Friday, December 12, 2014

“Girly Men’s” Redemption - Vayeshev

The strip search of "Love Makes A Way" protesters
this week and the broader asylum seeker  policy
debate in Australia illustrates the soft vs hard debate
Although I like to think that I am happy with my mix of strengths and weaknesses, I occasionally feel concerned about being “a soft person”. I can sometimes be indecisive, spontaneous, impulsive and conciliatory. I find that my energy levels fluctuate. There are times when I am filled with hope. At other times, I feel daunted by my work challenges and life. Occasionally I feel envious of successful “hard men”. They are decisive, disciplined, determined and consistent. They know what they want, and appear able to bend people to their will. I suspect however that redemption - whenever it comes - might be due more to the influence of women (or “girly men”) than “hard men”.

In this week’s Torah reading we are introduced to a puzzling story about a family whose two oldest sons marry the same beautiful (1) woman (named Tamar); one after the other. Both brothers die young (2). Eventually Tamar, pretending to be a prostitute, seduces and later marries her father in law, giving birth to twins, after having narrowly escaped being burned alive. What is even more intriguing for me is that this adventure is understood by the Jewish sages as God being “occupied with creating the light of the Messiah” (3). This is because one of the twins (that were born out of wedlock) is the ancestor of King David, who in turn, is professed to be a predecessor of the Messiah! 

This ancestor of the Messiah is named Peretz, which means “to burst forth”. His twin brother is Zarach, which means “to shine”. The children’s names are linked to the sun and the moon. The name Zarach/Shine is associated with the sun that shines consistently, while Peretz, the ancestor of the Messiah, is connected with the moon (4), which waxes and wanes, just as the passionate King David’s royal dynasty fluctuated over history (5). This suggests that those “who live the ups and downs” are closer to the character of the Messiah than those who appear to consistently “shine brightly like the sun”. 
In addition to the value placed on those of us who fluctuate, which is arguably a sign of living to the full,  there is also emphasis on the feminine. In patriarchal societies there is a sense that men are the ones to take the initiative in relation to sex and marriage. Men propose. Yet when it comes to the ancestors of the Messiah (who are also the ancestors of King David from whom the Messiah descends), there are three strong women who take the initiative in orchestrating a sexual encounter or marriage (6), as pointed out in an article by Rabbi Arthur Waskow. 

Ruth, the Moabite takes the lead in initiating a relationship with Boaz. She sleeps at his feet (7) uninvited. When Boaz wakes up frightened, Ruth invites him to “spread his coat over her” (8), which is an expression of marriage (9). Ruth descends from the daughter of Lot. She and her father (and sister) escaped the destruction of Sodom and thought all the men had perished. So she got her father drunk and was impregnated by him (10). Moab, the baby born of that liaison, is another ancestor of the Messiah; his existence the result of an assertive woman taking the lead. 

According to Kabbalistic traditions, in the Messianic era, women will be in an elevated position compared to men (11). One Rabbi put it simply: “In Messianic times, the female's superiority will be apparent” (12). As we strive for a more redemptive way of being, as represented by the Messianic age, it makes sense to prioritise feminine perspectives and ways of being. 

Of course, one can argue that the traditions should allow for the possibility of a female messiah, but this is a topic for a separate discussion. The material in this blog is sufficient to inspire me to harness and assert my more feminine or softer characteristics, to nudge the people in my sphere of influence slightly and gently closer to the way of redemption.

1) Midrash Hagadol, cited in Torah Shlaima, vol. 2, p. 1449
2) Genesis 38
3) Midrash of Rabbi Nechunya Ben Hakaneh, cited in Ramban to Genesis 38:29,
4) Midrash of Rabbi Nechunya Ben Hakaneh, cited in Ramban to Genesis 38:29,
5) Rabbenu Bchaya, he also suggests that the twins were reincarnations of the two older sons of Judah who died, Er and Onan. These two were either ego centric, in the case of Onan, who did not want to have children “for his brother” (Genesis 38:8-9) or, Er who commentary tells us did not want to have children lest it make Tamar ugly (Midrash Hagadol). It could be argued that both of these men, were what might be termed as very masculine in their approaches and needed to be reincarnated to correct these flaws before one of them could be the ancestor of the Messiah.
6) Rabbi Arthur Waskow,, accessed 10/12/14
7) Ruth 3:7
8) Ruth 3:9,
9) Taking her ‘under his wing’ by spreading the corner of his coat over her is an expression of marriage (Rashi). According to one opinion the Jewish wedding custom in which the groom put a vail over the brides face is a variation of this theme in the book of Ruth, and is in fact the true expression of the significant marriage ritual referred to as Chuppah (Meiri, Ketubot 7b, Piskey Riaz Ketubot 1:11, Sefer Hamanhig 109, Avudaram order of blessings of Erusin, and Maharil laws of marriage all cited in Hanesuim Kehilchatam, Adler, B, (1985) Hamesorah,  Jerusalem
10) Genesis 19:30-38
11) Often cited in Chabad teachings, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson, Likutei Sichos vol 11, p. 62,
12) Markus, Rabbi Y,

Friday, December 5, 2014

Bigger than that! Jacob mode vs interfaith embrace and the inner Jihad of Yisrael

An edited version of my speech at the Together For Humanity Interfaith dinner, 30 Nov 2014. 

Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, was afraid of his own brother Esau (1). It is the same today: Australians fear their fellow Australians. 

Jacob offered a heartfelt prayer, “Save me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, lest he come and strike me, (and my family too) a mother and children”.

The dreaded moment arrived. Jacob met his brother Esau, who, because of an event in another time and another place, hated him.  Jacob bowed respectfully to his brother seven times (2).

“Esau ran toward him and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they cried”.  We, Australians, need to meet our fellow Australian brothers and sisters respectfully to address the fear and embrace one another.

Before Jacob was to meet his brother, there was some internal work he needed to do, late at night, when he was “alone” (3). This is illustrated in an encounter he had with a “man”, who is said to be the guardian angel of his brother Esau (4). Jacob intended to run away from the encounter with his brother, but the angel was sent to prevent this. Jacob needed to show up and see that he would not be harmed (5).  With his escape cut off, Jacob wrestled with the angel. He asked his brother’s guardian angel to agree with his side of the argument (6). “Bless me,” (7) he pleaded, as if to say ‘tell me that I am right and my brother is wrong’.

The angel asked Jacob, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he replied.
The angel declared, “No more will your name be said as Jacob!” (8) The name Jacob means the one who holds others back, who plays a petty game, trying to prove that his/her group “are really the good ones”. “No!” the angel insisted, as if to say ‘it is time for you to embrace a bigger vision about who you are. Your new name, your new identity, is now Yisrael, the one who strives with God, who succeeds in an inner struggle/jihad in matters of the spirit and with men. You have a great purpose as the father of the Bnai Yisrael, (Banei Yisrael), to spread belief in God and promote righteousness.

Greg Barton, an Anglican Professor and expert on radicalisation, told me recently that, as he reads the story, Jacob had a cognitive opening. His thinking expanded. This is exactly what Australians of many backgrounds need. We need our thinking expanded. We need to be bigger - not allow our fears or the failings of some to define us or one another. We need to get to know the other as the other truly is and can potentially be, by stretching out a hand of friendship and showing respect. This has been the work of Together For Humanity, with over 75,000 children across Australia, many of whom had never met a Muslim or a Jew before. These children have participated in Together For Humanity programs facilitated by a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew and sometimes others.

Of course, there are reasons for hate, fear or avoiding embracing each other. Things have happened, thousands of miles from here that are unjust. There are legitimate concerns for many of us. It is not racist to say so. Things also happen in Australia that worry us - words spoken and prejudice. People wonder and worry about what people “here” think about what is happening “there”. Do they condemn it? Do they agree with it? How strong is the commitment to coexistence “on the other side”? Are they sincere?

Mistrust has deep roots. Esau’s embrace, kiss and weeping with Jacob have also been questioned. Some commentary suggests that Esau intended to bite Jacob’s neck (9). Esau is portrayed as telling himself, “I will not kill Jacob, my brother, with arrows and a bow, but I will kill him with my mouth and suck his blood!” (10). However there are other traditions that teach that, in that moment, Esau kissed Jacob sincerely “with his whole heart” (11).

