Thursday, February 28, 2013

Discrimination and Religious Teachings: An Exploration of One Jewish and One Islamic Tradition

Recently I attended a Muslim event. We were treated to performances of poetry and a combination of storytelling, song and music. One story about the forbearance of the prophet Mohammed included a Jew insulting and falsely accusing the prophet.   On Saturday afternoon I lead a Torah discussion group about the Sidra (reading) of the week and drew attention to the verse and associated commentary about a non-Jewish female slave that I found quite uncomfortable reading. This blog post is an exploration of the way religious leaders or teachers select texts or stories to tell that may lead people to problematic conclusions. Should there never be self- censorship? Is contextualizing enough? This is far from a complete examination of discrimination in either Jewish or Islamic texts or the issue of responsible leadership. Instead, it is an attempt to shed some light on the issues by examining my own experiences over the past few days.

The Story
A young Sheikh named Omar, told a story that essentially went as follows: A Jewish convert to Islam named Abdullah once entered a Mosque and saw another Jewish man named Zaid sitting among Muslims. Zaid explained to Abdullah that "that I knew from reading my scriptures that we expected a Prophet and the characteristics of this prophet. I noticed all the attributes in the Prophet Mohammed except for one: forbearance. I decided to test him”.

Zaid approached the Prophet Mohammed and offered him a loan, which the prophet accepted and agreed to repay the load in dates. Three days before the load was due for repayment Zaid walked up to the prophet as he was surrounded by his companions and many people. He made derogatory statements about the tribe of the prophet, accusing them of being dishonest and stealing the wealth of others and made accusations relating to the failure to repay the loan.
Umar, a companion of the prophet was outraged and drew his sword. But the Prophet Mohammed stopped Umar and insisted that Zaid be talked to about dealing with issues using honourable speech and noting that there were still three days left under the terms of the loan. In spite of this the Prophet instructed Umar to immediately give Zaid 1½ times the original amount of dates. This was to compensate Zaid for the trauma of being threatened by Umar.  

Making sense of the story
Listening to the story, I first took it at face value, a story about the virtue of patience. It echoed, for me, a Talmudic story about how the patience of the sage Hillel was tested by a man pestering him with inane questions to win a bet that he could make Hillel angry[i]. Yet, it also struck me that the two Jews in the story both converted to Islam, which made me just a little uncomfortable. In subsequent conversations about the story, some people commented about the portrayal of the Jew in the story as disrespectful to the prophet and money driven or being cast in the role of the villain.

A key strategy for positive inter-group relations is curiosity. Yishai Shaliff taught me the concept of asking from “a place of not knowing[ii]” which is essentially about asking open question without any implicit assumptions. I asked Sheikh Omar to tell me more about this story.  He shared with me that this was the first Hadith he learned as a child. But when he first heard it, it was missing both the beginning and the end and seemed to be just about the loyalty of Umar to the Prophet. On a trip to a small village with many devout descendants of the prophet in Yemen, Omar was thrilled to discover the full story. For him this story is about the importance of non-violence and calm responses to provocation. We also found common ground in discussing the laws against taking interest in both our traditions. I wonder how the prophet was allowed to give Zaid the extra 50%? In Jewish law, even being more social with the lender could be construed as interest[iii]. Sheikh Omar told me that this was the very same question he wondered about when first hearing the story but concluding that the additional 50% was a separate transaction to the loan itself.

I can relate to Sheikh Omar’s excitement about uncovering a fuller understanding of a sacred story or text, especially as this leads to a rich practical message about non-violent responses to provocation.  Still, I wonder about whether young people who attend Sheik Omar’s classes who hear this story, will also get an unintended message that Jews might be worthy of the noble prophet’s patience but are also the ones who might insult the Prophet.

Laws related to Discrimination in the Torah reading
In seeking to understand the other, it is important to reflect on ourselves and our own frame of reference. Returning to my own text, our reading this week is emphatic in the prohibition of discrimination against the stranger[iv]. “And you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”. And again: And you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt”. The second verse seems to be an appeal to empathy, you know “how hard it is (for the stranger) when he is mistreated[v]”. These instructions are related to the issue of power and powerlessness[vi] and the moral imperative of treating the powerless newcomer well, never abusing the power imbalance. It also reflects a need for sensitivity to the suffering of dislocation experienced by a stranger far from friends and home[vii]. 

