Friday, August 30, 2013

New Year’s repentance, reality, “addictive” behaviours and change – Nitzavim Vayelech

In less than a week I will join my fellow Jews in prayer facing God’s judgement on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The prayer, Unesaneh Tokef (“Let us acknowledge the potency of the holiness of this day”) that inspired Leonard Cohen’s song “who by fire”, will be solemnly read and sung. Its phrases inviting us to reflect on our fate, either tranquillity or distress, life or a harsh death but disaster can be prevented if we repent. Yet, repentance becomes harder over time.  Like the infamous New Year’s resolutions, it involves me making a commitment to myself that I will behave differently next year. Can I trust myself to change when the context in which I make choices about my behaviour remain the same? 

In our Torah reading just prior to this holy day, Moses in tell the Israelites, “You are standing together today, all of you… to enter into a covenant ”. Perhaps one way to improve our prospects for doing right is by drawing strength from a community or fellowship. This is one of the key ingredients in the success of twelves steps programs .

On the other hand, identifying with a faith community can be used to perpetuate poor choices. We have the sinner who “will bless himself in his heart, telling himself, I will have peace as I follow my heart's desires (concluding cryptically with the words) to add the “Rava”  רוהwatered to the thirsty” . One commentary explains that he convinces himself that his sins won’t matter because the majority of people will behave uprightly and so as a member of the community he will still be able to enjoy the benefits of others good works . This is compared to a field that is not watered (the wicked) next to a regularly watered field (eg. the righteous), the unwatered/thirsty field’s crops would benefit from the watered field . 

Judaism teaches that our hearts follow our actions. The rituals are activities that influence our attitudes. In this model, although it is hard to change our attitude, we can change our practices and this in turn influences our attitudes. Following this theory, if I go to the fridge when I feel stressed, I am reinforcing a dependency on food for mood management. If I abstain from snacking on “comfort food” I am reinforcing my capacity for self-control.

One problematic commentary by Nahmanides (1194-1270) emphasises behaviour. It translates the word “Rava” as “sated” and relates it to the situation of the spirit that does not desire “things that are bad for it”. It relates the word “thirsty” to the desire for beautiful women. It suggests that if a man is submerged in promiscuity with women, his desire will increase greatly until he will want things he did not originally desire such as homosexuality and bestiality .  An obvious problem with this commentary is that his 13th century view of homosexuality does not conform to the reality reported by homosexuals about their own experience. A second problem is his equation of bestiality and homosexuality which I find offensive. I have dealt with attitudes toward homosexuals within Torah in an earlier post In this post I explore the “desire” aspect of this commentary.

I am concerned about the way this commentary deals with desire, particularly the way the commentary is adapted by a modern scholar, Nechoma Leibowitz in she which uses the word “addicted” to describe the sinner. I am concerned that the reader might miss the recognition of the way the person begins to lose control. I am afraid of some getting an impression that we are dealing with person who is simply evil and happily indulging him or herself. There is little scope for considering the profound pain suffered by addicts, including those addicted to sex, the internet or work that leads them to “self-medicate”.  It is critical to avoid judgement because we can never truly stand in another person’s shoes or “place ”.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, who I am named after, manages to articulate a powerful message of understanding for people’s circumstances. He suggest that when tempted to judge others we should consider that it is “his physical environment that causes him to sin, since his livelihood requires him to go about the market-place all day…(or) he is of those who sit at the street-corners. Thus his eyes see all sorts of temptation; and “‘what the eyes see, the heart desires….” R. Shneur Zalman also asks us to avoid judgement based on other factors including individual temperaments . The caveat on this is Judaism holds a very strong belief in free choice and ultimate personal responsibility. How much choice there is in the lived experience of the addict is a difficult question I don’t feel qualified to answer.   

