Thursday, April 26, 2012

Negative Framing, Fanatics, Females and Forwarding

Just as putting your head in the sand and pretending there are never any problems between groups is foolish, focusing too much on the evil in others is destructive.

I received an e-mail with a link to a disturbing YouTube video in which a woman wearing typical Western dress is asked by a woman with a veil “who are you trying to seduce?!” It shows Muslim men and women chanting “UK go to hell! UK Police go to hell!” The e-mail said simply “An eye opening video about the strength of the Muslims and their beliefs and how it gets when there are enough of them”. I was upset when I watched it. I was disturbed by the extremism of the marchers and the implied generalisation. The common thread is a narrow and negative perspective about others.

To put the clip in some context, a Gallup poll found that “About two-thirds of Muslims in London (64%) say they have confidence in the British government, compared to just 36% of the British public overall[i]”. Another survey found that while 84% of British Muslims surveyed endorsed a literalist view of scripture, “with regard to national identity, 58% reported that they “very strongly” belong to Britain and 29% “fairly strongly[ii]a total of 87%. In another version of the video we are told that less than 100 of the 30,000 Muslims living in the area were are at the protest. In the version that I was sent, with 1.4 million views, we don’t see any of this. This post, seeking guidance in Torah sources, examines the attitudes of the protesters, the creation/editing of the clip and its circulation.

Assertiveness without prejudice- don’t you call me a racist!
It is not racist to criticise members of minority groups about specific behaviours. Although expressing hostility to the government is protected by the principle of free speech, it is right for other citizens to robustly object to these attitudes. A wholesale condemnation of the country one lives in, rather than demonstrating against specific policies should be criticised. Denigrating others for their choices, such as suggesting that someone with a different idea about clothing is promiscuous is wrong. At the same time, if a critique generalises the problem to a whole group, rather than the individuals involved, it is racism or bigotry.

Groups are entitled to assert themselves and their legitimate rights. In doing so, it is vital to keep a sense of proportion and a broad perspective of the whole picture. Exaggerating the threat posed by the “other” is apparently the reason for the killing of Trayvon Martin, and exaggeration is also reflected in the ridiculous rants of the mass murderer, Breivic, in Norway.

The divider, the law of the “Metzorah”  
One problem common to the demonstrators and their critics is divisive speech, an issue which the Torah deals with harshly. It mandates isolation for the Metzorah (problematically translated as a leper), which is a person exhibiting very specific skin or hair discoloration[iii] that does not conform to any scientifically known conditions[iv]. Predominantly, the condition is understood to be result of engaging in “Lashon Harah”, evil talk, (telling people about the bad things another person has done for no constructive purpose (among other sins)[v]. In a play on words, the word Metzorah מצורה is equated with Motzi Rah, מוצי רע one who “brings out” evil. One who highlights and calls attention to the faults and misdeeds of others.

Isolation of the divider
Isolation is declared to be a fitting punishment, “just as he separated by his evil talk between a husband and wife and between a man and his friend, so too should he be separated (from others)[vi]”. Not only must the Metzorah leave the camp and live alone, he is also forbidden to talk to others, be greeted by anyone[vii] and needs to shout out “I am impure” and dress in a way[viii] that will keep people away. The Metzorah, gossiping about the evil of others, does not value the community in which s/he lives, indifferent to the division his negative speech is causing. Being forced out of the community provides an opportunity to consider the value of community[ix].

But it’s True…
Significantly, this harsh punishment is not for slander and false accusations, the definition of Lashon Harah, “evil talk” includes talking about incidents that are true. Perhaps the problem with telling the truth about the faults of others is that it dwells on this one aspect of the subject and the narrow focus distorts that person’s reputation which should take into account the full person. Following the Yiddish saying, “a half truth is a complete lie”. It’s the missing tile syndrome. Our eyes are drawn to the one missing tile but ignore the rest of the beautiful mosaic.

A narrow perspective
When the demonstrators shout UK ‘go to hell’, they are dwelling on certain aspects of the UK that they object to, an arrest they don’t agree with among other things, and ignoring the virtues of that society. A Muslim friend told me yesterday about a Sheik who teaches his students that there is no need to seek Sharia law as a system of government. He argues that 95% of the principles of Sharia such as care for the vulnerable etc. are already part of Australian law.

