Friday, December 6, 2013

Responding to Violence - Joseph, Mandela, Muslims and Ukrainians Vayigash

I, wearing a black hat that marked me as Hasidic Jew, stood in middle of a large circle of Ukrainians this week. This image, if I thought of it a year ago, would have conjured in my mind associations of anti-Semitic violence, or Pogroms. Instead, it was a circle of solidarity that I had joined and was most warmly welcomed into. We stood together as freedom loving people of Ukrainian and Jewish heritage praying for an end to the violence being perpetrated against peaceful protestors in Ukraine. It was also a quiet step closer between two communities with a past that could keep us apart if we allow it to.

The death of Nelson Mandela today, a giant of forgiveness and reconciliation coincides with the Torah reading this week, Vayigash, about Joseph who like Mandela was locked away in prison and persecuted, like him triumphed and rose to power, and again like Mandela repaid his tormentors with kindness rather than revenge. 

A number of years after Joseph is thrown into a pit and sold into slavery by his own brothers, he meets them again. This time Joseph is not a lone defenceless teenager, instead he is a national ruler in Egypt. In a remarkable act of forgiveness Joseph tells his brothers; “do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that G d sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land... So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God” (1).

It is Joseph’s faith that leads him to see the cause of his being sold into slavery being God’s plan to save lives during the famine, rather than it being simply the result of his brothers’ cruel choice to sell him (2).  This is surprising, as surely people must be held responsible for their own actions and intentions, rather than being let of the hook because of a positive end result (3). One suggestion is that there are exceptionally important circumstances such as the case of Joseph which had far reaching historical consequences in which God over-rides free choice and directs people to carry out his plan (4). A Chasidic approach sees much broader application of Joseph’s approach. It affirms absolute freedom of choice while also embracing full divine providence over every single object and every single occurrence with every object (5). This being the case there is no point in being angry or holding a grudge against anyone because everything that happens is the will of God (6). My discussions with a Sheikh last night showed me that some discussions in Islam on this issue were quite similar to those in Judaism.

The dignified prayer Vigil for Ukraine began with a reading that included a prayer to be “the one who forgives”. Yet, the violence this prayer vigil was addressing is continuing with students being brutally beaten in Kiev as we heard directly from people who witnessed it. It is not the time to think much about forgiveness. The priority now is that the violence stop and the rights of the people to protest are upheld. For some at the prayer vigil, the murder of 10 million Ukrainians by Stalin’s Russian government was seen as relevant to questions of the relationship with Russia today.

Last night I was deeply moved by another story about violence and dignity. We heard from the very eloquent, Hijab wearing, Najah Zoabi, a survivor of domestic violence. She talked about the first slap of an open hand against the skin of her face. About being devalued as a human being, constantly being told she was not good or beautiful enough until she believed it. She told how of the change in herself, from being raised with kindness and respect by her parents to feeling degraded by her husband. Eventually she sought and received help and healing from the Muslim Women Association and their support centre. It amazed me that the confident articulate woman speaking last night was able to triumph over the violence and abuse to be the person she is now and reclaim the dignity she enjoyed in her parent’s home.

I told the Ukrainian group of an experience I had in 1992 in the city of Kharkov, Ukraine. I danced outside the KGB headquarters around midnight on the Festival "Simchat Torah" when we celebrate the end of the yearly cycle of the Torah reading for the year. At that time it seemed that oppression by the state that my grandfather and his parents experience in Ukraine, was a thing of the past was a thing of the past. Sadly, it seems that dance was premature. However as we celebrated Chanukah this week, we hope and pray that once again freedom and dignity will triumph over violence.

Faith and grace can help us respond to violence in a variety of positive ways.

1.    Genesis 45: 5-8
2.    The classic Jewish concept that things that happen are ultimately part of God’s plan but wicked people will choose and have the opportunity to be instruments for the harsh components of the plan and good people will play the pleasant roles.
3.    Abarbanel Genesis Chapter 45, Vayigash p 415
4.    Abarbanel ibid.
5.    The Baal Shem Tov as discussed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Likutei Sichos Vol 8
6.    Rabbi Schenur Zalman in Tanya, Iggeret HaKodesh, Epistle 25 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Fear & Shame, Withdrawal & Cover-up, Perseverance & Triumph. Vayishlach

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It is hard to imagine the impact the devastation in the Philippines has on those affected, all we can do is give them the support they need, and I would not be offering them any advice from the comfort of my Sydney home.  In less dramatic ways, like most people, I deal with a range of challenges. There are times when others can support me. Yet there are some difficulties, especially relating to the consequences of our own choices that we need to deal with, almost, alone.

There are times when we are subjected to the choices of others, either malicious or indifferent, with limited ability to protect ourselves. At such times it can become difficult to keep fighting.  Whether as a victim or a guilty party, there is the temptation to hide one’s shame. Shame can be useful, just like pain, it is a sign that some standard has been violated,  and we can negotiate with shame to contain and channel it for good. With a prayer on our lips, gratitude for what we do have, recognition of our virtues (1), we can have faith that despite the troubles we face, we may yet triumph in the end. I explore these themes through the life of Jacob, mainly as they appear in the Torah reading this week, Vayishlach.

We encounter Jacob very afraid and upset (2) about meeting his violent brother Esau who he had cheated out of their father’s blessings years earlier (3). His prayer is full of pathos, “Please save me, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him, lest he come and strike me, [and strike] a mother with children” (4). Yet, despite the urgency for Jacob, God does not reply to this prayer.

I see great symbolism in the fact that Jacob remains “alone” when he wrestles with a man (5), who commentary tells us was his brother’s guardian angel (6). Jacob prevails in his wrestle with the angel, admitting that yes he is Jacob, which means the usurper (7), yet standing his ground. The meeting with the brother works out ok, after Jacob sent him many gifts, his brother kisses him and tells him “My brother, let what is yours, be yours” (8), which is interpreted “as my brother, there is no need for the gifts” (9) and perhaps even conceding that Jacob can keep the disputed blessings (10).

Shortly after the reunion with his brother Esau, Jacob’s daughter Dina’s, an only girl among a family of boys (11), goes out to seek some female company with the local girls or alternatively she is more keen to “be seen” to show off her good looks (12). She is noticed, then abducted and raped by Shchem the son of the local ruler “who sleeps with her and pains her” (13) (see note 12 regarding the offensive linking of mode of dress with rape). When Jacob hears about the rape, he waits silently for his sons (14) and leaves them to do the talking (15). They make a dishonest offer of intermarriage with the people of Shchem on condition that all the men in Shchem circumcise themselves which enables Jacob’s sons to kill the ailing townspeople. They don’t bother to seek Jacob’s guidance or permission. Jacob’s protests weakly about PR damage and fear of reprisal. His sons dismiss his concern with a rhetorical question “should he make our sister into a harlot?!” (16). I see Jacob withdrawing from leadership because of the pain and shame of the situation.

Jacob, shattered by the episode with Dina, still manages to pull himself together to provide some religious guidance to his sons about disposing of any idols among the spoils (17). It is not long before Jacob seems to withdraw again. After his beloved wife Rachel dies, the text tells us that his son Reuben “went and slept Bilhah (this is not a typo, it does not say slept with), his father’s concubine, and Jacob heard” (18).

There is great controversy about the meaning of the verse. Some sages are adamant that it is not to be taken literally (19). It could be argued that they are seeking to whitewash or cover up what really happened according to the plain meaning of the text and the views of other sages (20). At a time when the Torah used to be translated for those who did not understand Hebrew one sage instructed the translator not to translate this verse (21). One commentator (22) cryptically suggests that the sages have interpreted this verse well, citing the proverb “and the wise, have their shame covered” (23). This view is strongly rejected, while it is “permissible” to say that Reuben did in fact sin, it is absolutely forbidden to” suggest that the sages who did not take the story literally were engaged in a cover up (24).