For me part of the frustration is founded in unrealistic expectations about how much I can change my habits. I think I need a balance between hope and realistic caution about the prospects for success. Our reading combines these two messages. It tells us that “indeed, this matter is very close (achievable) to you, in your mouth, and your heart to do it ”.   Yet, we have Moses and God both clearly pessimistic about the people changing their habits. God predicts that when Moses dies the people will stray  and Moses expects that the rebelliousness he saw while he was still alive will continue and perhaps get worse after he dies , because “I know that you will be become corrupted ”. The reading offers a lot of punishment, which I guess I can apply in my own life by considering the consequences of various choices and recognise that if I want certain things to happen in my life, family and work there are choices that makes those outcomes either more or less likely. 

As is customary, we respond to the weighty day of judgement with good wishes ahead of this awesome day.  So, to all members of the human family, including my Jewish sisters and brothers, may the next year be a good and sweet one. May we all once again back ourselves and affirm that we will give it our best shot and try, yet again, to be better next year. Let us not imprison our future by our past. Equally, let us be gentle to ourselves and each other by accepting the very compassionate words about ourselves at the conclusion of the frightful “Unesaneh Tokef” prayer, we humans are as a species need “to use our very soul just to earn some bread, we are compared to withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream”.


 Deuteronomy 29:9- 11
  The connection between twelve steps and our Torah reading is made in this article:
  Deuteronomy 29:18
  Ibn Ezra
  Not sure about the science here, but this is the teaching
  Sefer Hachinuch
  Pirkey Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 2:4
  Tanya 30, translation text taken from Lessons in Tanya
  Deuteronomy 30:14
  Deuteronomy 31:16
  Deuteronomy 31:27
  Deuteronomy 31:29

Friday, August 23, 2013

Interaction between “the Certain”, the “Chosen” and the Text Ki Tavo

Photo copyright by Damien Begovic, Dialogue at the
Together for Humanity stall at the Multicultural Eid Festival
18 August 2013, Fairfield, Sydney Australia
Yesterday I was surrounded by a civil, well intentioned, confident group of bearded young Muslim males of Arabic and other backgrounds. I was in my element, I had been warmly welcomed by the organizer of this outreach event, I was offered dates and Arabic coffee, I had lovely conversations with several Muslims that I knew previously and we were talking religion. While on one level I enjoyed the next discussion, there was something a bit challenging with the rather robust dialogue I got into with this group, I felt like I was being targeted for conversion. When I reflected on it and my own reactions to this experience as well as other heart-warming experiences this week, it got me thinking about what works in interfaith interaction and on one of the topics we discussed, the notion of the Jews being God’s chosen people.

Ahmad  asked me about a verse in the Torah that he thinks predicted the rising of another prophet like Moses. The text states “I will set up a prophet for them from among their brothers like you, and I will put My words into his mouth ”. I had never thought of it as relating to a specific prophet and explained to him that the Torah has at least 70 different explanations. That was not good enough for him, there had to be one right answer, otherwise “there will be confusion”. So I explained that the verse refers not to one specific prophet, but to the concept of prophecy which applied to many men and women. I got the text on my smart phone and showed the context of the verse. It follows a warning not to seek superficial certainties through sorcery, but instead to seek guidance from God’s messengers. This made little impression on Ahmad and his friends, who continued to insist that I was wrong because the singular form of the word “prophet” proved that it was talking about one person.

Ahmad then posed a much more powerful challenge relating to the relationship between God and the Jews vs. God’s relationship to all people. Did I believe in a tribal God of Israel or a Universal God of all people and things? What did I think about the chosen people? These questions could have led to a thoughtful exchange that would have helped all of us gain greater understanding of each other’s’ faiths.  Unfortunately at this stage, my headspace was anything but thoughtful. Instead I was part of a game I never agreed to play, that of seeking to convince each other about truths. The absurdity of it, was that here I was being challenged about the meaning of my own sacred text by people who had limited knowledge of it and could not read it in its original language. This is always a bad move. We are on much safer ground when we speak about our own text and show openness to those who follow a text to tell us what it means to them.

