Friday, October 26, 2012

“We are the Good Ones”, Lot/Lut & Abraham – & the Jewish Muslim Relationship

Today, Oct 26, Muslims will be celebrating Eid Al Adha. The first religious conflict I ever became aware of between Jews and Muslims relates to this commemoration of Abraham’s nearly sacrificing his son. The Torah states that the son was Isaac, while Muslims insist it was Ishmael. Hasidic bridge builder, Lee Weisman demonstrates an impressive ability to find commonality within difference by focusing on the core meaning of this ultimate expression of devotion by Abraham and God’s mercy in preventing the sacrifice from going ahead. He also acknowledges the difference respectfully[i]. His blog is an impressive example of a journey in respect and coexistence.
Debating whose ancestor was ‘the great one’ is not useful, and I am pleased not to have noticed any arguments about this recently.  One of the least useful dynamics in interpersonal relationships is the attempt to position oneself as “the good one”, this often but not always also involves positioning the other as the bad one. The fight to be positioned on the pedestal can be bitter and intense. It is as if our value as human beings depends on it.

Sure, we all are happy to say that we are not perfect. Still, some of us seem extremely determined to deny certain flaws, or to attribute a large portion of blame to others. Our willingness to acknowledge our own faults and manage them makes us better people. Yet, to be focused on negativity can make us depressed and lose hope[ii]. We must balance honest self-criticism with fully appreciating our positive points[iii] and there is little value in berating ourselves. Similarly, we can take a dual approach to our iconic figures, preserve a positive image of them, even considering some generous explanations of their faults but not deny them. A generous approach is also useful when portraying the “representative” figure of the “other”.

Portrayals of Biblical Figures: “ours good”?
Within my “ultra-orthodox” environment there is a pattern of interpretation which portrays Abraham as perfect or nearly perfect, in sharp contrast to his nephew Lot who is denigrated and to an extent his eldest son Ishmael. This becomes more interesting when considering the fact that while Abraham is considered Jewish, the others are classified as not being Jewish[iv]. I must strongly quality and contextualize the issue, there is plenty of criticism of Jewish biblical figures in the Torah and even Moses is harshly reprimanded. Yet, the contrast between some portrayals of Abraham and others around his time interests me.

Lot/Lut Sinner or Prophet?
Let us begin with Lot (Lut in Arabic) the nephew of Abraham, who I was surprised to learn is considered a completely righteous prophet in Islam, calling the people of Sodom to repent[v]. While the Torah sees the sins of Sodom primarily about hostility to outsiders and cruelty to travellers partly motivated by greed[vi], Jewish sources see Lot prioritising financial opportunity over morality in his choice to live in Sodom. “And Lot raised his eyes, and he saw the entire plain of the Jordan, that it was entirely watered… Lot dwelt in the cities of the plain, and he pitched his tents until Sodom… And the people of Sodom were very evil and sinful against the Lord[vii]”. Despite the evil of the people, Lot did not desist from living with them[viii].

Inner Strength and Loyalty
I was delighted when I found an alternative view in the commentary of Rabbi David Kimchi, known as Radak (which had been hidden away for 600 years then found among manuscripts in the royal French library in Paris)[ix]. In his view Lot was not concerned about the nature of the people because he was “so strong in his faith and decency that he did not learn from their ways[x]”. In fact, Lot goes on to eagerly welcome strangers[xi] if defiance of the sodomite xenophobic sentiment and policies. Radak also highlights Lot’s loyalty to Abraham and God when he leaves his grandfather to go with Abraham on his journey from their ‘land, birthplace and family’[xii] and again when he leaves the plenty of Egypt to return to the famine afflicted Canaan because  he did not want to part from Abraham[xiii].

Offering daughter for Rape?
One of the most shocking moments in the life of Lot is when he offers his daughters to a mob to be raped, when they demand he hand over his guests. Lot pleads: “Behold now I have two daughters who were not intimate with a man. I will bring them out to you, and do to them as you see fit; only to these men do nothing, because they have come under the shadow of my roof[xiv]." One source ridicules Lot, “It is customary that a man would allow himself to be killed for his daughters and his wife, he would either kill or be killed and this one hands over his daughters to be toyed with, the Holy One Blessed Be He said to him, by your life (I swear), for himself he is keeping them, and in the end children at school will laugh when they read Lot’s daughters became pregnant from their father[xv]”.   

