Friday, May 24, 2013

Boundary Riding vs Censorship. Woolwich Killer’s Friend and a homeless Buddhist

This morning on ABC Radio a man who identified himself as a friend of the Woolwich Killer justified the brutal extra-judicial killing of a British soldier on the basis of the terrible killings of so many people in Iraq and Afghanistan. What I found worrying was how reasonable and British he sounded as he almost calmly justified killing a fellow citizen-soldier away from the field of battle. Some people must be rubbing their hands with glee that this view has been articulated as this would be seen as evidence that ‘ordinary normal sounding Muslims’ are also dangerous. I don’t think this friend of the killer represents the majority of Muslims. I think it would have been better if this person could have been prevented by his own community from talking to the media or by the media not giving him a platform. (The former is not a practical suggestion, of course, violent zealots are unlikely to consult the mainstream elders of their faith community about their actions or their words). It will give listeners insights into the minds of one person and a few others like him while creating a distorted view of an already besieged community of generally decent good people.

Some communal constraints of individual expression are useful and appropriate, others not so. I explore this in light of this weeks’ Torah reading but first a little story.

Under the bridge sat a man, utterly still, an orange blanket covered his legs, a heavy coat on his upper body, his face a picture of calmness framed by a scraggly beard. He is a Buddhist. He is homeless. Professor Di Yerbury who lives in the building nearby and I were walking together and stopped to talk with the man. She mentioned that I am a Rabbi.

“In your religion, does everyone follow the faith properly?” he asks me. He has been quite upset about the Dalai Lama who he thinks follows a corrupted variation of his faith. I told him that I used to get quite angry about other Jews, particularly in my Chasidic community who failed to live up to the standards of integrity and compassion that I thought they should, but when I met a Catholic who was also worried about the same things in his faith it helped me realise the universality of high aspirations and human frailty. I am much more forgiving now. He found that comforting. He told me he would stop worrying about other people and focus on his own worship. Di and I dropped some money in his tin and I walked away with a story.

That Buddhist had just kicked a mostly destructive habit: “Boundary riding!” I’m using the words in a metaphoric sense to describe people who make it their business to ensure that their peers don’t stray from community norms and accepted opinions. The concept is based on an Australian term, “boundary rider” that describes “a ranch hand who patrols the boundary of a sheep or cattle station in order to watch the stock[i]”, which is a great representation of a process of ensuring that none of the flock dare cross the line into unacceptable opinions.

Jeremy, a Christian friend, observed about my blog that some of it expresses insights into matters of the spirit, but this is weighed down by concerns with getting it right according to earlier religious texts. It is almost as if I am self-censoring and employing my own internal “boundary rider”. I wonder about that. This week I read an article by Mehdi Hasan, a member of two communities, the journalist/writer/modern elite and an orthodox Muslim community where he expresses his worries about how his peers, both co-religionists and secular, will judge him for the nuanced stand he takes on homosexuals and same-sex marriage[ii].  I am not sure what I think about all this, I believe passionately in freedom of thought and expression and I also think there is some value in considering new ideas in light on the wisdom that came before.

Moses himself comes across two variation of Boundary riding in our reading this week. The first is when two new prophets Eldad and Meidad “prophesise in the camp[iii]”.  According to the Talmud they dared speak an unspeakable prediction, “Moses will die and Joshua will lead Israel into the (promised) land[iv]”. A lad, identified as Gershom the son of Moses[v], runs to report this to his dad. Joshua, Moses’ faithful student at this point cries out, “My master Moses, eliminate them[vi]”! Moses rejects this approach. “"Are you zealous for my sake? If only all the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord would bestow His spirit upon them![vii]" Chalk one up for freedom of expression.

A few verses later, Moses himself is suspected of straying by his own sister Miriam and brother, Aaron. The nature of his offence is not clear. The words in the text state “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses regarding the Cushite (Black?) woman he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. They said, "Has the Lord spoken only to Moses? Hasn't He spoken to us too?"

A variety of commentary is offered about the offence. Some suggest they were concerned because they thought he divorced his wife because she was “black and not beautiful[viii].  Alternatively they were unhappy that he married a non-Israelite, “Could Moses not find a wife among the daughters of Israel to marry, that he went to the uncircumcised Chushites? Is it because God talks to him that he is being haughty, that he does not want to marry a woman from among the daughters of Israel, instead seeking a woman from far away?[ix]”.

God himself comes to the defence of Moses insisting that he deserved to be trusted. “..My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth; in a vision and not in riddles, and he beholds the image of the Lord. So why were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?[x]” There are some servants who are not completely trusted, they will be given a message but some details will be withheld to protect confidentiality. Such a servant would be told “Tell, so and so, that he should do that which he spoke about” without disclosing the details so that the messenger does not know what it is about[xi].  God is saying, cut Moses some slack, he can be trusted and doesn’t need to be second guessed.

Censorship is often inappropriate, there are many people who have earned the right to be given the benefit of the doubt and trusted. Generally the causes of truth, justice and mercy are better served with greater freedom. There are cases where people do not have the right to be heard. If they are heard anyway, such as the friend of the Woolwich killer, we listeners have an obligation to bear in mind that he can only represent himself and cannot speak for a community. May we soon see an end to violence everywhere in the world, regardless of the religion or race of the victims.

