Monday, March 25, 2013

Freedom and Multiculturalism a Passover Perspective

This week Jews will celebrate Passover marking the deliverance of freedom to the Hebrews in ancient Egypt, which also links strongly to Easter. I was surprised to learn that the story at the core of Passover also features in the Quran. At the heart of the Passover story are undeniably powerful universal messages, not only the right for freedom, but also about how cultures need to avoid the ‘us and them’ trap with particular relevance for Australia with its newly confirmed freedom to offend.

I must disclose that I am employed by a Christian-Jewish-Muslim diversity education organisation. At my family Passover feast I will be telling of a Pharaoh that at first resisted the dog whistle politics of division. The Pharaoh was quickly removed in a leadership coup but reinstated when he showed a willingness to portray the small community of Hebrews as an existential threat to the nation. The contribution of the most prominent Hebrew, Joseph, was “not known” to Pharaoah, or Firaun as the Quran calls him. Instead the Hebrews became the “other” that needed to be managed.

The recently released bi-partisan parliamentary Inquiry into Multiculturalism in Australia reported that “despite majority comfort with diversity, 41 per cent of survey respondents had a narrow view of who belongs in Australia”.  In the work of the organisation I lead, Together for Humanity, we have asked 60,000 young Australians to guess which members of a panel typically consisting of a Muslim, a Jew and a Christian are  Australian? The vast majority always assumes that the Muslim is not Australian.

I recall the  year 11 student in Mudgee, who confidently declared  that anyone can become an Australian (citizen) but to be an Aussie you had to have your BBQ in front of your TV and wear thongs. And of course be White and Anglo Saxon. To its credit the bi-partisan report gave prominent voice to the multiculturalism-sceptics and included their concerns in a snap shot of Australia’s response to diversity. In combating prejudice we need to honestly explore the fears and assumptions we make if we are to develop thoughtful resolutions to some of the problems we face.

A Lebanese Muslim year 12 student we worked with some years ago, was recently asked to fill in a question on a form about his identity. His teacher asked him, do you see yourself as Lebanese? Australian? “It depends on the context, Miss” he replied. This young man understands what many Australians don’t. Our identity is multilayered. 

In recent days proposed strengthening of anti-discrimination legislation has been shelved out of concern about freedom of speech. The freedom of an Australian to replicate the Youtube video that ridiculed the prophet has been protected. Perhaps this is the necessary price to protect freedom in general. It comes at a high cost. I was deeply moved when talking about the US made film and its aftermath with young Arabic Muslim students in Western Sydney. There was no hostility or menace. Instead the young men quietly and politely expressed a deep hurt about something so precious to them being desecrated and ridiculed
This attitude of the young Muslims might especially annoy people who take religion lightly, yet if we as a nation are serious about pluralism we need to find room in our hearts for differences not just of belief itself but also how deeply held it can be.

The parliamentary report recognises that “freedom to maintain one’s cultural and linguistic inheritance is an important factor in developing a confident sense of self and a sense of belonging”. This is an important bi-partisan repudiation of the assimilationist approach. There were probably some well-intentioned Egyptians who insisted that the Hebrews were not really that different and it would all be sorted within a few generations. Indeed, the Hebrews adopted some local customs but other Egyptians must have recognised that the Hebrews clung to their own language, distinctive dress and foreign sounding names and   congregated in Goshen. The report calls for greater interaction between people of different beliefs and cultures, a view Together For Humanity strongly endorses and have found highly effective.  We hope we can count on strong bi-partisan support in promoting just such interaction so that we can all enjoy freedom within our great multicultural Australia. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

I dotting, Inactivity and Inspiration

The process for choosing a leader for the largest faith community in the world has begun in Rome. I would like to think that what would be uppermost in the minds of the selectors is identifying who is the most compassionate, most committed to justice and charity, most devout, tolerant, spiritual, sensitive, wisest, boldest, noblest visionary candidate. I would imagine there are other practical qualities that are being considered seriously, such as something as mundane as management skills for example. This is a good time to think about the role of spiritual and moral leaders of significant faith or values based institutions broadly and for me personally. In particular, beyond vision and guidance how important are management skills to implement the vision and the ability to run a compliant, accountable organisation? How much of a priority is to be still and to contemplate? All of these issues are deemed to be important in the Torah reading this week in the portions Vayakhel-Pekudei[1].

The first conflict is between the priorities of action vs. stillness. Moses has a temple to build and there is great excitement, should this activity pause for the Sabbath rest? A robust argument could be made for action to take priority. Surely, ‘since the temple symbolised God’s presence among the nation, its creation should take precedence over the Sabbath. Perfection (would presumably) lie in action rather than rest. Action seems a much more eloquent witness of faith than merely the absence of work[2]’. This argument is repudiated in God’s command to Moses in the midst of the discussion about the temple that the Sabbath rest must be observed[3]. Lesson one inverts the famous action oriented saying to advise us: “don’t just do something, sit there!”, at least for one day out of seven.

