Friday, March 23, 2012

Niqab Nicky, Modesty, Torah & Coexistence Beyond Relativism

Image by Charles Roeffy
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“Nicky[1] has gotten married and will now be wearing the Niqab, she will even be covering her eyes”. This piece of news was about a talented young woman I have worked with. I was taken aback.

Some would say, so what?! The relativists or post-modernists might say that I have no right to an opinion, because all cultural or religious decisions are basically equal. I think that, in a way, saying that all behaviours are equal can be a cop out from dealing with our own opinions or biases. I am interested in considering this from a more robust coexistence perspective, how comfortable am I with this? Do I have reservations? A useful starting point in seeking to make sense of this for myself is to consider some religious ideas in my own tradition about women’s beauty. 

There are various views about female beauty in Jewish tradition; some of these are expressed about a donation of women’s mirrors. The Torah states, “And he made the washbasin of copper[2] and the base thereof of copper, of the mirrors of the serving women that did service at the door of the tent of meeting[3]”. The Midrash tells a story about two responses to this donation. “when the Israelites were involved in back breaking work (as slaves) in Egypt, Pharaoh decreed that they should not sleep at home…the women would go down to draw water from the Nile, God will prepare small fish for them in their jugs, they would sell these and cook some of them and they would buy wine and go out to the fields and feed their husbands…as they were eating and drinking they would take out the mirrors and look at their them with their husbands, she would say I am prettier than you, he would say I am better looking than you and through this they brought themselves to desire and were fruitful and multiplied…(much later when the tabernacle was being created in the desert) the women brought these mirrors to Moses. When Moses saw them he was angry with them. He said to the Israelites, take sticks and break their thighs! These mirrors, what are they needed for?! But God said to Moses, Moses, these you despise?! These mirrors are the ones that (are responsible) for the rising legions (of Israelites) in Egypt. Take them and make the washbasin for the priests, from it the priests will be sanctified[4]”.   
The attitude in this source sees feminine beauty as a positive thing, at least in the context of a marriage. This view is perhaps taken further in the anecdote about the Lubavitcher Rebbe visiting a dormitory in a seminary for single women and he expressed concern about why there were no mirrors in the rooms[5]

On the other side of the argument are the views that what was positive about the donation of mirrors was the symbolism of rejecting vanity implied by giving them away. “It is the way of all women to beautify themselves, looking at their faces in mirrors… each morning to adjust their hair coverings…as the custom of the Israelite women was like the custom of the Arabs till today. But there were among Israel, women who worshipped the Almighty and distanced themselves from the desires of this world. They contributed their mirrors to the Tabernacle since they no longer had the need to beautify themselves. Instead they came every day…to pray and listen to hear matters of the commandments[6]. This rejection of vanity, by the modest women[7], led to them having the spirit of God rest on them[8].

In orthodox practice today, there is an insistence on modesty. Women in particular are expected to be careful to cover up much of their bodies, although these laws also apply to Men. There is the added requirement for married women to cover their hair, just as Nicky is not increasing her degree of covering. I can also still remember the on-going nagging/urging girls within my orthodox Jewish upbringing, to better cover themselves, an endless talk about socks, elbows and knees etc. The parallels between the traditions don’t make the idea of the Niqab comfortable for me, I am concerned about the limits it places on women. But the parallels help me recognise similar reactions by religions to the challenges presented by lust or perhaps more noble ideas about modesty. There is a strong argument that women should have the right to wear as little or as much as they want. Certainly in western countries, this is the culture and that must be and is respected by many of those with other ideas and ways. I can also see the point of religious people trying to focus minds on the spiritual and preserve sexual restraint wanting to minimize the temptation. 

Then there are the questions of male domination and gender equality. Of course male power is a problem outside religious communities as well as within the “patriarchal religions”. In at least one case that I am familiar with, the woman is wearing the Niqab over the objections of her deeply devout husband. She has made the decision, rejecting her husband’s scholarly opinion with her own formidable scholarship. Without first-hand knowledge, I still think there is a legitimate concern that in some cases and places such as Iran male coercion is the motivation which I strongly object to. I also think there is merit to the argument that if men have a problem than they should bear the burden, rather than it being borne by women. This might even relate to the argument about whose responsibility it is to avoid being damaged, the one doing the damage or the one being damaged[9]. One extremely pious Rabbi who recently passed away, went so far as to walk down the street with his eyes closed, guided by an attendant. 