The debate rages on in the Torah. The next verse tells us that “Esau lifted up his eyes, saw the women and the children and asked who they were” (12). The words “he saw the women” are interpreted to have sexual connotations - “Cursed are the wicked, that even during a time of trouble, their (evil) desires rules them” (13). Commentary ascribes this kind of thinking to Jacob as well. His daughter, Dina, is completely absent from the narrative. Even when it explicitly lists Jacob's wives and his eleven sons (14), there is no mention of his daughter, Dina. According to the Midrash (commentary), “Jacob put Dina in a box and locked it”, to protect her from Esau. However, this fear is met with divine disapproval and given as a “reason” for Dina’s eventually ending up in a “forbidden marriage” (15) with Shchem, the local prince, who abducted and abused her (16).  The ambivalence lingers on, thousands of years later.

What I take from all of this, are three lessons: 1) Conflict transformation is possible. 2) It is not easy to overcome fear and suspicion. 3) There are often ambiguities and judgement calls, such as, ‘do we ignore the elephant in the room, Israel/Palestine, for example?’ ‘do we feed it and allow the problems half a world away to take over and destroy the bridges we have so carefully built here?’  

At the dinner, Sheikh Ahmed Abdo suggested that “it is time that we stopped building bridges and started walking across the bridges we have already built”. Together For Humanity in its thirteenth years is attempting to walk across these bridges. Our vision is to ensure that every child and every teacher experiences an opening of their mind and expanding of their spirit, so that no-one needs to be afraid, no-one will choose to hate any group and we all have a sense of belonging together.

וַיָּרָץ עֵשָׂו לִקְרָאתוֹ וַיְחַבְּקֵהוּ וַיִּפֹּל עַל צַוָּארָיו וַֹיִֹשָֹׁקֵֹהֹוֹּ וַיִּבְכּוּ

“Esau ran toward him and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they cried”. We Australians need to meet our fellow Australians, our neighbours, our brothers and sisters, respectfully, to address the fear, and to embrace one another!


1) Genesis 32:8
2) Genesis 33:3
3) Genesis 32:25
4) Beresheet Rabba 77
5) Rashbam on 32:23 & 25, Chizkuni on 32:25, this is similar to an angel being sent to stop Balaam on his journey to curse the Israelites which was also contrary to God’s will.
6) Rashi to Genesis 32:27, also in Midrash Aggada and Zohar part 1, 144 cited in Torah Shlaima, vol. 1 p. 1284, footnote 136
7) Genesis 32:27
8) Genesis 32:28-29
9) Beresheet Rabba 78
10) Avot Drabbi Nathan, cited in Torah Shlaima, vol. 1 p. 1302, footnote 16
11) Rabbi Shimon Ben Elazar in Beresheet Rabba 78
12) Genesis 33:5
13) Midrash Habiur from an ancient manuscript, cited in Torah Shlaima, vol. 1 p. 1302, 18
14) Genesis 32:23
15) Beresheet Rabba 76
16) Genesis 34

Friday, November 21, 2014

Preserving Relationships Here - Refusing to Demonise

Craig Laundy MP (Member of Australian Parliament) in a
Hug with Sheikh Wesam Charkawi in a hoola hoop as part of a
Together For Humanity bridge building day between
students from different backgrounds
As a bridge- builder working for a Christian, Jewish and Muslim organisation, it is unwise for me to offer comments on conflict overseas. An exception to this rule would be to reflect on the ways in which we ensure that our ties to, and concerns about, what happens elsewhere do not destroy relationships in Australia.” The Australian” newspaper quotes me making such a comment this week to students from Granville Boys and Cronulla High Schools, referring to the deadly attack in a Jerusalem synagogue this week. “If I didn’t know these guys, ”I said, gesturing to my Muslim friends, “I would probably feel very distant because of the stuff that happens overseas. But, because of these connections, I’m able to continue to be friends with these guys, because we’ve got nothing to do with things happening thousands of kilometres away.” As my colleague Sheikh Ahmed said, “we need to localize” our thinking.

It is tempting to paint the “race” or “religion” of those on the opposite side of a conflict, no matter how far away, as monstrous and to essentialise the problem as being the rotten core of the “enemy religion or culture”. This is something that should not happen anywhere, certainly not in far-off Australia.

This relates to a theme in the Torah reading this week. Jacob, through various means, including impersonation of his brother, manages to acquire the blessings intended for his older brother Esau, which earns him his brother’s enmity (1). In later times, Esau would come to represent Rome, an empire known to have done terrible things to the Jews and others.

Esau, symbol of Rome, is born hairy and red (2).  This is taken to mean that “all of him was a spiller of blood” (3), and that “he was filled with blood…he hates blood as it stands in the human body (4)”. Strangely, we are told that “even while in his mother’s womb he drank her menstrual blood” (5). A Dracula foetus! Esau then marries women who are an “embittering of the spirit” for Esau’s parents with their intentionally difficult behaviour in the larger family home (6), further casting Esau in a negative light. 

Yet, there is an interesting counter lesson. The Torah tells us that Isaac, Esau’s father, became blind, which enabled Jacob to impersonate Esau and get the blessings. There was an easier way for Jacob to get the blessing. God could have simply told Isaac that Esau was evil and deceiving his father with his false piety. Yet, God chose not to speak badly about Esau and, instead, opted to make Isaac blind and leave him in ignorance of his son’s wickedness. Isaac’s blindness is, therefore, interpreted as a lesson in not speaking “Lashon Harah”, evil talk, even about Esau (7). While there are certainly very real problems for people to engage with constructively, care needs to be taken not to demonise a race or religion, but rather to “fight fair”, if one thinks one can right a wrong through “fighting”.

There is a touching story in our tradition about one of our sages, who helped a naked Roman survivor of a shipwreck. The sage saw him as a human being rather than as the “evil other”.  Perhaps, the easiest way to recognise each other’s humanity is by interacting. This was the experience of the students this week, as described in  ”The Australian” article below. If you live in Sydney, you are invited to have one more cross-cultural experience of your own at Together For Humanity’s fundraising dinner with former Governor Marie Bashir on 30th November in Auburn. (Details at this link  

(1) Genesis 27:41
(2) Genesis 25:25
(3) Midrash Rabbah 63
(4) Midrash Hagadol, cited in Torah Shlaima vol 2, p 1020, note 133
(5) Midrash Abchir, cited in Torah Shlaima vol 2, p 1020, note 131
(6) Genesis 26:35, commentary of Radak
(7) The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Likutei Sichos vol 15, p 215.

THEIRS are friendships formed across culture and religion in the wake of one of the ugliest ¬episodes of -racial violence in the nation’s history.
By Natasha Robinson, originally published in the Australian Newspaper 21/11/2014, reprinted with permission.

Now, Jewish, Christian and Islamic leaders are uniting again to connect the children of the southern Sydney beach suburb of Cronulla — barely old enough to go to school at the time of the riots eight years ago — with the boys from Granville in the city’s southwest, a heartland of Arabic, Islander and pretty much every other culture.

This week, at the home of the AFL’s Western Sydney Giants, students from Cronulla High and Granville Boys High hung out, kicked a footy and bemoaned the lack of teenage freedoms. It could have been any other day at school.

The Granville boys thought kids from “The Shire” were the children of “like, rich people”. They soon learned the Cronulla crew were a lot like them, and from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, too.

The boys from Granville spoke about the threat of Islamic State and how it had affected everyday lives. Joseph Valu, 15, recalled the day 800 police descended on the homes of young terror suspects.“When that ISIS thing happened, my mum called me three times. She was like, ‘Come home. Now’. She told me to be careful.”

Run by the interfaith Together for Humanity Foundation, this is the kind of cross-cultural program those with long experience in combating extremism and social alienation say works.

Craig Laundy, federal MP for Reid, which takes in swaths of Sydney’s ethnically diverse western suburbs, is pushing for the government to fund the program more widely using a pool set aside for the counter-radicalisation programs, which are unpopular among many Muslim leaders.

“We don’t acknowledge each other by what makes us different, we identify what unites us,” Mr Laundy says. “This is a perfect ¬example of how we as a federal government should work with people with great ideas.”

Rabbi Zalman Kastel, who runs Together for Humanity, spoke to the children about the deadly ¬attack in a Jerusalem synagogue this week. “If I didn’t know these guys,” he says, gesturing to his Muslim friends, “I would probably feel very distant because of the stuff that happens overseas. “But because of these connections I’m able to continue to be friends with these guys because we’ve got nothing to do with things happening thousands of kilometres away.” He met one of the co-ordinators of the cross-¬cultural program, Emad Elkheir, after the Cronulla riots.

