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


  1. I think your concerns are admirable,the first story is fraught with implied derogatory ; that Zaid is unconverted is apparent and therefore mistrusting,that the construct is based on usury and that Zaid unwarrantedly confronts Mohammed are dangerous motifs. However I am sure the storys' intent is to show the mercy of Mohammed and the Largesse of a conqueror can and should be applied to the vanquished should this unfortunate occurrence happen.
    The Slave story is altogether more worrying and my initial response is at first with your younger student amzement, but I think the key is the final part where Love is presented as bonding.

    1. Thanks Paul, I agree that the intent of the story is very important factor. The slave story is a difficult one. I think with both traditions, it is useful to be aware of the dangers they present and use interpretation to lead to respectful, just and loving outcomes.

  2. Two interesting stories. I knew of the hadith about Zaid and the dates but not the Jewish story of the Canaanite slave woman.

    My view of the date story was that Zaid was trying to test the Prophet and the Prophet suspected that was the case. He accepted the loan, which he had not asked for, to test Zaid as well. When Zaid challenged him and spoke in a derogatory fashion the Prophet's response was a general lesson in showing forbearance. His suggestion that Zaid be taught a lesson about honourable speech then repaying the loan 1.5 times over was the Prophet giving Zaid a personal lesson that he too should show forbearance.

    The story of the Canaanite slave girl reflects what no doubt was a common practice regardless of the religion of the slave or the slave owner. Still it raises some important moral issues about human rights and decency.

    It was a common practice among American slave owners and they also justified their treatment of slaves from a Christian perspective. A distant ancestor of mine was a member of the Alabama Congress and a slave owner. During the session in which Alabama seceded from the union just prior to the American Civil War he made an impassioned speech justifying slavery as in the interest of the slaves. He claimed in the speech it was a religious duty to care for the slaves. Another perspective perhaps?

    An interesting sideline is that this guy was also a Supreme Court Judge and the first African-American to graduate in law after the Civil War had the same surname. I know that some slave owners slept with their female slaves and their offspring were treated differently. Slaves also took the surname of their owners so I wonder if there is a connection?

    1. Thanks Gary for reply. Interesting additional angle on the story with Zaid, that it was a two way test. The intention in the story as I heard it certainly seems to be about the virtue of forbearance. I wonder what you think about concerns that it reinforces negative views of Jews?
      Slavery and the text related to it is a far more difficult issue to deal with. It is hard to believe how something so evil could be defended based on the same book that leads many people to compassion and justice. The Alabama Congressman is an example of how the human mind can interpret religion to justify ridiculous conclusions.

  3. Zalman, your comments on curiosity in interfaith dialogue prompted a few reflections of my own at

    1. Thanks Matt, for the reference to my work on your blog.
      I agree with the important distinction between agreement and respectful curiosity. Also thought you had an interesting take on Moses and the burning bush.