It saddens me to think that while Nicky will never be able to use her winning smile or expressive eyes to argue a case, equally devout men only need to wear a white gown, cover their knees but can have their face uncovered which means they can participate more easily in the world. Perhaps it would be nice for Muslim men to be required to wear a burqa, and Jewish men to have to worry about covering their elbows and hair, so as not to tempt women with their handsome good looks. In my own tradition, women’s desire is taken very seriously and according to some views[10], the significance of the mirrors relates to the test administered to the suspected straying woman[11] who drank water from the very basin created out of the mirrors donated by these pure women[12]

Perhaps, more important than all the intellectual arguments is the following bit of context. Nicky is passionate about interfaith and has done a lot of work with Jews, Christians and even Agnostics. She believes it is her duty as a Muslim. In my dealings with her, I have always been impressed by her intelligence, and integrity.  She has done very well academically and comes across as a completely normal young Australian woman. Nicky’s mother told me about her own mother who migrated to Australia from Lebanon where she wore the Niqab. When Nicky’s grandmother arrived in Australia it was explained to her that she needed to leave it behind and assimilate. She tried so hard to fit in that she did not dare teach her daughter about her faith. At school the Christian children went to a religious class once a week, while she went to the library for “non-scripture”. One day Nicky’s mother came home and asked her mother why they did not believe in anything! That began a journey back to practicing the faith. Still, the granddaughter was discouraged from being too religious or wearing a headscarf, or hijab. She insisted. Now she has taken it to the next level and closed the circle.

I find it hard to imagine a God who would not be impressed by Nicky’s sincerity. I still don’t love the Niqab and I am sad about the limits it puts on Nicky, but I deeply respect the integrity of her decision and continue to value her as multi-faceted precious human being. If I see someone in a Niqab walking down the street, I will not make any assumptions about the person wearing it, for all I know it could be Nicky, or someone like her.

[1] Not her real name, however she also goes by an English rather than an Arabic name.
[2] Other translate it as brass or bronze
[3] Exodus 38:8, translation mostly from , much of the translation is contested
[4] Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei 9, Rashi
[6] R. Avraham Ibn Ezra, and Seforno
[7] Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel
[8] Baal Haturim
[9] Talmud Bava Basra 18b, both options are discussed but generally the onus is on the one causing the damage
[10] Bchor Shor, Klei Yakar
[11] Numbers 5:12-31
[12] Bamidbar Rabba 9:14

Thursday, March 15, 2012

After a Lapse

There are times we fail to live up to the standards of those we care about or to our own. It would be nice if these can all end in complete redemption, is that how it works? Let us examine the case of the Golden Calf.

The context for this lapse is the overwhelming experience of a downtrodden people being rescued and embraced by the most magnificent being. The exodus of the Israelites from Egypt followed by the experience at Mt. Sinai has been compared to a “great king showing great intense love to a lowly, despised man, who is dirty and sitting in the garbage. The King goes down to him with all his ministers and lifts him up from the garbage and brings him into the inner rooms of the palace…and hugs and kisses him and forms an attachment with him of “spirit to spirit” and real closeness”[1].  Part of what God wants is an exclusive relationship with this people. But they go ahead and make a golden calf.

A member of the Jewish community in Sydney told me about his conversations with Muslims in Lebanon who seemed to suggest that the Jews were rejected by God and replaced with the adherents of Islam. One of my religious, knowledgeable, Muslim friends tells me that this not what Islam teaches, while an Imam I know explained to me that there is a view that the covenant was conditional, was not an all time covenant, and was broken by the Jews later on". There are also arguments about whether Christians should see the covenant with Israel as having been superseded[2]. Pope John Paul II was of the view that the original covenant is current and continues to be binding. Still, the question is an interesting one. Can a relationship recover after a great betrayal?

A careful reading of the exact wording of God’s rage after the incident provides some clues. “And the Lord said to Moses: "… your people that you have brought up from the land of Egypt have acted corruptly. They have quickly turned away from the path that I have commanded them; they have made themselves a molten calf! … Now leave Me, and My anger will be kindled against them so that I will annihilate them, and I will make you into a great nation.[3]"

One the one hand God is distancing himself from the Jews. They are no longer God’s people; they are now the people of Moses[4], “your people”.  He also seems quite open to eliminating the Jews and replacing them with a new people to be descended from Moses.    

