Friday, January 25, 2013

Choosing to Trust in God and Interfaith

Image by Phauly, Creative Commons License,
some rights reserved

There is a myth about trust that it is just the natural consequence of a series of events that prove that someone is trustworthy. I think trust is about making a choice to trust someone or a group, it is given not just earned.  In our teachings about our relationship with God, this approach plays out and I think it has application to interfaith relationships as well.

One of the great challenges of our time is the relationship between Muslims and Non-Muslims and more broadly between people who have strong differences of belief. This is largely driven by generalising  specific issues  relating to some people, attitudes or events,  with the groups as a whole, as has been well articulated by Walid Aly[i].

Trust as a choice
One key idea is that trust is demanded, withholding is insulting. I always think of the teenager who screams at his mother, YOU DON’T TRUST ME, before slamming the door. I wondered about that. Why is that an accusation? If your mother doesn’t trust you doesn’t that mean that you have failed to earn her trust?! Clearly that’s not how it works. We can see that when a desperate parent will suddenly trust a child who recently got their driver’s license more if they urgently need him/her to run an errand such as pick up something from the shops before the guests arrive. 

The challenge of trust
Personal experiences and news stories from around the world and those horrible hate filled e-mails give plenty of reasons not to put my trust in my Muslim neighbour. A blood soaked history of Christian persecution of Jews as well as significant competition of ideas stand in the way of trusting my Christian neighbour.

Christianity grew out of Judaism and it is fair to say that some Christians would see their path as having superseded Pharisaic?  Judaism. Yet, I am a proud Pharisee Jew, explicitly so at least once a week, when almost every Sabbath I eat a hot Pharisee food called Tchulent to declare my agreement with the Pharisees in an intra-faith dispute from the time of Jesus. There was a view put that on the Sabbath we must eat cold food because of the prohibition against lighting a fire, but the Pharisees insisted that fire can be lit before the Sabbath and the food left on the fire. Yet this is the world of Rabbinic Judaism that Christianity rejected. As a Tchulent eater, am I supposed to pretend that we are all on the same page?

In Jewish tradition there is some quite harsh things written about enemies. This Saturday we will read how in the aftermath of an attack by Amalek following the Exodus from Egypt God commands Moses to write it down as a remembrance, put it into the handover file in the ears of Joshua, that God will erase the memory of Amalek from under the heavens…a divine war against Amalek for generations[ii], until the time of the Messiah[iii].

This Sunday I will be speaking at an Anabaptist conference in response to some pretty provocative ideas on the theme of peace building Of course my audience on Sunday believes that the Messiah has already come, and the time for hating enemies has past. Can I trust them to respect me despite my belief that the Messiah is not here yet? Can the people who have been taught one must love their enemies and those who have been merely taught to love their friends, really trust and respect each other?

Leap of Faith  
I think faith in interfaith can draw some inspiration from the way tradition teach us about faith in God. In our reading this week, the Israelites are both praised for their willingness to take a leap of faith “your following Me in the desert, in a land not sown[iv]” and found wanting because of the weakness of their faith. God does not take them the direct route to the Promised Land because God thinks they might change their mind when they see war with the Canaanites and will simply return to Egypt[v]. This is the same God who decreed that they would be enslaved for generations in Egypt and has only now freed them. This is also the same God many Israelites were disappointed in when things got worse before they got better when Moses first approached Pharaoh. Surely God needs to build some trust first. Apparently not.

God gets more demanding. When the Israelites find themselves with the sea in front of them and the Egyptians behind them some cry out to God[vi], others[vii] believing they are facing imminent death, they lash out at Moses. Moses quickly tries to reassure the people then begins praying himself. God is not interested in prayers. He tells Moses “why do you cry to me? speak to the Israelites and they should travel![viii]But travel to where? Walk into the sea? The answer is yes. They were expected to show absolute trust in God and simply walk into the sea with confidence that it will turn out ok. Commentary suggests that it is only through this act of faith that they will earn the miracle of the sea splitting[ix]. We are taught that in fact one man named Nachshon does exactly that. He jumps into the sea and that is when it splits.

Jumping in to Interfaith with my inspiring friends
Interfaith needs an element of Nachshon. All the arguments and differences both significant and trivial can be managed. What is required is good faith and a willingness to choose trust. For me this is not always easy, but it is easier than for most. This is because of my friendship with some amazingly inspiring people of sincere good will. I won’t mention all, but I am looking forward to catching up with some of them on Sunday.