The Non-Jewish Slave Woman’s “Physical relationship[viii]
One of the most difficult theoretical aspects of Jewish law comes up in the same reading.  I say, theoretical because these laws have not been practiced for some two thousand years. Most of the commentary was written over a thousand years after the practice was abolished. Yet it remains part of our tradition. The Torah tells us something about the treatment of a Non-Jewish Slave Woman, but she is not the subject of the verse but rather one whose fate is secondary. This is a discussion about a Jewish slave, the Torah tells us that “If his master gives him a woman/wife[ix](?), and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and he shall go out alone[x]”. The “woman” is a Canaanite (non-Jewish) slave woman, who is “given” to the Jewish slave for a period of six years but when her partner goes free she and their children remain behind as property of their owner.  

The relationship between this slave woman and the Jewish male slave is centred on the production of slave children[xi].  This relationship is only permitted if the Jewish male slave is already married[xii]because his soul is already attached with his love toward his Jewish wife’ but if he is not already married we need to worry that he will become attached to his Cananite slave partner[xiii]”. The quality of their relationship does not seem to matter at all. The master is allowed to compel the union between the slaves if it is against the wishes of the male slave[xiv]  (I have not found anything written that is explicit about requiring her consent[xv]).  There is no requirement for this sexual union to become a marriage between the slaves.  ‘The Jewish slave should not be separated by his master from his Jewish wife to be required to become one with and sleep with the Canaanite slave instead of his Jewish wife, but the Jewish male slave does have discretion in this matter[xvi]’. The only restriction is that this slave woman cannot be “given” to two slaves at a time[xvii]. Perhaps somewhat reassuringly, the Torah text itself, as opposed to the commentary, does envision that the two slaves might come to love each other to the point that in some case the Jewish slave would be prepared to continue to be a slave because he declares “I love my (Canaanite slave) wife and my children[xviii]”.

When I think about this text, I have no neat way to explain it away. It says what it says. While it is convenient that this all theoretical and is no longer practiced and has not been practiced for thousand years, the more important point for me is that the total moral message of Judaism is one of human dignity and embracing all human beings. Yet, there is the danger that other Jews will take these Jewish teachings as legitimising prejudicial attitudes. As a Rabbi and a Jewish educator this is something I am concerned about. Since Saturday, I have been thinking about this a lot, consulting a trusted colleague and asking participants in the Saturday discussion group what their conclusions were. Not one participant got the message that racism is ok. Our youngest participant merely thought “it was weird”. While I despise censorship by religious leaders, deciding what part of the tradition the masses can be trusted with, I am still grappling with the merit of highlighting the most difficult passages. This is one reason I have delayed publishing this article till now.

When it comes to the texts of others there needs to be a genuine curiosity to learn what these mean for those who follow those texts. This is what I did with my conversation with Omar in which I was moved by what this story means to him. I also think it is legitimate for Jews or anyone to be concerned about the ways negative portrayals of minorities in the sacred texts of faiths other than one’s own might be understood and applied. This needs to be handled with care. I am not sure about the best way to approach an Inter-faith discussion with him about this, in which I show respect for the sacredness of this story for him while also exploring possible misuse of the story.  I trust that with good will, a bit of skill, sincerity and openness we can have a fruitful discussion.

[i] Talmud Shabbat 31
[ii] Shalif, Y, Liviatan, I, Paran, R. (2007), "Care-full Listening and Conversations", Creating Dialogue between Members of Conflicting Multi-Cultural Groups Publication Department, Israel Ministry of Education
[iii] Maimonides Laws of the Lender and Borrower, 5:12
[iv] Exodus 22:20, and Exodus 23:9, this translation is from There are traditional sources that interpret the Hebrew word Ger, which literally means stranger, as convert and focus their commentary on the particular situation of a convert, the commentary cited above relates as much to a newcomer to a religious community as it would to any marginalised person.  
[v] Rashi
[vi] Ibn Ezra
[vii] Sefer Hachinuch
[viii] This way of describing the relationship is used by Munk, Rabbi E, in the Call of The Torah and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary to the Torah following earlier sources.  
[ix] The Hebrew word, Isha, means both woman and wife. Which one is the correct translation?
[x] Exodus 21:4
[xi] Maimonides, Laws of Slaves 3:3, Chizkuni, p. 263, Mosad Harav Kook edition, 2006, Jerusalem
[xii] Mechilta Drashbi
[xiii] Klei Yakar, referring to Exodus 21:5 and Chizkuni ibid.
[xiv] Maimonides ibid, Rashi on Talmud Temura 30a,
[xv] There is an implication in Chizkuni, p.264 that her consent was not required
[xvi] Ramban, Mechilta Drashbi
[xvii] Mechilta Drashbi, Maimonides, Laws of Slaves 3:5
[xviii] Exodus 21:5

Friday, February 1, 2013

Christian Jewish Spiritual Connections and Barriers

Photo by Doug Sewell

I was inspired and spiritually nourished this weekend at an Anabaptist conference/retreat. This is not a sentiment I would have dreamed, just a few ago, that I would ever write. In this post I reflect on the possibility of deep Christian-Jewish spiritual connection and conversation, my experience at the conference and how this relates to my own traditions particularly in the reading this week which includes the Ten Commandments. One obvious question relates to Christians beliefs about God and Jesus. I deliberately start with other matters, before addressing this.

The non-negotiable worth of every human being
At the conference the Multi-Faith panel was asked a question about condoning sin.  Dave Andrews, a Christian Panelist, told a story about traveling to Cambodia and seeing sex tourists there for the purpose of exploiting young local girls and his anger about this. He felt like taking an AK47 and shooting them all. When he arrived back in Australia a woman asked him to counsel her husband who was one of these sex tourists. For Dave this was a terrible predicament, how could he empathize with someone toward whom he felt disgust and outrage. Yet as a Christian he felt he must be there for this man. After much prayer and internal struggle to be true to the teachings of his faith and the example of Jesus he was able to care about him and hear his story. In the end this man who seemed repulsive told Dave his own story about how he was abused as a child, hates himself for what he was doing in Cambodia and was very eager for therapy to help him stop, which he went on to pursue.

This story has many levels and it is beyond the scope of this “blog post” to explore the terrible problem of sexual abuse itself and the proper responses to it. I was simply moved by Dave’s living out his Christian faith in his compassion for a person he found it very hard to look at, never mind love.

The idea of the worth of every person is not unique to one faith.  if I were faced with a dilemma with a bad person, my response to it would not be thinking about tax collectors and lepers; I think I would  instead draw on Beruria’s principle that “it is written may sins be destroyed [i]- rather than the sinner[ii]”. The context of Beruria’s statement was a problem with a group of thugs in her neighborhood which caused her husband, Rabbi Meir, a great deal of trouble. Rabbi Meir prayed that they should die. His wife Beruria persuaded him to differentiate between sins and sinners and pray for the elimination of the former. Her husband did pray for them, and they repented.

In our reading this week there is  further inspiration to be drawn from the order of the Ten Commandments which is seen as significant. Five commandments were on each of the two tablets, this means that number 1, “I am Y-K-V-K[iii] your God…” appears next to commandment #6, thou shalt not murder, because these two commandments are linked, to suggest that “spilling blood” is an offense against God himself just as smashing the statutes of a king or destroying his coins might be[iv]. This can be seen in the language of the Torah “One who spills blood…because in the image of God, He made man[v]”. Applied more broadly it is about the intrinsic non-negotiable value of every human being. Dave’s showing love to this man resonated for me because it echoed compassionate teachings in my own tradition but I was also moved by the power of his own beliefs and stories playing out in his heroic struggle.  

A Farbrengen with Christians
After the formal session I sat down at an outdoor table next to Dave Andrews. He is a man with a medium length white beard and very long hair, big glasses and a giant spirit. Slowly, we were joined by one man, then another, and another; eventually first one woman then a second also joined our previously all-male circle. The dynamic was similar to when an elder Chasid would sit down with a few others to tell stories and reflect, they would attract younger Chasidim around them to drink in the words and the spirit. There was usually some vodka on the table, which would be sipped with the word “Lchaim” to life and good wishes. This kind of gathering is what Chasidim call a Farbrengen. The difference was that this time the elder Chasid was not Jewish -  he described himself as a follower of Jesus.

Do Not “Murder”, killing on the other hand…
Dave wanted to know what the biggest dividing element between us was. It was a stream of consciousness kind of discussion rather than a formal debate or lecture. I reflected that the insistence on non-violence was a sticking point for me. The sixth commandment is often translated as “thou shalt not kill”. Yet the Hebrew words לֹא תִּרְצָח lo tirtzaḥ, are more accurately translated as thou shalt not murder.  In my tradition, despite the great value place on peace, violence is  sometimes justified in the pursuit of justice and its defense. While I appreciate the radical transformational potential of an insistence of the sacredness and dignity of all people, I struggle with the idea that the allied soldiers who defeated Hitler could be seen as sinful. It also condemns Israelis regardless of how they might fight, even in situations where they are found to be acting absolutely in self-defense.  Dave was particularly surprised by my answer. Was it not the idea of a man being God that would be the biggest problem?

