Friday, July 10, 2015

Cross-cultural generosity, not mean-spiritedness

Cooking Kosher dinner,
vegetables and veggie
burgers on a sandwich maker
at the Aly home.
Last week I posted an impassioned grave side sermon by Mohammad Hoblos, a Lebanese Muslim preacher (i) on Facebook Hoblos told the mourners at the funeral of Hedi Ayoub: "there are no gangsters in paradise", "...twenty-two years old, built like a tank... (a) one dollar (bullet) brought him to the ground" and quoted a line from a rap song: "Why are we so blind to see that the ones we hurt are you and me?". He spoke against glorifying violence and materialism and stated that a Muslim who kills another Muslim will never get to heaven.  One Facebook comment, however, got caught up on the inward focus of the talk - “Why doesn’t he talk about the real issues, such as ISIS and violence against non-Muslims?”! 

It is wrong to look at Muslims in general through the lens of ISIS and terrorism. Hoblos was certainly talking about issues that are very real to people he actually knows.   A generous approach would be to look at the merit of what he was saying, at an open grave no less, rather than seeking faults in what he didn’t say.  In fact, many of my Facebook friends of Jewish and other backgrounds did make positive
and appreciative comments afterwards about Hoblos’ sermon, e.g. “that was a great post yesterday of the speech at funeral...”.

Last week I myself experienced the cross-cultural generosity of a Muslim family.  Zohra and Abbas Aly had invited me for dinner at their home, which is difficult for me because of the way I practice Kosher. I can’t eat anything cooked in pots used for non-Kosher, for example. They generously agreed to allow me to cook my meal on a sandwich maker in their own kitchen!

The theme of generosity can also be found, if one looks for it, in the Torah reading this past week. God commanded the Jews to take revenge against Midyan (ii). While a critical approach would, reasonably, focus on the revenge, a more generous approach will probe further.

The crime that Midyan was to be punished for, according to our oral tradition, was that the Midyanites and Moabites used sex as a weapon of war. Not by raping the enemies’ women, as still happens today, but as a way to spiritually destroy the Jews by having their own daughters seduce Jewish men and then pressure them to worship the gods of their enemies. 

In this context, spiritual strength or weakness was everything. The Moabites and Midyanites had sought to destroy the Jews through the curses of the sorcerer Balaam.  Balaam had let them down by blessing the Jews instead of cursing them, yet he also provided a clue to their vulnerability (iii).  He asserted that God “did not look at evil in Jacob (iv)”. Balaam went on to advise his clients that if the Jews could be led to sin this will result in their destruction (v). This plan was implemented although the Torah places responsibility (vi), at least initially, on the Jewish men who we are told “began to commit harlotry with the daughters of the Moabites. They (the Moabite daughters) invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and prostrated themselves to their gods (vii)”.

Despite the Moabites participation in this bizarre sin, they are not included in Gods planned vengeance, which is restricted to Midyan. This is for two reasons involving generous thinking. One is the fact that the Moabites legitimately feared attack by the Jews (viii).  A second is that although, technically speaking the Jews had done nothing against the Moabites, they had possession of land that had been traditionally Moabite. The Jews had conquered that land in a war with the Emorites who had themselves taken the land from the Moabites. This legitimate grievance is seen as a significant mitigating factor (ix). 

My thoughts and prayers are with the Hedi Ayoub, his family, friends and community. Just as, when I was grieving over the violent loss of my brothers’ friend, the late Gabi Holzberg, in the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008, many of my Muslim friends sent me messages of condolence. Let us respond to each other, in good times and bad, with cross-cultural compassion and generosity.

i., also available at in full, or edited version at
ii.    Numbers 25:18
iii.    Chizkuni
iv.    Numbers 23:21
v.    Talmud Sanhedrin 105, also see allusion to Balaam in Number 31:16
vi.    Lebovitz, N, New Studies in Bamidbar
vii.    Numbers 25:1-2
viii.    Ralbag
ix.    Chizkuni


  1. The views posited by Nechama Lebovitz of Blessed Memory are not consistent with the views of many great figures, including the greatest of of our generation, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may his saintly memory protect us.

    1. Thank you Reb Pinchos for taking the time to read my post. The observation by Lebovitz cited in this post is solidly based on the text in Badmibar/Numbers 25:1 that "The (Jewish) people began to commit harlotry" in which the responsibility in the narrative is clearly assigned to the Jewish men, compared with the text in Badmibar/Numbers 31:16 in which the same event is described as being the actions of the Midyanite women following the counsel of Balaam. Hardly controversial.

  2. I found the blog quite challenging as I am currently working my way through the Hebrew Bible.

    1. Stephan, thank you for reading and commenting. The Torah is interpreted in many ways within the Jewish tradition, it continues to challenge people who have been studying it their whole lives. :)