Mr Elkheir — now a community engagement co-ordinator with the Giants — was then a 17-year-old at Granville Boys and took part in a similar program. “I guess you could say of September 11 … It was a disgusting event, but it woke up those that were sleeping.”

Friday, November 7, 2014

Bold! - Vayera

“I was too afraid” is one of the sadder things I have heard people say to their family members when explaining why they didn’t tell their son or spouse something they thought the other would not take well. This blog post is about the merit of being bold, taking risks at a personal level as well as at the political level. The latter is front and centre for me because I am meeting with key people at both federal and state level and will be advising them to do something “courageous” in the words of “Yes Minister”.

I was sitting at my desk thinking about the Australian Curriculum Review when I received an email from one of the authors of the review, Dr. Kevin Donnelly. He suggested that I look at his recommendation number 15 as well as what he wrote regarding religion and spirituality on page 155; he also directed my attention to some harsh criticism of his suggestions. The timing could not have been better.

Recommendation 15 reads as follows: “ACARA revise the Australian Curriculum to place more emphasis on morals, values and spirituality as outlined in the Melbourne Declaration, and to better recognise the contribution of Western civilisation, our Judeo-Christian heritage, the role of economic development and industry and the democratic underpinning of the British system of government to Australia’s development”.

Recommendation 15 can be seen as simply promoting one heritage above others, without considering how this might impact on intercultural understanding.  However, thanks to Dr. Donnelly, I read this recommendation in the context of his broader writing on the subject. It is beyond the scope of this post to unpack it all. Suffice it to say that, based on the points he raised, I think it is reasonable to suggest to Governments that they boldly embrace a modified, inclusive version of this recommendation. This can foster interfaith understanding, and is standard practice in the UK and in many countries around the world.  This approach could provoke criticism on the part of people who object to either Christian or Muslim content in the curriculum. However, a group of academics and practitioners, known as “REENA”, have been engaging secularists and religious people to support the inclusion of religions and other world views in the curriculum. 

With the funeral of Gough Whitlam on our minds, it might be time to look afresh at the merits of bold government action.  

The theme of fear and courage also plays out in the Torah reading in the relationship between Sarah and Abraham, her husband. Three visitors, messengers from God, promised Abraham that Sarah would give birth to a son (1). Sarah overheard this and laughed. God complained (2) about Sarah‘s laughter and lack of faith in this divine promise, due to her advanced age (3). When confronted by Abraham, Sarah denied that she laughed because she was afraid  to tell Abraham that she doubted what he appeared to believe.   

One commentary states that “Her fear is compared to a loyal servant who fears (upsetting) his master and erred... When the master reproaches him for what he did…he can’t find the strength to admit what he did because of the great fear, so he denies it but, in the denial itself, he (implies) that it was true that he did so”. 

However, Abraham tells Sarah it is more fitting to admit that she did laugh because God wants people to acknowledge their wrongdoing (4).  Equally, that was what Abraham wanted and Sarah needed - to discuss their different initial responses to the angels’ prediction and to know that it is ok in their respectful relationship to confront difficult issues.

There are many reasons for fear. This is a call to overcome fears with courage.


(1) Genesis 18:10
(2) I am bothered by the fact that God spoke to Abraham about Sarah, rather than talking to Sarah directly. According to one commentary, it is not God who directly accused Sarah, but one of the messengers (angels in human form), sitting inside the tent with Abraham. The angel could be seen to be addressing Sarah’s doubt, thereby completing his mission of reassuring them about the miracle of a child in their old age (Radak, Rashbam, R. Bachya. Note: the word “God”, can also be understood to mean God as represented by the angel.
(3) Genesis 18:12-15
(4) Ohr Hachayim

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Hard and Compassionate approaches to inter-community and personal improvement

Harsh talk is sometimes needed. Yet, compassionate talk can achieve more in many situations. It creates the safety and space to calmly struggle for improvement if there is the will to improve.

I write these lines on the morning before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. This morning we had media reports about two police officers stabbed by a “known terror suspect” who was then then killed. The temperature is rising, the infamous image and threats of beheadings have enraged and scared people. Bigots feel emboldened: the daughter of a Muslim woman I worked with, was spat on. Yesterday, I spent hours on the phone with communal leaders, discussing efforts to calm tensions and reservations about these efforts. An important question, relating both to intergroup relations in Australia and my worship on this holy day, is whether to approach issues with harsh or gentle talk. 

Muslim display of Love for Australia
The other Sunday I attended the “Muslims Love Australia BBQ”. I was very warmly welcomed by many of the guests. There was a festive atmosphere. Muslim men and women wore white “Proud Australian” t-shirts. I danced with my friend, an Arabic Muslim school principal, and other men in a circle to Arabic music. At one point I noticed that some of my steps might have been better suited to a Jewish wedding than an Arabic context, but no one seemed to mind!

Australian Love for Muslims

This display of love was partly in response to harsh (implicit) questioning of the loyalty of Muslims by politicians and present, to a significant extent, in the media and the larger community. It was also prompted by a gesture of solidarity that I organised at the Lakemba Mosque in Sydney in collaboration with Pastor Brad Chilcott around a message: “Australian religious leaders say “We will love Muslims 100 years”, countering a newspaper headline that stated “We will fight Islam for 100 years”.

Not happy with the love

Not everyone was happy with the events. There were the suggestions from some critics within the Muslim community that the participants were ”sell outs”, trying too hard to impress the media and non-Muslim Australians rather than representing their own angry youth and their grievances about Australian foreign policy and about being stigmatised by questions about their loyalty.

“The Love 100 years” gesture was both welcomed by some (1) and attacked by others as being the work of ‘Useful Idiots’ (2). One argument is that Muslims need to ‘be persuaded  collectively to tackle extremism and ensure community-wide goodwill toward “the west”’. (Absent from this assertion is the question of how responsive fanatics are to influence? Assuming that the answer is that these radicals are not very open to influence, it begs the question: how can leaders be held responsible for people who refuse to follow?). More relevant is the need for outreach to “disaffected youth” and fostering positive interfaith relations. Another factor is the insinuation by some Muslims and their supporters that anyone who is feeling afraid or angry is guilty of bigotry. While there has been much  generalising and prejudice against Muslims, labelling all expressions of fear or anger as bigotry is not fair or helpful. This is a complex and painful situation with fear and resentment flowing in both directions. There is a reasonable desire on the part of both non-Muslim and Muslim Australians for reassurance. One legitimate response is a robust and honest discussion.    

Better through beating?
Assertiveness and even threats, have their place: so does a compassionate posture. I explore this broader question from a personal and spiritual perspective. “Beat the horses until they will know they are horses”, goes the old Hasidic saying.  It would appear that harshness or self- flagellation is a useful method to advance personal improvement. Indeed, the Torah threatens divine smoking rage and obliteration for the cavalier person, who thinks it ok to indulge his sinful desires (3).  I have tried harsh self-criticism and guilt as a means of self-improvement. It worked for me to some extent some of the time, I think at a basic level to deter me from being my worst. However, when I have overused guilt or fear, I found it can be quite destructive. 

Acceptance combined with Spiritual restlessness and striving 
I propose a different approach. I need to be honest about my short-comings. I need honest criticism from others and myself to recognise what my flaws are. At the same time, I also need to accept myself as the imperfect, flawed but still worthwhile, precious human being that I am.  There is wisdom in the Buddhists’ showed calling for acceptance as a way for joy. Tanya, the classic Chasidic text that guides people in fulfilling the biblical idea that we can easily serve God with our emotions (4), urges us to manage our expectations of ourselves. Beating ourselves up about not achieving unrealistic goals, will only make us depressed; this decreases our motivation to make the changes and choices that ARE realistic for us because we have fallen into despair. Instead, we need to combine our dissatisfaction with our current level of spiritual achievement with an element of self-acceptance and compassion if we are to joyously strive to improve ourselves.
I find the sequence of events in the Torah instructive. It is only after the reconciliation between the straying Israelites (5) and God that real growth is possible. God’s mercy and bringing back the exiles is followed by the “circumcision of the hearts (6)”, which is interpreted as developing the capacity to serve out of love instead of fear (7). Meaningful growth is more likely to be the result of compassion than threats.

