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

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