In a more curious dialogue, I would have compared Jewish and Islamic texts relating to the way that Moses introduces God to Pharaoh (Firaon in Arabic). In the Torah, Moses states: "So said the Lord God of Israel, 'Send out My people’’ " and he also refers to the “God of the Hebrews ”. In the Quran we a significant difference in the way Moses (or Musa) refers to God. He states: “Oh Pharaoh! Lo! I am a messenger from the Lord of the worlds…I come to you with a clear proof from your Lord. So let the children of Israel go with me ”.  The Islamic text presents a universal God of the “worlds” who is even the Lord of Pharaoh himself.  Putting this in context, God is introduced as the creator of the universe, who is terribly concerned about injustice in the pagan society of Sodom.  I would argue that Jews clearly see God as universal rather than what I regard as the ridiculous notion of an exclusive Jewish God.  The idea of a God of Israel is more about the dedication of Israel to the one God than it is about ownership in the way that people talk of the sports team they are fans of as being “their team”.

The question of the Chosen people is often taken to mean that Jews have a sense of superiority. It is hard to argue with that interpretation when we consider the text in the reading Ki Tavo. “the Lord has selected you this day to be His treasured people, as He spoke to you, and so that you shall observe all His commandments, and to make you supreme (higher), above all the nations that He made… ”. I do not take this as a license to chauvinism or arrogance. I would broadly agree with the Muslim woman I enjoyed a most respectful conversation with at our Together For Humanity stall we had on Sunday at the Multicultural Eid festival. She understood choseness as reflecting the fact that the Jews had chosen to worship and believe in God. One commentator understands the key word האמירך (He-Eemircha) which some translate as chosen, to mean that He caused you to say and be willing to be a people for (eg. committed to) God because he did so many miracles (for the Jews) . The context clearly shows that the people were chosen to obey commandments.

Another commentator sees a strong universatlist agenda in all this. The purpose of the Jews special status is not for their benefit but for God to achieve through them what he wanted to achieve with the human species. The elevation is for the purpose of understanding and teaching monotheism .  I prefer these explanations to the one that suggest that even if another nation (Umma in Hebrew) will come and will do good, and will try to attach to the Divine presence they will not be able to acheve the level of Israel  . Not all interpretation is convenient, and I need to present a balanced view.

The discussion with Ahmad and friends continued to confront me. I explained that in Judaism there is no need for others to convert as long as they obey 7 key principals (laws for all children of Noah), one of which is establishment of law and justice which I interpret as including participation in the democratic process. I got an argument against democracy in favour of theocracy.

After this exchange, I talked to three other Muslim men one of whom was concerned about how I might have felt after the unofficial debate/conversion effort. Another walked me to my car and engaged me in a real open minded and open hearted conversation reflecting genuine curiosity and true gentleness of spirit. In my short conversation with him I learned some interesting similarities between Islam and Judaism as we understand Satan/Shaytan as an agent of God whose role is to tempt us. I put the more challenging (but not “bad” experience in context of all these much more pleasant conversations this week and indeed even at the same generally enjoyable event.  This little confrontation pales into significance when I compare it with the highlight of my week when Jewish students from the Emanuel School recited the blessing after meals among mostly Arabic Muslim students at Punchbowl Boys High School, followed by a dozen Muslim students doing the afternoon prayer in unison. Both groups of teenagers silently showed the greatest respect for each other, followed by genuinely curious questions, seeking understanding.

Certainties and claims to Choseness present challenges as well as opportunities for learning about each other and how to get along.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Good Intentions Good Works

Yesterday I heard a simply dressed woman stand up in the audience of a large room describe the way she and others in Tamworth help refugees and new arrivals in Tamworth, a country town. There is no money, no grants, no questions of accountability, just people simply working together to help newcomers, driving them in their own vehicle to inspect an apartment, helping with needed furniture and other practical needs. There was something really wholesome and inspiring in this great example where pure intention meets good works, with no other motives. Unfortunately, this is not always practical, for example in my case I do good work, based on positive intentions, but we have chosen to professionalise the work, which means I am paid for the work and there are questions of interests, power and authority over people that report to me.