The organisers of the BBQ were right to make a statement of love to their fellow Australians, regardless of any reservations or grievances some Muslims might have. I think we were right to stand in solidarity with our Muslim neighbours when they were subjected to a barrage of hostility.  Does my compassionate stance mean that I think that all Australian Muslims, a diverse and dispersed community, have had enough success in integrating into Australia or countering extremism? No, it doesn’t. I share the concern of many Muslims I know, about the hostility felt by some young Australian Muslims towards people of other backgrounds.. I also share their concern about the bigotry and abuse faced by Muslims. There is a legitimate role for robust discussion and airing of grievances. Equally, there is a role for support and compassion. The really positive change will result more from the latter than the former.


1) The gesture was warmly welcomed by Muslims who were moved to create a website with the following response - It was covered in the general media, such as Channel 7,, Channel 10 News: and the Australian: Also, specific Muslims sites, such as .
Muslim Village:
2)  This website attacks Together for Humanity and our President, Madenia Abdurahman, as well as Pastor Brad Chillcott and me. The website generally seems quite one-sided regarding all matters relating to Muslims or Blacks. See review of this article.
3) Deuteronomy 29:18-19
4) Tanya by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Chapter 27
5) Deuteronomy 30:1-5
6) Deuteronomy 30:6
7) Klei Yakar

Thursday, August 28, 2014

An interfaith gesture of support for Muslim Australians a Lakemba Mosque

Guest Post By Natasha Robinson

Photo by Damien Begovic
SOME wore a yarmulke, some a priest’s collar, and one an imam’s kaftan. And they all held hands in solidarity on the steps of Lakemba Mosque to spread a message of peace.

The priests, reverends, imams and a rabbi held a large banner of a mock-up newspaper masthead they dubbed “The Welcoming Australian”. “We’ll love Muslims 100 years,” the newspaper front page splash read. In an address on the steps of his mosque, imam Yahya Safi said that “the clear message of Islam is mercy”. 

“We need to clarify, to show the true message of Islam,” the imam said. “It is forbidden to consider acts that are evil. The true Muslim is the Muslim who will live in a safe way with others, and others will feel safe with him. We need to put our hands together in order to spread out mercy and respect.”

The gathering was a response to concern that publicity of the heinous acts of Australian-born terrorists Khaled Sharrouf and Mohamed Elomar, fighters with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, had prompted “shrill and harsh” rhetoric towards ordinary Muslims in Australia and had fostered a negative perception of Islam.
Rabbi Zalman Kastel, CEO of the organisation Together for Humanity, said the expression of solidarity was timely as the prime minister continued to appeal to Muslims to join “Team Australia”. “We need to preserve our social cohesion,” Rabbi Kastel said. “This is a message to the Islamic community of solidarity: we value you, we respect you. “Let’s keep working at multiculturalism: we’ve got a good thing going, let’s keep it going.”

Sydney doctor Jamal Rifi appealed to the prime minister to show leadership as he consulted with Muslim groups over tougher counter-terrorism laws. “We need to be part of the team, but we want to be equal members of the team,” Dr Rifi said. “We feel we are close to the target. We want them to pass us the ball so we can score. We appeal to the captain and to the coach: show us your strategy.”

Canberra last week moved to address concerns among the Islamic community that the government was at war with it, with ASIO head David Irvine publicly declaring on the western Sydney-based Voice of Islam radio station that the counter-terrorism battle was being waged purely against terrorists, not a religion.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Words that Insult, Humiliate, Agitate, or Inspire Togetherness

Introduction: Dear Friends,

I am thinking about the importance of words at this time.  A lot of angry words are being spoken, many motivated by altruistic, passionate concern for the innocent and outrage over the loss of life and the violence. Some have been simply abusive words by ignorant and even drunk individuals. A man screamed “Allah Akbar” at me in the middle of Bankstown.

I write these words with the threat of renewed hostilities in the air. There are very small things I can do to try to prevent the on-going killing in the Middle East. I am doing these quietly. As Joe Wakim of the Arab Council said about another bridge builder, this “role is to prevent this kind of stone throwing, not engage in it”. This is a small meditation regarding words and people of different backgrounds getting along in Australia.

All the very best,


An example of the power of positive words.
The wonderful Paul Benett's book that I
launched. A real example of living
with light.
We saw a victory this week for collaborative efforts between communities. The Australian government accepted their joint calls against the humiliation of people on the basis of ethnicity or “race”.  

Yet a dark cloud hangs over community harmony in Australia. Yes, there is an elephant in the room that is a matter of life and death.  The burning question is how to stop the killing, violence and the suffering? This is a vital question that I care passionately about. Our tradition teaches that “to kill” is to diminish the “image” of the King, namely God, in whose image ALL humans are created (1). This question must be answered, in certain contexts, not by me in this public context. This is because I sincerely believe I might do more harm than good.  Every blame claim, justification, refutation and counter argument that  I can imagine, has already been shouted endlessly, motivated by a mix of anger, hatred, as well as sincere desires for justice and to protect the innocent.

Here is another question: What will be the impact of all this death and conflict here in Australia, where we Australians of Jewish, Arabic, Muslim, Sunni, Shia, Ukrainian and other backgrounds live?

An old Rabbi was attacked in Perth this week. School children were terrorized in Sydney. Shia Muslims have been copping it for many months, Muslims generally, for years. Less significantly, yesterday, I walked through a state school playground filled with Arabic teenagers. When they saw me, an identifiable Jew, they chanted at me: “Free, free, Palestine”.  A sheikh, who had been working with me and a group of students at the school, walked alongside me to support me as I walked quickly to my car. 

Students in Australia should be encouraged to care about the world they live in and engage with the pursuit of justice.  However, chanting at a Jewish man reflects a generalized hostility to the “Jewish people”, rather than advocacy for aggrieved Palestinians.  I don’t blame the kids. The distinction is not an easy one.  A Muslim who works with me, made the point that what I felt in that playground is very similar to how she feels when people shout out “terrorist” to her. “It has nothing to do with me,” she said.

Perhaps, of equal importance, was the raising of this very painful and difficult topic in our group that has been working together regularly from the beginning of this year. The question about the current situation was raised by a student in one word, “Palestine?” It was a useful conversation to have. At the same time it reflects a growing tendency to talk and think in slogans rather than fully developed ideas with any nuance. A lot of the “dialogue” about Gaza and Israel has been via Facebook and Twitter - images of dead children, other images with captions or slogans. 

I accept that, in some cases, one may insult, provoke, polarize, simplify and ridicule as part of agitating for change. The Biblical prophets resorted to exaggeration, simile and ridicule to argue for change. On the other hand, we need to get along in Australia. If we can’t do it here, where our lives are not under direct threat, how can the people who have lost relatives and their sense of security, not lose hope?! To some extent, hope has been another casualty of this terrible situation. It must be restored.

Words matter. According to the Jewish sages, humiliating another person to the point where the colour drains from his face is equivalent to spilling his blood. I think that is hyperbolic, but reflects the seriousness of the harm caused by denigrating speech, suggesting a psychological death. Perhaps, more to the point, if people with authority engage excessively in denigrating groups, younger people and less educated people will take that as a licence for violence and a signal that they have a right to be “bigots”.

I don’t have a formula for preventing murder, killing or war, but I know that listening from the heart, goodwill and nuanced conversation are part of the answer. Polarization is usually less helpful. We cannot banish darkness by beating it with sticks. We can only overcome it with light. I pray for the preservation of life, dignity, justice and peace. 

1      1) Mechilta 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Jews Muslim and Hate Realistic Responses and Korach

Ibrahim Abdo, Donna Jacobs Sife, Mohamed Taha and
Kastel present Jews Muslim and Hate Realistic Responses at
Yom Limmud, Sydney June 2014
Two young Muslims, Mohamed Taha and Ibrahim Abdo, joined Donna Jacobs Sife and me on a panel at Yom Limmud (Jewish learning festival) last Sunday. Our topic: Jews, Muslims and hate - realistic responses.

Ibrahim and I reflected on the way that hatred is often masked; ostensibly it is about one thing but, in reality, it is driven by other factors. This plays out in the story of Korah’s rebellion and animosity  against Moses. Korah talks about equality  but, according to tradition, he was less motivated by an aspiration for anarchy than by personal ambition,  hurt  and a desire for the position of high priest .