Certainly in the modern context we know that hiding problems such as child abuse is a terrible omission that can lead to great suffering, honour killings is another crime that might be motivated by the desire to avoid shame. According to commentary Dina has a daughter to Shchem who is later named Osnat, and her brothers want to kill the baby girl so that no one will say that the house of 

Jacob is a house of harlotry. To his credit Jacob prevents that heinous crime, but disturbingly he sends young Osnat away from home (25).  

In the end Jacob survives all these troubles. His last years are happy ones, spent with his powerful and much loved son and wonderful wife,Joseph and Osnat, yes the same Osnat daughter of Shchem and Dina (26).

 Jacob’s legacy is the existence of the Jewish people today 3000 years later, and the spreading of Biblical teachings to large parts of the human family, an amazing triumph.  He fulfilled his greater destiny, despite the tragedies and foibles along the way.

Let us all offer support to each other whenever we can, through trouble great such as the Philippines is now going through as well as small. Equally, let all of us, who face difficulties try to “feel the fear and do it anyway” (27) persistently and humbly navigating the challenges of living. 

(Thank you Donna Jacobs Sife for Edit)
References and Notes 
1)    R. Yosef Yitchak Shneerson argues that one must know ones positive points just as one must be aware of ones faults
2)    Genesis 32:8
3)    Genesis 27
4)    Genesis 32:12, (translation with minor modification from
5)    Genesis 32:15
6)    Beresheet Rabba
7)    Gensis 32:28 as interpreted by my colleague Donna Jacobs Sife
8)    Genesis 33:9
9)    Seforno
10)    Rashi, Baal Haturim, indicates that the Gematriya, the numerical value of the letters in the words אחי יהי לך אשר לך (my brother let what is yours be yours) is the same as זה הברכות they both equal the number 645.
11)    Ohr Hachayim
12)    Tanchuma Yashan Vayshlach 10 who goes on to suggest that her arm was revealed, “because it could not be that she would have gone out without covering her face” (based on Torat Cohanim and Yefat Toar),  see also in Midrash Agada, Lekach Tov cited in Torah Shlaima  Vol. 2 p. 1317-1318. I agree with the modern view that showing off her beauty is no excuse for rape, these commentaries written over a thousand years ago do not suggest that it is a justification but they do contextualise her abduction with this commentary.
13)    Genesis 34:2, which is interpreted as Shchem raping her (Ramban)
14)    Genesis 34:5, an alternative interpretation is that he is that he initially sends two servants to bring her home, Shchem and his men banish Jacob’s servants but not before Shchem sits Dina down and kissed her and hugged her in front of them. They reported back to Jacob on what they had seen. It is a this point that Jacob goes silent (Sefer Hayashar)
15)    Genesis 34:13, Radak points out that Jacob is silent while this negotiated. He does not speak falsehood with his lips but leaves it to his sons to do.
16)    Genesis 34:30-31
17)    Genesis 35:2-4
18)    Genesis 35:22, while the verse seems to suggest that he was passive, commentary suggests that he heard and rebuked him (Yalkutim Hatemanim, cited in Torah Shlaima Vol. 2 p. 1362, 96).
19)    Talmud Shabbat 55b some of the sages, Rashi, Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel, Chizkuni. The proof cited in support of the non-literal view is the fact that the Tribe of Reuben stands on Mt. Ebal and utters the curse against anyone who sleeps with his father’s wife, which would surely not be appropriate if this was a sin committed by the founder of their tribe and their ancestor. 
20)    Other opinions in the Talmud Shabbat 55b, Oonkelus, Bchor Shor and Radak who explains that Reuben thought that Bilhah was not really his father’s wife but a mere concubine. Another source that would not be considered authoritative is Sefer Hayovilm  33 (which was found with the dead sea scrolls). It gives a vivid description of the event.
21)    Talmud Megilah 25b
22)    Ibn Ezra
23)    Proverbs 12:16, וכסה קלון ערום
24)    Sefer Emunat Chachamim, L’Rabbi Eliezer Sar Shalom 22, cited in in Torah Shlaima Vol. 2  p. 1362, 96
25)    Midrash Mayan Ganim, manuscript, cited in cited in in Torah Shlaima Vol. 2  p. 1318, 6
26)    Genesis 41:45, as interpreted by Pirkey DRabbi Eliezer 38
27)    Susan Jeffers, the name of her excellent book, an earlier variation of this concept is also articulated by Abarbanel.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Humanity of Perpetrators

I have been thinking about three people who can be described as perpetrators of crimes: one, who inspired me in Bondi last week; another is a member of the group of men and boys who attacked several Jewish people on a Friday night in Bondi. The third case involves a man we will call H who was arrested this week and charged with sexual abuse. I also seek some insights about these events from the Torah reading that tells of a villain named Esau and the context of his upbringing.

Last week, I encountered a young man named Jimmy, with an inspirational story: Jimmy has a history of crime, stealing his first car when he was 12 years old. Jimmy is of Aboriginal heritage but knew nothing about his heritage growing up. Later, he was reticent about telling anyone about his heritage because he thought they would think he was looking for a handout. He was ashamed of being Aboriginal. He told his mother he was disappointed with his first 8-month jail sentence. He considered it too short for him - he actually preferred a longer sentence which would have given him some status. Some years later, now the father of a young girl, he received an 8-year sentence. During this period, he made a choice to go straight because “I didn’t want to not be there for my daughter - to be the kind of dad that my dad was, never being there for me”.

Jimmy got permission for day release from prison to work in the community- based “Our Big Kitchen” in Bondi, where he was welcomed. He developed a talent for baking Challah (the Jewish Sabbath bread).  He was very shy at first, even running away when asked to talk to a group of pre-school children, but eventually his confidence grew. Last week he addressed a group of Muslim, Jewish and other students at an interschool program I led under the banner of Together For Humanity. He powerfully illustrated the idea that every human being should be thought of as a human being; the crimes or lesser sins committed by people are one important element of who they are, but not their essence. Jimmy is rising above his crimes by his choices.

The second case is far from inspiring. I have known the Jewish family who were attacked on a Bondi street since the 1990’s; one teaches at a school my children attend. She is a warm, kind and personable woman.  I am disgusted by the attack on them and especially about the significant anti-Semitic nature of the attack.

I was saddened to learn that some of the perpetrators of the attack on this lovely family were apparently Pacific Islanders , although somewhat relieved that the attackers were not Muslims. The organisation I lead, Together For Humanity, works intensively with Arabic Muslim and Pacific Islander teenagers not much older than this alleged perpetrator. There are significant challenges for these boys who are coming from a different world, where there is a great emphasis on family and different ways of showing respect. Pacific Islander students show respect by looking down and “not answering back” in a culture (ours) that values eye contact and verbal communication when dealing with a problem (see embedded video that features Pacific Islander Academic Dr Jioji Ravulo taken from . Newspapers quoted the boy’s mother talking about his problems with alcohol. Like Jimmy, he has spent time in Juvenile Detention, and - I suspect - sought glory or pleasure in “badness”. Unlike Jimmy, he has not yet made a choice to turn his life around.

Very disturbing in a different way is the recent arrest for sex offences of a man I knew in the 1990’s as a fun, dedicated, altruistic, somewhat wild, community volunteer, always smiling, often busy helping people with Mezuza scrolls and making their homes Kosher. Normally, when I hear about sexual abuse, I think about the terrible ordeal of the victims, the perpetrators being viewed as one- dimensional, evil monsters. Yet, this man H, whatever terrible harm he has inflicted on his young victims and the absolute primacy of justice for the current and potential victims, is a multi-dimensional human being. In addition to the tragedy and the terrible costs borne by his victims, it is very sad for him and his family. I shudder to think about what darkness in his soul drove him to commit the acts he allegedly committed. 

