Thursday, November 24, 2011

Repression and Destruction for God’s Sake

Religious violence is a strange and repulsive thing. Religious violence in Egypt, Mosque burnings in Israel are only the most recent manifestation of this. I prefer the attitude of a Muslim friend, who told members of his community that if someone attacked the Kabbah stone in Mecca he would not defend it because ‘if God wants it not to be damaged or defaced He will take care of it’. Yet, there are still many who seek to achieve spiritual goals by physical force.

Filling in “Religious” Wells
One instance of this might have been the case of the philistines stopping up the wells that Abraham had dug which they filled with earth[1] . One commentary suggests that Abraham had given the wells names relating to God, similar to other place names used by Abraham like “God Will See”. This would have the effect that people would become aware of God. Abraham’s strategy could be compared to modern marketing strategies that seek to build brand awareness by putting the name everywhere. When Abraham died the Philistines reverted to their idolatrous ways and stopped up the wells to counter Abraham’s strategy[2]. This might be what the Midrash meant when it states that the blocked wells were “the seven Noahide commandments that Abraham encouraged them to obey but which they forgot[3]”.

Destruction of Places of Worship
Mosque burning
The very orthodox Jewish newspaper Hamodia (it is so socially conservative it has no photos of women!) called the Mosque burning “reprehensible and deserving of condemnation and punishment[4]”.   Orthodox Judaism would also condemn the destructive behaviour of the Philistines, yet this would not be because of a broad principle of religious tolerance.  We find very clear guidance on the places of worship that are strongly in opposition to monotheism. “…You shall demolish their altars and smash their monuments, and cut down their ashera trees, and burn their graven images with fire[5]. Again, we are told “you shall utterly destroy from all the places where the nations, that you shall possess, worshipped their gods, upon the lofty mountains and upon the hills, and under every lush tree. ... cut down the graven images of their gods, and destroy their name from that place[6]”.

Bamiyan Buddhas
It appears that the physical places that are sacred to one religion are perceived as presenting a real threat to the establishment and flourishing of other faiths. I remember reflecting on this after the Bamiyan Budhist statues were blown up by the Taliban.  I thought about the fact that my sacred text required us to do in a similar context what the whole world condemned others for doing. It is convenient for Jews that we are not in a position to burn graven images today. 

Religious Repression in the Womb
This theme also appears in supra-commentary to Rebecca’s predicament during her pregnancy with twins when “the children agitated within her[7]. One layer of commentary has the two unborn children acting out their future attitudes. When Rebecca passed a house of idol worship Esau would jump around trying to get out…when she passed a house of prayer and (Torah) study Jacob jumped to get out[8]. The question is asked why didn’t Esau just get out and worship his idols and leave Jacob alone? The answer given is that he was willing to forgo his own idolatry if thereby he would be able to prevent Jacob from entering the Torah academy[9]

Is It Just Bigotry?
An alternative and more plausible explanation for the actions of the Philistines is reflected in Isaac’s statement to their king, Abimelech, “and you hated me[10]”. The Philistines were jealous of Isaac’s success[11].  Commentary suggests that the king Abimelech was at first ashamed of his hostility to Isaac. Like so many rulers, he “allows” his people to stop up Isaac’s wells in the hope that the harassment would cause Isaac to leave.  When this failed Abimelech has no option but to get involved personally[12] and ask Isaac to leave[13]. One wonders about cases that seem, at first glance, to be religious violence, are really an expression of other factors.

Futility of Repression
The efforts of the Philistines to destroy Abraham’s well, and erase names he gave them prove to have been in vain. Isaac returned and dug the wells of water that were dug in the days of Abraham, his father…and he called them names, just like the names that his father called them[14].  Over the years of Jewish history, overwhelming force sought to destroy the Jewish people and faith and failed. We can only hope and advocate for an end to violence in defence of an omnipotent God and against what may prove to ultimately be indestructible ideas. 

[1] Genesis 26:15
[2] HaKsav VhaKaballah
[3] Midrash Ohr HaAfela cited in Torah Shlaima p1055, the link is suggested by Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit p.259
[4] Hamodia, 11/10/11,  Australian Edition p.A12
[5] Deuteronomy - Chapter 7:5
[6] Deuteronomy 12:2-3
[7] Genesis 25:22
[8] Beresheet Rabba 63
[9] Reb Yechezkel of Kuzmir, Greenberg, A., Y, (1992) Torah Gems, Y Orenstien, Yavneh Publishing, Tel Aviv, p.198
[10] Genesis 26:27
[11] Genesis 26:14
[12] Alshich
[13] Genesis 26:16
[14] Genesis 26:18

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Citizenship is at its core about people getting along with each other –Abraham in a discrimination case

This week, I had the extraordinary privilege to be part of a group advising the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority about a Civics and Citizenship curriculum. I was there because of my work with diversity education. In the Torah reading this week we have Abraham, as a non-citizen, negotiating with the citizens of Hebron about overcoming discriminatory rules about burial. This is the springboard for a discussion about, discrimination and citizenship.

The word Citizen, refers to “an inhabitant of a city or town; especially: one entitled to …rights and privileges” or a native or naturalized person who owes allegiance to a government and is entitled to protection from it[i]. I would suggest that citizenship goes beyond loyalty to a government in exchange for its protection of the privileges of established citizens. I think it includes a range of responsibilities we have for ensuring justice for all people regardless of where they were born, within the constraints of the collective ability of the nation or city we are citizens of. One limit on this would be the idea that “the poor of your city come first[ii]”.

The role of Government itself is about protecting the vulnerable as reflected in the exhortation to pray for the peace of the monarchy, because if not for it, each man would swallow his fellow alive[iii]. A citizens of representative governments we surely have a role to play as well in ensuring that people and groups are not swallowed alive or treated in a discriminatory way.

Citizenship as scrutiny to prevent discrimination
It is written "The face of the generation is like the face of a dog[iv]" One interpretation of this is that "The face of the generations" means its leaders. And why does it look like a dog? Because a dog runs ahead, as if it were leading the master. But when it comes to a parting of the way, the dog waits for the master to decide where to go. Then it runs ahead again[v]. This means that especially within democracies, where leaders are interested to varying degrees in the views of their voters, citizens have an important role to play to communicate their desire for equitable treatment of all to their leaders and watch them to ensure they deliver.

A defining experience for me was my attendance at an election event where a candidate made a meaningless promise to expand a government program that combats prejudice. The initiative he anounced was an old and underfunded program that was not going to get a penny more. The anouncement was blatantly deceptive.  Yet, I blame the audience. Why did no one except for me, ask a question to challenge this deception or press him for some real commitment? That day I saw a collective shirking of citizenship responsibility which is why the candidate was elected and did very little to prevent discrimination.

Discrimination in Hebron
This dynamic plays some part in the case of Abraham when he seeks to bury his wife Sarah. The sons of Heth, the citizens of ancient Hebron had a custom that citizens had a dedicated burial place for each family, but for the strangers they had a field in which all the strangers were buried[vi]. No family plots for non-citizens. In the ancient world, having a burial ground was linked to citizenship[vii]. This is expressed in the statement “What have you hear, and whom have you here that you have carved out a grave for yourself here[viii].  Apart from the obvious reason Abraham cried for Sarah, an additional meaning of and “Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to bewail her[ix] is that he cried because he did not have a burial plot for his wife[x]. So he pleads his case, "I am a stranger and an inhabitant with you[xi]”. Like so many who have travelled from place, to place, he asks that in spite of not being from here originally, he wishes to settle and be treated like a local.

Little Brother is Watching
Abraham identifies a plot land. The owner of the land is appointed as a law enforcement official[xii]. The text refers repeatedly to the fact that the discussion about whether Abraham will be allowed to bury his dead is done before the “Sons of Chet”[xiii]. Chief Ephron shows he knows his decision are being watched.  Ephron tells Abraham " listen to me. I have given you the field, and the cave that is in it, I have given it to you. Before the eyes of the sons of my people, I have given it to you; bury your dead”[xiv]. The subtext is Ephron is hinting, that surely you understand that the offer I am making to give you the field for free is because everyone is watching me but really I cannot be expected to give this field for free[xv]. Putting aside the question of price, the grave is provided and praise is heaped on the sons of Heth, who are mentioned a total of 10 times in the Torah[xvi].      

Ismail Mirza
If Citizenship is at its core about people getting along with each other, then one of the most important rituals of citizenship is ensuring that those around us, whether chiefs or ordinary fellow citizens know that we care about how they treat others, and we are watching. One case in point is that of Hazara refugee, Ismail Mirza, who believes he is in grave danger is he is forced to return to Afghanistan this Saturday. It is important that Australian elected leaders know we care about this.

[ii] Talmud, Bava Metzia 71a
[iii] Ethics of the Fathers 3:2
[iv] Talmud 9:15
[v] Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the wording here is from
[vi] Ramban on Genesis 23:4
[vii] Seforno on Genesis 23:4
[viii] Isaaia 22:16
[ix] Genesis 23:2
[x] Chizkuni
[xi] Genesis 22:4
[xii] Beresheet Rabba and Rashi
[xiii] Genesis 22:3, 7, 10, 11, 13, 16, 18 and again in 20.
[xiv] Genesis 23:11
[xv] Haamek Davar
[xvi] Beresheet Rabba 58, note 8 times in this story and the 9th and 10th appearing in 25:10 and 49:32 (Munk, Rabbi E)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Commitment to a Soft Cause - Abraham’s Willingness to Sacrifice his son

Licensed for non-commercial re-use 

This past Sunday marked the celebration by the world’s Muslims of the decision by Abraham to sacrifice his son, Jews read about this choice in the weekly Torah portion this week of Vayera. Putting aside the name of the son to be sacrificed, Isaac in the Torah, Ishmael in Islamic belief, the idea of being prepared to kill a child or any person for God is quite confronting and troubling.

One way to think about the meaning of this story is about the need to commit to and sacrifice significantly for non-concrete causes, such as Inter-faith respect and bridge building. This conclusion is based on commentary that sees Abraham demonstrating intense love of an invisible God in the face of extreme and passionate displays of devotion to concrete Idol-gods.

To die for in the 21st century
It is useful to bear in mind that “sacrificing our sons” for a cause is something that is still done today when countries send their young men and women to fight and die. While individual parents don’t know if their sons or daughters will die (God Forbid), collectively as a nation we know what some of our children will almost certainly die, yet our representative governments send them anyway.  This does not make it ok but for me it adds some perspective, especially considering that in the end Abraham does not kill his son.

Summary of the key Text
1 It came to pass after these things (הַדְּבָרִים Hadvarim, in hebrew)  , that God tested Abraham, and He said to him, "Abraham," and he said, "Here I am." 2. And He said, "Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go away to the land of Moriah and bring him up there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains, of which I will tell you… 4. On the third day, Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar… 9. They came to the place of which God had spoken to him, and Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood, and he bound Isaac his son and placed him on the altar upon the wood.   10. Abraham stretched forth his hand and took the knife, to slaughter his son. 11. An angel of God called to him from heaven and said, "Abraham! Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am."   12. And he said, "Do not stretch forth your hand to the lad, nor do the slightest thing to him, for now I know that you are a God fearing man, and you did not withhold your son, your only one, from Me.[1]"

Traditional Explanations
The meaning of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son is explained alternately as Abraham actualizing his potential[2], a punishment[3] , settling an argument about who was greater; Ishmael or Isaac[4], or Abraham proving his devotion to God by his willingness to sacrifice his son. We have the angel Satan complaining[5] about the 100 year old Abraham’s failure to offer any sacrifices when he celebrated the birth of his miracle child. God responds that the whole celebration was only on account of his son, yet if God tells him to sacrifice him, he will do so immediately[6]. Alternatively, it is not Satan who questions Abraham’s failure to express gratitude but Abraham himself reflecting on the fact he did not offer an ox as a sacrifice to God[7].

Others see this as having a much wider purpose, Abraham teaching the world by example about righteousness and devotion to God, especially considering the fact that he had a three days “cooling off period[8]” in which he could have changed his mind but he did not[9]. This was a dramatic act that educated the world about God and how much one must love him[10]. When the angel states “Now I know that you are a God fearing man”, it is interpreted as if he said ‘now I have made known to everyone that you are God fearing[11]’.

