Thursday, July 28, 2011

“Thorn in the side”, Norway's Utoya Island mass murderer vs. Multiculturalism

The horrific and tragic massacre in Norway should not be milked to push any agenda. I was disturbed by the glee with which some rushed in to score a point for their community against another or for a political position. Conservative commentators such as Keith Windschuttle[i] have reasonably asserted that he bears no responsibility for the actions of his murderous admirer. There can be no question though, that this horrific killing spree has reopened the question about how powerful cultures should respond to cultures that are different to them and are seen as threatening.

A very confronting passage in the Torah reading this week states the following;
“You shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their temples, destroy their molten idols, and demolish their high places... But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the Land from before you, then those whom you leave over will be as spikes in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they will harass you in the land in which you settle. And it will be that what I had intended to do to them, I will do to you[ii].”

It could be argued that because this statement was a once off command by God himself about the conquest of Canaan over 3000 years ago and God has not been making such statements recently we don’t need to worry about this. We are taught that the Canaanite peoples that this verse refers to have been mixed with other people[iii] and therefore it could be argued that this has no practical application. Something as harsh as this is not something that can be applied whenever someone feels like it. Still, I was raised with the belief that the Torah is a timeless document, so that at least in some sense these words still have meaning. But what can they mean?

An important concern for me is that some people might decide to apply this advice to modern dilemmas. One blogger who I never heard of and whose style suggests limited scholarship does exactly that. I find the idea of ethnic cleansing completely abhorrent. I searched the classic commentaries on this verse and did not find much that encouraged me. We have Joshua dramatically telling the Israelites as they crossed a temporarily dry Jordan River bed that the condition of entry into the Promised Land is driving out its inhabitants. Failure to do so will result in them being drowned in the Jordan[iv].

2000 years after the conquest of Canaan, this would be interpreted as relating to the inhabitants presenting a moral threat. "The Torah tells us that the idolaters who are not removed from the Land will be like "pins" in the eyes of the Jewish people. Meaning, they will dull the sensitivity of the Jew to see what is unacceptable as plausible. By being exposed to their corrupted value system and way of life, the Jew himself will lose his clarity and ultimately assume behaviour that is unacceptable for a Jew. This is similar to a judge who accepts bribery and is said to become blind.[v]"

By applying the principle that the words of Torah and poor in one place but rich in another[vi], we can find much support for this limited application. When this instruction is first given it states, do not cut a covenant with “them and their gods…lest they make you sin to me[vii]”. When it is repeated it states, “lest you cut a covenant with the inhabitants of the land and they go astray after their gods[viii]”. And additional reference talks about idol worship resulting from intermarriage[ix].

It is hard for us to imagine what the ancient world was like. There is a tradition that the temptation for idol worship in ancient times was extremely intense to a degree unimaginable for us. Perhaps there is some echo in the cravings some people have for more and more concrete and tangible approaches instead of the deep, hard to define, spiritual work.  Perhaps this was about Jews protecting themselves from the lure of polytheism and its decadence. “By your tolerance toward the polytheistic inhabitants…you become tolerant to polytheism[x]”. These fears were in fact realised when the Israelites did not banish the idol worshipping Canaanites, they intermarried with them and were influenced to worship idols[xi].

My difficulty with this approach is that these types of arguments are the latest mutation of the moral disease of racism, known as the “new racism”. It presents itself as being not about inherent superiority, instead arguing that there are irreconcilable differences that put the other beyond the pale.  It is often the case that the differences between groups are greatly exaggerated, with all the focus on the few differences, but ignoring the vast common ground. The question that is not dealt with adequately in the popular discourse about these things is what should people do when the difference are really significant?  

I think there is a place for robust discussion, if after careful investigation it is determined there are serious differences on matters of principle.  If one community believes passionately in gay marriage and the other thinks homosexual practices should be a capital offence you have a problem and pretending it is all ok is not a good idea. Similarly, issues such as abortion, pornography, and honour killings are all issues that are real and important. One writer suggests that a lesson from the command to “smash the idols” can be about drawing a line in the sand and campaigning against abhorrent practices such as foot binding[xii].

