Thursday, November 26, 2015

Fear, doubt and “the Muslims” Vayishlach

Photo by Nasrul Ekram,
reproduced under creative commons
license 2.0
Late one evening this week, I received yet another Facebook private message expressing hostility towards Muslims and Islam. This kind of hostility is often driven by fear, a combination of healthy self-preservation instincts given the terrible deeds of some, and misunderstanding due to an absence of meaningful contact with Muslim people. More generally, fear in peoples’ lives may be driven by self-doubt. In cultures that value confidence, feeling afraid can make one feel ashamed; hostility can serve as a more acceptable mask.

As he traveled home to the land of his birth, the Biblical Jacob became afraid and distressed about his brother Esau coming toward him with 400 men.  His fear was of being killed in an attack but his distress is interpreted as relating to the prospect of him killing his attackers.1 Yet that interpretation is questioned by other scholars who ask why Jacob should be distressed about killing assailants in self-defence? 2 I find this second line of commentary disturbing. Surely the prospect of spilling blood”, destroying the priceless treasure that is every human being, is distressing to the spirit! 3 Fear about our safety due to the threat of terrorism, and acceptance of the need for defensive measures, should never be allowed to overcome our humanity, to blur our sense of right and wrong toward innocent people - including Muslims.

An alternative suggestion is that Jacob was distressed because he was grappling with two opposing arguments about killing his attackers. On the one hand, he had been promised protection by God which rendered him invincible; as his life would not be in danger, killing his assailants could not be justified based on concern for his own survival.  On the other hand, however, he might have sinned and in consequence lost God’s protection, in which case his life would be in danger and he would be justified in killing to defend it.4 

A related interpretation finds reason for his distress in the mouths of his wives.  If you are afraid, why did you take us out of our father’s house? Rather you should trust in the ‘shade of your Creator’ who told you to return to the land of your fathers”. Immediately, “Jacob felt afraid of the external threat of attack by his brother and distressed internally because of the criticism of his wives”.5   Their words seem to have stung because he felt ashamed of his doubt. I feel for him.

All the above discussion assumes the possibility of a credible threat.  In an alternative authoritative interpretation Jacob had received a report from his scouts that in fact his brother Esau was approaching with 400 men to honour Jacob. The scouts reported that the delegation was motivated by Esau’s joy about Jacob’s return and his love for his brother. Yet Jacob disregarded the report of his own fact-finding and goodwill mission because he didn’t believe the evidence. He was so afraid because he clung to his prejudgment about Esau’s evil intentions.6 The intelligence from the scouts seems to have been proven correct, however, when Esau ran toward Jacob, hugged him, kissed him and cried when they met.7  Our response to perceived threats should respect evidence, or the absence of evidence, and be proportionate.

Fear and doubt are reasonable and natural reactions to threats of violence and the horrible deeds we have lately heard about, read about and seen on film. In one sense, it is unreasonable to feel ashamed of this fear. Yet some sense of shame can also be useful; it challenges us when we think we are letting ourselves down. When confronted with fear of the other, or with ourselves and when confronted with self-doubt, it is a good time to pray, to take some time alone 8 and to wrestle with the feelings, the facts and our faith. Jacob did that and emerged a champion.9   

1 Bereshit Rabba 76, cited in Rashi
2 Mizrahi on Genesis 32:8, Beer Basadeh, written by 19th century Bosnian Jewish scholar Rabbi Meir Danon
3 Kasher, R. Menachem, in Torah Shlaima p. 1267, note 50, follows the tradition about God silencing the song of the angels during the splitting of the sea because his Egyptian “creations were drowning”
4 Beer Basadeh on Genesis 32:8
5 Ner Haschalim, manuscript cited in Torah Shlaima p. 1266, 50
6 Rashbam Genesis 32:7, Bchor Shor offers a similar but less definite approach. In his view the scouts report that they came back and they don’t know what is in Esau’s mind, wether for good or bad because he didn’t respond to their questions, instead he said I will go to him and speak with him, “mouth to mouth”. 
7 Genesis 33:4, although one would think this evidence settles the argument about Esau’s good will, it does not. There is an argument in the Sifre cited in Rashi about Esau’s sincerity. One view asserts that in that moment he kissed him with his whole heart with another view that in fact it was done with his whole heart.  
8 Genesis 32:25
9 Genesis 32:29

Friday, November 20, 2015

Selective empathy and relationships with 'others’ - Vayetzei

Terror has struck us’ again. I write us’ referring to Westerners who identify with the Paris victims. I feel angry about this attack against ordinary people in a Western city. A terrible destruction of life perpetrated against people who live in a ’normal’ city like I do. I am surrounded by outrage and solidarity expressed in French flags, on Sydney’s Harbour Bridge, the Opera House and all over Facebook. But surely, every life of a non-combatant taken violently is an utterly unacceptable violation of the sanctity of life?