While the causes of hate are murky, the impact is unmistakable. Here is a first person account from a teacher  about some of her Muslim students:
…I live in fear that the students will find out that I am Jewish. I do. I am terrified that the students will find out that I am Jewish. I am very ashamed to say this and I have never said this to anybody [teacher almost in tears as s/he relates this incident]. A few years ago, while stopping students etching swastikas onto a desk, one of the students yelled at me, ‘Why Miss, are you a Jew?’ And I said, ‘No, I am not. That is incorrect behaviour’. This is the only time in my life that I have lied about being a Jew, and I am not an observant Jew; I am not a religious Jew; but I have never considered lying or hiding the fact that I am a Jew. But this time, I know, for my survival, that I did not want my tyres slashed... I did not want – what scared me the most, more than offence on my private property, was public graffiti in the school playground stating that I was a Jew... and I was aware that, in that moment,  it was pure fear that I lied and said I was not a Jew.

Then, there is the hatred directed against Muslims. A very strong Muslim woman I know and respect, has recently stopped using public transport in Sydney after increased harassment of Muslim women on trains. This is absolutely unacceptable. My own Jewish community is not immune. There are the familiar moral panic emails about “the Muslims this and the Muslims that”. There are comments made by some, that generalise about “the Muslims”.

The fact that Ibrahim, Mohamed, Donna Jacobs Sife and I presented to a packed room of mostly Jewish people, with Muslims attending as well, speaks volumes. It reflects a thirst for coexistence on the part of the audience and the fact that our aspirations for coexistence are very realistic, as demonstrated by the goodwill of the panellists towards each other. We offered our audience a realistic response - members of different communities can come together with a common purpose, such as, opposing hatred.

Perhaps, what we need is our own version of a serious smoking ceremony. I recently learned from our Aboriginal brothers and sisters how smoke is used to cleanse unwanted energy. I later discovered that, in Judaism, the Hebrew word for smoke,עשן , consists of the first three letters of words that cover the three dimensions of reality - עולם  world or space, שנה year or time, and נפש  soul or spirit. The smoke rising from the incense ritual, elevates and heals all three aspects . Perhaps, this is why, in the aftermath of the Korah controversy, Aaron is instructed to go out among the people carrying incense . At first, he merely restrains the carnage resulting from all the fighting, but then the spiritual force of destruction itself acquiesces and the destruction stops . 

Conclusion: Hate is a powerful, consuming force. I feel it in my stomach when I see it or experience it. Thankfully, I don’t experience it often. More often, I experience the absolute delight of having made a friend, who might have been a potential enemy. This joy and goodwill is reciprocated by my many Muslim friends and by bridge- builders of many backgrounds around the world. Can it continue to be replicated? Yes!

  1. The Torah tells us that Dathan and Aviram reject Moses' invitation to talk. “The eyes of those people will be put out we will still not go up” (16:14); they chose to have their eyes gouged out rather than the ascent Moses might promise them. In this, they revealed the intensity of their hatred towards the righteous Moses and what he represented: this angered Moses greatly (Ohr Hachayim)
  2.  Numbers 16:3
  3.  Midrash Tanchuma, the appointment of Elitzafan Ben Uziel, the son of Korah’s father’s younger brother, in Numbers 3:30 offends Korah.
  4.  See Numbers 16:10, many commentaries
  5.  Rutland, S. (2010) Creating effective Holocaust education programmes for government schools with large Muslim populations in Sydney, Prospects (2010) 40:75–91, Springer Press. 
  6. Ohr Hatora, Shemot, Vol 3, pp. 103, 106, cited in The Siddur Illuminated by Chassidus, Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch 2013.
  7.  Numbers 17:11
  8.  There were two stages in Aaron’s stopping the carnage of the plague that G-d had initiated in the aftermath of Korah’s rebellion. First we are told that וַתֵּעָצַר הַמַּגֵּפָה  “the plague ceased”, when Aaron stands between the dead and the living holding the incense (Numbers 17:13). Two verses later we are told again that the plague ceased וְהַמַּגֵּפָה נֶעֱצָרָה.  The commentary Ohr Hachayim explains that the word “plague” refers to the angel of death administering the plague. The first time the text tells us the plague ceases it means that the angel was merely checked or restrained by Aaron and the power of the incense, but from the angels point of view he was still keen on continuing the plague as this was his mission from God. The second time is different.  Despite the fact that Aaron returned to Moses and that he put away the incense, the plague itself had agreed to cease.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Together For Humanity growing up, our 12th birthday and being “unfunded”

Messages from students from many backgrounds and faiths,
sewn together to make the words "Goodness and Kindness"
Cover the NSW State Parliament in March 2004, with students
from state, Christian, Jewish and Muslim schools seated on
Macquarie street following proceedings.
Australians are preparing for the first budget of a government “of grown-ups”. Leaders of not for profit organisations such as one I spoke to this week who runs a domestic violence shelter for migrant women cannot tell her staff if she can continue to employ them much longer.  I am very concerned about the people who need these services. I am less concerned about the fact that the diversity education service that I run which does not address such acute problems has been formally advised it will not be funded again by the commonwealth. This is a good time for such news. Because today is the 12th birthday for our work, our first program with a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim at St Ives North took place 2 May 2002. The age of 12, or the 13th year (1) are the ages of maturity in Judaism. Together For Humanity is ready to be a “grown up”.

Being responsible can sometimes be difficult. We will invariably fail to realise our potential and unless we aim too low, will not always achieve our goals. Yet, I am reassured by the assertion by our president, Madenia Abdurahman, that our intentions and sincerity are important strengths. There are organisations that have better PR, fundraising and other valuable capacities that enable them to shine.  TFH’s capacity to contribute has been based on the authenticity or our people, their decency, honesty and humanity and a cause based on the truth of our common humanity, our right to dignity and respect and opportunity for delighting in engaging with those who seem different.

I was deeply moved by the reflection of Raf F., a student who attended that first session in 2002.
“I was just thinking how it was such an honour to have been there at the very beginning! 

I don't remember much from what was actually said but I remember being amazed and appreciative.

While being at a particular multicultural school, exposure to other faiths and cultures was far from a novel experience, the focus had leant towards why we were all different (yet special of course) but not the ways in which we were the same. I think it really shaped how I defined the community in which I belonged and how I approached interfaith/cross-cultural dialogue as I grew up (as hard as it is to discern my 11-year-old self's perspective!)! I'm so glad this vital cause has continued to grow over the past 12 years!
” Moving comments have also been posted by the teacher, Di Barnes, who invited us to St Ives North and one of our current presenters (2).

At a Bar or Bat Mitzvah we draw inspiration from the weeks’ Torah reading. Not always an easy task because the Torah, like the world, challenges us with the prominence of difference.  It tells us about the “Cohen” clan that was extra holy. A male Cohen is forbidden to marry a divorcee and others “because he his holy to his God”. “Marrying these women would disgrace his honour and seed/offspring (3).” I have not yet found any satisfying explanation about how the fact that a woman was previously married might be a problem for someone holy. Surely every human being is compatible with holiness, provided their actions and heart are in the right place. It would be tempted to pretend these laws don’t exist, but we need not fear the truth about the texts, our own or those of others.

Reading such laws challenges me. I wonder what my Christian, Atheist or Muslim readers think when they read this. I know that many people get stuck on texts or practices like these. I don’t think we need to get stuck on these. This is not necessarily because there is always an explanation that justifies all of this and makes it all ok. Rather it is because alongside these realities are others.

In the case of the Torah here is another set of laws. The chief Cohen was forbidden to attend even his own parents’ funeral because of a prohibition against coming into contact with the dead (4).  Despite this, if he finds an unattended corpse, it doesn’t need to enquire whether the person who died was a saint or a prostitute, a fellow Cohen or a bastard, he must attend to the burial and dignity of that person (5). We can all connect with that.

We later read about the obligation to set aside a corner of the harvest for the poor (6), even if the harvest is for the purpose of fulfilling other religious obligations, the poor must be attended to (7). Indeed they should even when our country attends to deficits and defence spending in the budget process. Laws like these draw many of us together even as others, if we focused on them exclusively, alienate people from each other or from the text as a whole.

And so Together For Humanity goes ahead with the support of others, including the Community Relations Commission/NSW Government, Andrew and Nicola Forrest of the Minderoo Foundation of, our patron Janet Holmes a Court, the Becher Foundation, long-time supporter Talal Yassine, the Magid family, and many others who give time, heart and money.  We will continue to add value with the help of our amazing volunteers, including our chairman John McGrath and our board, our current intern Malin Wiander, our webmaster Gary Hoggard, designer Paul Bennet and Professor Di Yerbury. We are grateful for support from our long time educational leader Donna Jacobs Sife, Uncle Lex Dadd and all our presenters from many faiths and so many others.  A double thank you to the man who sparked it all: the late Joseph Sheridan, to his mate and a key presenter/organiser 2002-2006 Ray Corbin and to the teachers and students who engaged with our message. Kathleen Gordon, Ronit Baras and Sheikh Ahmad, thank you for TFH QLD. Sheikh Haisam, your contribution is unforgettable. The late Sabina Van Der Linden, and Costa Vrisakis, and Rabbi Nochum Schapiro of Chabad House, we would not be here without you.

We will be ok and continue to have a meaningful impact, but our Government, just as we ourselves as citizens and communities, must do the responsible thing for the most vulnerable people in our society. That is a principle we can all come together for, it reflects our humanity.

1)    The age of 12 is the age of maturity and obligation for keeping commandments for females, and the age of 13 for males is when they are obligated to observe commandments. This is referred to as Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah
3)    Leviticus 21:7
4)    Seforno
5)    Leviticus 21:11
6)    Talmud Nazir 47
7)    Leviticus 23:22
8)    Midrash Chefetz, from a manuscript, cited in Torah Shlaima, Emor 206, note 156

Friday, April 4, 2014

On Healing, “Something seems off”, & Remembering Joe Sheridan

A funeral was held exactly one month ago on the fourth of March for the late Joseph Sheridan, a catholic man who changed my life. I dedicate this blog post to his shining soul.

Joe was a modest man, who was concerned about the situation he saw around him. One Tuesday afternoon he called the Synagogue where I was teaching, at a time of significant unease for me. In late 2001, it seemed to me that the high ideals that Judaism and more specifically my particular version of Judaism, following Chabad, Hasidic, Orthodox traditions, was not being realised. I grew up believing that our teachings make us altruistic, selfless, refined, compassionate, devout and spiritually unique. Of course concerns with survival, status, money and power are part of human nature, still, I was feeling quite concerned about this. Joe talked passionately about his own deep disquiet about the same issue from a Christian Catholic perspective. His sincerity, altruism, and spiritual depth opened my eyes to a universal struggle toward ideals such as compassion. 

Apart from Joe’s courage and commitment, spiritual pain was an important catalyst for the interfaith, diversity & values education work I would lead for the next 12 years. In the Torah readings of this week and last week we learn about a time in a person’s life, when they need to be alone.  The Torah talks about “a Metzora”, a person whose skin suddenly changes its colour , (normally translated as leprosy, but traditionally argued as being something very different) which can be understood as being about a signal that something is wrong. It is useful to notice and value these signals from our spirit that something is not right or is out of balance.

When something was off-colour a member of the priestly clan, the Cohanim, was to be consulted. The Cohen’s role was generally to be an advocate for the people, performing sacrificial rituals that brought forgiveness to others. The Cohen/advocate is seen as the one that actually activates the “impure” status of the “Metzorah ”. Often , it is only a compassionate voice that can be useful for dealing with flaws in our selves, communities or in other communities. The harsh critical voice can sometimes drag us down; make us feel depressed and less determined to do what is right .

To grow or heal after spending some time alone, there was a ceremony that involved water, cedar, oregano or thyme plant and birds . Being sprinkled with Water represents rebirth. It reminds us that “today is not yesterday” . We can start over, several times a day, countless times over a life time. Oregano or Thyme represents humility, particularly when the tiny plant is contrasted with the tall Cedar tree.  The Cedar, on the other hand represents awareness of our strengths and virtues and a rejection of false modesty . I think Joe had the right mix of independent minded confidence and humility.

The ritual also included two birds, one bird was sacrificed, symbolising the need for caution about careless and hurtful twitter or chatter. The other bird was released and allowed to fly freely.

Birds are also associated with peace. The Talmud tells us that if a dream includes a river, a kettle or a bird the dreamer will have peace. The Villna Gaon explains that there are three stages in peaceful relationships. First there is trade symbolised by a river, two people who give and take to and from each other. Then there is team work, e.g. fire and water collaborate in the kettle to cook. The third stage is when the features of walking on earth and flying in the sky are completely combined in the body of the bird . This third path is the one that Joe has inspired in me and others in “Together For Humanity ”.

May your dear soul fly to beautiful places with God, Joe. I hope your soul smiles whenever the ripples of goodness, kindness and acceptance continue to manifest in the spirits of all those touched because of your spiritual discomfort, grace, and generosity of spirit.

  1.  Leviticus 13:1-14:32
  2.  Ohr Hachayim on Leviticus 13:3, understanding the Hebrew words אותו  וטמא  as “He will contaminate him” rather than “declare him contaminated” as it is in some translations 
  3.  There are times when harsher means are needed even perhaps with ourselves see Tanya Chapter 29
  4.  Tanya Chapter 26
  5.  Leviticus 14:1-4
  6.  Gordon, Y.
  7.  Chidushei Harim, cited in Greenbaum, N. Otzar Mefarshei Hapshat, published by M. Abramovitz, Bnai Brak Israel
  8. Feldman, A. (1987) River, the Kettle and the Bird: A Torah Guide to a Successful Marriage, Feldheim

Friday, February 21, 2014

Self- Worth, Essence vs Concrete Results, Ki Tisa

This is not my daughter. Photo by Christina Rutz.
Used under Creative Commons License Attribution Generic 2.0
I’m reflecting on my trip to Adelaide, on my flight home on Thursday afternoon. There are some times, I make a speech or have a meeting and I walk out feeling like “I hit the ball out of the park”, people were engaged and the objective was achieved. I don’t feel like that right now. Thoughts appear in my mind about whether I could have done this, said that. I have been thinking about the relative importance of concrete realities vs. the essence.  This tension has challenged my people for thousands of years, from the time we wandered in the desert.

On Sunday this week, I felt certain that essence is all important. I wrote:

I am learning that it doesn’t really matter that very much if “I am good”, “professional”, “organised”, “got it right” or wrong.  Yes, I am highly committed to being good and ethical. Yes, it is very important to me and for those I serve that I do competent, organised work. My point is that for me, these achievements and roles have often been essential to my identity and value. Any failure was very personal. No more, with God’s help.  I am none of these things. My value stems from my essence as a human being, as one of God’s children. My 11 month old baby daughter cradled in my left arm as I type, does not need to earn love, it’s her birthright. It is mine. It is the right of every human, regardless of ethnicity, faith or merit.

A few days later, I still think what I wrote about essence is correct. However, it is too optimistic to think I can quickly and consistently change the way I think and feel.  It is tricky because there needs to be a combination of valuing essence with a commitment to concrete good deeds and results that advance justice, truth, acceptance of all people and compassion. 

An example of this tension: something the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said last week really touched me. He told of his experience as a young man, employed as an opposition political staffer he heard the historic “Redfern Speech” by Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating. Despite it being his job to disagree with ‘the other side’, listening to that speech was a “watershed” moment for him. He accepted that “our failures toward Australia’s first people were a stain on our soul”.  ...“If that hardness of heart was ever really to melt, I thought that change had to include me, because you can't expect of others what you won't demand of yourself”. When I discussed the speech with an Aboriginal elder, he replied that many Aboriginal people were very unhappy with Abbott's government because of funding cuts to their community programs that were working. His actions will matter more than his spirit.

For my ancestors freshly liberated by an invisible God, staying connected to this abstraction was difficult. When Moses disappears on the top of a mountain for forty days they become anxious. “This man Moses who took us out of Egypt, we don’t know what happened to him” (1) the people explain as they demand something else, tangible to worship. The abstract God does not soothe their anxiety. A Golden Calf that they can see and touch is what they think they need to replace Moses (2).

As Moses comes down the mountain and sees the Golden Calf and the dances he becomes very angry (3).   Moses is disheartened by a realisation that the people are focused on the concrete object instead of appreciating the spirit. Moses is imagined as crying out; “do you think I am some kind of holiness, and in my absence you resorted to making a calf? God forbid, I am just a man like any of you. The Torah does not depend on me. If I had not come, the Torah would still have been the same”. Because he understands their mistake he realised that if he brings the people the tablets and destroys the calf, the tablets will simply replace the calf as the object of worship. It is clear to Moses that he has no choice (4), so he throws the tablets (with the ten commandments) out of his hands and breaks them at the foot of the mountain (5) to make the point that the object is not holy in and of itself but only as a means for people to connect with God and the Torah. Indeed as the physical tablets shatter, the verses engraved on them are freed and fly up to heaven (6).