In Chasidic literature, the conquest of the seven Canaanite nations represents the struggle to manage and even transform the nature of our own emotions which according to the Kabbalah can be categorised under seven headings. These include kindness, severity, mercy, determination etc.  
When I was a young boy, my grandfather told me of the difficulty his family had in finding a Jewish school in the Soviet Union that had closed them down. He was lucky to find a story in a government newspaper that mocked Chasidic Jews in a town called Nevel as primitive people who immersed in a ritual bath before praying and ‘the water still dripped down their beards’. My great grandfather looked up from the communist newspaper and told my grandfather, this is where you will go to school. I am very grateful to be living in a time when I can live my life according to my beliefs without harassment. I believe this tolerance is surely an essential goodness.

In 1991, in the wake of the Crown Heights riots, when groups of young blacks ran around the streets and terrorised the Jewish residents, the black Mayor of New York, David Dinkins visited Rabbi Schneerson, knows as “the Rebbe. The Rebbe said that he hoped the Mayor would be able to bring peace to the city. "Both sides," Mr. Dinkins said. "We are not two sides," the Rebbe replied. "We are one side. We are one people, living in one city, under one administration and under one G‑d." I am not sure what the Rebbe meant, but I think the words he spoke reflect the way Jews should behave whenever we have the power to decide whether to see others as threats and thorns in our side, or as fellow members of the one human family.

[ii] Numbers 33:52-56
[iii] Mishnah Yadaim, 4:4, also Maimonides, book of judges, laws of kings 5:4
[iv] Talmud Sotah 34a, cited in Rashi on this section
[v] Ramban’s commentary, translation by Rabbi Yosef Kalatsky,
[vi] Jerusalem Talmud Rosh Hashanah 3:5
[vii] Exodus 23:32-33
[viii] Exodus 34:15-16
[ix] Deuteronomy 7:2-4
[x] R. Samson Raphael Hirsch
[xi] Judges 1:27-3:7
[xii] Aviva Presser Aiden,

Friday, July 22, 2011

Murdoch, Abuse, Lashes, Vows and Violence - Matot

From an Australian Jewish perspective there are three stories of interest this week. One is the unfolding drama of the Australian Rupert Murdoch and the News of the World. We have the very disturbing story about Sexual abuse at Yeshiva College in Melbourne[1] and the failure of leadership to deal with it appropriately. A third is the story of a Muslim man that was allegedly given 40 lashes by other Muslims for drinking alcohol[2].

This week Jews the portion of the Torah called, Matot. The name refers to the heads of tribes who were told the laws of vows[3]. It is unusual for the Torah to state that laws were taught to the leaders of the tribes. One scholar states that ‘if he was not afraid’ to offer a bold interpretation, he would suggest that this is because the laws only applied to the tribal princes. It is particularly important for leaders to keep their promises and maintain trust in public figures[4] and I think this can be extended to public institutions.  

The word Matot can also mean sticks or branches. Perhaps the link between the meanings is that tribes are branches coming off the one tree. In any event, I think there is a flavour of coercion or violence in vows in which a person forces themselves to do something later that they might not want to do then, but they do have the desire now.

The notion of being forced by a vow is beautifully used to explain the one of the most solemn of Jewish prayers. Kol Nidre is a prayer asking for annulment of vows and forgiveness for broken promises. It is linked to a story about Rabba Bar Bar Channa, who said her an echo crying out, “woe for me that I made a vow but have no one to annul my vow”, when he told the sages about this, they told him you are the son of a donkey. It was God crying out that he swore to exile his children and wished someone would annul this vow[5]. The Kol Nidre, is in a sense asking God to cancel his own vow that “forces” him to punish his children[6]. So we have vows as an instrument that forces even God to act harshly.

The reading also includes a command to take revenge from the Midyanites and describes the war of revenge. It raises the question, should People allowed to act violently towards others just because they think God told them to do so. The Torah’s answer in this case was yes, but I don’t think we can generalise from that to the present because that was Moses stating that God told him clearly to do this. In the case reported in Australia the perpetrators took the law into their own hands and were rightly condemned by other Muslims. It would be a case of the pot calling the kettle black for followers of the Torah to be too judgemental about the unfortunate lashing this week.

There is a lot more to learn and investigate this week. I look forward to doing so over Shabbat.

