Friday, September 13, 2013

Criticism, Defensiveness and Repentance - Yom Kippur

It really got under my skin. An article was posted on a Muslim website making the ridiculous suggestion that the “Jewish Lobby” has taken credit for the election of Australian Prime Minister elect Tony Abbott because of his position on Middle East conflict (1).  It also hinted darkly about some kind of connection between secular groups in the Jewish community and the Mr. Abbott’s lesbian sister. If the article was focused on concerns for justice for the Palestinians, I would respect it, but why fabricate garbage about “Jewish control”? The sources cited in the article show clearly that the assertion is baseless. (Update: In response to my contacting the website that published the story, the words were changed to "all but too the credit"). What on earth is he getting at with the gay angle? More broadly my indignation with this article is an opportunity for a deeper reflection on criticism, defensiveness and repentance ahead of our Day of Atonement tonight and tomorrow.

I have been thinking about how religious communities respond to criticism. I hate the pattern in which communities, as well as political parties, are often focused on preserving a positive image, asserting an “us good, them bad” view rather than on exploring how we might not be so great and can improve. An impressive deviation from this was the unqualified apology and acknowledgement by Rabbi Moshe Gutnick this week of  a “culture of cover up, often couched in religious terms, (which) pervaded our thinking and actions“ relating to child sexual abuse (2).

While stirring up stereotypes and false or exaggerated negative beliefs about any community is reprehensible, raising legitimate concerns regarding any community should be welcomed. The above-mentioned Muslim website article clearly does the former.  Notwithstanding that problem, I think it still raises a useful question for Australian Jews about our obligations as Australian citizens regarding what we should take into account when we vote. In fairness to many Jews, a range of ethical views relating to Australia were debated and given prominence on blogs and Facebook, yet the extent to which exclusively Jewish priorities figured for some Jews in their voting decision is a legitimate topic for debate.

One of the things included in the confession test of our Yom Kippur prayer service is the sin of being judgemental.  I think it is important for people tempted to make judgements about perceived defensiveness in some communities to consider the following anecdote:

“Why are you so defensive?” I asked D., a 19 year old Hebrew School teacher when I first started out running a Sunday school almost 20 years ago. I had been trying to guide her about how she can do things better, but each time I suggested something D. gave me an argument about how she was already doing it. “If I wasn't feeling attacked, would I be defensive?” D replied. The penny dropped for me.

A prominent Muslim woman and leader has made the point to me that her communities’ internal efforts at self-criticism is hampered by the relentless attacks they are subjected to. I suggest this is also true for Jewish communities.

I noticed this dynamic in myself. I was sent an article by an American Jew, Mark Braverman relating to Israel’s “separation barrier” (3). Mark writes that when he stands in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur to pray for forgiveness he will: “stand before [ is] an 8 meter-high wall of concrete and steel that now stands between me and my maker, between me and my faith, and between me and my sisters and brothers in Palestine who in their call for justice and coexistence are calling me – and my Christian brothers and sisters in the UK and around the world – to faithfulness.  We Jews can be forgiven for our sins – this is without question – but we must begin by acknowledging them.”

Mark argues for collective Jewish responsibility, pointing out that the Yom Kippur confession prayer is “recited in the first person plural – and only so always in the plural”. “For the sin, that WE sinned …” we say as we physically (symbolically) beat our chests. My visceral reaction to Mark’s piece was defensive. I focused on Mark's argument that Israelis’ attitude is “fear-based … because they do not know the Palestinians.  That’s what the wall does…” I think that implies that the only reason Jews have negative feelings toward Palestinians is because of prejudice, itself caused by the wall. What about suicide bombing and the stabbing murders of men, women and children in their homes, I asked indignantly.

Yet, the prophets spoke scathingly, without context or qualification, about the Israelites, comparing them to Sodom. Prodding the people with hyperbole, the prophets’ technique could be seen to work in the same way that satire or cartoons help make a point by focusing on it.  In my own reserved way I have been critical of the approach Jews and Israel take to the endless peace process, suggesting a greater emphasis on justice is needed if we are ever to achieve the aim of peace.

On Yom Kippur I need to own up to my own shortcomings, as well as any faults of those of the various communities I am part of - Jewish, Hasidic, middle class, white, Australian and the Interfaith/Peace community. None are perfect. All can do better to avoid sins of commission or omission, to ensure we are not complicit with any evil and that we are as active as we can be to promote justice, peace and virtue.

I suggest that there needs to be a combination of effective self-criticism, generally avoiding defensiveness and taking ownership of our faults and those of our communities, while still also taking into account a concern about apportioning blame unfairly to our own communities.

Wishing the entire Jewish community and all people to be sealed in God’s good book and for those participating in the fasting and worship over the 25 hours of Yom Kippur a most rewarding day.