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


  1. Only the ruler of an Islaamic state (much like a judge in secular society) can inflict/order Hudud (mandatory criminal punishments) on a member of an Islaamic society - us little folks have no right to do that.

  2. Thanks Safiyya for that helpful information. In Judaism we no longer have authority to administer corporal or capital punishment because of "Bet Din" or religious court once the chain to Moses was broken.

  3. The punishment described is actually adopted by muslims from the jewish tradition. An example is the "stoning of apostates" I suspect this was brought over by early jewish converts to islam who maintained their traditions.

    Now as for jewish tradition and ?no longer have...? let me say that noone had that authority to begin with, it was man made law and was not fromn God. Man (any man) can not place himself as God as that is who he would have to be to make God's law. If a man makes a new law or changes a law (he made it) so calling it interpretation , i believe is a way to have people accept this mans law but the meaning of torah does not change over time it was revealed for all times and has the same meaning it did for moses.

    This is my opinion from a muslim Prespective

  4. russel is right--- the stoning to death for married person doing adulary came from the Torah, the prophet Muhammad quoted the Torah when he started this punishment according to a hadith. the punishment for adultery in the quran is lashing.

    also the stobing for male homosexuals --- that also comes from the Torah, Caliph Umar quoted the Torah when he instituted it.

  5. thanks Russel and Irshad for your contributions from Muslim perspectives. It is great to be having these conversations.

    The death penalty for a Blasphemer is in the Torah. I am not aware of death penalty for apostacy in the original Torah law, unless it involved actual idol worship.

    Our tradition includes the Authority for Scholars to interpret the law. We have a story of Moses looking into the future and seeing the vast number of new laws taught by Rabbi Akiva based on crowns of the letters. He felt sad, until God told him that everything r. Akiva taught was based on Moses' teaching.

    In line with this delegated authority from God is the right of the scholars to declare that we no longer have the authority for capital punishment for male Homosexual acts or any other reason. This provides opportunities for empathy towards Homosexuals as I began to describe in my post on this issues.