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.


  1. I had a somewhat similar experience with a Catholic priest when I was in hospital a few months ago re: feeling like I was being proselytised. It's very difficult to find a respectful balance.

  2. Sometimes ago I wrote something for a conference about Muslims-non Muslim dialogue it can be read on Scribd here

  3. Zalman, I think the "laws for all children of Noah" would be a great conversation starter with Christians. The apostle Paul refers to these in relation to gentile Christians in the book of Acts.

    1. Thanks Matt. I was not aware of the reference in Paul.