As the plane continues to fly me home I feel at peace with myself and my day. Yes, there was an important meeting that did not seem to go as well as I had wanted it to. Perhaps it will not get the desired result in the end, I don’t know.  Whether it does work or not, matters a great deal, because there are people who can benefit from a “good result”. Regardless, my personal value stems from my essence, not the concrete results I get.

1.    Exodus 32:1
2.    Ramban commentary
3.    Exodus 32:19
4.    Meshech Chochma
5.    Exodus 32:19
6.    Pirkey Drabbi Elazar 45, Midrash Tanchuma Parshat Ekev 11, cited in Torah Shlaima p. 130 

Friday, February 7, 2014

Beaten Beacons? Addiction/Recovery struggle & Tetzaveh

Image by ShadowHachia, Creative Commons License
Attribution-Non Commercial- No Derivs 3.0 Unported
(CC BY NC ND 3.0)

The plight of the addict has been thrust into the limelight with the tragic death this week of a father of three. For two decades he was one of millions of recovering addicts who score glorious daily victories over the angel of death’s hideous helpers, alcohol and other pain numbing agents. Alas, he could not sustain whatever it was that enabled him to beat death. He succumbed at the age of 46, only two years older than me. I am referring to the actor, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, but I am thinking about so many mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who continue to battle addictions. I salute you all. I am in awe of your determination, perseverance, faith,  humility and even humour. 

Adversity can bring out the best in us, of course. This week’s Torah reading discusses the process of preparing olive oil (1), which can serve as metaphor for this idea (2). The olives would be beaten to extract the oil which was used to light the Menorah (lamp) in the temple.

Let us take a moment to reflect on the individual stories. They are awe inspiring. A mother with the toughest exterior who has been hurt in ways some of us can barely imagine who keeps working the twelve steps of AA, who chooses to surrender to God unconditionally, and continues to seek ways of improving her character, for her children’s sake as well as her own. She sees the hand of God in her recovery. It gives new meaning to the psalmist’s praise of God as “the one who heals the broken hearted” (3). 

I dare not romanticise the world of addiction. The families of addicts and the addicts themselves might live lives of violence, betrayal, neglect, lies, shame etc. under the shadow of untimely death. According to the sages, there were two grades of oil. First, oil was produced by ‘merely’ beating the olives, this grade of oil was considered fitting to be used to give light. The second grade, that was not “good enough” for the lamp, was produced by grinding the olives (4), symbolising for me, intensified pain, “going through the grinder”. It seems that when confronted by certain degrees of darkness and adversity, some souls might no longer be so likely to produce glorious “light in the temple”. Perhaps the crushed spirit is too broken for that. For the human “ground olives”, I cry out to God (5) “till when?!” How much must people endure?! Please end the suffering!! Instead grant us your grace and kindness.  

Yet, even the lower grade oil produced by grinding the olives, was used in the divine service as part of the offerings. Some people, who have been to hell and back, might not get the opportunity to "illuminate the holy temple” of society. Yet, they make valuable contributions in their own more discreet way, no bright lights, just breaking the cycle of suffering for themselves, their children and others whose lives they touch with love and compassion.

These heroes might not be up in lights, but don’t call them quiet! Their raging battles are much better symbolised by noise. This is also hinted at in our Torah portion. The high priest was required to have bells sewn into the hem of his robe, so that he would be heard when he walked in the sanctuary. Failure to wear the robe was considered a capital offence (6). The bells symbolise people who can be seen as estranged from God. Their surge back toward God is a noisy desperate fight to walk away from the lies of self-sufficiency and complete independence, to return home to God and to connecting with other people. It can be compared to a person drowning, facing the horror of imminent death, splashing, wildly waving limbs in a desperate attempt to stay alive. It is these people who must be represented and given a voice by the holiest man in the holiest house (7).

For so many of us seeking to connect with each other and with something/someone greater than ourselves, grappling with the beatings and/or grindings of life, I wish for God’s grace. After all He is the one who “gives snow like wool, throws His ice like breadcrumbs, before His cold who can stand?! but then sends His word and melts them, takes back His wind and they flow like water” (8). With apologies to my American friends, as an Australian returning back to our glorious sunshine, I found the snow in the Northeast of the US these last two weeks, awesome. Wishing for warmth, love and joy for all members of the human family, while also remembering those who lost their lives in their struggles, may their souls find peace and relief at last.  

1.    Exodus 27:20
2.    Shemot Rabba 36:1, Talmud Menachot 53b
3.    Psalm 147:3
4.    Rashi
5.    As the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi MM Schneerson, has taught and encouraged people to do in numerous talks over the years
6.    Exodus 28:33-35
7.    Schneerson, Rabbi MM, the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Likutei Sichos vol. 16, p. 338
8.    Psalm 147:16-18

Friday, January 24, 2014

Imperfect Anti Racism - Today & Torah Portion Mishpatim

Used under Creative Commons License
My eyes are teary in seat 51C on a Qantas flight. I am reading the lawyers impassioned speech in “To Kill a Mocking Bird” (1). It is a good time for an Australian Jew from New York to shed a few tears about the flawed struggle against racism. This week Martin Luther King Jnr Day was observed in the US. In Australia advocates of Multiculturalism are concerned about the new conservative government’s review of the Curriculum. The review appears to be motivated at least in part by a concern that the current curriculum is insufficiently honouring of our “Judeo- Christian”-“Western”- English heritage. Our Torah reading, Mishpatim, can be read as either emphatically condemning discrimination or even condoning it.

I read about the lawyer Atticus defending Tom, an upstanding member of the local Black Church community, falsely accused of rape by people of questionable character. He argues to the jury that this case is “as simple as black and white”. He declares that the white witnesses against Tom testified with the “cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption, the evil assumption, that all Negroes lie… that all Negroes cannot be trusted around our women”. He pleads with them; “A jury is only as sound as the people who make it up…in the name of God, do your duty!”

I am moved by what I am reading. Yet, I have been told that the book has been criticized for not being pure enough, itself containing elements of prejudice.  I have not read the critics so I can’t judge the specific criticisms. Still, my first reaction is, “give me a break, this book was published in 1960! I have no doubt it moved people along on the journey, so what if it’s not perfect?!

This leads me back to the Torah, written thousands of years ago, but taken as the timeless word of God by many believers. It discusses slavery laws that are, thank God, no longer practiced. Instead these texts have a more symbolic message for people today.  It states that if a master beats his slave, either male or female, and “the slave dies under his hand then revenge must be prosecuted against the master” (2). This verse which is interpreted as relating to the Canaanite/non Jewish slave (3), teaches that murder of a slave by his master is a capital crime just as the killing of any other person. Beautiful! It teaches us about the equal value of humans, free man/woman or slave.

In the next verse it gets tricky. If the slave “stands” (after the beating) for a day or two days then the master is not punished. This is because “he (the slave) is his property (literally his money)” (4). Yikes! A human being, a non-Jewish slave, is merely someone’s property?!

In the first instance, some Torah scholars of our day have argued that the Torah’s tolerance for slavery was part of a gradual process to move people along a continuum from unrestricted practice of slavery, to one with safeguards and limitations, and ultimately to abandoning the disgusting practice entirely (5). The Torah’s approach is expressed well in the words of Job “"If I have despised the just cause of my slave… then what shall I do when God rises up… what shall I answer Him? Did He who created me in the belly not create him, and was it not the same One who fashioned us in the womb?" (6).

A gradual approach to discrimination is also suggested in To Kill a Mocking Bird.  When the jury declare Tom guilty Atticus is indignant, but he is also pleased that his efforts led the jury to deliberate for many hours rather than the few minutes it would normally take for a white Jury in the American South to convict a black man in the 1930s. Atticus believes in incremental progress, so do I. Perhaps a compromised approach to promoting diversity in the Australian Curriculum will ultimately bear greater fruit, I can only hope.