[i] Aly, W. (2007). People Like Us. How Arrogance is Dividing Islam and the West. Melbourne: Picador-Pan Macmillan
[ii] Exodus 17:14-16
[iii] Targum Yonatan ben Uziel
[iv] Jeremiah 2:2
[v] Exodus 13:17
[vi] Exodus 14:10-12
[vii] Ramban points out that there were two groups
[viii] Exodus 14:15
[ix] Ohr Hachayim

Monday, January 21, 2013

Dismantling Oppression

This past Saturday Jews read (what is arguably) our most important story[i], the Exodus from Egypt. One element of this account is the devastating process of dismantling the oppressive and powerful Egyptian system of enslavement. 

The Exodus story calls us to treat the vulnerable, particularly “the stranger”, with love and to never oppress them. Subjugation has many forms, from gross mistreatment to being part of a system which at best unknowingly continues to perpetuate inequality. Assuming that the Critical Race theorists are right, there is a need to disrupt an oppressive order that I, as a middle class white male, am part of. Or as my colleague Donna Jacobs Sife taught me, we can all oppress others over whom we have some power. This gives me another reason to be interested in the ways that oppressive systems can be subverted and replaced and in more equal and just ways of interacting and being.  This post is about one scenario from our past in which the transition is very harsh. 

While the simple story is that the Israelites were freed from bondage, there is a subtext about humiliating the Pharaoh and his people. Moses is told by God to “Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened[ii] his heart and the heart of his servants[iii]”. An odd thing for God to do if all he wants to accomplish is for Pharaoh to free his people. However it seems that  God is acting as a puppeteer putting on a dramatic show by miraculously making Pharaoh recalcitrant so that; “I will place my signs (or miracles) in his midst and so that you will tell in the ears of your sons and your son’s son, how I toyed[iv] with Egypt…and you will know that I am God[v]”. According to this, the ten plagues were not unavoidable necessities on the path to freedom but ends in themselves, perhaps needed to change the power dynamic between the Israelites and the Egyptians.

Shortly after this element of what I might call psychological warfare is articulated, Moses asks Pharaoh on behalf of God; “how much longer will you refuse to humble[vi] yourself before Me[vii]?” On completing his discussion Moses deliberately turns his back on Pharaoh when leaving his presence, rather than walk out backwards as is the custom in Australian courts where one would not turn their back on the bench.

Pharaoh shows some signs of giving in, but is still bargaining with Moses about who will be allowed to go, first seemingly agreeing to Moses' demand to let all the Israelites go including children[viii] but then immediately insisting that only adult men can go. So God is not the only one “toying” with people, Pharaoh is doing it too. Commentary sees this as him “clowning with” or mocking the Israelites and that this leads to an escalation where the very order of the world is changed with darkness replacing light[ix]. The harshness of the reaction seems to me to be about the need for Pharaoh to now be the butt of the joke rather than the one making the jokes, for the power balance to be set right.

The shift in the relationship also plays out in the Paschal lamb offering the Israelites were commanded to bring. According to commentary the lamb was an object of worship for the Egyptians or a symbol of the zodiacal sign of the lamb which they worshipped[x]. The choice of sacrifice would be a dramatic act in the changing relationship between former slave and former master. “Laying ones hand on a sheep or a goat was sacrilege in Egyptian eyes. The Egyptians would suddenly be confronted by the spectacle of the their former down trodden slaves having the audacity to take hold of the gods they worshipped, the lamb and tie them to the legs of their bed…then with the Egyptians powerlessly looking on the blood of the slaughtered animals would be publicly displayed on the doorposts while their carcases would be served up, its form still familiar to onlookers: “his head with his legs[xi][xii]”.  

In the one pleasant scene (regarding the relationship between slave holding Egyptian nation and the Hebrew slaves) in this story, we have the Egyptians referred to as the friends of the Israelites from whom they were to request[xiii] silver and gold utensils[xiv].  These were readily given as gifts[xv] by some Egyptians[xvi], or as encouragement to hurriedly leave Egypt[xvii] by others. The Egyptians did not hate the Israelites on account of the plagues, but instead they added love and found favour in their eyes, saying we are the wicked ones…[xviii]. Egyptians cried and regretted the wickedness with which they had treated them. Moses himself, the key player in bringing the plagues to the Egyptians was also greatly admired[xix].

I am not sure what to make of all of this. Perhaps it is a warning to all of us about acting like or being complicit with a Pharaoh in any form of oppression, that when oppressive power structures are put in place their dismantling by an external force will be painful. It is far better to voluntarily embrace change sooner than wait for it to be forced from the outside.  Yet, it has been said that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed[xx]”. There are surely various ways freedom can be demanded and demonstrated by the oppressed, none will be comfortable for “the oppressors”, but I would imagine there are various degrees to that discomfort. Equally, there are choices for those previously privileged about how to respond to the need for change in the relationship. We are called to make gracious, genuinely remorseful and generous choices.

[i] I argue for it being the most important story because in the revelation at Mt. Sinai God introduces himself as the liberator from Egypt in the opening sentence of the Ten Commandments, every day the Exodus from Egypt is mentioned at least three times in the regular prayer routine is also part of the Kiddush prayer which sanctifies the Sabbath.
[ii] The word in the Torah that is translated as harden, is Hichbadti which is more accurately translated as made heavy (Targum Unkelus and Yonatan Ben Uziel), in a play on words it is also related to the word “Kaved” meaning liver, that God made Pharaoh’s heart like the liver “which hardens when it is exposed to fire...his heart became like a liver and he did not accept the words of God (Shemot Rabba 13:4, Torah Shlaima Parshat Bo, 3, p2)
[iii] Exodus 10:1
[iv] Rashi
[v] Exodus 10:1-2
[vi] Translation follows Unkelus and Rashi
[vii] Exodus 10:3
[viii] Exodus 10:10
[ix] Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer 6, p199, cited in Torah Shlaima, parshat Bo p.9
[x] Mimonedes cited in Leibowitz, N. (1996) New Studies in Shemot Exodus p.198
[xi] Exodus 12:9
[xii] Akedat Yitzchat, R. Yitzchak Arama, cited in Leibowitz, N. (1996) New Studies in Shemot Exodus p.200
[xiii] A more common translation is “borrow”, in that the Israelites would borrow from their Egyptian neighbours, the translation I am using follows Rashbam for the purpose of exploring this particular approach in interpretation.
[xiv] Exodus 11:3
[xv] Sechel Tov, cited in Torah Shlaima Bo p.27
[xvi] Kadmonius Hayehudim book 2 14:6 cited in Torah Shlaima ibid
[xvii] Hadar Zekainim, cited in Torah Shlaima ibid
[xviii] Ramban
[xix] Exodus 11:3

Friday, January 11, 2013

Change Agent

Shortly after my Grandfathers passing away I hastily organised my flight back from Sydney Australia, via Hawaii, San Francisco, Denver and Newark to Brooklyn New York. A black limousine driver managed to convince me, exhausted as I was that he could drive me home for the same price as a taxi.

The driver asked me what are I was going to do. I said that I would become a Rabbi. Why? He asked. I was twenty years old, and the response that came to was; “well my father is a Rabbi, my grandfather were both Rabbis…The driver told me that was wrong, he said to me “you gotta have a calling! God has to call you to ministry”. Hmm I thought. Since then, I have felt a strong calling to be a change agent in the way people relate to the “other”, with a particular focus on the Muslim-Jewish and Muslim-non Muslim divide, and the relationship between Christians, Muslims and Jews.

This post is a reflection on the process of taking a leadership role in an endeavour that although I have been incredibly blessed with the support of sincere, inspiring and passionate people, it has sometimes felt like shouting against thunder.

Not solely responsible for ultimate result.
Anyone acting as a change agent needs to combine recognition of the power of ones’ The cause to eventually triumph on merit with recognition of the smallness of any one person. I am not going to change the world, I will with the help of God and many people play a small role in facilitating change.

Moses, raised in the house of the Pharaoh, understood political power and the limitations of anyone around the absolute monarch to influence policy. He is confronted with a call from God. “And now go and I will send you to Pharaoh, and take my nation, the Children of Israel, out of Egypt[i]”. According to traditional commentary there is an implied parenthetical question in this sentence that would make it read as follows: And now go and I will send you to Pharaoh, (if you will say what will my talking to Pharaoh help? I tell you[ii]and take my nation, the Children of Israel, out of Egypt”.
God is not commanding Moses to take them out of Egypt. He is offering reassurance that the words spoken to Pharaoh will help and will result in the Israelites being freed[iii].