[3] Numbers 30:2
[4] Chasam Sofer, Nachshoni, Y,  (1989), Studies in the Weekly Parsha, Bamidbar, Artscroll, p. 1142,
[5] Talmud Bava Basra Chapter 5
[6] Munk, E, in his book on prayer

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Primal Spirituality of Circumcision vs. Cultural Steamroller of “Scientism”

Original published in Tikkun Magazine in response to the proposed (but cancelled) vote on a Circumcision ban in San Francisco. 

Should a society based on the principles of democracy and western thinking permit people to circumcise children? The answer to that question may well be, no. I suggest that this is the wrong question and I think getting the question right is key.

People should not be allowed to act violently towards others just because they think God told them to do so. A case was reported in Australia of a Muslim man that was allegedly given 40 lashes for drinking alcohol by a few Muslims who broke into his house [1].  The perpetrators were rightly condemned by other Muslims. This example illustrates the logical principle that violence cannot be allowed on the basis of claims of divine sanction.

Anti- Circumcision Cartoon that has been
described as Anti-Semitic
Similarly, in approaching the issues of Circumcision if the question is whether scriptural mandates justify violence the logical answer should be no. However, I suggest that this is the wrong question.  Instead the question should be about how assertive we should be about our Western ways and logic when they clash with other ways of being and thinking. I think some humility is in order.

Yes, we have put a man on the moon, make some progress on racism and sexism and I am not advocating a return to the Shtetl. But the Western way has also been horribly destructive to some social structures, traditions and many lives. Bryan Appleyard, in his “Understanding the Present[2], argues that “Scientism”, the approach that privileges the “scientific” way of knowing over all others often obliterates much of the spiritual and mystical.

I reflect on the time, when I was let in on the secret initiation rites of the Pitjantjatjara people of the Central Australian desert, my reaction was that these were unreasonably harsh. But, the initiated man I spoke to was dignified and clear about who he is, while many of his people who have been cut off from their traditional ways are literally destroying themselves and each other.

Don Palmer, an exceptional man working with Indigenous Australians[3] wrote “"it is matters of the spirit - the Kurrunpa, as those in the Centre (of Australia) would say that are fundamental to there being any future at all. Without the spirit being valued, nourished and cared for, then no amount of clever western medicine will serve any purpose of consequence".

For me and I suspect that for many Jews the ritual of circumcision, like some rituals of tribal and first peoples, transcends logic and is a primal and deeply important spiritual rite. It is not only important because some of us believe God commands it. It is important because it identifies us and binds us and our children in a non-negotiable bond with our concept of God and our past, all the way to Abraham.  

A pasty white tinge was noticed on my face. Again, I was enduring the circumcision of my son. The thought of what was being done to my third son and the newborn’s cries get me every time. Still none of this even caused me to hesitate to go through it all again on our fourth and fifths sons. The idea that my son would not enter into the covenant in the traditional way is for me, unthinkable.

I agree that in some cases religious priorities should ever be overshadowed by other community considerations. I was asked this asked about this, when appearing before the Local Government Council of Canterbury in Sydney Australia. They were considering restrictions on the operating hours of new religious buildings and this was of concern to Muslim groups. I objected to some of their draft plans but I answered that we must weigh up the benefits to one group against the compromises asked of others.

Citizens of San Francisco should bear in mind the devastation caused by Western cultural imperialism to other peoples, the deep importance of circumcision in Jewish and Muslim heritage and weigh that up against the violation of their conscience caused by the circumcision of children.

[2] Double Day 1992
[3] Don’s organisation is , the quote is from his correspondence with me

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Violent Zealots, Liberals, Feminists’ Initiatives & Bid’a. Zimri, Phineas, Noa & Sisters Pinchas 2011

Off the Beaten Path - Image by ZK and Nachman
Responses to unexpected situations can be either open and accommodating or conservative and even violent, but these are not the only options.

I have two motives for exploring this; one is simply to explore the intersection between contemporary perspectives and the stories of the zealot, Pinchas (Phineas), killing a man and the petition by the daughters of Zelophehad not to lose out based on their gender. I am deliberately not presenting a balanced picture that would offset the challenging texts with all the gentle aspects of the Torah, instead I am focusing on what I find difficult. The second motive is a response to the discourse on the part of non-Muslims about Islam needing to be reformed vs. the idea of Bid’a which is a resistance to “innovation” in religion. This is my attempt to understand how my tradition might respond to changed circumstances.