Esau, the son of Isaac and Rebecca, is generally thought of as a villain in Judaism. Unlike Jimmy, Esau’s father is not absent. In fact, we are told that he loved Esau although the love is conditional upon the meat he is able to hunt and bring to his dad . Still, it is not smooth sailing. We are told that his mother Rebecca loved Jacob. This is understood to mean that she did not love Esau because she recognised his wickedness . It is further suggested that it is, only when the “the lads grow up ”, that anyone pays attention to their unique natures: Esau was a man of the field while Jacob sat and studied in tents. The parents fail to recognize or notice Esau’s character, with all the “strength, energy, agility, and courage that lie slumbering in this child ”. Esau was the first born son in a culture in which the first born was to be treated with a measure of deference. Esau is further alienated when Jacob figures out a way to free himself from these customs  by purchasing the Birth-Right for a pot of lentils , legally displacing Esau from his elevated position.

In many conversations about offences, there is an either/or approach to the issues. One is either tough on crime with mandatory sentences, pink prison clothes and throwing away the key, or one is a bleeding heart, soft on crime, caring only about the perpetrators and not the victims. This is a false choice. We can forcefully condemn crimes against people because of their race and the exploitation of children, and insist that, no matter what their circumstances, people are responsible for their choices. At the same time, we can also recognise the humanity, the struggles and social context of those human beings who have chosen at certain moments of their life to be perpetrators . May we succeed as a community to maintain justice and order while also improving the conditions in which young people and older people find themselves, so that they are less likely to be drawn towards choosing to do evil.

  video by Dr Jioji Ravulo at
  Genesis 25:28
  Genesis 25:27
  Samson Raphael Hirsch
  Genesis 25:30-33
  Do  not judge your fellow until you have been in their place, Pirkey Avod 2:4 as discussed in Tanya 30

Friday, October 25, 2013

Child Sacrifice

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On Wednesday morning I gave a lift to a man whose home burnt down in the Blue Mountains fires; he got on a train to try to retrieve some of his remaining possessions from a nearby suburb. As I dropped him at the station I could only hope he would come back safely. He did.  On 702 Radio I heard a heartfelt expression of gratitude by a woman named Melissa to all the interstate and out- of- area fire fighters. There is something about situations of vulnerability that brings out the best in people. Yet, we also have the horrific phenomenon of child sacrifice in our traditions and in other forms even today. The welfare of children is not always protected adequately; in some cases, other priorities have interfered with decision making by otherwise good people who should have been more focused on what is best for children.

Child sacrifice, more precisely a story about it, has united Muslims and Jews: Muslims celebrated the Eid last week that commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son; Jews read about it in the weekly Torah portion Vayerah. The same story - I am told by a Christian friend - has huge significance for Christians. Our Torah reading of last week included five instances involving a parent or a community and some form of sacrifice of a “child” (1), involving two brothers and three sisters.

Abraham had prepared to slaughter  his son Isaac   as an offering to obey God’s command (2). One way of understanding Abraham’s reaction to this command is that he has an inner struggle with his conscience or doubts (3) as illustrated in two Midrashic stories. In one story, Satan suggests “tomorrow you will be told you are a shedder of blood!” (4); in a second, Satan questions whether the command was from God or actually from Satan himself (5). Despite these thoughts,  Abraham persists with his mission and shows great faith, which is celebrated in Judaism. In the end, the notion of human sacrifice is categorically rejected by God, who tells Abraham via an angel that he has proven his loyalty but he “should not send his hand to the child nor should he do anything to him” (6).

Another case of a child being sacrificed is only hinted at in the text and is clearly condemned. God refers to  the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah “…their sin has become very grave, I will descend now and see whether according to her cry, which has come to Me, they have done” (7).  Commentary interprets “her cry” as referring to the cry of a specific girl (8). 

“They had announced in Sodom that anyone who gives bread to a poor person or a foreigner will be burned in fire. Plotis, the daughter of Lot…saw a poor person in the city square… Every day as she [Lot’s daughter] went out to draw water from the well she put some food from her house in her pitcher and would feed the poor person. The Sodomites wondered how this poor person remained alive. Until the matter became known and Plotis was taken out to be burned…” (9) 

According to Jewish teachings, the cruelty of Sodom was motivated by a deterrence strategy that was aimed at keeping outsiders out and to preserve wealth (10). There are echoes of this approach in asylum seeker policies referred to in Australia as “border protection”. In Sodom, the life of young Plotis was sacrificed in an effort to maintain this xenophobic policy; in our time children in detention continue to pay the price for deterrence strategies.

Plotis’ sisters are offered as the next sacrifice when Lot’s visitors are threatened with Sodomy by an angry mob. In trying to protect his guests, Lot offers his two daughters who “have never known a man” to the mob. (11). Lot’s action is strongly condemned in one Midrash that suggests he should have killed or allowed himself to be killed to protect his daughters (12). An alternative interpretation is that Lot has no intention of allowing his daughters to be violated. Instead he is thought to be sarcastic just as someone might say “my house is open for you, just take anything you want”, knowing that this would not be done (13).

Another sacrifice, not in terms of losing a life, but rather the loss of a parent- child relationship and home, relates to the case of Ishmael. Sarah becomes concerned about Ishmael’s possible adverse influence on her son Isaac   (14). One interpretation is that Ishmael captured grasshoppers and offered them as sacrifices to idols (15). Abraham feels very sad about his son Ishmael, but in the end banishes him, giving him some bread and water and sending him off with his mother. There are other opinions that Ishmael was shooting arrows at Isaac with the intent to kill him (16), so the decision to banish Ishmael is as much a case of child protection as child sacrifice.  I also draw some comfort from traditions that Abraham goes out to the desert twice over coming years to visit Ishmael, demonstrating that his fatherly love endures (17). 

One very moving incident involves Hagar, the banished homeless maidservant wandering in the desert, who sees her son getting very sick and dehydrated;  so she puts him down under a tree. “She went and sat herself down the distance of arrow shots because she said (to herself) I will not see the death of the boy, and she sat  from afar, and she raised her voice and wept” (18). Her son Ishmael would have been desperate for her comforting presence, yet she feels so broken she cannot bear any more pain.

On Sunday, while I was writing the first draft of this article, I found myself stressed about a task set for me by an academic advisor. As I finally felt I was making some progress, I heard my son crying in another room. I had to tear myself away from what I was doing and try to comfort him. He was frustrated by his efforts learning to ride a bicycle. I took him to a park and, in almost no time, he triumphed with his riding and was thrilled!

I close with prayers for all vulnerable people suffering from fire, poverty, policies against “illegals” and children who depend on the good judgement and care of others.

(1)    There are various traditions about the ages of the five “children”, but all are referred to as the child of either Abraham or Lot.
(2)    Genesis 22
(3)    Leibowitz, Nehama, New Studies in Bereshit Genesis, p.196
(4)    Midrash Tanchuma
(5)    Midrash Vayosha, Bet Hamidrash Jellineck, Tel Aviv, Ozar Midrashim, Eisenstein, New York 1928, cited in Leibowitz, Nehama, New Studies in Bereshit Genesis, p. 206
(6)    Genesis 22:12
(7)    Genesis 18:21-22
(8)    Talmud, Sanhedrin 109b, quoted in Rashi, Beresheet Rabbah
(9)    Pirkey D’Rabbi Eliezer 25, cited in Torah Shlaima p.776. In this version she is a married woman rather than a young girl as stated in theTalmud. An alternative commentary states that she was raped (Midrash Chefetz, also cited in Torah Shlaima).
(10)     Ramban articulates this view powerfully
(11)     Genesis 19:4-7
(12)     Midrash Tanchuma Vayerah 12, an alternative interpretation actually praised Lot for his dedication to his guests and compares his sacrifice to that of Moses who was prepared to sacrifice himself for Israel (Pirkey D’Rabbi Eliezer 25, cited in Torah Shlamia p.794)
(13)     Drashat Even Shuiv, in the name of Rabbenu Chananel, cited in Torah Shlamia p.794. This interpretation is certainly more comfortable, although a similar case involving the rape of a concubine (Judges Ch. 19-20) suggests that this outlandish bargain could actually be struck.
(14)     Genesis 21:9-14
(15)     Tosefta Sotah 6
(16)     Tosefta Sotah 6, cited in Rashi
(17)     Pirkey D’Rabbi Eliezer cited in Meam Loez
(18)     Genesis 21:16

Friday, October 11, 2013

Integrity vs. Relationships & Lech Lcha

This week I was subjected to a negotiation-tactic-offence. I argued for additional information relating to a financial demand; this request was countered by a threat to discontinue the business relationship.  This is wrong. Love and other relationships should be managed so that they can be preserved without sacrifices of integrity. Indeed, our most valuable relationships can, in some circumstances, be strengthened by acting with integrity within the relationship and beyond it.  Yet, conflicts will sometimes occur.