As demonstrated in the second paragraph, the film that portrays these people is giving an extremely narrow picture of a small group of people. We also know almost nothing about the people portrayed except that they have a negative attitude and on a given day expressed their hostility. We don’t know if they are productive tax paying citizens, honest, loving family members, have a sense of humour or love cricket.

The Constructive clause
Some would argue that circulating the video is not Lashon Harah/evil speech because of the constructive purpose clause that allows reporting evil deeds to protect the innocent, eg. it is permissible to tell a prospective employer about the bad habits of the person they are seeking to employ. They would argue that this video raises awareness of an important social problem. When employing this justification, it is important to be accurate in reporting which this video is not. Certainly the comments left about the video are far from constructive; many are hateful, some even calling for extermination and mosque burnings. 

Reintegration of the “divider
The Torah response to divisive speech is assertive but humane. In spite of the gravity of the offense, and the harshness of the response, the humanity of “divider/Metzorah” is not forgotten. The Talmud sees a second purpose in his shouting out that s/he is “impure! impure!” is to make known his pain to many, and many (people) will ask for (divine) mercy for him[x]”. Once the Metzorah has “served his time” s/he must be given an opportunity to again be an upstanding member of the community. This process begins with a leader of the community going out of the camp to where the Metzorah is[xi], symbolising the leadership seeking to understand the situation of the “outcast”[xii].  Asserting a standard of behaviour does not preclude understanding the situation of those who fail to adhere to that standard. Typically the leading Kohen/priest would be joined by many other people. This meant that the Metzorah was honoured with a large welcoming delegation[xiii]. The ceremony uses a red thread, a hyssop and cedar wood. The symbolism being that the Metzorah who was previously red with sin in the sense of the verse “if your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow[xiv]”, and was humbled from being like a tall tree to a lowly hyssop through his sins can now be restored by God’s forgiveness to his place and (tree like) height. A bird is released symbolising that like a caged bird feed to socialize with its fellow birds, the former “Divider” is now welcome to be with his community[xv].
In conclusion
Not all criticism of minorities or government is wrong. There are some substantial issues that fuel division or anger. I think, the exaggerated perception of those differences is a far more significant factor. The Muslims at the demonstration as well those who edited, and promoted the video as being representative of all Muslims are allowing a focus on the negative to divide us.

[iii] Leviticus 13:46
[iv] Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh and Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman cited in Nachshoni, Y (1991), Studies in the Weekly Parsha, Vayikra, Artscroll, New York, p. 723. At face value this would seem to be simply about the fear of contagion  (Daat Zekainim Mbaalei Tosafot, on Leviticus 13:44, Bchor Shor) of a natural disease. However, it is more useful to set aside arguments about the facts of “leprosy” and focus on how this phenomenon is understood in context and tradition, which is that these conditions are understood to be a supernatural phenomenon (Maimonides commentary to Mishna, Negaim 12:5, cited in Leibowitz, N, (1993) New Studies in Vayikra Leviticus, the World Zionist Org, dept. for Torah Education pub. p. 188). This view is not shared by all commentators, Ralbag states that it is caused by moisture and heat. Even Maimonides himself attributes some natural aspects to it in the guide for the perplexed (3:44). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh and Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman both argue strongly that is not a natural disease. Some of proof includes instances where concern about contagion would require isolation yet the law does not require it. If the discoloration spreads to the entire body the person is declared “pure”. A groom celebrating in the week following his marriage and anyone celebrating during the pilgrimage who has the symptoms  is exempt from being examined and declared impure until the end of the celebration (Maimonides laws of the Impurity of the Metzorah 9:8) . If we thought this was a contagious disease we certainly would not allow someone to be among so many people during the celebrations. (This over-riding of the laws of the Metzorah would only apply to an non-declared condition, if it has already been declared the festival would not over-ride the status of the Metzorah and he would remain isolated – Talmud Moed Katan 14b)The bottom line is that the predominant understanding among the religious Jews I grew up with was that this was a direct sign from God rather than some normal illness.  
[v] Midrash Vayikra Rabba 17:3, Talmud Arachin 16a, other sins said to result in this condition in the Talmud are murder, stealing from the public, adultery, false oaths, arrogance and ungenerous attitude to others. All of these result in the destruction of community and relationships
[vi] Talmud Arachin 16b, Rashi and Baal Haturim to Leviticus 13:46
[vii] Talmud Moed Katan 15a
[viii] Leviticus 13:45
[ix] Oznayim Latorah, cited in Nachshoni, Y (1991), Studies in the Weekly Parsha, Vayikra, Artscroll, New York, p. 744
[x] Talmud Sotah 32b
[xi] Leviticus 14:3
[xii] Siach Hasadeh, cited in Greenberg, A Y (1992), Torah Gems, Vol 2, Y. Orenstien, Yavneh Publishing, Tel Aviv, p.293
[xiii] Sifsei Kohen
[xiv] Isaiah 18:1
[xv] Bchor Shor