The Situation – Rampant Immorality & Idolatry
Israelite men, in significant numbers had forbidden sexual relations with Moabite women, being called to attend their sacrifices to their gods, eating and bowing to their gods[1]. “The Amonnite and Moabite women were selling all types of spices, the Israelites would eat and drink. An older woman would offer to sell an object at cost. A young girl would call him from inside and offer to sell it for less. He would buy from her on the first day and the second day. On the third day she said to him come inside and choose for yourself, you are like one of the household. He would come in near her and the flask was full of Amonnite wine, (which was not yet forbidden). She said would you like to drink? And he would drink. The wine would burn inside of him and he would say to her, “Listen to me” (A euphemism for sexual relations). She pulls out a form of Peor from her clothes and says. My master, if you desire that I listen to you, bow to this…the wine burned in him and he says to her “listen to me”. She says if you want me to ‘listen to you’ separate yourself from the Torah of Moses, so he did[2].   

The beaten track, the Justice System
Moses responded to this by calling the judges of the people to kill those found guilty of worshipping the god Baal Peor[3]. Most of the dead were from the tribe of Simeon, who were 37,100 less (59,300 to 22,200) in the next census taken[4] compared to the previous census[5]. The tribe of Shimeon went to their leader, Zimri and told him, “they are judging capital cases and you are sitting silently?![6]

Zimri’s response: Accommodation
Zirmri, a clan leader of the tribe of Shimeon tried to save his tribe by making the point that their behaviour was not so bad or unforgivable[7]. He “came and brought the Midyanite (woman) in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the entire congregation”[8]. He then proceeded to go into a tent and commit the sin with her. Zirmri may have also been motivated by a desire to accommodate the lust of the people within the Jewish camp, if the men want to sin with the women let them do it without them being led to idol worship[9]. This was one harm minimization approach, that was not embraced by Jewish tradition.

Pinchas’ response: Zealous Violence
“Pinchas the son of Elazar the son of Aaron the kohen saw this, arose from the congregation, and took a spear in his hand. He went after the Israelite man into the chamber and drove [it through] both of them—the Israelite man, and the woman through her stomach”[10]. Pinchas does not convene a court, but acts as a zealot. Jews today are not guided to act as Pinchas did, still, despite my discomfort with the act of Pinchas, the notion of zealous violence for God is an undeniable part of my heritage.  When 3000 years later, R. Mendel Vechter a former Satmar Chasid was beaten on the streets of Brooklyn for teaching young men Chabad Chasidism, all my tradition can say is that this case did not justify vigilante violence, but it cannot condemn all extra-legal religious violence as a principle.  Jews who value this Torah text can still object to the religious violence of the Taliban, but without smugness.

I find some comfort in the guidance from tradition that Pinchas’ approach was a law that was not taught[11]. It is not a path for everyone. Even Moses chose not to act as Pinchas had because he was concerned that his motives would not be pure because of Zimri’s personal attack against him[12].

The Torah declares a reward of a covenant of peace for Pinchas. On one level it countered the personal attacks against Pinchas by the people[13]. One commentary sees that as 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 human being, without due process of law is liable to cause[14]. I think the message of Pinchas is about someone without authority taking action against powerful figures for what one believes to be right.

Justice for Cozbi?
Contrary to the “The goy!? who cares?” attitude expressed in the “Goy’s Teeth” clip (of the movie A Serious Man)[15], there is concern about the legal status of the non-Jewish woman, Cozbi, that Pinchas killed. It is pointed out[16] that there is no evidence that Cozbi was married and her execution is questioned based on the principle that extramarital relations by an unmarried woman is not a capital crime. The justification for her death is deeply disturbing; it is linked[17] to the verse that states that if an animal was used in an act of bestiality, the animal is killed[18] because a person was brought to sin through it.  A respected authority challenges this proposition based on the obvious difference between an animal and a human being[19].

I would suggest there is a possibility that Cozbi was coerced and did not fully consent to the act. Cozbi was propositioned by Zimri, but she refused him. She said, “I am the daughter of a king, my father instructed me not to “listen” (to anyone but) the greatest of them such as Moses your teacher[20]. Zimri falsely claimed that he was greater than Moses as head of a tribe. Of course, Moses was not the leader of one of 12 tribes but of the whole people and Zimri was not the leader of a tribe either, but the chief of one of five clans within the tribe of Shimeon[21]. “Zimri grabbed Cozbi by her plaited hair and brought her to Moses where he proceeded to make his arguments”[22], a clear signed of coercion. Even if Cozbi did consent, it may have been based on false premises no less significant than those in the case of the Arab Sabar Kashur who was sentenced to 18 months jail for gaining consent on false pretences (that he was Jewish)[23].  