This portrayal of Lot is quite disturbing. Again there are alternative approaches. One praises him for this terrible sacrifice. Lot is compared to Moses who was prepared to sacrifice himself and Lot is prepared to sacrifice his precious daughters to protect his guests[xvi]. Perhaps more satisfying is the view that Lot was bluffing, with a preposterous offer, that the mob would have known was not serious. Like a person who says ‘my house is open, take whatever you want’…knowing that he won’t do it[xvii]”.

Perfect Abraham & Sarah?
The virtues of Abraham are strongly present in the Torah. He is even called to be “Tamim[xviii]” which could be translated as complete.  Yet, some commentaries criticise him and Sarah for the way they dealt with the conflict between Sarah and Abraham’s second wife. Hagar loses respect for her former mistress Sarah, when Hagar becomes pregnant[xix], while Sarah remains childless. Hagar claims that Sarah could not possibly be as good as she portrays herself to be, because if she was so good she would be rewarded with a child[xx].  “Sarah afflicted Hagar, and both her deeds and Abrahams complicity with them as deemed sinful[xxi].

Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk said: “there is nothing as whole as a broken heart”, in that same spirit we could say there is nothing as beautiful as an imperfect human being who makes ethical choices and do some decent things despite their human frailties. There is no need to denigrate the iconic figures representing the other to make our heroes look greater in contrast to them. We have options in the way we interpret out texts and the portrayal of its characters, which includes seeing them in a more positive light as well acknowledging their flaws and faults. We need to resist the temptation to focus on the negatives in the other, and instead focus much more on that which brings us together.

[ii] Tanya Chapter 1 explores this dilemma
[iii] Rabbi Y. Y. Schneerson, the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that just as it is wrong to deny our faults, it is equally wrong to deny our positive abilities.
[iv] This theme was brought to my attention by a Dvar Torah by Suart Klamen, on
[v] “Behold, their brother Lut said to them: “Will ye not fear (Allah)? I am to you a messenger worthy of all trust. So fear Allah and obey me… Of all the creatures in the world, will ye approach males, And leave those whom Allah has created for you to be your mates? Nay, ye are a people transgressing (all limits)!”
They said: “If thou desist not, O Lut! thou wilt assuredly be cast out!”
He said: “I do detest your doings.” (Surat ash-Shuara: 160-168)
We also (sent) Lut: He said to his people: “Do ye commit lewdness such as no people in creation (ever) committed before you? For ye practise your lusts on men in preference to women: ye are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds.”
And his people gave no answer but this: they said, “Drive them out of your city: these are indeed men who want to be clean and pure!” (Surat al-Araf: 80-82)
Translation from
[vi] my post about the sin of Sodom in its treatment of outsiders
[vii] Genesis 13:10-13
[viii] Rashi
[ix] Title page of Pressburg Edition 1842, reprinted 2006
[x] Radak
[xi] Genesis 19:1-3
[xii] Genesis 12:1-5
[xiii] Genesis 13:1 and Radak commentary, these views also plays out in the different views of Lot in the commentary about a quarrel between the shepherds of Abraham and Lot (Genesis 13:5-7). The Midrash explains that there was a major argument about grazing their animals on private Canaanite lands, with Lot’s people justifying it and Abraham’s staff strict about avoiding theft and this argument also involving Lot and Abraham themselves (Bereshit Rabba 41).  Another view is that this was really about Lot abandoning his faith in God to return to the idol worship practiced by the Canaanite and Perizite people (Zohar 84a and other sources).  Radak again has a more positive view of Lot. He explains that the dispute was simply about finding sufficient grazing for their ample livestock. 
[xiv] Genesis 19:7
[xv] Midrash Tanchuma, Vayera 12, in fact he does sleep with them when they are convinced they are the only survivors after the apocalyptic destruction of Sodom
[xvi] Pirkey Drabbi Eliezer 25
[xvii] Rabbenu Chananel, quoted in Drashat Even Shuiv, cited in Torah Shlaima p.794, note 44
[xviii] Genesis 17:1
[xix] Genesis 16:4-6
[xx] Rashi
[xxi] Ramban to Genesis 16:6

Friday, October 19, 2012

Sexism, Malala and Multifaith: Dealing with difference


Sexism has been on the agenda. There was the attack on 14 year old Malala and her advocacy for girls’ education. There have been calls to “end the gender wars” in Australia,  following heated discussion about enduring sexism sparked by the Australian Prime Minister’s dramatic and controversial “misogyny speech”. Here are some of my reflections on all of this, with a little inspiration from discussion of the Genesis story in traditional sources.