The prioritising of integrity over relationships plays out dramatically at the beginning and end of the story of Abraham. 

God’s first call to Abraham is to move away from those closest to him. The sequence of the journeys Abraham is called on to make is instructive. He is first told to leave his land, then his birthplace and then his father’s house (1). This is because, in spiritual terms, the easiest shift is to leave one’s land and what it represents - familiar places and practices with which one has a relatively superficial connection. The hardest shift and “cruellest wrench” is the cutting off of one’s connection with one’s family (2).

God’s demand of Abraham to leave his past and parents is introduced with the words Lech Lcha, לך ,לך which is usually translated as “go for yourself” but literally means “go to yourself”; in other words, shift to be true to yourself (3), by breaking with your past.  Abraham’s greatest test is introduced with the same words: “go to yourself to the land of Moria” (4);  in this case, he is called to forgo his future (5) by killing his son, Isaac, again in the name of integrity in his service of God.

In the end, God does not demand the life of Isaac, which suggests that, in the end, we are called on to combine love of God with love of family. Managing both in the right proportion is a huge challenge. I remember how hard my father worked in the service of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s cause of promoting Judaism (6), when I was a young child. My father kept talking to many people in the Synagogue after the prayers about the Jewish outreach work he was doing, while I was impatiently waiting to go home. Today I have my own cause; I wonder how well I am doing in balancing my “mission” with doing the right thing by my family.    

In Abraham’s life, this struggle plays out in various ways.  According to commentary, Abraham was meant to have a clean break with his family when he was commanded to leave his “fathers house”; yet, in not wanting to embarrass his nephew Lot, Abraham prioritises his relationship with his nephew over God’s demand, and allows Lot to come with him (7). So we are told that Abraham went as God commanded him, and Lot went with him (8) on his own initiative (9). It might also have been useful for Lot to recognise what this journey wasreally about for Abraham (acting in accordance with God’s instruction),  which was not Lot’s agenda (10).  With both Abraham and Lot compromised, it does not surprise me that a little while later the relationship hits a rough patch and they go their separate ways eventually (11).

Abraham is faced with another challenge when Sarah,  his first wife, runs into strife with his second wife Hagar. Sarah, who was childless, had offered her maid Hagar to Abraham as a second wife so that Abraham might have some children with her. When Hagar became pregnant she lost respect for her barren mistress (14). Sarah is very upset and says to Abraham: "I gave you my I have become cheapened in her eyes, may God judge between me and you.” According to commentary she rants: “All my embarrassment is from you, I trusted you for justice, I left my land and father’s house and travelled with you to a foreign land…now my humiliation is revealed before God, may he spread his peace on us and let the earth be filled with us and we won’t need the sons of Hagar, the daughter of Pharaoh, who is the son of Nimrod, who put you in a fiery furnace” (15).

Abraham replies with an absolute “yes dear, here is your maid in your hand, do to her what is good in your eyes”. Sarah's behaviour at this point is subject to many opinions; the text says “ותענה”; one translation is that Sarah abused her (16) and it is interpreted that she either enslaved her harshly (17), or hit her with a shoe (18). Hagar flees Sarah. One commentary states that “our mother sinned in this affliction and Abraham, too, by allowing her to do this” (19). I think it is fair to say that Abraham is concerned mostly with his relationship with Sarah, and does not give a great deal of priority to what would be ethical in this situation.

In some cases, it is certainly right to put family first and, even in less important relationships, it is sometimes appropriate to capitulate rather than to take a stand on principle, which is what I did in the situation referred to at the beginning of this post. Yet, there are times when, in order to live with integrity, we will be required to put truth, justice or God ahead of keeping our parents, children or spouse happy. May we all be blessed with the wisdom and courage to make the right choices   while also enjoying the blessings of  love.

Notes and sources:
1)    Genesis 12:1, In the case of Abraham our tradition tells us that he has already rejected the religious worldview and practices of his father, but this is not sufficient; he must also physically move away, which, in a world without regular communication, must have been almost a complete end to the relationship.
2)    Hakesav Vhakabala as discussed in Lebovitz, N. New Studies in Breshit Genesis p. 113, Ohr Hachayim makes a similar point
3)    Schneerson, Rabbi M.M. Likutei Sichos
4)    Genesis   22:2
5)    Lebovitz New Studies in Breshit Genesis p. 114
6)    The Rebbe has a teaching based on the Talmudic idea that all who went out in the wars of the house of (King) David would write a bill of divorce for their wives. (In case they went missing in action, their wives would be free to remarry). The Rebbe interpreted this as a call for sacrifice of family for the cause of promoting Judaism. 
7)    Ohr Hachayim
8)    Genesis 12:4
9)    Klei Yakar
10)    Ohr Hachayim, Radak interprets this differently and sees Lot as “listening to Abraham” and being loyal to Abraham’s ideas.
11)    Genesis 13:5-9
12)    She is referred to as Sarai at this stage of her life before it was changed to Sarah
13)    Genesis 12:11-19
14)    Genesis 16:3-6
15)    Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel
16)    Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, in the Living Torah.
17)    Rashi, Genesis 16:6.
18)    Beresheet Rabba, 45
19)    Ramban

Friday, October 4, 2013

Humans Gone Ape? Affirming our Essential Humanity and a Beauty Named Naama Beresheet

This work by Jonas Malmo, Sweden 2010,  is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License.

“Look at what they are doing to each other!” say some people , referring to Arabs or Muslims or both as a collective “they”, when they see the images or hear of the horror that is being perpetrated in Syria. This came up in a discussion about a Jewish teaching that people had descended to the level of Apes. The horrible murder and mayhem in Kenya led one participant to comment that  people like the Al-Shabab murderers are indeed apes, followed by the problematic comment about Syria. While people certainly do horrific, evil deeds, influenced by evil thoughts and speech, I think it is wrong to dehumanize them. Beasts kill for food, following their natural instincts without malice or evil intent; humans, on the other hand, make choices and carry out evil plans. It is the humanity of every human community, rather than the evil choices made by  some of their members,  that we should recognise. 

One important concept  about the nature of prejudice is the process of “essentialising”. This involves taking a negative characteristic or perspective about a member or several members of a group and reducing the group as a whole to that one characteristic and nothing else (1).  I heard of a chilling anecdote from Kenya  that one of the murderers responded to a 4 year old child’s assertion that he was a “very bad man” by offering him a Mars bar and telling the child that “we are not monsters” (2).  This interaction suggests to me that the killer, despite his evil side, is, in one sense, a person like me, rather than a demon. He wants to be perceived as a “good person”; he must think that he is making a “tough” decision that seems entirely justified in his twisted understanding of religion and morality.

I wish to explore the theme of essential humanity through the complicated case of a woman named Naama. This woman’s story carries a redemptive message about the enduring human spirit, regardless of ancestry or even after going through a “demonic” phase.