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Flawed Idealists, Hasidim, Prejudice & Storks

The Hasida and the Hasid kind to one's own kind,
ignore the the outsider
Today the 27th of Nissan, is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust remembrance day. Last night I attended a moving ceremony in Sydney. Writer Eliot Perlman told a compelling and vivid account of one aspect of the Holocaust told from the perspective of two witnesses, one a registrar at Birkenau and the other a worker in the crematorium. We heard of a polish grandmother and her brave grandson Tadeus who saved the life of the mother of one of the speakers. Along with remembering, the compelling message was to fight prejudice in whatever form it takes. I dedicate this discussion to those who were murdered and those who survived, and to the victims of other genocides and ethnic based inhumanity including Rwanda, Bosnia, and Liberia that the world failed to prevent in spite of the lessons of the Holocaust.  

My effort to counter prejudice begins with me, extends to my own group, then wider. Over the Passover festival I read a moving story called the “The Ballad of the Monkey’s Wedding”.[1] A Black maid named Willomeena is portrayed with deep respect and affection. This should not be a big deal but unfortunately, it is somewhat rare in recent ultra-orthodox and Hasidic Jewish literature. In one inspiring story a Roma woman named Chungarabi saves the life of the main protagonist at great risk to herself and her husband. Yet, the translator can’t help herself and suggests that perhaps Chungarabi was not a ‘real Gypsy, instead she might have been a descendent of a Jewish child kidnapped by the Gypsies’[2]. I wanted to scream when I read that.

More broadly, I want to explore how people who are conscientious in certain aspects of our lives get it wrong in other areas. I will consider the example of my Hasidic community. My exploration will touch on the stork as a symbol, because this bird is called חסידה Hasida in Hebrew, essentially the same word as Hasid[3], both words relating to kindness and piety. 

UnKosher but kind Stork/Hasida and the Hasidim
Description of the Stork in
morality tale  from 1831
The Hebrew word for the White Stork Hasidah, means "kind" and the reason given for this name is because it does kindness with “her friends”[4]. It is said to actively gather food for its friends[5]. This view extends beyond Jewish sources; the stork has been described as affectionate in a book from the 1830’s that encourages children to be kind like the stork[6].

Despite the positive characterization of the stork, it is a non-kosher bird[7]. This is puzzling, as Non-Kosher birds were thought to have cruel characteristics, “they eat their prey while they are still alive[8], their blood is hot to cruelty and black…it puts cruelty in to the heart” (of the person eating it)[9].  A Hasidic resolution of this problem focuses on the limited scope of the stork’s kindness; “its friends”[10]. Kindness that is restricted in this way is certainly not kosher.

This criticism of the stork resonates for me. In my Hasidic community we have great generosity, giving to the poor is considered simply an act of justice rather than charity[11]. An enduring image from my childhood is of people throwing dollar bills into Mr. Shimshon Stock’s bag as he walked on the backs of the benches, then he came back for a second round with the line “there is a hole in the bag”.  In my own experience, I would spend lunchtimes almost every day as a 14-15 year old visiting sick Jews in hospital, praying with them and chatting. Yet our kindness focused almost exclusively within the community. I find it staggering that I was never told about Martin Luther King Jnr’s “I have a dream speech” and the change he called for.  

