Friday, April 19, 2013

Incompatible and Unwilling to Integrate

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Part of my worked involves helping young Muslim Australians develop a sense of belonging and awareness of their ability to contribute and participate in Australian society. According to the academic literature, one of the obstacles standing in the way of young Muslims is an external hostility that includes a perception by some of the majority white Anglo-Saxon Australians of the Muslim’s inability or unwillingness to integrate into the rest of Australian society and an incompatibility with “Australianess”[i].  This set me thinking about my own tradition’s teachings about integration and segregation from other communities.

There are strong Torah teachings about loyalty to the land in which we will live, Jewish exiles are instructed to “seek the peace of the city where I have exiled you and pray for it to the Lord, for in its peace you shall have peace[ii]”. In our synagogue we have a prayer for our government and Australia on the Sabbath.

Just a temporary resident
This attitude of loyalty to one’s adopted country needs to be emphasised because there are other ideas that appear to compete with it. In our reading this week the Torah states “Like the practice of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelled, you shall not do, and like the practice of the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you, you shall not do, and you shall not follow their statutes[iii]”. One commentary which stretches the meaning of the verse emphasises the word “dwelled” which he takes to mean settled in Egypt. He sees this verse as including a reprimand for the Hebrews who thought of themselves as permanent dwellers of Egypt rather than temporary residents there, who must have an exclusive attachment to only one land the holy land of Israel[iv].  

This attitude to one’s birthplace and national home, is far from representative of the majority of Jews, but can be found in some sub-communities such as the one I grew up in. This sentiment of distance from the nation that welcomes us seemed to be reflected in a children’s camp song: “Good bye America, goodbye inflation, Moshiach (the Messiah) is coming to save the Jewish nation, good bye America, goodbye pollution…”  I learned a similar song taught to children in the former Soviet Union along the lines of ‘Moscow is not my Capital, Russia is not my homeland… My capital is Jerusalem alone’. 

Loyalty to Nation
While attachment to the holy land is important and perhaps in the Soviet Union which did not list Jews as Russians in their identity cards it is understandable that Jews felt less than deeply attached to the state that persecuted them, the same cannot be said in countries like Australia or the US which at a systemic level are generally supportive of their minorities. This support can be seen in the financial aid provided to faith based schools, particularly in Australia, and anti-discrimination legislation.  In our work, we had a Sheikh explain to young Muslims that the Prophet felt a loyalty to the Idol worshipping jurisdiction of Mecca because he was from there and had a sense of citizenship. This is a sentiment that most Jews would share and that non-Jewish and non-Muslim citizens would rightly expect from all their fellow citizens as part of a social contract.

Cultural Integration?
A sense of citizenship and civic duty is not the same as seeking to integrate into Australian or other non-Jewish or non-Muslim societies and adopt their customs.  Muslim women in hijabs have been a lightning rod for some with concerns about integration. Thankfully, to the best of my knowledge, observant Jews have been spared that kind of scrutiny.  In The Torah reading cited above in which we are instructed to avoid Egyptian and Canaanite practices, the Torah does not make explicit which practices it is referring to. One could take it to be an introduction to the sexual morality[v] laws that follow. However the Talmud applies the prohibition to attending the theatres, stadiums and houses of “singing and drinking alcoholic drinks” of the non-Jews.[vi] Jews are warned not to adopt the customs, formal laws[vii] and culture[viii] of either the Egyptians or the Canaanites. This view is also reflected in Jewish laws about avoiding the “practices of the nations[ix]”. As an aside, one intriguing interpretation of the verse is that from a Torah view the Canaanites had state sanctioned gay marriage[x], thousands of years before New Zealand. While Orthodox Judaism cannot sanction gay marriage, one Orthodox Rabbi I spoke to this week recognised the social benefits to gay couples of having their commitment to each other recognised by the secular state. For more on the intersection between homosexuality, empathy and literal interpretations of the Torah, please see   

Incompatibility with the Land
The notion of being either compatible or incompatible with the land is dealt with poetically and dramatically in our Torah reading.  I like the notion of a land itself developing some kind of spirit or vibe for example I wonder if the Australian continent absorbed Aboriginal traditions of equality between elders and others in the community[xi] which then manifests in modern Australian egalitarianism?  In terms of the land of Canaan/Israel the Torah has a similar notion, but not of the land absorbing the mores of the people living in it but having its internal moral tastes and vomiting out people whose behaviour is incompatible with the moral standard required for this holy land[xii].

There is a danger that an emphasis on distinctiveness or on essentialized and generalised qualities of groups can result in prejudice on the part of the majority and also lead members of minority religious or cultural groups away from positive relationships with the majority culture. These dangers need to be addressed through education about the similarities and differences that exist between groups and within them, civic responsibility and recognition of the moral obligation one has to fulfil a reasonable social contract with the rest of the nation one calls home as well through positive inter-group contact.  There needs to be a strong commitment to respect for the right for groups to be apart in certain respects, to preserve language, moral and cultural practices and to enjoy the benefits of shared worship and non-exclusive social interaction with members of the same group. Research has found that a strong connection with members of the in-group does not detract from positive relationship with the out-group[xiii], we can and must insist on both. 