Time to kill off something or to risk everything
In practical terms I think the underlying message is about a willingness to sacrifice for our ideals. Writers talk about the need to “kill your baby”, in terms of losing words or even chapters one wrote and loves for the sake of a better book or story. On a personal level it is about letting go of certain behaviours or excuses to adhere to standards I believe in. This is different to sacrificing for a goal. If Abraham went through with killing his son, he would be destroying the future of his ethical monotheism project[12]. This is more like a whistle blower working for a cause they love but then choose to destroy it because of a principle. It is also like those righteous gentiles who risked the safety of their beloved families to hide Jews in the Holocaust.

Pie for Sky
I find in the area of work that I am involved in, broadly diversity and ethical education, that there is a lot of lip service but not enough willingness to prioritize this work over other claims on resources such as time and money. More broadly, some in the non-profit and community sector become so focused on building their institutions and image and getting a larger slice of the charity dollar “pie” that the needs of their clients becomes secondary. We need to be willing to make the trade-offs involved in pursuing the “blue sky”, eg. our ultimate ideal of success of our mission, and sacrifice our share of the pie to achieve it. 

Trade offs
Our reading this week, has other trade offs as well. We have Abraham appropriately[13] prioritising offering hospitality to (what seemed to him to be) three Arab travellers[14], over a divine revelation[15].  In another trade off, peace between husband and wife[16] is given greater importance by God who quotes Sarah selectively as saying she herself was old, rather than telling the whole truth about Sarah calling Abaham old when she questioned the promise of them having children at an advanced age[17].  The truth is stretched again when Abraham calls his wife his sister out of fear for his safety[18]. Humble acceptance of God’s intentions is less important to Abraham than the possibility that the city of Sodom can be saved when he is told that God plans to destroy it[19].

Disturbingly, Lot prioritised his duty to protect his visitors from the angry mob over his love for his daughters.  He wrongly offers them to the mob for rape or even to be murdered[20]. An alternative view asserts that Lot did not seriously offer his daughters, but was like someone who throws himself in front of a potential murder victim and says “kill me instead” but knowing he will not[21]. Lot’s daughters do not remain pure when they break the rules against incest to sleep with their drunken father[22] in order to either preserve the human race[23] or in their desperation to have a child in spite of being tainted as survivors of Sodom[24].  While this is not condoned, in the end King David descended of a child born from that choice, and ultimately the Messiah himself is destined to be a descendent of David and this forbidden union. Abrahams love[25]  for his son Ishmael is sacrificed for the interests of Isaac, either preserving his spiritual integrity[26], securing his inheritance[27] or even saving his life[28]. Abraham banishes Ishmael who with his mother gets lost in the desert and nearly dies[29]. This real world series of choices is rounded off with the ultimate trade off for Abraham is the choice between obeying God and allowing his son to live.

Matching the Molech Zeal
One contemporary interpretation[30] discusses the context of Abraham’s choice. It was a time in which worship involved absolute self-surrender til it triumphed over parental pity so that children were offered up to the idol Molech (perhaps only passed through the fire to be toasted).  As barbaric as it was, it displayed a conviction that the divine was most precious. Yet this worship was focused on a concrete symbol. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son demonstrated that the fierceness of devotion to the divine on the higher spiritual plane can be no less ecstatic than that demonstrated toward the concrete and physical god of Molech. Without Abraham’s example, “mankind would either have remained sunk in the mire of primitive feelings, though vigorously active, in its relationship to the divine or in slightly thawed frigidity lacking the quality of life in depth”

To stand for anything, is to prioritise it over other things. If we care about peace, it might be at the expense of justice. If we care about coexistence and building bridges, it will mean energy diverted from internal priorities. If we choose to stand for something “soft”, we might find that others who like what we are doing might still be much more interested in supporting hard causes like building a house of worship or even fighting their enemies. Yet, we are called on to make meaningful sacrifices, for non-concrete causes.