Yet there are a surprising few words in which God tells Moses “leave me”, as if saying; let me destroy them. Was Moses holding on to God that He needs Moses to let go?! This is compared to a king who was angry with his son and took him into a small room and began seeking to kill him. The king then begins screaming from the room, leave me to beat him. The prince’s teacher is standing outside. He thinks to himself, the king is in there alone with the prince why is saying leave me? Surely it is because the king wants me to go in to appease him about his son. This is what God was hinting to Moses, immediately Moses began to ask for mercy[5].  God was “opening the door”[6] and implying that this decision was negotiable and that “the matter depended on him, if he will pray they will not be annihilated[7]”.  

We are taught that Moses was rewarded for this prayer, meriting a “shining face” in this world from what God will give the righteous in the future, in the Messianic era[8]

We can more clearly see the hint that Moses’ prayer would be accepted if we compare this text with a similar text[9]. God tells the prophet Jeremiah. “And you, pray not on behalf of this people, neither lift up a cry nor prayer, and entreat Me not for I will not hear you[10]”. No ambiguity in that verse, in contrast with ours where God is almost hinting to Moses that his prayer will be accepted.

When I think of God’s rage from a Chasidic perspective I think of it (at least in a sense) as a bit of theatre[11]. God chooses to express great rage so that the people understand the seriousness of their lapse. I would see this as consistent with the following teaching about anger. “A person should train himself not to anger even on a matter regarding which anger is appropriate. If a person wants to instil awe upon his children and family[12], or if he is an officer of the community and wants to anger at the community members in order that they mend their ways, he should only feign anger in their presence in order to castigate them, but his mind should be composed within. He should act as one impersonating an [angry] man while not being angry himself[13]”.

I tried this once, when as a Yeshiva student I was responsible for a performance at a Sydney Public School the morning after some very late night Purim alcohol fuelled celebrations. One of the guys with a minor part told he was going back to sleep. I did not really need him, but I knew the guy I really needed to play the king in the other dorm room could hear what was going on. I could not let this seem ok. I screamed as if I really lost it. When I went into the other room, the other guy said, ok, ok, I am getting up. Cool, I thought, that went to plan.   

Regardless of how angry God really was, and putting aside the view that the Golden Calf was not actually idol worship[14], the bottom line is that we see the Israelites bouncing back from a dramatic betrayal of the 2nd of the Ten Commandments. God’s reconciliation with the Israelites is also illustrated by God’s instruction to them to create a house for him. It is interpreted as a testimony to all the nations that they were granted atonement for the sin of the calf[15].

Still, despite the reconciliation after the Golden Calf, it is not forgotten. Whenever the Jews would sin in the future, God would remember a little of this sin, (1/24th) together with the other sins[16]. This reminds me of the story about the nails in the fence.

There once was a little boy who had a bad temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he must hammer a nail into the back of the fence. The first day the boy had driven 37 nails into the fence. Over the next few weeks, as he learned to control his anger, the number of nails hammered daily gradually dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence.

Finally the day came when the boy didn't lose his temper at all. He told his father about it and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day that he was able to hold his temper. The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone.

The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence. He said, "You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one. It won't matter how many times you say I'm sorry, the wound is still there[17]

Conclusion: Reconciliation is possible even after some serious lapses. In some cases the scars that remain are still serious.  This should bring us hope about the problems we already have as individuals, groups and nations, and caution about inflicting harm that might never completely heal.

