Friday, June 14, 2013

Holy Hate! Sticks or Words in Interfaith relations?

Yesterday at a Marrickville “Faith Walks” event with a group of people from various faiths and backgrounds, I was asked how I know that God calls me to work with Christians and Muslims for coexistence and interfaith acceptance. I don’t really “know” that I am right. This week I received emails with arguments disputing the value of my approach highlighting this argument or that fact. The apparent ‘sacred hatred’ of the other  mocks the optimism of the somewhat grandiose name we have chosen for ourselves “Together For Humanity”, in one case simply by turning our name into a question “are we Together For Humanity?” I don’t think all the contrary arguments are silly or baseless’. There is always a counter argument and another argument after that. The bottom line for me is that in my best judgement this is clearly the right way to deal with an ambiguous reality, to focus on what is best in the other and on a vision of how things ought to be. As a leader it is my responsibility to set aside the doubts and believe wholeheartedly and help others believe as well. Napoleon said “leaders are dealers in hope”. Perhaps this is the key to the mystery of why Moses ultimately fails as a leader and is prevented from taking his people into the Promised Land.   

This past Sunday Mohamed Taha  ( journalist, law student and Together For Humanity workshop presenter), Iman Taleb ( young Muslim woman working in oral health)  Sheikh Omar Habouche (IT Project manager and Islamic Scholar) and I presented a seminar  titled Holy Hate- Jews and Muslims at the Limmud Oz Jewish festival of ideas. The seminar was attended by 140 members of the Jewish community. The attendance itself is a strong statement for coexistence and seeking understanding. 

The Sheikh gave the context for many Islamic texts that could be understood to justify hatred of Jews. He explained the importance of oral tradition within Islam that ensures that texts are understood with the benefit of guidance by a teacher rather than people just picking up a text and doing whatever they want with it. He cited the example of the killer of the soldier in Woolwich as an example of someone who could cite text but failed to understand what the text really means. I hope I can reproduce his talk in full on my blog soon. 
My own remarks focused on the various relevant teachings in my own tradition. The words “Holy Hate” might be considered an absurdity to Christians who believe that God is love, but this is not a Jewish concept. On the contrary, according to the Torah (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:21-22) God actually hates. “Nor shall you erect for yourself a "matzeva" (pillar), which the Lord your God hates”.  King David expresses his devotion to God by stating of those who hate God, heretics[i]  תכלית שנאה שנאתים לאויבים היו לי with the ultimate hatred I have hated them, they are enemies for me. Certainly David thought of his hatred as sacred. So we have a precedent for holy hate. Does it continue to exist? 

Let us put the reasons aside. It is a matter of fact that many people of the Jewish and Muslim communities have negative views about the other.  I had a hard object thrown at me from a passing car together with insults in Arabic in Auburn, a suburb which boasts  a large Muslim population;  a Jewish member of the audience at Limmud who is engaged to a Muslim talked about the negative talk she hears about Muslims around some Shabbat tables.  There is also a lot of good will on the part of Jews and Muslims toward each other. I am proud to say that the CEO of the NSW Jewish board of deputies, Vic Alhadeff has stood up against anti-Muslim prejudice and that people like Mohamed Taha and many of the Muslims I work with in Together for Humanity stand up against anti-Jewish hatred. 

In terms of the portrayal of Islam in Jewish texts there would be limited references because our main texts were already written before the historical founding of Islam. I believe there are some negative Maimonides[ii] stated that both Islam and Christianity played a positive role in history. "All those words of Jesus of Nazareth and of this Ishmaelite [i.e., Muhammad] who arose after him are only to make straight the path for the messianic king and to prepare the whole world to serve the Lord together. As it is said: 'For then I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech so that all of them shall call on the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord[iii]'  

It is not true that Jews believe in literally taking out “an eye for an eye[iv]”, it is clear in Jewish traditions that it refers to monetary compensation[v]. Revenge and even holding a grudge is forbidden in the text of the Torah[vi] In the prayers before going to sleep, we proclaim forgiveness for anyone who sinned against me… in this life or another life…no one should be punished on my account[vii]. Yet the Torah tells us about clear instructions from God to the Israelites to take revenge against Midyan[viii] and never to forget the evil deeds of Amalek who attacked you us when we were vulnerable[ix]. In Chasidic teachings, Amalek represents the instinct to pour cold water over religious enthusiasm while Midyan represents baseless hatred. I don’t interpret either of these teachings as encouraging people to be hateful today. 

Ultimately Judaism is as Judaism does.  When some Rabbis ruled that Jews should not rent their homes to Arabs in Sefad Israel, they were indulging in holy hate. When Jews such as Vic Alhadeff defend Muslims he is living Jewish principles of social justice. When young people in both communities meet and interact with each other, they live the teaching that God created humanity out of one person, Adam so that no one would say my ancestor is greater than yours. 

The challenge for us is to choose to put our faith in each other. When confronted with texts that concern us, we should try to understand these texts not in terms of their absolute meaning but in terms of the meanings given to these texts by people with whom we can have dialogue. 

Moses has an opportunity to help the people maintain faith in God despite the fact that they are in a desert and have been told in the previous portion that they will die in the desert and never get to the Promised Land.  The people, arguably, had good reasons to question God when they have no water. Moses is told to go and talk softly to the rock and water will come from it for the people because God wills it. Instead he yells at the people that they are rebels, he hits the rock and, while water emerges, a valuable opportunity about choosing faith despite challenging obstacles has been lost. The people don’t see that just talking to a rock with the word of God can bring forth water[x], the paradigm of forcing things and fighting for them has been reinforced.  Another leader will be needed to take the people to the Promised Land[xi]. I hope I can continue to believe and inspire others to believe that while there might be a time to fight, there is much that can be accomplished with our beautiful fellow human beings of Muslim and other faiths by talking and listening rather than by wielding sticks.

[i] Jerusalem Talmud Shabbat 16:1
[ii] Maimonedes Yad Hachazaka laws of Kings
[iii] Zephaniah 3:9
[iv] Exodus 21:24
[v] Mechilta on Exodus and the Talmud in Ketuvot 32b and Bava Kamma 83b
[vi] Leviticus 19:17
[vii] Siddur Tehilat Hashem p.141
[viii] Number 31:2
[ix] Deuteronomy 25:17-19
[x] Rashi
[xi] Based on interpretation by UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks