Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Balaam and Communication, Especially between Jews and Muslims– Balak 2011

A few years ago, I was told by someone with far more experience in Inter-Faith work than I have, “Zalman you are just not listening”. Communication in general is important, but particularly for Jews and Muslims seeking to address the hostility between the communities. How effective is talk? Our reading this week about Balaam’s experience with listening and speaking should shed some light on the issue.

Common purpose
Collaboration on common goals[i] is one way to bring people together. In our reading the former enemies Moab and Midian join forces to repel a common enemy[ii]. I have experienced the development of great and deep friendships with Muslims and Christians as we pursued a common goal, that of addressing all types of prejudice.

When Yes means No
It has not always been smooth sailing. I was once told by two Imam’s that they felt compromised by the choice of a certain person that I wanted to represent Muslims in our work. I asked one of them to nominate a replacement, which he did but it did not work out. I went back to the Imam and asked the question again and he felt cornered because he could not come up with a suitable person so he gave me a sort of yes-loop hole. It was at this point that I was told by a wise colleague “Zalman, you are just not listening”. I was told “No” twice. But because of certain pressures, I refused to accept it and was angling for a yes. I got a worthless yes, but we were no longer communicating.  

Hearing without listening also plays out in the story of Balaam, who was approached by messengers of the king of Moab to curse the Jews[iii]. He asks God for permission.

God: “Do not go with them, do not curse the people because they are blessed”.
Balaam dismisses the king’s messengers, only to be sent a second, more senior delegation with promises of great honour.
Balaam to Messengers: I cannot do anything against the will of God, great or small. Stay the night and I will know what more God will speak with me.  
God to Balaam: “If, to call you, these men have come, arise and go with them, but only that will I speak to you will you do”. 
Balaam “goes along together with the ministers of Moab”. God’s anger flared up, because he was going, so he sends an angel to distract him. The angel is seen by his donkey initially but not seen by Balaam, who beats the animal three times for stopping and swerving. After a telling off by the donkey and the angel, Balaam offers a sarcastic apology. “Now, if it is bad in your eyes (that I travel) I will return”. 

Commentary[iv] sees Balaam as mocking God, “he himself commanded me to go, and now you an angel are cancelling his words, he has a habit of doing this that he says one thing and sends an angel to reverse it. He tells Abraham to sacrifice his son…[v]. Leaving aside the technical explanations for why God let him go[vi], God did not give him permission with a “shining face”[vii], he had already said No! Instead, God’s permission was consistent with the principle “in the way a person wishes to go, he is taken”[viii].

Potency or futility of words
One of the concerns about dialogue is the question of how useful are words anyway? I think words are useful if they accompany action or serve to harness existing energy. The case of Balaam’s curses again has some lessons.  
It is not entirely clear what powers were contained in Balaam’s words. King Balak thinks whomever Balaam curses is cursed[ix]. The texts seem to support the idea that Balaam’s words has special powers. We see this God’s insistence that Balaam not utter the curses and later Torah’s statement “and God overturned the curses (of Balaam) to blessings, because God loves you[x]”. This impression is even stronger in the statement, “and I did not want to listen to Balaam, and he blessed you and I saved you from his hand[xi].

In spite of this, some commentaries state that Balaam’s words did not have any powers. If his words were so strong why could he not simply make himself a ruler and acquire great wealth instead of being paid by Balak[xii]? He could only predict what was going to happen anyway and pronounce a curse which created the impression of power[xiii]. Even Baalam who is described as arrogant man[xiv] does not claim magical powers, instead describing himself as one who knows the mind of God[xv]. Balaam is said to have been able to identify when God was angry and pronounce a curse at that moment[xvi]. In other words, his words only had power in harnessing existing energies. 

Without overstating the case, it is fair to say that there is much hostility toward Jews on the part of some Muslims and the sentiments going the other way are not always positive. To address this involves being willing to hear inconvenient and confronting perspectives when these arise, rather than being told only what we are willing to hear. Collaboration works well. It also useful to recognise that while words alone are weak, there are greater energies of yearning for connectedness, roaring likes waves within people of many faiths. Many have been privileged to ride the waves of good will, I am grateful to be one of them.  