Naama’s birth is the result of an unwanted pregnancy. Her father Lemech, a descendant of the murderer Cain, married two women (3). One wife, Ada, was married for the purpose of child bearing; having served her purpose, she was   to spend the rest of her life “like a widow”, ignored by Lemech. The other wife, Tzila, whose name means “shade” because she was always in Lemechs “shadow”, was for sex. She was given a contraceptive drink and was “adorned like a prostitute” (4). Thwarting Lemech’s intentions, God ensures that Tzila becomes pregnant (5) and gives birth to a son named Tuval Cain and a daughter Naama. 

Unsurprisingly, Lemech’s two wives were jealous of each other and quarrelled.  Lemech finds it unbearable and cries out, “How are my sins worse than those of all people? that I have no quiet in my home, not when eating, not when drinking, not when going to sleep or waking up, did I kill a man(6)? Or choke little children to deserve this?! (7).

Tuval Cain and his sister Naama (8), raised in this household, are the world’s first iron workers (9) and arms manufacturers (10). Lemech  is unconcerned by the moral cost of creating weapons because he argues, much like gun control opponents do today, that he is not responsible for bringing the sword and murder into the world. He argues (11) that “the sword is not the only way to murder; in fact killing without it by repeatedly inflicting a barrage of wounds and bruises is a much worse death” (12). 

Naama, whose name means pleasant, was exceptionally beautiful (13). Men strayed after her (14), including the “sons of God”, meaning the children of the judges, who saw “the daughters of men, that they were good and they took all women as they pleased” (15).  Even demons fell for her. She is also thought to be the mother of Ashmadai, the king of demons (16). The commentary written by these ancient men is crying out for a feminist critique. Not attempting to offer it myself, I am instead considering this from the perspective of the religious mindset of scholars from between 500-2000 years ago, that describes this woman as one who would seem to be beyond redemption. This, however, is not the case.

Naama lived in a time where the human population became so degenerate that they were described as having their faces changed to those of apes, people became Centaurs, (17) half men, but also “like horses and mules without understanding”(18). Yet, our sages tell us that she was pleasing in the “end of her actions”; the angels sought to stray after her but she ran away from them (19).  She eventually (20) married the righteous Noah (21) and is therefore the mother of us all.

The key point for me here is that, despite the fact that we can behave in ways that might best be described an inhuman, nothing, not ancestry, family influence, personal choice, character or even horrific evil deeds, schemes and thoughts, like those of Al Shaabab, can ever erase the essential humanity of us all.

Also, there has been much discussion on facebook about a Muslim tradition or Hadith regarding Jewish people who sinned and were turned into apes. This can easily be misconstrued by non-Muslims and Muslims themselves as dehumanising. I am afraid this might feed anti-Jewish bigotry for some Muslims as well as generalised hatred of Muslims by some Jews. Yet, for me as a Jew, I find it fascinating that the idea of ‘humans gone ape’ is clearly articulated in my own tradition for a very similar reason. 

1)    Hall, S. ed. (1997) Representation, Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, London, Sage. p.245
3)    Genesis 4:19
4)    Midrash Rabba/Beresheet Rabba chapter 23
5)     Pesikta Zutra, Rashi, Rabbenu Bchaya
6)     Genesis 4:23
7)    Rabbi Yossi Kara, cited in Bchor Shor, An alternative interpretation (Radak) is that he is so enraged by this that he threatens to kill them, boasting of his capacity to do this as if he had already (Ibn Ezra and Radak) “killed a man” and could do the same to his wives if they continue to displease him. Ibn Ezra and Radak, support their view by citing the common usage of the past tense to refer to future events
8)    Midrash Hanealam (literally, the hidden midrash, cited first in the new Zohar 19b, and in Kasher, M. M., in Torah Shlaima (1992), Jerusalem. Beit Torah Shlaima) The text only tells us about Tuval Cain’s occupation but the unusual phrase “and the sister of Tuval Cain” was Naama, is taken to mean that she was like him with the same level of expertise.
9)    Genesis 4:22
10)    Rashi and Ramban. The word Tuval in the name Tuval Cain means spice, which is taken to mean that he extends Cain. Whereas Cain killed with his bare hands, Tuval Cain and his sister enabled killing with greater efficiency and ease (Midrash Rabba/Beresheet Rabba chapter 23)
11)    This is based on yet another interpretation of the phrase “did I kill a man?” in Genesis 4:23,
12)     Ramban, Rabbenu Bchaya
13)    Midrash Rabba
14)     Zohar Chadash Part 1, 55
15)    Genesis 6:2, commentary discusses whether this was consensual as the “sons of God”, according to one commentary, refers to the descendants of Cain who were exceptionally attractive, “beautiful and tall”, leading women to abandon their husbands (Midrash cited in Torah Shlaima); or it might have involved rape, particularly by the sons of the judges, an alternative meaning to the phrase “sons of God”, who grabbed women and raped them in the market place. Their example was followed by ordinary men as well (Sifre/Sifre Zuta). According to one commentary, the verse Genesis 6:4 “the fallen were on the earth”  refers to the Hebrew word for a miscarried foetus, a נפל (Nefel),  and suggests that many of the women who became pregnant were given a type of drink that caused them to miscarry because of their shame, and the earth was filled with aborted foetuses (Tzror Hamor- cited in Meam Loez).    
16)    Midrash Hanealam ibid
17)    Midrash Rabba/Beresheet Rabba chapter 23  
18)     Torah Shlaima citing מו"ע  (not sure who this is).
19)    Midrash Agada, cited in Torah Shlaima  
20)     I am taking the liberty here of compiling a composite image here that includes many different perspectives. I am not suggesting that the original commentators saw it as one narrative, they clearly did not.
21)     Midrash Rabba/Beresheet Rabba chapter 23

Friday, September 13, 2013

Criticism, Defensiveness and Repentance - Yom Kippur

It really got under my skin. An article was posted on a Muslim website making the ridiculous suggestion that the “Jewish Lobby” has taken credit for the election of Australian Prime Minister elect Tony Abbott because of his position on Middle East conflict (1).  It also hinted darkly about some kind of connection between secular groups in the Jewish community and the Mr. Abbott’s lesbian sister. If the article was focused on concerns for justice for the Palestinians, I would respect it, but why fabricate garbage about “Jewish control”? The sources cited in the article show clearly that the assertion is baseless. (Update: In response to my contacting the website that published the story, the words were changed to "all but too the credit"). What on earth is he getting at with the gay angle? More broadly my indignation with this article is an opportunity for a deeper reflection on criticism, defensiveness and repentance ahead of our Day of Atonement tonight and tomorrow.

I have been thinking about how religious communities respond to criticism. I hate the pattern in which communities, as well as political parties, are often focused on preserving a positive image, asserting an “us good, them bad” view rather than on exploring how we might not be so great and can improve. An impressive deviation from this was the unqualified apology and acknowledgement by Rabbi Moshe Gutnick this week of  a “culture of cover up, often couched in religious terms, (which) pervaded our thinking and actions“ relating to child sexual abuse (2).

While stirring up stereotypes and false or exaggerated negative beliefs about any community is reprehensible, raising legitimate concerns regarding any community should be welcomed. The above-mentioned Muslim website article clearly does the former.  Notwithstanding that problem, I think it still raises a useful question for Australian Jews about our obligations as Australian citizens regarding what we should take into account when we vote. In fairness to many Jews, a range of ethical views relating to Australia were debated and given prominence on blogs and Facebook, yet the extent to which exclusively Jewish priorities figured for some Jews in their voting decision is a legitimate topic for debate.

One of the things included in the confession test of our Yom Kippur prayer service is the sin of being judgemental.  I think it is important for people tempted to make judgements about perceived defensiveness in some communities to consider the following anecdote:

“Why are you so defensive?” I asked D., a 19 year old Hebrew School teacher when I first started out running a Sunday school almost 20 years ago. I had been trying to guide her about how she can do things better, but each time I suggested something D. gave me an argument about how she was already doing it. “If I wasn't feeling attacked, would I be defensive?” D replied. The penny dropped for me.