While other teenagers have focused their idealism outwardly, our moral teachings directed me inward. For example when I was in London as a 16 year old, I never bothered to visit the sights because I saw that as a distraction from worship. More broadly, we learned to view the sensual with suspicion. In Hasidism we are taught that nothing is neutral. Everything, either contributes to worship or is seen as aligned with “the other side[12]”.

The stork is said to be the most pious of birds, therefor angels have been compared to it[13]. In some commentaries the stork is said to immerse itself in water after mating[14]. Many Hasidim will immerse in water prior to prayers every day, at least in part to purify themselves of any spiritual impurity relating to emission of semen. I wonder if the degree of priority Hasidim devote to the focus on the containment of the physical aspects of life, risks leaving less head space for issues like prejudice. Of course, self-denial could work the other way and sensitize Hasidim to others, including non-Jews and minorities. Either way, meticulous attention to any one area of virtue, be it social justice, ritual or any other cause, does not make us “Kosher”.

Transcendence, idealism, the letter Chet and the number 8
According to the mystics the Hebrew names of everything tells us about its character, the first letter is the most significant[15]. The first letter of both Hasida/the name of the stork and the Hasid is Chet ח. It is the 8th letter and symbolizes transcendence, coming after seven which relates to the days of a week and the normal cycle. The appearance of the letter ח is related to a gateway to another dimension[16].

In striving to go higher, some idealists neglect more mundane worldly obligations to family or others. Nadav and Avihu the two sons of Aaron (the brother of Moses) passionately wanted to add “love to love[17]” and spontaneously brought an authorized offering to the temple[18] with great joy[19]. These two men were said to be closer to God than Moses and in such spiritual ecstasy that their souls left their bodies out of intense longing for God[20].  Yet, in their enthusiasm, they disregarded the authority of Moses, might have been drunk, neglected the ritual washing (unlike the stork), and are even said to show impatience to replace their father and Moses.  “A bit more, and these oldies will die and we will lead the congregation[21]”.

Nadav and Avihu neglected one critical bit of the letter Chet. It is linked strongly to the word for life, Chai, or Chayim as it represents the pulse of life, which includes both running to God but then returning to the world to carry out our obligations here[22].     

Humility and Self criticism
One of the strengths of Hasidim and many idealistic people is an emphasis on humility and Self- criticism. We are told that Aaron was hesitant to carry out his role as the high priest in the initial offering of the new temple. He was concerned of his past failings. Moses tells him, not to worry, “for this, you have been chosen[23]”. Another take on Moses’ reassurance is that it is precisely, “this”, namely, Aaron’s concern that he might not be worthy that is his most admirable quality and makes him worthy to undertake his high role[24].

As we strive to be better, we need to be alert to how we might fall short, especially in areas that are we not focused on. I need to contribute to and care for my own community and “friends” as the Hasida does, but also beyond its limits. There is value in activity, ritual and “washing”, but it takes more than that to be “Kosher”. Like life itself, there is a pulse and a rhythm, one moment to try to ‘touch heaven’ but then the next minute to get back to our task here on earth with all its challenges and its great diversity of precious people.

May the memory of all who perished be for a blessing.

[1] Shapiro, S ed., (1991), An Anthology of Jewish Women’s Writings, Our Lives, Targum Press, Southfield, MI, p.15
[2] Cohen, M, (2007) A Daughter of Two Mothers, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem
[3] Another connection between Hasidim and the stork relates to the Aramaic translation of the word Hasida/white stork as “White/chivarta ”. Hasidim typically face ridicule because of their devotions to the point that “the color drained from their faces”, yet they do not abandon their pious practices (Paneach Raza, cited in Torah Shlaima, vol 28, p.105).  The early history of the Hasidism includes many episodes of mockery, even violence from others who did not share their convictions and practices. This aspect could motivate Hasidim to work for the dignity of all, such Hasidic pioneer of coexistence, Lee Wiseman of Jihadi Jew and .
[4] Talmud, Hullin 63a, Rashi on Leviticus 11:19
[5] Maor HaAfeila, cited in Torah Shlaima, vol 28, p.105
[6] Simpkins, N.S, S.G., (1831), Descriptive Scenes for Children, Boston,
[7] Leviticus 11:19
[8] This is the interpretation of Dores by Rabbenu Tam, Rashi has an alternative view
[9] Ramban on Leviticus 11:13
[10] Chidushei Harim, also attributed to the Rishiner
[11] The Lubavitcher Rebbe in Likutei Sichos
[12] Tanya, R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, chapter 6, “Similarly, all words and all thoughts that are not directed to Gd and to His Will and His service are all garments for the animal soul. For this is the meaning of the term sitra achra — literally “the other side,” i.e., not the side of holiness. Thus, whatever does not belong to the realm of holiness is sitra achra. But what, in fact, does the realm of holiness encompass? (In the Lessons in Tanya version)
[13] R. A, of Germaiza, cited in Torah Shlaima, vol 28, p.105
[14] Chemdat Yamim Part 1, p.69, cited in Torah Shlaima, vol 28, p.105. I have not been able to find any clear reference to this practice in other sources. I found the following statement “Breeding White Storks prefer lowland open habitats of wet pastures, flooded meadows, and shallow lakes and marshes with scattered trees for roosting and nesting.”
[15] Ginsburgh, Rabbi Y, The Hebrew Letters,
[17] Torat Cohanim
[18] Leviticus 10:1
[19] Torah Cohanim
[20] Ohr Hachayim on beginning of Acharie Mot
[21] Torat Cohanim
[22] Ginsburgh, Rabbi Y, The Hebrew Letters,
[23] Rashi to Leviticus 9:7
[24] Mincha Belula, cited in Greenberg, A, Y, Torah Gems, Vol. 3, Y Orenstien/Yavneh Publishing/Chemed Books

Monday, April 9, 2012

Religious Certainty; Conformity, Carnage & Comfort

In Toulouse, French Jews & Muslims
link arms in protest of the killings. 

We have been doing a lot of religion this week, two long Seders to midnight, a massive effort to rid our homes of any traces of bread (or other leaven) and long prescribed prayers. Some people happily choose to do all of this and get a lot out of it, personally, I found the Seders fulfilling but reading some of the required prayers felt more like conforming to religious rules or community norms than motivated by devotion to God. I have also been moved by a report about young man who is very much part of the Sydney Muslim community, is gay and considers himself agnostic but he feels compelled to either hide his truth or sever all ties with his community[1]. I suspect that if he was an orthodox Jew his situation would be very similar. In both cases it seems that conformity is part of the cost of belonging[2], rather than individuals being encouraged to freely pursue truth and choose what they believe to be right.

The recent murder of a Rabbi/teacher and his young children in Toulouse is a more serious example of how religion can be used for evil. As a Rabbi/teacher with young children myself, it really brings it home to me. I don’t think it is just to blame all adherents of Islam for the actions of this murderer. The act has also been condemned by French Muslim leaders.  In this post I share a few thoughts about the broader issue of whether religions that claim to have the absolute Truth are a force for good. 

Double edged sword
A starting point for me is the idea that religion can be used for good or evil. It is written of the Torah, If he merits, it becomes a life giving drug for him, if he does not merit it becomes poison[3]. This is interpreted as depending on whether one studies for its own sake[4] rather than some ulterior motive, or alternatively, whether “they occupy themselves with it with all their strength to know it’s secret[5]. This presents the idea that religion can be destructive, but also the opportunity to get it right by being alert to the dangers and continually seeking the “true secret” within the sacred text.

Religiously justified violence and creativity
Yet seeking the truth might still lead people to the conviction that they know what God wants, and that God’s will is for them to kill another person (apart from self-defence). In the Torah, the Israelites are instructed to annihilate the Canaanites, execute Sabbath violators and witches. Yet beyond the early years[6],  religious courts rarely administered capital punishment. “A Sanhedrin (high court) that executes one person in seven years is called "murderous." Another sage says “one execution in seventy years”. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say, "If we had been among the Sanhedrin, no one would ever have been executed.[7]" This reluctance to take a life shows a creative application of God’s law in which very mature, responsible sages, while not doubting their right to kill, somehow manage not to.