I am disturbed to read Facebook posts by my Arab and Muslim friends rightly expressing their hurt at the implication that French lives appear to matter more to Westerners than Arab or Muslim lives. Some posts list the names of places where Arab or Muslim blood has been spilled, including the terrible attacks in Beirut. Yet, none of these posts mention the recent stabbings of Israeli civilians. I feel a deep sadness about the selective empathy so much in evidence right now. 
The term selective empathyis almost a tautology because researchers in this field explain that empathy is by its very nature geared toward people we see as being like us. We can overcome this natural tendency to limit our circle of empathy either by calling on increased compassion (which is not naturally restricted to people like ourselves) or by changing our relationships with ‘them’ so that they become part ofus’.

The inclusion of those we are unfamiliar with and whom we regard as alien can feel quite threatening. After the Biblical Jacob left his village and the people familiar to him he put rocks around his head when he stopped for a nap along the way. This act is considered highly symbolic.  Jacob protected his mind from the influences of a new place. Only his hands, symbolising action, were to connect with the new place, but his mind had to remain ‘unpolluted’(1)

Despite the fear some people have about how they might be changed or lose their identity, they do often make efforts to connect with the other. When Jacob met the ‘strangers’ among whom he would live he addressed them as my brothers (2)”. It is easier to regard people as abstract threats when you are not interacting with them face to face.

Although Jacob approached the locals in a spirit of friendship (3) and love, (4) the natives responded without enthusiasm. His three questions were met mainly with one-word answers (5). According to commentary there was a dismissive comment about how he talked too much—so he might as well talk to Rachel who is a talkative one, just like you’. (6)

In our experience in the work of Together For Humanity, we have found that outsiders, such as Muslim teenagers, are often more motivated to connect than those who are more settled. In one case, a few years back, Muslim state high school students posted repeatedly on an electronic notice board but their Jewish peers never got around to responding. In another interschool program the school with Muslim students was keen to continue the relationship into a second year but the mostly ‘white’ school opted out. Sadly the goodwill of the outsideris sometimes weakly reciprocated.

Jacob, the outsider in our story, was cheated by a local man in full view of all of the men of the place (7). Their father Laban switched his promised bride, Rachel, with her older sister, Leah.  When the stranger protested against his unfair treatment, his complaint was dismissed with a reprimand about local customs. It is not done this way in our place to give the younger before the older (8), said Laban. Later, when Jacob prospered, he faced resentment from his brothers-in-law (9), just as his father had earlier as a foreigner in the land of the Philistines. 

Relationships between people who perceive each other as different can be fraught. In my experience, empathy grows when we manage to transcend differences and stop seeing people as ‘the other’.  Perhaps a practical first step is to recognise and accept our own limited feelings of empathy and our closeness to some people more than others, and pray for Paris if that feels right for us. Then one could take a step back and ask: ‘How can I be more equitable in my concern so that I can contribute to more inclusive, just, compassionate outcomes for all people— wherever and whoever they are?’ 

1.       The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson, Likutei Sichos volume one, first Sicha
2.       Genesis 29:4
3.       Midrash Hagadol, cited in Torah Shlaima, Vol .2, p. 1158, 15
4.       Radak
5.       Genesis 29:4-6
6.       Pirush Hatosafot Hadar Zkainim, cited in Torah Shlaima, Vol .2, p. 1159, note 18
7.       Genesis 29:22
8.       Genesis 29:26
9.       Genesis 31:1      

Friday, November 13, 2015

Elusive love of the “undeserving” - Toldot

Copyright Noel Kessel 2015, first appeared in
the Australian Jewish News,
Jewish University student walked 8 hours from a Synagogue
in the East part of Sydney to a Mosque in the West. He was
accompanied by Muslim and Jewish friends for parts of the walk.

This post is less about answers than questions.  The fraught quest for attachment to parents and for parental love has scarred many people. I emphatically believe in unconditional parental love which is why I am so puzzled by the way the Torah reading this week seems to contradict this principle. A related, but broader question, is whether love must be earned or should love be our first and fundamental disposition towards all people? A very irate man called me this week to complain about what he described as my loving behavior toward Muslims; he seemed to regard love as something that Muslims, in general, do not deserve.  

In the Torah reading we are told that the mother, Rebecca, loved Jacob [1] but the text tells us nothing about how she felt about Jacob’s twin, Esau, at this point.  Disturbingly, commentary suggests that her love for one son rather than the other was based on them earning this love.  Commentary suggests that every time Rebecca heard Jacob’s voice her love for him would increase”; [2]when she would hear his (Jacobs) pleasant words and would see his wholesome ways”. [3] However Rebecca is thought to not love her other son Esau [4] because “not only did he not occupy himself with wisdom and the ways of God, but he chose an occupation for himself that put him in danger every day…”. [5] Her love is clearly conditional which I find really hard to accept.