[i] Mansouri, F., Wood, S. P., (2008) Identity, Education and Belonging: Arab and Muslim Youth in Contemporary Australia, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press
[ii] Jeremiah 29:7
[iii] Leviticus 18:3
[iv] Klei Yakar
[v] Ramban, Ibn Ezra and Abarbanel (Cited in Nachshoni, Studies in the Weekly Parsha) differentiate between the Egyptians who he identified with witchcraft and the Canaanites with sexual sin, the Maor Vashemesh suggests that it relates to the behaviour of brazen/Chutzpa of the insignificant Dathan and Aviram who dared to defy the great Moses in their statement “who appointed you as a leader over us”.
[vi] Talmud Shabbat 67a & b, also cited in Rashi.
[vii] Haamek Davar, differentiates between Maasim as accepted conduct and Chukim as law enacted by the authorities
[viii] Bula, Menachem, (1992) in Daas Mikrah, commentary on the Chumash in the Mosad Harav Kook edition, Jerusalem
[ix] Shulchan Aruch
[x] Based on Lekach Tov, cited in Torah Shlaima p. 169, that states that the “Chukim” in the verse,  was the practice, of “men marrying men and women marrying women”, when combined with the view cited in endnote vii of the Haamek Davar that the practices under discussion are actually referring to government legislation.
[xi] A Darug man explained to me that all would sit in a circle, the elder might say something but if others in the circle thought it was out of line he would be “knocked on the head”.
[xii] Leviticus 18:24-28, note the Seforno suggests that at first the Canaanites were not guilty of all the sexual sins enumerated in this chapter, they were not careful about “mere closeness” to sexual sin, which I would take to mean a reference to flirting or a general lax attitude which later led to incest and the various sins. 
[xiii] Levi, S.R., West, T. L., Bigler, R.S., Karafantis, D.M., Ramizez, L., Velilla, E. (2005) Messages about the uniqueness and similarities of people: Impact on US Black and Latino youth. Journal of Applied Development Psychology 26 p.714-713

Friday, April 5, 2013

Grief and Loss (Shemini)

Envy, grief, anxiety, resentment and anger are not just unpleasant for the person feeling these emotions but also for the people around them. One young man struggling with painful inner turmoil told me “I put a mask on every morning”, a false smile firmly planted on his face to get through the day. There is merit in containing our emotions, thinking about events differently perhaps or considering time and place. Equally, there is a need to acknowledge that we feel what we feel, however painful, and not seek to deny reality. Both of these approaches are reflected in the teachings of our sages and the Torah itself. The nuances of these teachings shed additional light on this challenge. 

Aaron the brother of Moses, and his wife Elisheva, are confronted with the death of their two sons, Nadab and Abihu, in middle of a very public celebration of the dedication ceremony of the temporary temple in the desert. The text does not mention Elisheva and does not tell us about Aaron’s initial reaction, only that after Moses speaks to him he is “silent[i]”. 

Commentators offer a variety of interpretations about what happened prior to his chat with Moses. One tells us that Aaron was crying out loud at first[ii], “screaming out of the bitterness of his spirit[iii]”.  “It is not right” argues another “that he should raise his voice and scream before God on this day… of the joy of his (God’s) heart[iv]”.  How dare he make a scene in God’s house - even if his two sons had just died?

The meaning of Aaron’s silence is also ambiguous. One translation renders his silence as praising God[v], or a quietness of the heart and an inner calmness of the spirit[vi] reflecting his acceptance of the tragedy. Today part of the ritual response to the death of a loved one is to recite “blessed is the true judge”, in acceptance of God’s judgement. Another view is that Aaron is persuaded by Moses that the death of his sons had a different meaning and reflected their greatness[vii]. Yet other commentaries see his silence as being about having a broken heart[viii] or “his heart becoming like an inanimate stone…not accepting any consolation from Moses as no soul was left in him”.
Moses also faces a moment of loss, not as great as Aaron’s but still substantial. He thought he would have the role of high priest in the temple, which would be passed on to his descendants. Instead, by God’s command he appointed his brother Aaron to the position he had coveted for himself. In a poignant observation one commentator writes that despite Moses’ humility and righteousness, every living heart feels[ix]!

In other commentary, Moses is praised for wholeheartedly installing Aaron in the role and being happy for him in it. When Aaron is reluctant, Moses insists that he is reciprocating Aaron’s earlier joy at Moses being chosen a leader rather than himself as the older brother. 

It might not be a contradiction. Moses might have felt the deep pain of disappointment at first, but perhaps after noticing and acknowledging his feeling to himself, he then took a deep breath, even a long quiet walk in the desert and reflected on how he was feeling and whether there was another way to look at it. When he found this other perspective he changed his thinking and was able to feel happy for his brother rather than sorry for himself. One of the wisest women in our tradition, Beruria, managed to shift her thinking about the death of her two sons from solely focusing on her loss to the idea that these children were loaned to her by God who then collected them. In contrast to Beruria, we are simply taught that Elisheva goes from the joy of having her husband installed as high priest and her two sons as deputy high priest, to the terrible sadness of a mother who has lost her children[x].

[i] Leviticus 10:1-3
[ii] Ramban
[iii] Abarbanel’s understanding of Ramban’s commentary
[iv] Abarbanel
[v] Targum Unkelus, version in the Chumash Kesser Torah, cited in Torah Shlaima
[vi] Shem Olam cited in Torah Shlaima
[vii] Rashi This connection is based on the idea that when the great were harshly punished for disrespecting the temple, it showed the importance of the temple and would have a positive impact on the rest of the people.  
[viii] Toldot Adam (commentary on Mechilta) cited in Torah Shlaima
[ix] Ohr Hachayim
[x] Rabenu Bchai