Taking the people with you.
Prospective supporters of this work want to know to what extent are the communities involved, particularly the Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities and the education sector supporting what we do? It’s a fair question. The answer is that while we have received significant support, the level of support is not yet sufficient to tackle our goals. We need to both continue to work energetically on this because it is vital to the success of this work while also being realistic about the nature of change and the time it takes.

Moses was not exactly mobbed with support either, and this worried him as well. He tells God, “The Israelites did not listen to me, how (can I expect that) Pharaoh to listen to me…[iv]?! Good argument but God does not tell him ‘ok Moses you win, give up now’. Instead God speaks to Moses but also includes his brother Aaron and commands them to or about the Israelites and Pharaoh to take the Israelites out of Egypt[v]. The content of this command is not clear, who was commanded to do what? Surely Moses was not commanded to take the Jews out of Egypt, we have already established that is God’s job.

One interpretation is that Moses was commanded to lead gently, patiently and to tolerate the Israelites[vi]. Even to put up with curses and people throwing rocks at them[vii]. Another meaning of the command is that Moses must not call the Israelites rebels or recalcitrant[viii]. Moses was feeling angry that the Israelites would not listen to him[ix]. Like Elijah who proclaimed his zealous anger and was shown a vision of great natural violence in which God was not[x], leaders who are out of step with the people are guided to show patience.

Patience is not the same as complacency. Another commentary sees the command to the Israelites as being about “partnering with their leaders of the families or clans[xi]”. Another sees the command about the people embracing the principle of freedom by living it. In this interpretation the command is about Jews freeing their slaves[xii], this is echoed in the verse in Jeremiah ‘I cut a covenant with your fathers on the day I took them out of Egypt, the house of slaves (that at the) end of seven years each man should send away his brother (slaves)[xiii]. It was important that the people understand the value of freedom, only then would be they deserve to be freed themselves[xiv].

So for those of us who are called, let us be patient and persistent. Show respect to leaders great and small. For me this means visiting my third Mosque this Friday and continuing to reach out to anyone who will listen or talk in all the communities and sectors we seek to engage.  So I wrap up now to go to the Geography teachers lawn bowls game in Perth tonight. Better to throw the ball then have things thrown at me, but need to be prepared for both. I got a calling!

[i] Exodus 3:10
[ii] Rashi
[iii] Mizrachi explains:  it should say I will send you to Pharaoh TO take my nation out of Egypt, why does it say and because this is not God commanding Moses to take them out of Egypt. It is reassurance.
[iv] Exodus 6:12
[v] Exodus 6:13
[vi] Rashi, Moses is also commanded to show respect for the institution of the monarchy this is the meaning of the command as it relates to Pharaoh (Mechilta Bo, Masechta Dpischa 13).
[vii] Sifri Bahalotecha Psikta 91
[viii] Pesikta Drav Kahana end of chapter 14, cited in Torah Shlaima, Vaera, p.17
[ix] Midrash Hagadol
[x] I Kings - Chapter 19 Elijah arrives in the very cave and asks him “"What are you doing here, Elijah?". Elijah replies that he had “been zealous for the Lord, the God of Hosts, for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant... they have killed Your prophets by the sword..” Again the theme of passing plays out. God tells Elijah, “"Go out and stand in the mountain before the Lord, Behold! the Lord passes”. Then there is a great and strong wind splitting mountains and shattering boulders before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake-not in the earthquake was the Lord. After the earthquake fire, not in the fire was the Lord, and after the fire a sound of silence. Whatever God’s message was to Elijah with all of this, curiously God repeats his original question. "What are you doing here, Elijah?" Elijah’s response is identical with the one he offered before this dramatic display.
[xi] Shemot Rabba 7:3
[xii] Jerusalem Talmud Rosh Hashana 3:5
[xiii] Jeremia 34:13
[xiv] Kasher, Rabbi M, in Torah Shlaima, Miluim, p117, based on a manuscript of Yalkut Ohr Haafela