Some would argue that “patriarchal religion” in general supports sexism and blame religion for the horrible attack on Malala. Clearly various religious ideas have been interpreted to justify restrictions on women and male domination.

Genesis seems to tell us of that females were created because of the needs of a man. “It is not good for man to be alone: I will make a helper opposite him[i]”. Commentary adds, “Man would not be able to reach his true potential implied in his having been created in the image of God if he will need to occupy himself with the needs of his life[ii].  It is fair to infer that the role of women would indeed be to do the ironing, a view our Prime minister strongly objected to it her speech.

This same commentary interprets the phrase about the woman being opposite the man to mean that while she would be similar to him, “as this is necessary for her to know his needs and meeting them in the right time… but it would not be proper for the helper to be completely equal to him because then it would not be proper for one to toil and serve the other”.

We also have writings about a mysterious perhaps demonic[iii] other woman named Lillith that was created before Eve who refused to be a helper, instead she ran away to the Islands[iv]. Presumably Lillith, was replaced by a woman who might be more willing to “submit” to her husband. 

Yet, the same words have other interpretations. The need for Eve to be opposite Adam is related to an interpretation of the seemingly contradictory account of the creation of the first human. “God created the (hu)man in his image, in the image of God He created him (Adam), male and female he created them[v]”. The language is inconsistent, switching from singular to plural. Unless, the first human was both one and two at the same time! This is exactly where this interpretation goes. At first Adam and Eve were a double body with the male facing one way and the female the other[vi]. But this was not what God wanted, because being stuck back to back, they could not face each other. Instead it was important that they be “opposite” each other, “to receive shining face to face…[vii]” This reflects a divine call for loving relationships between men and women.

A contemporary take on it by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks emphasises the need for assertiveness in a marriage, that spouses help and support each  other but don’t lose their own identity, instead they remain opposite or against each other and are prepared to assert their own views and needs at times.  Otherwise the danger is that ‘the mouth is saying yes, while the heart is saying no and eventually the heart breaks from too many unspoken no’s’[viii]

This leaves us with the question about whether sexism practiced by religious people should be attributed to their religion? I think at least some blame can be placed on the individual. Gender relations vary greatly between individuals based on their personal character. Equally, cultural influences are at least as significant as religious guidance and often the main variable that could explain why adherents of the same faith behave differently in different countries.

Still, I will not speculate to what extent the criminals who attacked young Malala were influenced by their culture, faith or merely their own personal characteristics. I do not have the knowledge to make such judgements.  I think that even someone who had such knowledge would only be justified in blaming one or the other if it there was some constructive purpose[ix]. Tact and concern with interfaith/cross-cultural relationships should not restrict any realistic efforts to prevent oppression of women or any other injustice. I don’t accept moral relativism which says ‘you have your way and I have mine and therefore I should ignore what I believe to be an injustice based on cultural difference’ or to maintain relationships. Yet, if I find myself without the ability to influence the result in other countries, it is wrong to pointlessly denigrate people or groups.

What I can and do influence is a secondary issue. Will the crime against Malala be used to further divide people by blaming Muslims generally for it? Some would point to the support for Malala shown in Friday sermons by Muslim religious leaders in Pakistan and school children across the country. But, I publicly defended Muslims in a speech in a Synagogue, not on the basis of the number of “condemnations” but simply by asserting to my audience that the vast majority of Muslims were neither fanatics nor “condemn-ers”. I am sure they don’t agree with the attackers, but mainly they are people like you and me; focused on everyday things, looking after their families, and in some way trying to worship the one God also worshiped by Jews and Christians.    

Going beyond the common ground of Monotheism, I think it might be useful to think of the shared struggle between the nobler and baser ways of being and dealing with differences of opinion and belief.  In the Australian political context, I think it is true that sexism is part of the mix of the offensive, aggressive personal attacks that have become normal practice in the game of politics. While I value the honest and unpretentious tradition of Australian politics, we would probably be better off with more civil debate in our parliament.

To draw some inspiration from Genesis, the first siblings were named Cain, which is related to acquisition or ambition and Abel or Hevel in Hebrew which means air and has been linked to vanity. When Greed and Glory fight, one is murdered and the other is damaged for the rest of his life, condemned to wander. Neither Cain nor Abel, in the end are the ancestors of the human race, both were flawed. Instead it is a third son named Seth, meaning “to put” representing the idea of “foundation” who rejects both vanity and ambition and proves worthy to be the father of the generations that follow[x]. Humility and restraint are so important.

Abuse of strength and positions of power is nothing new. We are taught about the “sons of the powerful[xi] (who) saw the daughters of men that they were good, and they took women from all that they chose[xii]”, this included brides all dressed for their weddings who were abducted and raped[xiii].

In the end, we must oppose all abuses of power and domination, whether it is males seeking to restrict girl’s education, sexist comments, or sexual harassment. While the shooting of Malala was tragic, the silver lining is that those supporting equality have gained the moral high ground while her attackers have lost it. The advocates for justice must hold the moral high ground with less Cain, Abel, Lillit and the indulgent abusive “sons of the powerful” and more “face to face love”, restraint, assertiveness when appropriate, humility and equality.

[i] Genesis 2:18
[ii] Seforno
[iii] Midrash Abachir, see also reference to Lillith in Talmud Shabbat 151a, and Lillin in Talmud Eruvin, cited in Torah Shlaima  part 2, p. 236 note 256
[iv] Zohar Bereshit 34b, and Vayikra 19a, cited in Torah Shlaima,
[v] Genesis 1:27
[vi] Midrash cited in Rashi, later when God is said to have removed a “rib” from Adam, the Hebrew word used is Tzelah, which can be either a rib or a side, the latter meaning is still used in Modern Hebrew.
[vii] Zohar 3, 44b, cited in Torah Shlaima p.236
[viii] I am paraphrasing, I am do not have the source material at hand
[ix] See discussion about this point relating to the Torah talking about impure animals in the story of Noach in an indirect way so as not to unnecessarily denigrate the unkosher animals.
[x] Abarbanel
[xi] Translation follows Unkelus, Jonathan Ben Uziel and Rashi
[xii] Genesis 6:2
[xiii] Genesis Rabba

Friday, October 5, 2012

Other People’s Money. Payment for Idealistic Occupations

I never told this to anyone before”, the Israeli man sitting across me last night in the Succah[i] says. “When I was a child we would walk two kilometres from our home in Jerusalem to the Synagogue. The Rabbi was a really humble man. He did not take a salary for his work as a Rabbi. He made his living working for the burial society. He lived 4 kilometres from the Synagogue and he would walk home with us and stop our place each Saturday on his way home…I never met another Rabbi like him”.

I have been thinking about whether being paid for community work is a problem. In my own case, my heart is set on promoting inter-religious and cross cultural respect and eradicating hatred, an issue I have worked on full time for the last 6 years. Yet, my livelihood is derived from the existence of the problem that I am trying to address. Noel Pearson touches on the role of bureaucrats in entrenched in an article the Australian Newspaper “Their purpose is to keep the poor under harness, forever dependent on what they call service delivery…using them as fodder for the service delivery industries of the welfare state[ii]”. This post is about what my traditions teaches about being pair for work in idealistic occupations.

Torah Students Supported by Others
One of the trends among a section of the very orthodox Jewish community is for men to study the
Torah, full time, for many years continuing even after marriage in institutions of study called Kollels. The families of the Kollel scholars are supported partly by the income of the wives working, but often living off philanthropy and government benefits.

One early source for this practice is hinted at in the Torah reading this week. “And of Zebulun he (Moses) said, rejoice Zebulun in your going out and Yissachar in your tents[iii]”. The verse is interpreted as relating to a partnership between the tribe of Yissachar to study Torah[iv], while Zebulun engaged in commerce and supported the tribe of Yissachar. The reward for the Torah study would be split between them[v].