Monday: My step is light. My mood is upbeat. I’m walking down quiet tree lined streets to a trail that takes me into a little forest. The leaves are so many shades of red, brown and green. I’m not happy because I am noticing the trees. The opposite is true. I’m noticing the trees because of an inner joy.  It’s the joy of freeing myself from stress about funding for the organisation I lead by moving my focus to the people I have the privilege to serve.  This morning, I turned my attention back to lobbying the government for funding but my intention is not to keep afloat but on maximizing the benefit to children across this country. Thinking about how to ensure the impact is greater. I am experiencing the joy of being focused on my intentions to help others.

I feel inspired by Martin Luther King jnr’s “mountain top speech” and its focus away from self to the needs of the people he was committed to help. I used to read Moses’ speech about not getting to the Promised Land as a lament. “I pleaded with God at that time, saying. Lord, God, you have begun to show your servant your greatness…please let me pass (over the river) and see the good land…[i]”. Alas Moses’ plea is refused and he is merely allowed to see the Promised Land from the top of a mountain. In King’s speech shortly before he is assassinated he sees it differently. King tells his audience that “It doesn’t matter about me now”, he is not afraid to die because he has “been to the mountain top, and seen the Promised Land” he can see the realisation of his dream of an equal society. This is the head space I think we need to operate in, if we can. Thinking not about our own wishes or needs but of those we serve.

Wednesday: I hear a speech by Mrs. Maha Abdo, a leader of the Muslim Women’s association. I am sitting next to her on the panel at a diversity conference. She begins by asking us to close our eyes and focus on our intention for being in that room at that moment. I close my eyes and think about the networking I came to do, promoting my organisation and decide that a better intention would be to focus on really hearing what others are saying and being here for the people in this room in the discussion. Maha says that in her recent trip to a village in Yemen the normal practice before doing anything is to stop and think about intention. I love it.

Alongside good intentions is the obligation to judge whether our efforts are having an impact, sometimes using “hard” instruments, such as demands for data, accountability and giving harsh criticism to ensure this is being achieved. This is particularly true when public or charitable funds are being used.

The Torah commands the people to put judges and “police” (Shortim שוטרים) in all their gates[ii]. This has been interpreted metaphorically as a requirement for making judgements about the words that come out of our mouths as well as what and how we choose to see things with our eyes and hear with our ears. I suggest that the priority be placed on wise judgement with any harshness being carefully employed only in accordance with this wisdom.

 The Hebrew word shoter שוטר , that I translated as police, has more than one interpretation. One scholar translated it as “rulers[iii]”. In his model there is a separation of powers,  there is the judiciary who make judgements and the rulers who ensure that the ruling of the judges is imposed. In this model there appears to be no ambivalence about the combination of coercive power and authority. An alternative and more prevalent view is that the “Shoter” has no authority of his own and refers to “the lads” who are given very specific instructions by the judges to enforce their judgements[iv]. In the second model, force or harshness is rightfully positioned in its proper subservient role.

I hope in my life I get it right, at the level of motives, intentions and impact on others. More broadly, the Australian government’s harsh treatment of asylum seekers, and the policies advocated by both major parties during our current election campaign needs to be challenged both at the level of intention and impact. May compassion prevail and all force and harshness humbly serve justice as determined by wise judgment.

[i] Deuteronomy 3:24-26
[ii] Deuteronomy 16:18
[iii] Ibn Ezra
[iv] Mizrahi based on Rashi commentary on Deuteronomy 16:18 and Rambam Sefer Hamitzvos. In one version of Rashi he used the word “Gularion” which Marcus Jastrow explains to be a “soldiers boy”, or the most junior soldiers who typically are sent ahead in harm’s way but the credit it given to the more senior soldiers.