[1] Tanya chapter 46
[2] I do not have a lot of knowledge about this complex issue of supersession, but it seems worth exploring
[3] Exodus 32:7-10
[4] Midrash Tanaaim 177, Pesikta Drav Kahana 16:128
[5] Midrash Shemot Rabba 42
[6] Midrash Tanchuma 22f
[7] Rashi
[8] Seder Eliyahu Rabba 4
[9] Rabbi Avraham the son of Maimonides, cited in Torah Shlaima vol 21, p.103
[10] Jeremiah 7:16
[11] This is based on my understanding of the concept of Tzimtzum – divine “contraction” in Chabad Chasidic teaching, God is compared to a father who wishes to play with his young son, so he takes on a playful persona and plays with the child. While the parent is present with the child in and in his role, this is very different to the way the father is essentially
[12] This text was written over 800 years ago in a particular social context, family dynamics have fortunately moved on from then
[13] Maimonides, Yad Hachazakah, Laws of De'os – 2:3, translation from
[14] Bchor Shor
[15] Midrash Tanchuma Teruma 8
[16] Rashi to Exodus 32:34, Talmud Sanhedrin 102a

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Discrimination, Purim and International Women’s Day

Tomorrow, 8th of March 2012, Jews will celebrate Purim and may others will mark International Women’s day.  A common thread is discrimination, which so often involved the strong seeking to dominate and oppress the weak.

The book of Esther has an early enlightened almost multicultural element.  The king’s ball will not require guests to adhere to the Persian custom that forced people to drink a lot of wine[i], instead there will be no compulsion to accommodate the will of every man[ii]. Commentary tells us the background to this decision was the king accommodating a religious request from the Jewish sage Mordechai[iii].

It goes downhill quickly.  The drunken king demands that the queen Vashti, appear before the guests wearing nothing[iv] but her crown to show off her beauty to the nations and officials[v]. The king is very angered by her refusal, his anger burned within him. According to one interpretation he seeks advice from Jewish sages, who are afraid to get involved so they say they don’t have the authority to judge such a matter[vi]

Haman[vii] steps into the vacuum and suggests that what is at stake here is the authority of men over women[viii]. He argues that women will despise their husbands and there will be much disgrace and anger. Women having some right to make decisions for themselves is equated with anarchy, much as arguments were later made for paternalistic attitudes toward blacks and colonised peoples.

The King decrees that men rule in their own home and speak in the language of his own nation[ix].  Ironically, this instruction about language dominance is conveyed to each province in its own language and script[x]. I see a civilisation that is aware of the importance of language and yet seeks to deprive its women the right to full expression in their own native language. Essentially, communicating in a language learned later in life can often make it very hard to express emotions[xi]. This is has a significant impact on the power dynamic, as I think the following anecdote shows. 

Rabbi X. was one of the scholars at the Talmudic college who had quite a harsh way of dealing with his students. His first language was Yiddish, which I speak fluently, but I spoke with him in English. He once asked me why other students would stop by my table during study for a chat. I told him, I guess I am a nice guy. He said “you not nice guy, you nice garbage!” He probably meant that I was not respecting myself and my study time and wanted to put me in my place. The fact that he had to deliver his sting in a non-native language made him clumsy and weakened his position of authority over me.  

Demonstrating the principle that where inequality takes root it soon spreads, we see bigotry soon follows the sexism.  The king accepts Haman’s argument that there are a people who don’t assimilate, as they have different laws[xii]. They are assumed to be disobeying the king’s laws, no trial, evidence, due process or consultation of the “wise men” required for this judgement, following the precedent of the quick decision to execute Vasht[xiii].  It is not worth the kings while to spare them. 

Fittingly, it is the words of a woman that save the day, as the king listens to Esther’s words and cancels his decree to kill the Jews of his kingdom.  

[i] Ohr Hachayim on Esther 1:8
[ii] Esther 1:8
[iii] Meam Loez
[iv] Midrash
[v] Esther 1:11
[vi] Talmud Megilla 12b
[vii] The text attributes the advice to Memuchan but the Midrash and Talmud tells us this was a nickname for Haman
[viii] Esther 1:16-19
[ix] Esther 1:22
[xi], first brought to my attention by my colleague, life coach Ronit Baras
[xii] Esther 3:8
[xiii] Yosef Lekach

Monday, March 5, 2012

Visions and Details

Seeing the forest, not just the trees

I have been thinking a lot about vision lately. It is ten years since I started as a 32 year old, on a journey that has taught children to think differently about Muslims, Jews and others who are different to them in some way. I am deeply grateful for how far we have come and also a little frustrated about what has not yet been achieved. A bit older, now, I am thinking about change and finding the right balance between big picture vision and pragmatism. This question is timely, with the background of the leadership contests in the US Republican primaries and the Australian Labor party. From a religious perspective, four of our Torah readings these weeks are about what I think of as a great ancient change agent, the temporary temple the Israelites used in the desert, the Mishkan or Tabernacle.