[i] This approach is supported in Torah and anti-prejudice literature. In Torah we see it in the teaching about the replacement of the word enemy with the word friend in repetition of the law about helping people whose animal is struggling with a load. In the first case in Exodus 23:4, it talks about helping an Enemy, the second time it discusses the case in Deuteronomy 22:4 it states “You shall not see your brother's ass or his ox falling [under its load] in the road, and hide yourself from them. You shall lift it [the load] up with him”.  The appearance of the word friend in the second case is said to symbolize that through the acts of helping, the one who was an enemy can become a friend.
In the academic literature this idea is reflected in research in various contexts which found inter-group contact to have significant benefits in reducing prejudice. Improvement is far more likely if certain facilitating conditions identified by (Alport 1954, cited in Pedersen 2005) are met, which include equality between participants, avoiding competition, common goals and sanction for the contact from relevant authority figures. Pedersen A, Walker I, Wise M (2005) Talk Does Not Cook Rice: Beyond anti-racism rhetoric to strategies for social action.   Australian Psychologist, 40, 20-30.    
[ii] Rashi to Number 22:4
[iii] Numbers 22
[iv] Rashi on Numbers 22:34
[v] Genesis 22
[vi] Ramban differentiates between him going along but telling them that he cannot curse the Jews and going along without disclosing that.
[vii] Chizkuni
[viii] Talmud Makot 10b
[ix] Number 22:6
[x] Deuteronomy 23:6 and very similar language in Nehemia 13:2, …(they) hired Balaam against them to curse them; but our God turned the curse into a blessing”
[xi] Joshua, 24:10, his hand, refers to the hand of King Balak who sought to wage war “in the mouth of Balaam” (Metzudat David)
[xii] Rabbenu Bchai
[xiii] Ibn Ezra, Joseph Ibn Kaspi in Tirat Kesef, cited in Liebowitz, N, Studies in Bamidbar p 304-305
[xiv] Pirkey Avot, 5:19
[xv] Numbers 24:16
[xvi] Talmud Brachot 7a


  1. Shalom Reb Zalman!

    Another fine analysis by you!

    A few things initially come to mind upon reading this piece.

    In my experience, interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims (here in the West) mostly surrounds misunderstandings about Islaam. My experience is that they are pretty easy to clarify, and my experience has been walking away with mostly goodwill on both sides.

    But with Jews and Muslims, there is the HUGE elephant in the room: Palestine, and Israel's occupation/oppression of the Palestinians. It is difficult, if not impossible, in my opinion, to do interfaith work without these issues arising. I like to "start" with the commonalities between us, and then when some level of trust and respect has been gained, then - acknowledging the elephant. For the most part, most Muslims have no problems with Jews. Some yes, but the majority no. What we have a problem with is Zionism and Israel. Unfortunately, like terrorism with the Muslims, this elephant poop gets shoveled on all Jews just because they are Jews.

    Another thing - about God's will. In Islaam, we have this dua (supplication) we say before making any major decisions. No where in the Sunnah (way of the Prophet Muhammad, saw) does it say to do this dua more than once. You are supposed to pray it, and wait ... Many of us Muslims, who do not know how to "listen" for the Answer, will pray the dua numerous times, and then when inspiration comes to us that we like, we say, "Ah ha! This is God's will!" Then we end up with confusion and heartbreak, and have the disillusionment of being jerked around by God, may He protect us from this attitude. Ameen.

    Last thing, as a non Arab, I have learned a little "thing" about most Arab Muslims. When asked, sometimes they will say "Insha Allaah." THis means "God willing." But Insha Allaah can also be code for "no," or "I'm not sure." When you are told Insha Allaah, don't automatically assume that "yes" means "yes" lol. Wait for a commitment in the form of an emphatic "Insha Allaah! Yes! Call me." Or something like that :)

  2. Zalman here. Thanks Safiyya for the feedback and encouragement. I agree that conflict in the Israel/Palestine is a big issue that then is allowed to overshadow the whole relationship. I acknowledge that ignoring it is not always the right path, instead discussing it appropriately is useful when both sides are ready for it.
    I Found your thoughts about Dua and Inshallah interesting as well and useful. Many thanks.