Friday, August 3, 2012

Responsibility and inter-group relations verses I cannot really explain

Perseverance is needed for “Intercultural Understanding” a teacher said last week at a professional development day for teachers I lead in Queensland. The teacher was born in South America, grew up in Australia and is married to an Asian woman. She nodded knowingly.

In our Torah reading this week there are several verses that I cannot ignore, yet I have little of value or new to say about them.  One approach would be to simply ignore these or pretend they are not there. I think the responsible thing to do is acknowledge that these ideas exist within our sacred text even if I can’t find some happy synthesis with my own sense of ethics.  Instead, I offer some limited comments and invite readers to share their own thoughts about these.  Relating to some of these verses and more generally in our reading is the theme of responsibility.

Harsh Revenge
Despite the general prohibition against revenge[i], God instructs Moses to "Take revenge for the children of Israel against the Midianites. Afterwards you will be gathered to your people[ii] (eg. Moses would die). This was in relation against a deliberate campaign by the nation of Midian in which they sent women to seduce Jewish men to morally corrupt them and also to persuade the men to worship idols. When they return from the battle Moses is angry at the commanders. “Moses said to them, "you allowed all the females to live! They were the same ones who were involved with the children of Israel on Balaam's advice to betray the Lord over the incident of Peor (a form of Idol worship), resulting in a plague among the congregation of the Lord[iii].

The idea of going to war over men being seduced or persuaded to worship anything is jarring to people who value religious freedom, Moses’ angry outburst even more so. To modern sensibilities sexual activity between consenting adults is ok and to punish a woman for the choice of a man is deeply problematic.

Part of the context here is the weight the Bible puts on these things. Perhaps a modern equivalent would be if one nation deliberately sought to destroy another though a successful network of agents that turn citizens into drug addicts. Commentary explains that the women Moses complained about were recognised as having seduced this or that particular man[iv].  The bottom line for me is that this instruction was a once off in the distant past and I don’t think it has a direct literal message for our time. Instead I am interested in more allegorical messages these verses might contain.

Responsibility Messages in Midianite Mass Execution
If we can put aside the issues in previous paragraph there are two moral messages in this episode. The first relates to the link between Moses’ death and the Midianite mission. When Moses was first confronted by the “moral onslaught” of the Midianite women he fell apart and cried[v]. To correct his failure to act at that time God commanded him to deal with this “unfinished business” and only then would could he die[vi]. To me this is a strong message about stepping up and taking action when it is needed but difficult or showing leadership when the opportunity arises.

A second message is hinted at in the omission or mention of the sorcerer/prophet Balaam who gave advice that led to the seductions[vii]. When punishment is being discussed Balaam is mentioned prominently, seemingly bearing some of the blame for the whole episode. Yet, the role of Balaam is completely absent when the story first appears, and the balance of blame at least for the promiscuity is strongly placed on the Jewish men.  Israel settled in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of the Moabites”. One of the foremost female Torah scholars, Nehama Liebowitz, explains that at the time of the sin the role of Balaam is irrelevant, the focus was and had to be on the poor choice of the Jewish men who could have resisted the temptation[viii].

Ethnic-Religious Cleansing
The second difficult issue is the insistence on removing the existing inhabitants of Canaan. “You shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their temples … But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the Land from before you, then those whom you leave over will be as spikes in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they will harass you in the land in which you settle[ix]”. The research literature about racism talks about a “new racism” in which members of dominant groups argue for excluding members of minorities based on incompatibility between the two cultures. Often the differences are exaggerated and based on ignorance, prejudice and misunderstanding.  Yet here the Torah seems to be legitimizing this very argument.  I could argue that again this an instruction for a specific time. Yet, the kind of argument the Torah puts forward here seems to still be influencing decisions today[x]. I would love to hear from others about this.

Extreme idea of moral responsibly of leaders
If someone kills a person by accident they are exiled to cities of refuge which protect them from revenge by relatives of the deceased and also serve as atonement for their deed. They are allowed to leave the city only when the high priest dies.

One explanation for the surprising link between the date of release and the death of the high priest relates to a very high standard of responsibility. The reason to keep the accidental killer in the city until that time is so that “they do not ridicule the high priest when they see the killer going outside the city of refuge and people would say “did you see this person who killed an innocent person and now goes out and comes among the people and the high priest does not take revenge against him, (assuming) this is something which he is responsible for. This is not the case the case with a new High priest who cannot be criticised about something that did not happen during his time in office[xi]”.

The Talmud teaches “it is not for you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it[xii]. This week I have also been reading about research relating to business failure that found that the collapse of great companies has been due less to lack of boldness and more to lack of discipline and perseverance with core activities[xiii]. I have been privileged to be called to a leadership role in the field of diversity. As I go about the business of this work, I will meet many texts and people who will not fit neatly into the roles I would like them to play. I will not fix them. I will seek a point of light, redeeming qualities and beauty. To do less would be irresponsible.

[i] Leviticus 19:18.
[ii] Numbers 31:2
[iii] Numbers 31:15-16
[iv] Rashi to 31:16
[v] Numbers 25:6 and as interpreted by Rashi and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh
[vi] Ohr Hachaim
[vii] Numbers 31:16
[viii] Leibowitz, N Studies in Bamidbar Numbers, p.377-378
[ix] Numbers 33:52 & 55
[xi] Chizkuni
[xii] Pirkey Avot 2:21
[xiii] Collins J, (2009), How the Might Fall and Why Some Companies Never Give In, Random House Business Books

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