, (2001),’ I’m Not White’: Anti Racist Teacher Education for White Early Childhood Educators, Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, Volume 2,  Number 1, 2001.
[2] Pirkey Avot, 1:14
[3] Exodus 22:1-2
[4] Rashi on Exodus 22:1
[5] Mechilta, Talmud Sanhedrin 62, an example of this is a father coming to rob his child.
[6]  Pirkey Avot 1:6
[7]  Masechet Kala Rabbati chapter 9
[8]  Ibid
[9]  Exodus 4
[10] Talmud Shabbat 97a and Talmud Yoma 19b 
[11] Pirkey Avot 1:8.
[12] A distinction is suggested in Kalla Rabbati between someone you know to whom we would apply the principle of “do not judge your friend until you have been in his position”, but strangers can be judged. The Talmud in Yoma would fit this interpretation because the context there is suspicion against a Kohen Gadol (high priest). It is harder to reconcile with the case of Moses suspecting the Jewish people as a whole, most of whom were strangers to him, it also does not sit well with “judging every man favourably” in Pirkey Avot 1:6
[13] I explored the Torah case for democracy in an earlier post
[14] Leviticus 25:10


  1. G-d bless you for that beautiful and well-informed piece. i wish there were more chassidim like you, and i will forward this blog piece.

    yeshar koach!
    / Tuvia

  2. thank you very much Tuvia for the Chizuk