A prominent Muslim woman and leader has made the point to me that her communities’ internal efforts at self-criticism is hampered by the relentless attacks they are subjected to. I suggest this is also true for Jewish communities.

I noticed this dynamic in myself. I was sent an article by an American Jew, Mark Braverman relating to Israel’s “separation barrier” (3). Mark writes that when he stands in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur to pray for forgiveness he will: “stand before [ is] an 8 meter-high wall of concrete and steel that now stands between me and my maker, between me and my faith, and between me and my sisters and brothers in Palestine who in their call for justice and coexistence are calling me – and my Christian brothers and sisters in the UK and around the world – to faithfulness.  We Jews can be forgiven for our sins – this is without question – but we must begin by acknowledging them.”

Mark argues for collective Jewish responsibility, pointing out that the Yom Kippur confession prayer is “recited in the first person plural – and only so always in the plural”. “For the sin, that WE sinned …” we say as we physically (symbolically) beat our chests. My visceral reaction to Mark’s piece was defensive. I focused on Mark's argument that Israelis’ attitude is “fear-based … because they do not know the Palestinians.  That’s what the wall does…” I think that implies that the only reason Jews have negative feelings toward Palestinians is because of prejudice, itself caused by the wall. What about suicide bombing and the stabbing murders of men, women and children in their homes, I asked indignantly.

Yet, the prophets spoke scathingly, without context or qualification, about the Israelites, comparing them to Sodom. Prodding the people with hyperbole, the prophets’ technique could be seen to work in the same way that satire or cartoons help make a point by focusing on it.  In my own reserved way I have been critical of the approach Jews and Israel take to the endless peace process, suggesting a greater emphasis on justice is needed if we are ever to achieve the aim of peace.

On Yom Kippur I need to own up to my own shortcomings, as well as any faults of those of the various communities I am part of - Jewish, Hasidic, middle class, white, Australian and the Interfaith/Peace community. None are perfect. All can do better to avoid sins of commission or omission, to ensure we are not complicit with any evil and that we are as active as we can be to promote justice, peace and virtue.

I suggest that there needs to be a combination of effective self-criticism, generally avoiding defensiveness and taking ownership of our faults and those of our communities, while still also taking into account a concern about apportioning blame unfairly to our own communities.

Wishing the entire Jewish community and all people to be sealed in God’s good book and for those participating in the fasting and worship over the 25 hours of Yom Kippur a most rewarding day. 


Friday, August 30, 2013

New Year’s repentance, reality, “addictive” behaviours and change – Nitzavim Vayelech

In less than a week I will join my fellow Jews in prayer facing God’s judgement on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The prayer, Unesaneh Tokef (“Let us acknowledge the potency of the holiness of this day”) that inspired Leonard Cohen’s song “who by fire”, will be solemnly read and sung. Its phrases inviting us to reflect on our fate, either tranquillity or distress, life or a harsh death but disaster can be prevented if we repent. Yet, repentance becomes harder over time.  Like the infamous New Year’s resolutions, it involves me making a commitment to myself that I will behave differently next year. Can I trust myself to change when the context in which I make choices about my behaviour remain the same? 

In our Torah reading just prior to this holy day, Moses in tell the Israelites, “You are standing together today, all of you… to enter into a covenant ”. Perhaps one way to improve our prospects for doing right is by drawing strength from a community or fellowship. This is one of the key ingredients in the success of twelves steps programs .

On the other hand, identifying with a faith community can be used to perpetuate poor choices. We have the sinner who “will bless himself in his heart, telling himself, I will have peace as I follow my heart's desires (concluding cryptically with the words) to add the “Rava”  רוהwatered to the thirsty” . One commentary explains that he convinces himself that his sins won’t matter because the majority of people will behave uprightly and so as a member of the community he will still be able to enjoy the benefits of others good works . This is compared to a field that is not watered (the wicked) next to a regularly watered field (eg. the righteous), the unwatered/thirsty field’s crops would benefit from the watered field . 

Judaism teaches that our hearts follow our actions. The rituals are activities that influence our attitudes. In this model, although it is hard to change our attitude, we can change our practices and this in turn influences our attitudes. Following this theory, if I go to the fridge when I feel stressed, I am reinforcing a dependency on food for mood management. If I abstain from snacking on “comfort food” I am reinforcing my capacity for self-control.

One problematic commentary by Nahmanides (1194-1270) emphasises behaviour. It translates the word “Rava” as “sated” and relates it to the situation of the spirit that does not desire “things that are bad for it”. It relates the word “thirsty” to the desire for beautiful women. It suggests that if a man is submerged in promiscuity with women, his desire will increase greatly until he will want things he did not originally desire such as homosexuality and bestiality .  An obvious problem with this commentary is that his 13th century view of homosexuality does not conform to the reality reported by homosexuals about their own experience. A second problem is his equation of bestiality and homosexuality which I find offensive. I have dealt with attitudes toward homosexuals within Torah in an earlier post In this post I explore the “desire” aspect of this commentary.

I am concerned about the way this commentary deals with desire, particularly the way the commentary is adapted by a modern scholar, Nechoma Leibowitz in she which uses the word “addicted” to describe the sinner. I am concerned that the reader might miss the recognition of the way the person begins to lose control. I am afraid of some getting an impression that we are dealing with person who is simply evil and happily indulging him or herself. There is little scope for considering the profound pain suffered by addicts, including those addicted to sex, the internet or work that leads them to “self-medicate”.  It is critical to avoid judgement because we can never truly stand in another person’s shoes or “place ”.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, who I am named after, manages to articulate a powerful message of understanding for people’s circumstances. He suggest that when tempted to judge others we should consider that it is “his physical environment that causes him to sin, since his livelihood requires him to go about the market-place all day…(or) he is of those who sit at the street-corners. Thus his eyes see all sorts of temptation; and “‘what the eyes see, the heart desires….” R. Shneur Zalman also asks us to avoid judgement based on other factors including individual temperaments . The caveat on this is Judaism holds a very strong belief in free choice and ultimate personal responsibility. How much choice there is in the lived experience of the addict is a difficult question I don’t feel qualified to answer.   

For me part of the frustration is founded in unrealistic expectations about how much I can change my habits. I think I need a balance between hope and realistic caution about the prospects for success. Our reading combines these two messages. It tells us that “indeed, this matter is very close (achievable) to you, in your mouth, and your heart to do it ”.   Yet, we have Moses and God both clearly pessimistic about the people changing their habits. God predicts that when Moses dies the people will stray  and Moses expects that the rebelliousness he saw while he was still alive will continue and perhaps get worse after he dies , because “I know that you will be become corrupted ”. The reading offers a lot of punishment, which I guess I can apply in my own life by considering the consequences of various choices and recognise that if I want certain things to happen in my life, family and work there are choices that makes those outcomes either more or less likely. 

As is customary, we respond to the weighty day of judgement with good wishes ahead of this awesome day.  So, to all members of the human family, including my Jewish sisters and brothers, may the next year be a good and sweet one. May we all once again back ourselves and affirm that we will give it our best shot and try, yet again, to be better next year. Let us not imprison our future by our past. Equally, let us be gentle to ourselves and each other by accepting the very compassionate words about ourselves at the conclusion of the frightful “Unesaneh Tokef” prayer, we humans are as a species need “to use our very soul just to earn some bread, we are compared to withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream”.