The Dependence Disgrace
Despite a tradition of patronage for Torah scholars, this practice has been harshly condemned by Maimonides. He writes, “though I decided not to refer to this subject again…I have changed my mind, since what I have to say will not please most if possibly all the world of Torah scholars. Know! The phrase (don’t use the Torah) “as a spade to dig with[vi]” means that you must not use the Torah as a means or instrument of livelihood…but men have distorted the plain obvious meaning…[vii].Whoever deliberately sets out to devote himself to Torah (study) and not work for a livelihood, but depend on charity has desecrated the divine name and brought the Torah into disrepute[viii]”. He cites many examples of scholars who earned their livelihood separately from their study. His argument is bolstered by the widespread disgust felt by many secular Israeli Jews about their religious countrymen who study all day and don’t work for a living. Yet, the practice continues.

Practical considerations
While it is true that great scholarship has been achieved after hours and a lot of community work is done on a voluntary basis, there is more that can be done if people are able to devote themselves full time to it.

Maimonides own experience is worth considering, for many years he was supported by his own brother David who was a wealthy merchant while he studied and wrote. After his brother’s death he did support himself by working as a doctor for the Sultan, but it was hardly conducive to scholarship. He described his daily routine in a letter to a friend who he advises not to bother visiting because he would only be able to spare a few minutes as much as he longs to see him.

“I live in Fostat and the Sultan lives in Cairo (a mile and a half distance)…I must see him (the Sultan) every morning to check on his health… by the time I come back to Fostat, half the day is gone. Under no circumstances do I come earlier. And I am ravenously hungry by then.

When I come home, my foyer is always full of people – Jews and non-Jews…people who love me and people who hate me…, all of whom have been waiting for me to come home… I get off of my donkey, wash my hands, and go out into the hall to see them. I apologize and ask that they should be kind enough to give me a few minutes to eat... Then I go out to heal them...Patients go in and out until nightfall, and sometimes – I swear to you by the Torah – it is two hours into the night before they are all gone. I talk to them and prescribe for them even while lying down on my back from exhaustion. And when night begins, I am so weak, I cannot even talk anymore[ix]…”

Perhaps Maimonides would have been better off in the situation of another Doctor-Torah scholar, the Rashbatz, who was prevented from practicing medicine by an oppressive Government. He then felt justified in accepting payment for his religious work[x], and probably did a much better job of it than anyone can do on top of a full time job.

A way around the issue of being paid for teaching Torah is to think of it as compensation for lost income[xi]. The Rabbinic Judge, Karna, one of the examples cited by Maimonides, earned his living as a water carrier rather than as a religious functionary. However, when Karna was asked to adjudicate disputes based on Torah law, he asked the litigants to pay for a replacement water carrier[xii] so that he would not lose out on his meagre income.

I think the most serious issue here is the one raised by Noel Pearson, in which people harm the very people they are entrusted to help. In the same passage that Torah scholars are urged to combine their study with work, there is a warning for all who occupy themselves with the community, to do so for altruistically “for the sake of heaven[xiii]”. All of us who have the privilege of meaningful work in the community sector are obligated to be alert to ulterior motives, whether these are ego or job security. Good governance and accountability are also critical for maintaining checks and balances.

It make a big impression on me as a child when my father came home from a newly formed “community representative body” or parliament one night and said we decided to disband the group as soon as it has achieved its purpose rather than it continue to exist and become a new “monster”.  All of us in in the community sector must justify the wages we take in terms of the benefit we provide to clients and the community and the impact we have. We dare not do any less.  

[i] Temporary dwellings used during the festival of succot
[iii] Deuteronomy 33:18
[iv] We find a reference to member of the Yissachar tribe acting as scholars “understanding of the times” In Chronicles I, 12:33
[v] Rashi, Midrash Tanchuma
[vi] Pirkey Avot 4:6
[vii] Maimonides commentary on Pirkey Avot
[viii] Maimonides Yad Hachazaka, laws of Torah study, 3:10-11
[x] Chill, A, (1991) “Abarbanel on Pirkey Avot”, Shepher-Hermon Press, New York, p.247 (this book also includes a compilation of other commentaries as well drawn from Midrash Shemuel
[xi] Abarbanel makes this argument in his commentary to Pirkey Avot, I am sure there are other sources
[xii] Talmud Ketubot 105a, cited in Maimonides commentary on Pirkey Avot
[xiii] Pirkey Avot 2:2