A more palatable story is one about five sisters, the daughters of Zelophehad who challenge the assumption that only men could inherit a portion in the land and God agrees with them[24]. Initially they were given the run-around, first going to Moses to be told to speak to leaders of hundreds, only to be told that this is a difficult matter that only Moses can deal with. Eventually they approached them all at the same time. Moses is so taken with their argument that he wished to advocate for them before God but he is told that they are right and don’t need an advocate[25].  

Much is written about the tactical and legal wisdom of the five women. “Their petition followed a razor-sharp line of reasoning that incorporated all the relevant laws and principles, and even formulated the proper decision. This is why Scripture says, “And Moses brought their judgment before G‑d”—their judgment, not their question, for their petition included the legal argument and its ruling[26]”. Despite their brilliance, their hard earned inheritance later becomes a problem for their clan leaders worried about land being lost to the tribe[27]. A solution is found in them marrying within their tribe[28].

I think it is useful to note that this case does not suggest that the law can be changed in response to feminist arguments, but rather that in response to their complaint the existing but not yet revealed law was uncovered. “The daughters of Zelophehad speak rightly” is explained as God saying: “[As they spoke it,] so is this section of Torah written before Me on high.”[29]. On the other hand, perhaps there are many other liberalising laws ‘on high’, waiting to be uncovered.

Around the time of the Enlightment, an idea was introduced in Judaism “ חדש אסור מן התורה” anything new is forbidden [30]. It can be argued that this stance was itself a great innovation and deviation from a more responsive tradition of interpretation. In Islam, they have a concept of Bid’a, which I am told is opposition to innovation in religion. From what I am told, traditional Islam has always been responsive to new situations through interpretation of existing laws rather than “innovation”. As a Jew, raised within the orthodox tradition, it makes sense to me that if the assumption is that our religion comes from God, conservatism would be one natural response. Yet, there is some room for human initiative, but within serious constraints.   

[1] Numbers 25:1-3
[2] Sifri 25, cited in Rashi
[3] Numbers 25:5
[4] Numbers 26:14
[5] Numbers 1:23
[6] Talmud Sanhedrin 82a
[7] R. M. M, Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, (1978) Likutei Sichos, Vol. 8, Kehot, Brooklyn, NY, p. 164, further elaborated by Kalmenson, M,
[8] Numbers 25:6
[9] Nachshoni, Y, (1989), Studies in the Weekly Parashah, Bamidbar, Artscroll, Brooklyn NY, p. 1115, quoting R. Raphael Katznelbogen, that in the debate between R. Sonnenfeld and R. Kook, R. Sonnenfeld said that Zimri claimed to be acting for the sake of heaven…A similar approach is taken by R. Ari Kahn,
[10] Numbers 25:7-8
[11] Talmud Sanhedrin ibid
[12] Attributed to Chasidic sources in Nachshoni, Y, (1989), Studies in the Weekly Parashah, Bamidbar, Art Scroll, Brooklyn NY, p. 1113,
[13] Rashi,
[14] 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
[16] Ohr Hachayim,
[17] Ohr Hachayim (end of Balak, further details in his commentary are more confronting), Maimonides, Laws Issurei Biah, 12:10
[18] Leviticus 20:15
[19] Magid Mishnah on Maimonides, Rabbi Vidal di Tolosa, 14th century, Laws Issurei Biah, 12:10
[20] Sifri
[21] Rashi to Numbers 25:14 s
[22] Talmud Sanhedrin ibid
[24] Numbers 27:1-7
[25] Abarbanel
[26] Anaf Yosef commentary on Ein Yaakov, Bava Batra 119b, cited by Schneider, S,
[27] Numbers 36:1-12
[28] This solution caused its own problems for a descendant of the clan of Gilead, Jephthah, as discussed in my post,
[29] Rashi to Numbers 27:7; Targum Yonatan ibid.; Yalkut Shimoni ibid.; Sifri ibid cited in Schneider
[30] Attributed to the Chasam Sofer, Rabbi Moshe Sofer, 1762-1838