Application to Toulouse
In the case of the Toulouse murderer, I think of religion abused. Here was a young person with a criminal record, and no formal religious authority making decisions on his own about religion and death. As the attached image shows, religious authorities in his community clearly did not agree. I suggest that in some cases terrorism might be the bastard child or western individualism/anti-authoritarianism and narrow extremist interpretation of text. If Authority was strongly respected the idiot- murderers would feel compelled to seek guidance, and wiser heads would weight up the interpretations, the circumstances etc. and at least in some cases such as Toulouse, rule against the killing.

An example of this was told to me about some gong-ho young Muslims in Sydney who asked a sheik if they could go off to Iraq to “kill the invaders attacking their co-religionists”. The Imam cleverly instructed them to first fulfil their religious obligations of honouring their mothers and come to dawn prayers every morning before they think of undertaking such a mission. The last US soldiers will be long gone from Iraq before these guys start getting out of bed at 5 am or get permission to fight. This is not a panacea, but in some cases respect for authority and guidance certainly can help, just as in other cases questioning bad authority is important.

Conformity and Questioning Authority   
As part of the Seder ritual, we read about the “wicked son[8]. His “wickedness” consists of excluding himself from the ritual by asking “What is all this work for you?!”. This is seen as a denial of the main principle because he excludes himself. The wicked son is dealt with harshly and confronted with the idea that if he had been in Egypt with that kind of attitude he would not have been redeemed.

The requirement to conform is not based on authority always getting it right. The Torah discusses a process of atonement for when leaders make mistakes and lead others to sin[9]. One teaching tells us “because a person comes to (a position of) greatness, immediately he comes to sin[10]”. In a play on words we are taught, fortunate is the generation in which leaders are prepared to acknowledge their mistakes[11]. One of the great stories about Abraham has him challenge his father and the religious leadership of his time by smashing idols[12]. Yet, it seems that the more dominant example is the story of the binding of Isaac when Abraham is prepared to kill his own child to obey the word of God.

The positive power of certainty and conformity
While some would prefer a more open approach to truth, others find great value in conforming to a set of certainties about God and truth. Consider the inspiring words from Eva Sandler the widow of the murdered French Rabbi who also lost two children. “I don’t know how I and my husband’s parents and sister will find the consolation and strength to carry on, but I know that the ways of G-d are good… I know that their holy souls will remain with us forever… Parents, please kiss your children. Tell them how much you love them, and how dear it is to your heart that they be living examples of our Torah…, imbued with the fear of Heaven and with love of their fellow man[13].” I doubt anyone who had suffered such a great loss could find the strength to be so positive unless she is certain about God and Torah.

A way forward
Conformity and religious certainty can be both a good or bad thing depending on how it is applied. I think is it vital for those who believe they have the Truth to be aware of the dangers that could flow from this certainty and grapple with the ethical implications of it. One way to decrease the risk of devaluing others is to interact in a genuine way with people who do not share one’s own faith. This would hopefully help focus the mind to creatively seek out interpretations that bring people together, and preserve peace, justice and dignity for all. 

[1] Good Weekend Magazine, Sydney Morning Herald, 7/4/2012
[2] Vardy, P, (2010) Good and Bad Religion, SCM Press , London, explores this theme
[3] Talmud Yoma 72b
[4] Maharsha, Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Edeles  (1555-1631)
[5] Rashi to Talmud Shabbat 88b
[6] of conquest and battle with Amalek
[7] Talmud Makot 7a, translation from
[8] The Haggada, the text we recite at the Passover Seder
[9] Leviticus 4:3
[10] Midrash Hacheifetz, from an old manuscript, cited in Kasher, M, Torah Shlaima, vol. 25, p 159
[11] Torah Kohanim cited in Torah Shlaima, , vol. 25, p. 194, Rashi
[12] Midrash, also told by Muslims