Polytheism and the Jesus of Jarrod
Christian beliefs about the divinity of Jesus are a barrier for me. The idea of God incarnated as a human being does not sit well with my idea of what God is and I do not agree with it. Yet it is a known difference and one that for me is not a very important issue.

There is a Jewish authority that ruled that Christianity is not considered idol worship for a non-Jew because it recognises God. There are various teaching in Judaism that explore divine expression that go beyond the formula of the one invisible, indescribable, omnipresent, omnipotent creator God. We have Kabalistic teachings about divine expressions in human-like emotions such as  kindness or (the drive to) victory.  We are taught that the Shechinah spoke through the throat of Moses[vi]. The Soul that God blew into Adam is believed to be a part of God himself[vii]. For me the nature of God is mysterious. When I approach God in prayer, I am talking to the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” as they understood Him, but I am also talking to the God of my Fathers[viii]”), which to me includes God as understood by my German-culture-loving great grandfather Dr. Armin, my Slovak-shopkeeper-great- great grandfather Aaron, my Torah- focused-scholar grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Yehuda, my devout American mother and my  father ; all these differ. Mostly I try to pray according to “the mind of the young child[ix]”, suspending all speculation. 

My greater problem with idol worship is when it leads us away from God and his demands of us, quite the opposite of what I witnessed at the conference. I see in people like Dave and my friend Jarrod McKenna a different Jesus, a Rebbe-like figure who calls them to compassion and struggle.

The second commandment states: There should not be for you, other gods[x]...” In Hebrew the words Lo Yi-hih-yeh, that mean there should not be, is a singular form, yet the instruction is about many Gods so it should really say Lo Yi-Hih-Yu, (plural). This suggests that Idol worship draws the worshipper in, even if at first the intention was to have one idol, in the end s/he will worship many[xi]. This reminds me of the comment by a psychiatrist, obviously not very impressed with self-help books, that you will never find just one self-help book on someone’s shelf, there will always be many, presumably because they all hold out the false promise of some great relief to life’s challenges but in the end don’t satisfy the reader who goes on to seek a fix elsewhere. I am sure this is not the case for all readers of these books, but I think there is a common thread about seeking escape from the anxiety caused by uncertainty in something concrete that we can hold or read and feel like we have something to hold on to. Similarly, idol worship is worst when it leads us away from the challenge to which God calls us.

Supersession vs Neighbourliness and Collegiality
I asked participants at the conference whether they believed that Judaism had been superseded by Christianity, in the way that a 386 computer is essentially obsolete because we now have faster, better machines. There was some thoughtful discussion about this. I think the key was that they were most interested in the teachings of Jesus as one prophetic teacher and inspiring figure alongside Moses or others rather than the founder of a new religion or brand to compete with “Brand Judaism”. While we are all interested in truth, the focus is more on how we live truthfully than how to assert truth claims over other claims. Quite different to the sorting approach of sifting through falsehood to find the Truth that is reflected in our Torah reading where we read about Jethro exploring all known forms of worship known in his time to reject them all and convert to Judaism[xii]. More like an argument between fellow Chasidim about whose Rebbe is the true Messiah and which teachings are most worth following. Whatever the case might be about supersessionism elsewhere, on Sunday I felt completely at home, accepted as a fellow seeker of God’s way to peace and neighbourliness. Lchaim, to life.

[i] Psalm 104:35
[ii] Beruria was one of the great wise woman of Jewish tradition, she was the wife of Rabbi Meir, Talmud: Tractate Berachot, 10a
[iii] Because of the holiness of this name, the letter Hay, is pronounced as “K”. It is written properly in a Torah scroll or Chumash
[iv] Mechilta, cited in Torah Shlaima p.100
[v] Genesis 9:6
[vi] Tikunei Zohar 38
[vii] Tanya 1
[viii] The Amida prayer, blessing 1
[ix] Derech Mitzvosecha Mitzvat Tefilah
[x] Exodus 20:3
[xi] Ohr Hachayim
[xii] Mechilta