The tension between institution building activity and quiet contemplation plays out in a lovely Midrash that presents it as a conversation between the Sabbath and God. The Sabbath says “Master of the World, you created me from (the time of) the six days of creation and you sanctified me, now you are instructing the Jews about matters of the tabernacle but my name you don’t mention. Perhaps, out of the love Israel has for making the tabernacle they will desecrate me”. Immediately, God turned to her and told Moses to write about the Sabbath in this portion that deals with the work of the tabernacle to show that it’s construction does not override the Sabbath …[4] I take this as a message that while “doing” and building is important, a spiritual endeavour must include an emphasis on retreat and reflection.
While quiet time helps us stay true to ourselves, building institutions is really important and exciting work that occupies many page of the Exodus. After Moses went up on the mountain and was with God for forty days and nights, not even eating or drinking[5] as he received the law and the most amazing revelation at Mt Sinai, he goes on to build a physical building to contain the vision, the relationship with God and the message.
I think Moses would have hoped this could be his focus, but this is not to be. He has the scandal of the Golden calf. What an incredible let down, by the people he was so committed to helping. These were the people who were meant to be on his team. What have they done?! Yet this too is part of leadership, to support the flock and be there for them in their struggles with their human frailties.

Photo by Mrs. L. 
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic 
(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Creative Commons License.
After the drama of the Golden Calf, Moses deserved a holiday. Instead he threw himself into the construction of the Tabernacle. Yet, another challenging task was still ahead of him, the extremely practical and mundane task of accounting for the donations. Moses is focused on the following bits of information. “the gold of the waving was twenty nine talents, seven hundred and thirty shekels in the holy Shekel[6]The silver of the community numbers was one hundred talents and one thousand seven hundred and seventy five shekels in the holy Shekel. One hundred talents of the silver were used for casting the sockets of the Holy and the sockets of the dividing curtain; one hundred sockets out of one hundred talents, one talent for each socket. And out of The one thousand seven hundred and seventy five [shekels] he made hooks for the pillars, and he covered their tops and banded them…” and on and on it goes.
According to commentary, a bookkeeping error meant that Moses was very worried about a 1775 shekel discrepancy which is the reason for the word “the” in the preceding verse, after that particular bit of expenditure was identified. Moses was elated when this accounting problem was solved[7].

This work is not fulfilling or exciting yet it is required. Like Moses, I embrace it and accept the great importance of doing right and being seen to be doing right. The compliance, governance and audit responsibilities all come with the territory and are part of the sacred work. Once these are attended to, other matters of worship and vision can be realised. This is as true for me as it is for the next pope.

[1] Exodus 35:1-40:38
[2] Abarbanel cited in Leibovitz, New Studies in Shemot Exodus, p.655
[3] Exodus 35:1-3
[4] Midrash Hagadol cited in Torah Shlaima, Vol 23, p.3
[5] Exodus 34:28
[6] Exodus 38:24
[7] Midrash Tanchuma 7

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Naming a Daughter: Aspiration, Recognition & Feminism

My wife and I were blessed with a baby daughter last Friday, after having five sons. In Jewish teachings there is a connection between the name and character[i]. In selecting a name for our daughter we wanted something distinctive but traditional that would connect her to a biblical role model. Personally, I was also concerned about the way that women are often thought of as the wife of this great person or the mother of another, rather than a person in their own right. I also don’t like the way some girls’ names reflect a view of girls being pretty little things rather than full human beings. Traditionally one consideration in selecting a name is to honour and remember family members, but with four grandmothers between the two parents, we could not honour all of them.

Shifra – Heroic Career woman or Mother?
One strong female characters in the Torah is the Egypt-wide chief midwife for Hebrews[ii] Shifra, who along with her colleague Puah defies the Pharaoh when he commands them to murder the Hebrew male babies[iii].  This courageous choice is the first and perhaps the only example of civil disobedience that resists racism in the Torah. The name is also related to the Hebrew word Shfoferet, a tube because Shifra would resuscitate babies who had stopped breathing by blowing through a tube[iv]. While many sources identify Shifra as being Jochebed, the mother of Moses[v], other texts identify her as a convert[vi], and as an Egyptian[vii], whose children or husband remains unknown and irrelevant to her identity, just as they are absent in a plain reading of the Torah text itself.  

I wonder about what message there is in the commentary that links Shifra with Jochebed. Is it about the greatness of Moses’ lineage, or reflecting a view that a great and complete woman is not just one who interacts with a monarch and defies him but also one who is a mother as well? There is a moving prophecy that reassures men who have no children “let not the eunuch say, "Behold, I am a dry tree”. For so says the Lord to the eunuchs who will keep My Sabbaths and will choose what I desire and hold fast to My covenant, "I will give them in My house and in My walls a place and a name, better than sons and daughters; an everlasting name I will give him, which will not be discontinued[viii]." Surely we can read this passage as saying there is a value to a woman beyond motherhood. Equally, I ask myself whether my own interest in the less prominent commentaries that could be interpreted as positioning Shifra as a career woman rather than a mother reflects a lack of recognition of the importance of motherhood for women and its contribution to the wellbeing of children and to society generally.