 Deuteronomy 29:9- 11
  The connection between twelve steps and our Torah reading is made in this article:
  Deuteronomy 29:18
  Ibn Ezra
  Not sure about the science here, but this is the teaching
  Sefer Hachinuch
  Pirkey Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 2:4
  Tanya 30, translation text taken from Lessons in Tanya
  Deuteronomy 30:14
  Deuteronomy 31:16
  Deuteronomy 31:27
  Deuteronomy 31:29

Friday, August 23, 2013

Interaction between “the Certain”, the “Chosen” and the Text Ki Tavo

Photo copyright by Damien Begovic, Dialogue at the
Together for Humanity stall at the Multicultural Eid Festival
18 August 2013, Fairfield, Sydney Australia
Yesterday I was surrounded by a civil, well intentioned, confident group of bearded young Muslim males of Arabic and other backgrounds. I was in my element, I had been warmly welcomed by the organizer of this outreach event, I was offered dates and Arabic coffee, I had lovely conversations with several Muslims that I knew previously and we were talking religion. While on one level I enjoyed the next discussion, there was something a bit challenging with the rather robust dialogue I got into with this group, I felt like I was being targeted for conversion. When I reflected on it and my own reactions to this experience as well as other heart-warming experiences this week, it got me thinking about what works in interfaith interaction and on one of the topics we discussed, the notion of the Jews being God’s chosen people.

Ahmad  asked me about a verse in the Torah that he thinks predicted the rising of another prophet like Moses. The text states “I will set up a prophet for them from among their brothers like you, and I will put My words into his mouth ”. I had never thought of it as relating to a specific prophet and explained to him that the Torah has at least 70 different explanations. That was not good enough for him, there had to be one right answer, otherwise “there will be confusion”. So I explained that the verse refers not to one specific prophet, but to the concept of prophecy which applied to many men and women. I got the text on my smart phone and showed the context of the verse. It follows a warning not to seek superficial certainties through sorcery, but instead to seek guidance from God’s messengers. This made little impression on Ahmad and his friends, who continued to insist that I was wrong because the singular form of the word “prophet” proved that it was talking about one person.

Ahmad then posed a much more powerful challenge relating to the relationship between God and the Jews vs. God’s relationship to all people. Did I believe in a tribal God of Israel or a Universal God of all people and things? What did I think about the chosen people? These questions could have led to a thoughtful exchange that would have helped all of us gain greater understanding of each other’s’ faiths.  Unfortunately at this stage, my headspace was anything but thoughtful. Instead I was part of a game I never agreed to play, that of seeking to convince each other about truths. The absurdity of it, was that here I was being challenged about the meaning of my own sacred text by people who had limited knowledge of it and could not read it in its original language. This is always a bad move. We are on much safer ground when we speak about our own text and show openness to those who follow a text to tell us what it means to them.

In a more curious dialogue, I would have compared Jewish and Islamic texts relating to the way that Moses introduces God to Pharaoh (Firaon in Arabic). In the Torah, Moses states: "So said the Lord God of Israel, 'Send out My people’’ " and he also refers to the “God of the Hebrews ”. In the Quran we a significant difference in the way Moses (or Musa) refers to God. He states: “Oh Pharaoh! Lo! I am a messenger from the Lord of the worlds…I come to you with a clear proof from your Lord. So let the children of Israel go with me ”.  The Islamic text presents a universal God of the “worlds” who is even the Lord of Pharaoh himself.  Putting this in context, God is introduced as the creator of the universe, who is terribly concerned about injustice in the pagan society of Sodom.  I would argue that Jews clearly see God as universal rather than what I regard as the ridiculous notion of an exclusive Jewish God.  The idea of a God of Israel is more about the dedication of Israel to the one God than it is about ownership in the way that people talk of the sports team they are fans of as being “their team”.

The question of the Chosen people is often taken to mean that Jews have a sense of superiority. It is hard to argue with that interpretation when we consider the text in the reading Ki Tavo. “the Lord has selected you this day to be His treasured people, as He spoke to you, and so that you shall observe all His commandments, and to make you supreme (higher), above all the nations that He made… ”. I do not take this as a license to chauvinism or arrogance. I would broadly agree with the Muslim woman I enjoyed a most respectful conversation with at our Together For Humanity stall we had on Sunday at the Multicultural Eid festival. She understood choseness as reflecting the fact that the Jews had chosen to worship and believe in God. One commentator understands the key word האמירך (He-Eemircha) which some translate as chosen, to mean that He caused you to say and be willing to be a people for (eg. committed to) God because he did so many miracles (for the Jews) . The context clearly shows that the people were chosen to obey commandments.

Another commentator sees a strong universatlist agenda in all this. The purpose of the Jews special status is not for their benefit but for God to achieve through them what he wanted to achieve with the human species. The elevation is for the purpose of understanding and teaching monotheism .  I prefer these explanations to the one that suggest that even if another nation (Umma in Hebrew) will come and will do good, and will try to attach to the Divine presence they will not be able to acheve the level of Israel  . Not all interpretation is convenient, and I need to present a balanced view.

The discussion with Ahmad and friends continued to confront me. I explained that in Judaism there is no need for others to convert as long as they obey 7 key principals (laws for all children of Noah), one of which is establishment of law and justice which I interpret as including participation in the democratic process. I got an argument against democracy in favour of theocracy.

After this exchange, I talked to three other Muslim men one of whom was concerned about how I might have felt after the unofficial debate/conversion effort. Another walked me to my car and engaged me in a real open minded and open hearted conversation reflecting genuine curiosity and true gentleness of spirit. In my short conversation with him I learned some interesting similarities between Islam and Judaism as we understand Satan/Shaytan as an agent of God whose role is to tempt us. I put the more challenging (but not “bad” experience in context of all these much more pleasant conversations this week and indeed even at the same generally enjoyable event.  This little confrontation pales into significance when I compare it with the highlight of my week when Jewish students from the Emanuel School recited the blessing after meals among mostly Arabic Muslim students at Punchbowl Boys High School, followed by a dozen Muslim students doing the afternoon prayer in unison. Both groups of teenagers silently showed the greatest respect for each other, followed by genuinely curious questions, seeking understanding.

Certainties and claims to Choseness present challenges as well as opportunities for learning about each other and how to get along.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Good Intentions Good Works

Yesterday I heard a simply dressed woman stand up in the audience of a large room describe the way she and others in Tamworth help refugees and new arrivals in Tamworth, a country town. There is no money, no grants, no questions of accountability, just people simply working together to help newcomers, driving them in their own vehicle to inspect an apartment, helping with needed furniture and other practical needs. There was something really wholesome and inspiring in this great example where pure intention meets good works, with no other motives. Unfortunately, this is not always practical, for example in my case I do good work, based on positive intentions, but we have chosen to professionalise the work, which means I am paid for the work and there are questions of interests, power and authority over people that report to me.

Monday: My step is light. My mood is upbeat. I’m walking down quiet tree lined streets to a trail that takes me into a little forest. The leaves are so many shades of red, brown and green. I’m not happy because I am noticing the trees. The opposite is true. I’m noticing the trees because of an inner joy.  It’s the joy of freeing myself from stress about funding for the organisation I lead by moving my focus to the people I have the privilege to serve.  This morning, I turned my attention back to lobbying the government for funding but my intention is not to keep afloat but on maximizing the benefit to children across this country. Thinking about how to ensure the impact is greater. I am experiencing the joy of being focused on my intentions to help others.

I feel inspired by Martin Luther King jnr’s “mountain top speech” and its focus away from self to the needs of the people he was committed to help. I used to read Moses’ speech about not getting to the Promised Land as a lament. “I pleaded with God at that time, saying. Lord, God, you have begun to show your servant your greatness…please let me pass (over the river) and see the good land…[i]”. Alas Moses’ plea is refused and he is merely allowed to see the Promised Land from the top of a mountain. In King’s speech shortly before he is assassinated he sees it differently. King tells his audience that “It doesn’t matter about me now”, he is not afraid to die because he has “been to the mountain top, and seen the Promised Land” he can see the realisation of his dream of an equal society. This is the head space I think we need to operate in, if we can. Thinking not about our own wishes or needs but of those we serve.