Political contenders, vision vs. management?
Bold big picture leadership vs. effective management is one common theme. At the risk of oversimplification, in the US there is the choice between boring reliable Romney who chose “resolute” as the one word to describe himself, who marketing himself as the capable business man who can manage the economy and win the election. He is challenged by Gingrich and Paul with their big wild ideas and passionate Santorum who described himself with the one word “Courageous”. In Australia Prime Minister Gillard, who claims to be an excellent manager of the business of government was challenged for the leadership by the popular big ideas former prime minister Rudd.  

Vision and inspiration are not enough
We are told that the Israelites in the desert were presented with a big vision by God himself and through Moses. ‘I am the God who has dramatically intervened in your plight and freed you from Egyptian slavery’. The deal was that in exchange for loyalty and obedience to God the former slaves would be God’s treasure among the nations of the world, a holy nation[1]! The people enthusiastically accepted the deal, and soon learned that it involved not making any statues. Within a matter of weeks, the Israelites worship a golden calf.

Structures and Institutions
According to one interpretation[2] the construction of a physical structure as a spiritual centre was a response to the people’s need for something tangible to focus on in their worship as seen in their eagerness for a golden calf[3].  It is suggested that it was not part of the original plan, reflected in the statement that  "An altar of earth shall you make for Me, and you shall sacrifice on it… in every place where I record My name, I shall come to you and bless you[4]" It is only after the sin that God seeks a sanctuary[5]. This aligns with the theory that the underlying motive behind the entire institution of the Temple and sacrificial worship was because it had become so widespread among the pagan religions that He could not have expected the Israelites to suddenly adopt a religious system without sacrificial rituals[6].  In this interpretation, the ideals of Sinai, needed find concrete expression in a physical structure about which the Torah goes into minute detail. 3300 years later, those ideas are still going strong. The importance of structures and institutions cannot be overestimated.

Structures infused with meaning  
Of course, the structure must stand for something beyond itself if it is to fulfil its purpose. The Taberancle was essentially about God’s presence with the Israelites. It is introduced with the word, “Vyikchu Li Teruma[7], which literally is about God asking me to bring him an offering, but can also mean, take me, eg. God Himself, through bringing your offerings[8]. The technical aspects of the tabernacle are taught to contain many messages and meanings. The carrying poles always attached to the ark containing the tablets from Sinai are symbols of the applicability of the law in any place[9]. The acacia wood of which the Sanctuary was made is called Shitim in Hebrew which is homiletically linked to the word for foolishness, and taken as “the wood of folly.”  This is symbolic of going beyond the norm, doing something crazy for a good cause[10].

This does not provide me with clear cut guidance. Still as I look forward to the next ten years of work. I need to ensure that we stay focused on the big vision of ensuring that people are valued and respected regardless of what group they are part of. At the same time, I need to attend to the machine of change, policies, marketing, money, and the other bits and pieces of creating a structure in which people can implement a vision.  

[1] Exodus 19:5-6
[2] this view is based on the sources given below. It is far from universal. Seder Eliyahu Rabba 17, states that “being that the Israelites accepted the kingdom of heaven with joy and stated that everything God commands they will do, God immediately told Moses to speak to the Israelites to take an offering to me…” Ramban argues strongly for the temple and its worship being an end in itself. See also for further exploration of the purpose of the tabernacle and its timing 
[3] Liebovitz, N, New Studies in Shemot, p. 459, based on the following sources and others
[4] Exodus 20:21
[5] Seforno to Exodus 24,18, cited in, the fact that in Exodus the instruction for the temple appears before the story of the golden calf is explained by the principle that the Torah is not necessarily chronological
[6] Maimonides in his Guide to the Perplexed (3:32), cited in
[7] Exodus 25:2
[8] Manuscript Commentary on the Torah of the early ones, (Pirush Al Hatorah Lkadmonim), cited in Torah Shlaima vol. 20, p 1, variation of this idea also found in other sources
[9] Samson Raphael Hirsch on Exodus 25:12-15
[10] Rabbi Yosef I Schneerson, in Maamar Baasi Lgani