Returning to our “Slave as property” verse, some commentators understand it as justifying the beating (7). Another view is that being that the master has a financial interest in the slave’s wellbeing. Therefore, if there was some recovery between the beating and the death, there is a presumption that there was a different cause of death (8).  A key message from this section is that God warns the master against cruelty in disciplining his slaves, and that if he persists in violent beating that leads to the death of the slave he himself will be executed. This is because “the mercies of God is for all of those He created, as it is written regarding King David (that he was disqualified from building the house of God because) “much blood you have spilled (9)” and (those that David killed) were not of Israel (10). 

Later in our reading this week, the text is emphatic in prohibiting discrimination against the foreigner. “And you shall not mistreat a foreigner, nor shall you oppress him, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt”. And again: “And you shall not oppress a foreigner, for you know the feelings of the foreigner, since you were foreigner in the land of Egypt” (11). Some commentaries assume that these laws apply to a person from a “foreign” ethnic background who converted to Judaism (12), the word for convert is the same as the one for foreigner. I have found sufficient basis to understand it as applying to any member of a minority (13). These instructions against mistreatment of the foreigner have been explained in terms of “your” power relative to the powerlessness of the newcomer (14). This is one of the key elements of modern racism. 

Some would argue that we must disregard these sacred texts because they don’t articulate a perfect, unambiguous, consistent message of absolute equality. In To Kill a Mocking Bird, Tom, the innocent black man is killed in jail, while waiting for incremental white progress! Going slow has a terrible price that must be considered. Still, I believe we need to work with what we have and both support and challenge people to move along their journey toward full acceptance and valuing of every fellow human in whatever way that will work.    

1.    Lee, H. (1960), To Kill a Mocking Bird
2.    Exodus 21:20
3.    Mechilta, Mechilta D’Rashbi cited in Torah Shlaima, p.109, Rashi and others
4.    Exodus 21:21
5.    I don’t remember the name of the scholar I first read who articulated this approach. However see Samet,  Rabbi E.
6.    Job 31:13-15, cited by Samet ibid.
7.    Seforno, Rashbam
8.    Ibn Ezra, Klei Yakar elaborates: “Certainly he (the master) would not have beaten him with cruel beatings that could result in killing the slave, because he is his property! Is there any person who destroys his property with his own hands?!” The term “cruel beatings” made me ask the obvious question: is there another kind of beating? While all violence is abhorrent, there are degrees of violence. Samson Raphael Hirsh argues that “This reason given cannot be taken to mean that he is in some way of a lower degree of humanity that ordinary man. For it only applies to the master, to everybody else the full ordinary laws of murder applies. The reason can only lie in the relationship of the master to his personal property…”
9.    Chronicles I 22:8
10.    Ibn Ezra on Exodus 21:21
11.    Exodus 22:20, and Exodus 23:9
12.    Mechilta, Midrash Aggada, Toras Kohanim Kedoshim 8:2, Chizkuni cited in Torah Shlaima p. 98-99, see notes 366-7.  Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Sefer Hachinuch Mitzva 63. For contemporary argument see
13.    One source for the narrow interpretation of the law as relating only to converts is in the Talmud Bava Metzia 59b. It states “Why did the Torah admonish us about the convert in thirty-six…places?  This is because “his turning is bad”.  Many people have understood this to mean that he has a strong inclination towards evil or his old habits regarding idol worship and if he is mistreated he will “turn back to evil and reject Judaism”. However the Beer Mayim Chayim understands the “bad turn” very differently. “it is bad and bitter for him, that he is removed (turned away) from his family”. This way of understanding the Talmud applies just as well to a non-Jewish migrant who left family, friends and colleagues behind as it does to a convert.
The Sefer Hachinuch The Chinnukh (Mitzva 431) expands this prohibition beyond converts: “It is incumbent upon us to learn from this precious commandment to take pity on any person who is in a town or city that is not his native ground and not his ancestral home.  Let us not maltreat him in any way, finding him alone, with those who would aid him quite far from him….
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch states “the rights of humanity and citizenship come not from race, descent, birth, country or property, nor from anything external or due to chance; they emanate simply and purely from the inner spiritual and moral worth of a human being.  This basic principle is further ensured against neglect by the additional motive “for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”…  your whole misfortune in Egypt was that you were foreigners and aliens there.  As such, according to the views of other nations, you had no right to be there, had no claim to rights of settlement, home or property.  Accordingly, you had no equal rights to invoke against unfair or unjust treatment.  As aliens, you were without any rights in Egypt, and out of that grew all your slavery and wretchedness.  Thus, the Torah admonishes us to avoid making rights in our own state conditional on anything other than the simple humanity which every human being, as such, bears within him.  With any limitation of these human rights, the gate is opened to the whole horror of Egyptian human-rights abuses.
14.    Ibn Ezra on Exodus 22:20, he points out the link between the law of the foreigner alongside laws against the mistreatment of the orphan and widow, all of whom appear to lack protectors or networks.  Ramban also makes the link to mistreatment based on the difference of power.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Facts?! Forget it. Faith!! & Friendship. South Sudan & Beshalach

Is faith like this image? The "fact" is that there is no image
on the right yet after 15 seconds it appears then disappears.
I am thinking about how some manage to continue to believe despite some “facts” that appear to contradict those beliefs. Atheist or believer, we all need to put our faith in someone or something if we are ever to achieve anything. It can be a business idea, or in a relationship with other people, another tribe or with a God that, as I understand Him, is engaged with his creation and therefore it would follow that He allows humans to butcher each other. I also think about how God as described in the Torah, with His Wrath and all, is a comfortable fit for a new age guy like me.

I have been thinking about how this relates to my fellow; fathers, brothers, mothers and children in South Sudan and to what they are going through.

It was on a starry night in Yogyakarta in 2010 that I was first introduced to their world. I heard a heart-warming story from an American Missionary, Bill Lowrey, about the wise and fearless leaders of the Nuer and Dinka tribes who brought peace to their people after decades of terrible fighting.  Rev. Lowrey’s told me about his “approach (which) drew on the rich wisdom of the indigenous Nuer and Dinka peoples, as he integrated their traditional peacemaking methods with modern theories of conflict resolution”. (1).

“One of the local rituals involved participants spitting into a gourd filled with water. When it came to Bill, he spat into it too. When everyone had spat, they splashed the water on each other. The spittle on the tongue is meant to be the coldest part of a person, and splashing it symbolized cooling off the hot bodies, charged with the ‘heat of conflict’. Bill asked the chiefs to tell stories they heard from their fathers’ mothers about how conflicts were resolved in the past. They sat opposite each other, divided by a rope representing the Nile, and discovered the wisdom of their respective ancestors was very similar. They told stories about what was done to them, and finally were asked what they ‘remembered’ for the future of their daughters’ sons” (2). At the end of the process “the Dinka and Nuer signed a covenant to end their tribal war and sealed it by sacrificing a bull, which signifies wealth for both of the tribes. By stepping over the bull, they publicly pronounced their commitment for a new peace (3)”.

It is heart breaking that the world’s newest nation is now facing further death and conflict, despite the traditional wisdom that ended the fighting there just over a decade ago.  One of my Facebook Friends has been personally affected with the loss of his brother in the fighting. I have no doubt that people there can list the “facts” of the conflict that explain their tribes’ perspective and the wrong doing of their enemies. I pray that somehow, despite the unimaginable difficulty involved, the facts and grievances of both sides can again be set aside.

In our Torah reading this week we read about events a bit further up the Nile. The Jews or Israelites had left Egypt filled with faith, embracing Moses and their invisible God, following them in to the wilderness. It is not long before they face the sea in front of them and enemies behind them. They are told to disregard the facts and keep going (4), miraculously the sea splits. Yet, a short time later, new facts emerge. They arrive in the Sinai desert (5) just as their food runs out (6). They don’t politely pray for food, instead they turn on Moses “we wish we could have died by the hand of God in the land of Egypt, when we sat on the flesh pot and ate our fill of bread”. Moses tells them that their faith will return when God will send fat birds for them to eat and manna from heaven. I think Moses is implying a criticism of them. It is only when you have a full stomach and lack for nothing do you believe that it was God who took you out of Egypt, just a few weeks earlier.

Faith, friendship and even coexistence require us to disregard some facts and focus on hope and faith. Of course, this is easier said than done, but perhaps the only way forward. My prayers are with all who suffer from violence and injustice, including those whose suffering is justified by the facts.

2)    As told me to by Rev. Lowrey, for more of the story as he told it to me,
3)    Ibid, ..
4)    Exodus 14:15
5)    Exodus 16:1-18
6)    Rashi