[1] Genesis 18, translation from, with minor moficiations
[2] Ramban on Genesis 22
[3] Chizkuni (2006 Mosad Harav Kook version, Jerusalem, p.82), suggests that Abraham was wrong to make a covenant with Abimelech, king of the Philistines despite God’s promise of the Philistine land to Abraham, so God caused Abraham pain.
[4] Talmud Sanhedrin 89b
[5] This is linked to an alternative translation of the Hebrew word  הַדְּבָרִים Hadvarim in the first verse of the text about the binding of Isaac (22:1). Hadvarim has two meaning in Hebrew either matters or words. In the alternative translation we have it saying  It came to pass after these words (of Satan) that God tested Abraham”
[6] Talmud Sanhedrin 89b
[7] Beresheet Rabba
[8] Genesis 22:4
[9] Maimonides in Guide for the Perplexed/Rabbenu Bchai
[10] Saadia Gaon –cited in Nachshoni, Y, (1988) Studies in the Weekly Parsha, Bereshis, Artscroll, Jerusalem, p.102
[11] Chizkuni, (2006) Mosad Harav Kook version, p.83
[12] Based on talks of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
[13] as per the statement, “Welcoming guests is greater than receiving  the divine presence (Talmud Shabbat 127a)
[14] Rashi on Genesis 18:4 ,
A Midrashic story, well known to Jewish children, relates that when non-believers came to Abraham’s tent they were persuaded to thank God for the food. On the surface this was simply about hospitality rather than converting others. In a parallel story within an Islamic tradition, Abraham once refused to feed an idol worshipper, God then reprimands Abaham by asking how old the traveller was. Then pointing out that all these years God himself was happily sustaining this idol worshipper yet Abaham could not bear him for a few moments.
[15] Genesis 18:1-2, an alternative view is that Abraham’s divine revelation was actually a prophetic vision, as he dozed off in the heat of the sun and the three visitors is actually part of his vision (Radak)
[16] Jerusalem Talmud Peah Halacha 1, and Rashi on Genesis 18:13
[17] Genesis 18:12-13
[18] Genesis 20:2
[19] Genesis 18:20-33
[20] Radak
[21]  See Torah Shlaima, vol 1 p794, Midrash Hagadol, chapter 6, with explanation by Drashat Even Sho-iv in the name of Rabbenu Chananel  
[22] Genesis 19:30-38
[23] Beresheet Rabba 51
[24] Radak in name of Yosef Krah
[25] Talmud Sanhedrin 89b
[26] Shmot Rabba 1
[27] Genesis 21:10 see Bchor Shor
[28] Tosefta Sotah 6
[29] Genesis 21:14-16
[30] Rav Kook, cited in Leibovitz N, New Studies in Bereshit, Genesis, p.204

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Diversity: Ennahda, Abraham & Great Grandfather Armin

Straight and Narrow vs. Varied,  Windy and Wide

The leader of the victorious Tunisian political party, Ennahda, stated that women would be free to choose whether or not to wear a hijab. He made a religious argument for this stance, claiming that to force people to wear a religious garment that they don’t believe in would be to encourage the sin of hypocrisy. This manoeuvre is interesting. It raises the question about how people who believe in religious “Truth” can respond to diversity that is not directly endorsed by their beliefs. Of course the answer lies in interpretation.

Diversity Response Spectrum
I suggest there is a continuum of responses to beliefs and practices that differ to our own, it goes from exterminate to celebrate, with dominate, educate, assimilate, tolerate, collaborate, relate, integrate, and segregate as points between the extremes. Where does Abraham fit according to our traditions?

Go Segregate
The first instruction recorded in the Torah to a Jew, is God’s command to Abraham to “Go for yourself, away from your land, your birthplace and your father’s house[i]”. His father, Terach, worshipped idols while he wanted to fulfil the ideas of the Torah and divine service, so he needed to be cautious about the company the wicked people of his generation, “it was for this reason that the words of God came to him to distance himself from them and not dirty himself with them[ii]. The value of this approach is also encouraged in the psalms with the phrase “fortunate is the man who did not walk in the counsel of the wicked[iii].

Clean Break
The command to Abraham is interpreted as being not just about moving away but ensuring that his family does not come with him.  When his nephew Lot tags along this is a problem waiting to be remedied[iv]. The word for “go”, is etymologically related to the word for divide, so that Abraham’s going away is related to the idea of “Separating oneself from the place where one happens to be”. When it states go for yourself it is as if it says “go for yourself, to yourself, isolate yourself[v]. This all seems to be an endorsement of separating oneself from the others.

