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,


  1. Dear Rabbi, God's command to Joshua to drive out the inhabitants of Canaan "or they will be as spikes in your eyes and thorns in your sides" etc is hateful indeed, and in my humble opinion not in sync in any way, shape or form with my perception of a loving God. As we read, the city of Jericho was completely destroyed, and every man, woman, and child in it was killed. Only Rahab and her family were spared, because she had hidden the two spies sent by Joshua. It's an ancient example of 'collateral damage', a loathsome modern euphemism for slaughter in pursuit of ones aims. In truth, I'm really not sure what parallel you are attempting to draw between the Torah reading and the sickening massacre in Norway, but knowing you and your wonderful work as I do, and after reading your final statement, of course I understand you are not advocating extreme violence as a legitimate solution to 'thorns in ones side'. A great relief to me! The only problem is, the Torah quote does just that! This certainly leaves us open to the charge of double standards if we choose to seek out and condemn similar texts advocating violence in other religious books. Perplexing indeed!

  2. A lot of food for thought there, Rabbi! Toward the end of your piece, it is insight for me as a Muslim to see that the Books of Others also have perceived violence in them. You know how much people claim that the Qur'an is full of violence. We should not apologize (Muslims or Jews) for these passages but try to understand them and apply them to contemporary life because I believe, as you do, that the Torah and the Qur'an are timeless documents.

  3. Safiyyah, it takes no effort at all to apply this Torah quote to contemporary life, as it is, sadly, the very epitome of contemporary life! Obviously these passages HAVE been taken literally and actioned fully in far too many situations even now. We've not come far in 'modern' life have we? In my view, God set a bad example in this case and put in motion the wave of an ideal that must now somehow cease if we are ever to live in peace. Let's not just blindly accept a bad idea, regardless of the author! :))

  4. Its difficult isnt it. these most difficult passages in the Torah, most of us wish would go away, and we skip over them to the nice bits. I commend Zalman for going straight to these passages with open eyes and a questioning heart. There is no doubt in my mind, that they have informed western civilization whether we are conscious of it or not. As a Jewish educator, I have always seen sacred text as a trickster.... it lures us in to think that we understand. But the process of understanding depends upon the deep work we must do within ourselves. I think that the more we deepen within, so are we able to deepen our understandings of these enigmatic, paradoxical and mysterious teachings. I have never known, and continue not to know what to do with the literal interpretations of the Torah. and I take heart that both Joseph and Daniel, the two in the Tanach who were closest to the King, were so honoured because they understood the language of dreams. Metaphor is, to me,
    G-ds language, and a road to salvation.

  5. Paul, the death and violence involved in the conquest of Canaan is disturbing. I hope we never see anything like it again. One argument that would be used to try to justify genocide or ethnic cleansing is the one used by the mass-murdered in Norway, the idea that others represent a threat to our existence and way of life. As you rightly point out, picking out bits from sacred texts of others that seem to justify violence would be hypocritical for a Jew.

    Safiyyah, my starting point is the timelessness of the Torah. I struggle with the interpretation and in this case the literal meaning is probably only applicable to that time and place. Its timeless message makes sense to me in the mystical teachings about the battle between body and soul.

    Donna, your creativity has inspired me to engage with the text much more energetically and boldly. Thank you for sharing your perspective on this.

  6. Zalman this text has always bothered me, especially when you hear people saying the Jews took the land from the Arabs. I normally defend it by explaining that we (JNF)bought it from them.
    But now looking at these texts makes one sit up and think, perhaps we did even if it was Hashem's command. Does it not make us think that the Arab's struggle for peace and wanting the holy land (Israel)has perhaps some substance? I for one believe in Hashem's promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that Israel belongs to us (Bnei Yisrael)

  7. “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.” — Bahá'u'lláh (1817-1892) I'm a simple man Zalman, and appreciate there are many things in this moment we cannot hope to comprehend. Through history we have attempted to make sense of the infinite and the Divine by reducing the incomprehensible to man-sized bites, because the ego mind desperately needs to be in control. Not surprising then that words like these have been taken at face value by the deranged and acted upon. We need look no further than our own history for proof of this. A personal tragedy in itself. However, no amount of hypothesizing will convince me that genocide ' for the common good' could ever be worthy of Man or God. As everyone here agrees, this is a deeply disturbing tract that defies understanding on any level in my view. Is it any wonder then that the world is so screwed up, if this is the example being set? I meditate daily and will be sure to make this subject one for deep thought.:))

  8. Interesting discussion here. Correct me if I am wrong but in Talmud there are a number of examples where the Rabbi's have said words like:' Yep that is in the Hebrew Bible but round here we do things differently, we have our own minhag.' It is an astounding thing for mere humans ( even though they are learned Rabbonim) to say to Hashem you might've done that in your time but now we do things differently because we're concerned that your practice actually wasn't the Just practice we expect from Hashem. Comment please

  9. Maureen, there must be a way to be able to really listen and try to understand the experience of others while still holding our own traditions about the land. I wonder how much this passage relates to today, hopefully not much.
    Paul, look forward to hearing what you came up with in your meditation. This is not an easy topic.
    Andrew, I am not aware of that particular idea in the Talmud. The closest are examples of traditions that the text of the Torah was never meant litterally. Eg. An Eye for an Eye is understood to have always been about compensation. I guess, some would argue that the Rabbis changed it. That's not the way it was taught to me. Thank you all for your contributions.

  10. Not to be flippant, but the discussion could come down to whether the bible is actually the 'word of God' beyond doubt, or simply the expedient politics of the days. It's all a matter of ones perception of 'what is', which no doubt differs from person to person. I believe this is true of all the major religions, and since every religion is a 'human' organization, built by humans, the form of the organization and the belief system embraced by it is subject to human limitations. So, the pure stream of Energy and Consciousness that Creator brought to humanity has been over time filtered through the many minds and egos of the people who interpreted the message, through a framework of beliefs about God and the world that met the needs the time, even slaughter. I think that's a possible explanation.