To be Named Or Not to be Named
Our daughter’s second and third names were given to her to be named after my paternal grandmother Golda Kastel A.H.[ix] and my wife’s maternal grandmother Bracha Stark A.H., both very strong women who managed to both support their husbands and shine as people in their own right.  In selecting two grandmothers, we highlighted two out of four.  

The issue of whether names are acknowledged or not mentioned is a significant one in the Torah reading, Tetzaveh [x], which was read on the Shabbat on which our daughter was named. The special clothing worn by the high priest in the temple worship included diamonds in which the names of each of the twelve tribes of Israel were engraved “before God, on his two shoulders, as a remembrance[xi]. The names would also be carved a second time into twelve precious stones on a breastplate worn by the high priest[xii].

The opposite side of the equation is also found in this portion. It is the only portion in the Torah that occurs during the life time of Moses[xiii], where he is not mentioned. According to commentary this reflects a selfless choice by Moses, in which he offers a desperate plea to God to forgive the Jews for the sin of the Golden Calf. Moses says to God, “And now, (God) forgive their sin, and if not, erase me please from Your book (the Torah) that You wrote[xiv].”  While God essentially forgives his people, the words of Moses about being erased from the “book” are still partially fulfilled in his absence from this portion[xv].

Not Named But Still Present
The absence of Moses’ name in the Torah portion does not mean he is not present. One way of thinking about it is that his role is more of a background role. Moses might have felt disappointed when, as the sanctuary for God begins to come together, the prominent roles are filled by others - Betzalel is the architect and chief designer while Aaron will perform the key rituals. Where is Moses in all this? To comfort him, without altering the reality of his less overtly prominent role, God tells Moses three times “and you[xvi]” will command the people relating to the olive oil, draw Aaron close and instruct the designers of the priestly clothing. The Torah has a special tune or accent in which it is traditionally read, with louder and longer pitches or intonation for emphasis, all three times the words “and you” have these strong accents[xvii].  Suggesting the importance of Moses’ role in the sanctuary, the spiritual illumination symbolized by the oil and the worship by Aaron[xviii].

Applying the same principle to our question of the names not given to our daughter, I think our daughter can draw strength and inspiration from the two grandmothers after whom she has not been named. Their lives, character, choices and guidance have indirectly helped shape the person she will become, by their parenting of Shifra’s own grandparents.

Names matter. Names can mean a lot of different things, depending on how they are interpreted. The name Shifra also means beautiful or to make beautiful, for example. I trust that our Shifra Golda Bracha will find her own way to construct her identity and draw some strength from great women and men who came before her. This will involve prioritising between public and private roles, at home and/or at work. It will also require recognition that recognition itself is far from the only criteria of value. As my third “honorary grandmother” Stella Cornelius used to say “you can accomplish a lot if you don’t care who gets the credit”. Welcome to our world, Shifra Golda Bracha Kastel.

[i] There is a story told about a student at the House of Torah study whose name was Chatfa which means to grab. After something went missing in the Yeshiva, this student wiped his wet hands on another student’s clothes, which showed a lack of respect for the property of others.  When he was confronted about this he admitted to the theft. This vindicated the view of Rabbi Meir about the link between names and character. I have been unable to find the source of this story.
[ii] Ibn Ezra
[iii] Exodus 1:15-21
[iv] Torah Shlaima p38, note 165, also saw elsewhere but can’t find the source
[v] Sifre, Talmud Sotah 11b, Rashi
[vi] Yalkut Yehoshua cited in Chumash Torah Temima
[vii] Midrash Tadsheh, end Chapter 1 21, Imre Noam, Paaneach Raza, R. Y. of Vienna, the latter two suggest it is would be implausible for the Pharaoh to demand Jewish midwives murder the babies because according to Jewish law one must be prepared to sacrifice one’s life rather than take an innocent life,  all cited in Torah Shlaima, p.38
[viii] Isaaia 56:3-5
[ix] Alehah Hashalom, upon her, peace.
[x] Exodus 27:20- 30:10
[xi] Exodus 28:9-12
[xii] Exodus 28:21
[xiii] The middle three books of the Torah, the last book Deuteronomy is almost entirely the words of Moses himself. 
[xiv] Exodus 32:32
[xv] Midrash Hane’elam Zohar Chadash 6b, cited in Torah Shlaima p.139
[xvi] Exodus 27:20, 28:1 and 28:3
[xvii][xvii] The accents are called, Gershayim, Pazer and Reviee
[xviii][xviii] Alshich, cited in Leibowitz, N, New Studies in Shemot p.526