Wednesday: I hear a speech by Mrs. Maha Abdo, a leader of the Muslim Women’s association. I am sitting next to her on the panel at a diversity conference. She begins by asking us to close our eyes and focus on our intention for being in that room at that moment. I close my eyes and think about the networking I came to do, promoting my organisation and decide that a better intention would be to focus on really hearing what others are saying and being here for the people in this room in the discussion. Maha says that in her recent trip to a village in Yemen the normal practice before doing anything is to stop and think about intention. I love it.

Alongside good intentions is the obligation to judge whether our efforts are having an impact, sometimes using “hard” instruments, such as demands for data, accountability and giving harsh criticism to ensure this is being achieved. This is particularly true when public or charitable funds are being used.

The Torah commands the people to put judges and “police” (Shortim שוטרים) in all their gates[ii]. This has been interpreted metaphorically as a requirement for making judgements about the words that come out of our mouths as well as what and how we choose to see things with our eyes and hear with our ears. I suggest that the priority be placed on wise judgement with any harshness being carefully employed only in accordance with this wisdom.

 The Hebrew word shoter שוטר , that I translated as police, has more than one interpretation. One scholar translated it as “rulers[iii]”. In his model there is a separation of powers,  there is the judiciary who make judgements and the rulers who ensure that the ruling of the judges is imposed. In this model there appears to be no ambivalence about the combination of coercive power and authority. An alternative and more prevalent view is that the “Shoter” has no authority of his own and refers to “the lads” who are given very specific instructions by the judges to enforce their judgements[iv]. In the second model, force or harshness is rightfully positioned in its proper subservient role.

I hope in my life I get it right, at the level of motives, intentions and impact on others. More broadly, the Australian government’s harsh treatment of asylum seekers, and the policies advocated by both major parties during our current election campaign needs to be challenged both at the level of intention and impact. May compassion prevail and all force and harshness humbly serve justice as determined by wise judgment.

[i] Deuteronomy 3:24-26
[ii] Deuteronomy 16:18
[iii] Ibn Ezra
[iv] Mizrahi based on Rashi commentary on Deuteronomy 16:18 and Rambam Sefer Hamitzvos. In one version of Rashi he used the word “Gularion” which Marcus Jastrow explains to be a “soldiers boy”, or the most junior soldiers who typically are sent ahead in harm’s way but the credit it given to the more senior soldiers.  

Friday, July 12, 2013

Words/Devarim - too much in your head?

Used under Creative Commons license, original photo from

Dedicated to my father who accomplished more with silence than I ever have with words and noise[i]’ or words to that effect, writes one author. As a Jew with many Muslim friends I wonder about the value of words and introspection in general, and particularly at this time of year when Muslim observe Ramadan and Jews observe “the nine days” of mourning relating to the destruction of our temple in Jerusalem over two thousand years ago. Intention and awareness is surely essential, mindless ritual cannot be right. Still, I wonder, can introspection lead me to be “inside my head” rather than engaged with my fellow man and God?

I have been reading the classic book Zen & Motorcycle Maintenance. I was struck by the narrator spending almost the entire book inside his head, thinking about himself as he was prior to a period of mental illness and electric shock treatment. He talks about the way that he was prior to his breakdown and treatment, eccentric, and recklessly idealistic, as if this was a different person who he even gives another name. The narrator’s son who is travelling with him on his motorcycle trip tries to connect with him but the father is preoccupied. It is only at the end of the book that the father’s earlier self asserts itself that he is fully there for his son, there is a lightness and joy and real presence. The story aspect of the book suggests two things to me. One is about the risk of filling my head with ‘too many words’, the other is about completely accepting myself as I am rather than wishing certain aspects of my personality or temperament didn’t exist.

Words and their limits
The name of fifth book of the Torah known in English as Deuteronomy is called Devarim in Hebrew, meaning words. The reading/portion this week[ii] is almost entirely a parting speech by Moses to the people shortly before his death. Moses refers to himself more in the section than in any other up to this point, 36 times. Yet, he is hardly introspective. Moses mentions once that he agreed with a plan to send spies that eventually went bad[iii]. He does not tell us if he feels responsible for his view or justified in it. Commentary suggests that he agreed with the plan because of the overwhelming consensus in favor of the plan by the people[iv], essentially blaming them despite his acquiescence. He also blamed the people for the fact that he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. “God also became angry with me because of you[v]”. Perhaps even more telling is that in comparison to the 36 references to his own role in the story, Moses uses words like you or direct references to the people 132 times, and references to “us” 75 times, so we have a ratio of 207-36 that tells us who is the focus in this speech.

This absence of public introspection in this reading can’t be taken as precluding private self-criticism. At least one commentary about Moses’ reaction to the rebellion against him by Korach, when he falls on his face is to examine his own heart whether he is at fault. Surely the point of our nine days of mourning this week and next is not just to remember what happened in the past but also to consider how we can behave more lovingly to merit a restoration of God’s grace and presence, the loss of which is represented by the physical destruction of a temple. The juxtaposition of the reading with the time of morning is intentional[vi] and calls us to reflect on a whole generation in the desert that falls from God’s grace and is excluded from the Promised Land just as our generation has failed to realize the rebuilding of the temple and through improving ourselves may yet merit the coming of the Messiah. More broadly, the process of Cheshbon Hanefesh, an accounting of the soul is  seen as a key tool for self-improvement.    

Self-Improvement and Self-acceptance
In seeking to improve ourselves, I think it is important that the starting point is a measure of self-acceptance. It is noble to try to develop better habits and to be alert or vigilant as my wise colleague Donna Jacobs Sife teacher to the darker thoughts and feelings that is common to almost all people. But we are taught that it is foolish and delusional for most people to think they can eradicate desires for evil, instead most of us need to accept that what God wants of us is to control ourselves rather than complete  eradication of aspects of our nature ()[vii].  I don’t know ,  I think transformation is possible in acceptance……

The Talmudic sage Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai told his students just before he died “I don’t know on which path they will lead me[viii]. This uncertainty about what awaited him in the afterlife is explained as resulting from such a great preoccupation with serving God “every day, every hour and every moment” rather than being aware of what was happening in inner emotional and intellectual world or ranking[ix]. I think this example highlights one extreme end of the spectrum perhaps. I think we can find the right balance between a helpful amount and form of introspection while still being in the world rather than preoccupied with words in our head about ourselves.
Beyond Words
Associate Professor John Bradley tells a lovely story about coming out to the Northern Territory as a PhD student and tells an Aboriginal uncle that he knows everything there is to know about dugongs. The uncle says, “uh huh”, and leaves it at that. Some days later they are up a creek somewhere and John is in the water checking out these animals when a dugong breaks his arm. He returns to the canoe in absolute agony. They are hours away from the nearest doctor. Then the uncle turns to him and says, “now, you know dugong!”  

[i] Abehsera, M. (1992) The Possible Man, Swan House
[ii] Deuteronomy/ Devarim 1:1-3:22
[iii] Deuteronomy/ Devarim 1:23
[iv] Ibn Ezra
[v] Deuteronomy/ Devarim 1:37, if not for the people’s lack of faith in the case of the spies Moses would not have been required to try to strengthen their faith by the planned miracle of talking to the rock and eventually hitting it instead for which he was punished (Panim Yafos). An alternative interpretation is that Moses says he did not go into the Promised land being buried in the desert instead, so that at the time of the resurrection those who died in the desert will join Moses and in his merit also rise from the dead. This interpretation translates the word בגללכם as for the sake of the people (Rosh). Another interpretation relates the word בגללכם to rolling or cause and effect, if not for the sin of the spies Moses would have already been in the land and build the holy temple that would have never been destroyed, as a result of their sin Moses did not enter and the temples were eventually destroyed (Ohr Hachayim)
[vi] Biur Halacha (528:4) as explained by Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer – in
[vii] Tanya
[viii] Talmud Berachos 28b.
[ix] The Lubavitcher Rebbe as translated by Eli Touger, retrieved from