[iii] Numbers 11:26
[iv] Talmud Sanhedrin 17a
[v] Bamidbar Rabba 15:19
[vi] Numbers 11:28
[vii] Numbers 11:29
[viii] Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher, Pirush Hatur Haaruch, to Numbers  12:1 cited in
[ix] Bchor Shor
[x] Numbers 12:7-8
[xi] Bchor Shor

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Numbers, NAPLAN and value

Teachers across Australia are spending their days fixated on a numbers centred and government directed national testing exercise, called NAPLAN that measures students’ achievements in some parts of the curriculum. At least one teacher I know is also awake thinking about this in middle of the night as I learned via a ‘tweet’ from her as I woke up to bottle feed my baby daughter at 3 am.  Another teacher referred to NAPLAN thus “If you’re Australian you’ll recognize and curse this particular acronym![i]“ This post also relates to the Torah reading that begins with the book of “Numbers” which begins with a census clarifying the number of men[ii]. What do we think about numbers and what they mean in terms of the value of that which they count?

In the Australian school context, while the tests are used to identify schools in need of increased resources to address needs, at least one consequence of the testing and quantifying achievement is an increased focus on one aspect of teaching that can be “counted” at the expense of other teaching. As Jarvis, a teacher in a remote Northern Territory Aboriginal school, tweeted, “Doing some #NAPLAN prep with my Year 9s. Makes me feel like a fraud.. But want them to do best - requires support[iii]. Today, a cross-cultural day that was planned for bringing together students from an almost exclusively “white” background with students from Non-English speaking backgrounds will not go ahead as planned due to pressures relating to NAPLAN.
Krishe, a student who, on her graduation from a Sydney high school in 1996, had her class photograph on the front page of a Sydney newspaper under the heading 'The class we failed', talks very movingly about the negative impact on her of being judged based on a set of numbers and ultimately just on her  post code[iv]
The matter of counting and recording numbers is a massive part of the functioning of the modern state. Statistics is etymologically related to the word ‘state’[v], because numbers “made the nation ‘legible’ for governing[vi]”. Yet counting, even in ancient times, was already a controversial act. According to some commentary, whenever Moses set out to count the Jews he would only do so indirectly. The people gave coins and only the coins were counted rather than the people[vii]; or only the names were counted rather than the people[viii], to prevent a plague[ix] which could result from the “evil eye” that dominates during counting[x]

This fear was not unfounded, in fact a later census initiated by King David which presumably did not take these precautions[xi] results in the death of seventy seven thousand people[xii]. Even before these deaths, there is recognition that there is a problem with the counting. Joab, the man tasked with the counting, resists, pleading with David “why does my master seek this? Why should this be a sin against Israel?[xiii]”. When Joab is pressured to proceed, he leaves out two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, from the count because the king’s word had become loathsome to Joab[xiv] and he wanted to protect as least those tribes[xv].  

Despite these issues, the book of numbers begins with a census commanded by God. It would appear that counting can be good and bad. Counting can be a means for displaying God's love[xvi], showing concern about each individual, showing His interest in knowing the number who survived the last tragedy. That which is counted is seen as having additional importance in Jewish law[xvii], yet counting can also stand in the way of the “blessing that is only found in that which is hidden from eye[xviii]”. I think there would be additional blessings for students if their teachers could focus on engaging students without worrying about measurement, although some accountability is needed.

Perhaps counting indirectly serves as a reminder that the number is only a limited representation, never the reality of that which is counted – a multifaceted full human being, with beauty and ugliness, virtue and weakness, attachments, loss and dreams, achieving a broad range of learnings including social, artistic and academic insights - that has inestimable value that can never be captured in a number.  

Best wishes to all Australian students and teachers doing NAPLAN. 

[i] McKenzie S., (2013) The Curse of Competence. The connected Teacher Blog. Retrieved from  9/05/2013

[ii]   Numbers 1:2

[iii] Ryan, J, (2013), retrieved from 9/5/2013 he also points out that “My students would do a lot better if NAPLAN was translated into their 1st language. It's not about understanding, it's a language barrier.”


[v] Lingard, B, (2011), Policy as numbers: ac/counting for educational research

[vi] Scott, J. C. cited in Lingard (2011)

[vii] Rashi to Numbers 1:2, this view is disputed by Abarbanel, who states that coins were only used in an earlier census

[viii] Mincha Belulah

[ix] Exodus 30:12

[x] Rashi commentary on Exodus 30:12

[xi] Metzudat David commentary on Samuel II, 24:10

[xii] Samuel II, 24:15

[xiii] Chronichles I 21:3

[xiv] Chronichles I 21:6

[xv] Rashi commentary on Chronichles I 21:6

[xvi] Rashi Numbers 1:2

[xvii] The Lubavitcher Rebbe, cited in Weisberg, C, Don’t Women count?

[xviii] Talmud Bava Metzia 42a, cited in Metzudat David commentary on Chronichles I 21:3