In contrast to Rebecca’s lack of love for the “evil” Esau we are told that “Isaac loved Esau because of the (hunting) game in his mouth”. [6] Far from this being seen as endorsement of unconditional love, by the practice of one of our patriarchs no less, this fathers love for his “bad child” seems a fault according to some of our traditional teachings.

A simple understanding of the text would have us believe that Esau’s hunting of “game from which he (Isaac) would eat” [7] was the reason Isaac loved this particular son. Isaac is portrayed in one tradition as quite particular in his tastes, indulgent and loving all kinds of delicacies, perhaps even spoiled, being the younger child born to his parents in their old age. Isaac consumed meat of the hunted animals and birds as well as choice wine brought to him by Esau. [8]   One Midrash links Isaac’s love to the evils of bribery and the proverb “A bribe is a precious stone in the eyes of the one who has it; wherever he turns, he prospers”, [9] asserting that bribery is like a stone, where ever it falls it breaks things. [10]

Yet, other teachings reflect a reluctance to portray our patriarch Isaac so harshly, instead either blaming Esau for misleading Isaac about his true nature [11] or believing that is was Isaac’s prophecy about a righteous descendent of Esau, named Ovadia, that was the reason for his love [12] rather than loving this boy Esau for himself. 

While the text tells us nothing about Isaac’s love for his “good son”, Jacob, commentary is not comfortable with leaving this as is, instead asserting that surely the deserving son enjoyed his father’s love and explaining away the fact that this is not stated in the text.[13]

As the story unfolds, Esau is eventually so resentful of his brother Jacob that he plans to kill him. Chillingly, Esau’s weak attachment to his mother can be seen in the fact that although Esau is reluctant to kill his brother while his father is alive (instead waiting for the end of the mourning period after his father’s death) [14] he thinks nothing of his mother’s grief.[15]

There is a cryptic phrase toward the end of the story that refers to Rebecca as the mother of both Jacob and Esau [16] when she sends Jacob away to her brother’s house to save him from Esau’s murderous plan. This reference is explained as her being concerned for the safety of both her sons, perhaps because, in a confrontation between the twins, Jacob might harm her other son Esau [17] whom she still cares about. Her brother would protect them both from each other. This suggests that after all Rebecca did love Esau despite her disapproval of him, despite the contrary impression from the texts mentioned above about love needing to be earned.

This discussion is about Midrash rather than Jewish Law which usually stipulates one right or wrong way to do things. When it comes to these moral discussions, there are 70 “faces to the Torah”, which means that a religious Jew is not strictly bound by any particular interpretations of this story. I look forward to learning more about this. I shall continue to advocate unconditional parental love and a presumption of love for all as primary virtues. There are, however, exceptions for me.  Jews, unlike Christians, are not called to love their enemies. I don’t love despots, tyrants, abusers of trust or my closed-minded caller who showed no interest in understanding what I do, or why, and who went so far as to say that I have no right  to call myself a Rabbi. But unless there is very good reason to the contrary, I believe I must approach each and every person with good will and an open heart. As we are taught, the Torah’s ways are pleasant and all it’s paths are of peace . [18]

  1. Genesis 25:28
  2. Bereshit Rabba 63a, commentary cited in Torah Shlaima, vol. 2, 1030, note 181, highlights the particular word for love in the text is  אוהבתin the present tense rather than  אהבה in the past tense
  3. Sachar Tov, cited in Torah Shlaima, vol. 2, 1030, note 181, Jacob’s wholesomeness is also cited in Rashbam, while Yalkut Ohr Afela, (cited in Torah Shlaima, vol. 2, 1030, 182) suggests that the love was the result of Rebecca’s prophecy that Jacob would be righteous
  4. Seforno
  5. Radak
  6. Genesis 25:28
  7. Unkelos translation of Genesis 25:28
  8. Sechel Tov, cited in Torah Shlaima, vol. 2, 1029, note 177
  9. Proverbs 17:8
  10. Midrash Tanchuma, Toldos 8
  11. Midrash Tanchuma, Toldos 8, also cited in Rashi
  12. Midrash Hagadol, cited in Torah Shlaima, vol. 2, 1030, 180
  13. Radak asserts that there is no need to tell us that Isaac loved (the righteous?) Jacob, because he loved Jacob more than he Esau, in fact he did not love Esau (simply as a son) except for the fact that he would bring him hunted game to eat.  Seforno also asserts that Isaac’s love for Esau was in addition to his love for Jacob, but that although Isaac would have known, without a doubt, that Esau was not “complete” like Jacob he loved him anyway
  14. Genesis 27:41
  15. Ohr Hachayim on Genesis 25:28
  16. Genesis 28:5
  17. Rabbenu Bchai
  18. Proverbs 3:17