Circumcision – cutting ourselves off?
Some argue that the iconic commandment of circumcision is about Jews being “differentiated from others in their bodies just as they are differentiated in their souls[vi]. Yet, this is only one of many interpretations given and one that I think is somewhat marginal in Jewish thinking. The circumcision is one of those rituals that is not often unpacked, it just is.  

In spite of the arguments to the contrary, we see that Abraham does not turn his back on the world. It is true, that Abraham moved away from an oppressive society that sought to impose compliance with idol worship on him, an individual who has found another faith. Still, he is told that he will become known[vii] which of course matters if you wish to connect with others. He is promised that “he will be a blessing”, meaning that people will flock to you to be blessed by you[viii].  At the end of the portion Abraham is told his name will be changed from the original Abram to Abraham because he will be a father to many nations[ix]. He certainly shines in his role as a father of nations[x] with his vigorous pleading with God to save the wicked cities of Sodom etc. where he pesters God six times to save the city. He even has three beloved friends[xi] who we don’t find ever converted to his way, Enar, Eshkol and Mamre who were in a covenant with him[xii]

Grandfather vs. Great Grandfather
R. Moshe Yehuda Blau
The question of being inward looking vs. a more integrated approach appears to be one that was a subject of some different approaches within my own family. I went to school in New York where we were protected from Shakespeare, Classical Music and all these influences. I was surprised when my maternal grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Yehudah Blau (A”H, On him is Peace), suggested I read “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus” at the time of my wedding, because apart from that I rarely saw any evidence of his regard for the secular world. He was immersed in Torah, studying the Talmud and other holy books every spare moment, he also researched, added notes and published  rare Torah manuscripts.

Rabbi Dr Armin Yirmiyah Blau A"H 1877-1946
Dr. Armin Yirmiyahu Blau
Many years later I read a moving tribute to my great grandfather, Dr. Armin Yirmiyahu Blau (A”H), R. Moshe’s father that reflects his far more positive attitude to the outside world. A former student writes of Dr. Blau, I have never met any teacher who knew how to arouse and stimulate his students as well as he did. His depth of knowledge of German culture and his artistic interests fascinated us and called on us to follow him. He expresses admiration for him as a Torah scholar and devout Jew, and confesses his love of for his “teacher to whom I owe not only my knowledge of English and Latin, but who has also aroused love and appreciation for various branches of art in me. In him I experienced greater things: Nobody instructed us better in the noble art of being human. He taught us to be kind, prepared to sacrifice ourselves and the ability to love”[xiii].

Reclaiming Yirmiyahu
I find it ironic that this celebration of a Jew who loved German culture took place in Berlin in 1937. In the post war years there was little nostalgia in my family for that integrated way of being in the world. I knew nothing of this great grandfather and his path when I was growing up. A little over a year ago, we named our son Yirmiyahu reclaiming a link to a part of my past that had been lost.  

Interpretations can go either way, within certain constraints. This argument is far from settled in Orthodox Judaism. Jonathan Sacks argues passionately against isolating ourselves and embracing the role of the “nation that dwells alone[xiv]”. Yet, there are others who would emphasise separateness. For the sake of all Tunisians, including Jewish Tunisians who have been somewhat nervous about where this will all go, I hope broad and creative interpretations prevail.

[i] Genesis 12:1
[ii] Rabbenu Bchai based on Midrash Tanchuma
[iii] Psalms 1:1
[iv] Ohr Hachayim
[v] Samson Raphael Hirsh commentary to Genesis 12:1
[vi] Sefer Hachinuch
[vii] Genesis 12:2
[viii] Ha’amek Davar
[ix] Genesis 17:5
[x] Rashi on Genesis 18:17
[xi] Agada Bresheet (?, cited in Torah Shlaima as AGD”B) 19:3 
[xii] Genesis 14:13
[xiii] Wolfsberg, Dr. O, Armin Published in Zion, vol 9, no. 3, pp. 13-14. July 1937. Berlin. Translated from German to English by his daughter Rivka (Jenny) Marmorstein.
[xiv] Sacks, J, (2009) Future Tense: Jews, Judaism and Israel in the 21st Century, Shocken Books, London