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


  1. Another fascinating blog, Zalman. Your forebears sound particularly interesting. How lovely that you named your son after your great-grandfather.

  2. thank you Mercedes. It was great to honour him, he was almost a lost part of my heritage.

  3. Shalom/Salam Rabbi:

    Muslims circumcise because the commandment was given by G-d to the Prophet Ibraheem (as). Also, how wonderful that you have ancestors who are respected and spoke of in blessed memory.

    In Islaam, doing a religious thing (like wearing hijab) when one doesn't like it, believe in it, etc., is hypocrisy. So perhaps the new Tunisian government is saving Muslim women from this? Think Saudi Arabia, where dress for women (among other things) is forced and many of the women hate it.

  4. Insha-Allah, the insight from Tunisia should spread to Saudi :)

  5. In reading this, it struck me that 'instruction in the noble art of being human' is an effective strategy for counteracting racism, enabling us to empathise with others, to view the 'other' with compassion, and to respect the sanctity of other lives.

  6. thank you Anne, I had not made that connection. The story told by the survivor the other night proved her point that it was not the educated people who risks their lives to save others, instead it was the simple people with strong ethics who hid the fugitives from the murderers. This should be part of the National Curriculum!

  7. Hi Zalman,

    Shmuel pointed me to this interesting blog post about our ancestors. There have been some wonderful family discoveries lately, which I find fascinating. Keep up the good work!

  8. Hi - I just found your blog while googling for information about R Moshe Yehuda Blau. Can you point me to any published biography about him? His work on Rishonim, especially those of Provence, is simply mind-boggling. Thanks!

    1. Dear Manuscripboy, there were some articles published in Hamodia and Kfar Chabad about him, I think. I don't know if any of it is on line.
      thanks for the comment.