Friday, February 26, 2016

Pride and Prejudice - Ki Tisa

This week, the Australian government announced an inquiry into the Safe Schools coalition; an initiative focused the creation of “safe and inclusive school environments for same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse students, staff and families[1]”. The aim of Safe Schools is one I wholeheartedly support and I hope the inquiry does not undermine this vital work. I do not accept the argument against this kind of work that “it goes beyond education and compels students into advocacy of a social engineering agenda[2]”. Creating spaces that are inclusive and free of discrimination and teaching children to embrace all their peers regardless of differences should be fundamental to education.

This controversy comes at an interesting time for me.  I have been trying to get my head around notions of Jewish pride and how it might be related to gay pride.

One way of looking at pride is to see it as promoting that group, or practices associated with that group as superior to others.

It is undoubtedly wrong to claim that Jews are superior to those who are not Jewish. For example, using the expression “goyishe kop” which means “non-Jewish head” to suggest that because someone is not Jewish they are not clever demonstrates the wrong kind of pride. However this kind of chauvinism is different to a legitimate claim that being Jewish is a better way to live and worship than other paths. Jews, like Muslims, or vegans are entitled and argue for the merits of particular ways of living. The Torah expresses this by stating that “it (the Torah) is your wisdom in the eyes of the nations…[3]” who will praise the Jews because of their adherence to God’s law. Islamic teachings contain the message that “Verily, we were a disgraceful people and Allah honored us with Islam, so if we seek honor from other than Islam, then Allah will humiliate us[4].”

The link between pride or honour and disgrace, shame or derision is one that I kept bumping into this whole week while I pondered this idea of pride. I spoke to a Sydney man who was one of the only Jews among 900 students in an Australian public school. When I asked him about pride he talked about the discrimination he faced as school boy.

Jonathan Sacks, addressing the topic of Jewish pride tells a story about his father being approached by a fellow congregant at a London Synagogue who thought young Jonathan had forgotten to remove his Kippa (skullcap) as he went out into the street. Jonathan’s dad replied: “no son of my mine will be ashamed of who he is[5]”. I also found pride linked to confidence in oneself and determination to follow one’s faith in the face of opposition[6]

The stress young LGBT school students suffer as a result of prejudice is a matter of life and death for some[7], and for many others a source of great anguish. A social worker and advocate for LGBT people in the Jewish community wrote “I have friends who have succumbed to this hopelessness (caused by the attitudes to LGBT people in the Orthodox Jewish community) and are no longer here to make their case. I know people who are alive today because of the outspoken compassion of the rabbis”[8]. He explains pride as serving to “combat institutionalized shame and re-build a strong sense of self-esteem. This is the true meaning of pride. Pride is about affirming our (collective) self-worth despite the challenges we face.”

There are dangers with pride. One Jewish educator suggested to me, that Jewish pride is more important than interfaith respect. His argument was that ‘Jewish children in a particular city don’t have adequate pride in who they are, so showing them how people of other faiths are wonderful might further weaken their commitment to their Jewishness’. I do not accept that Jewish pride should be allowed to become a barrier to embracing the “other”. Research has found that “it is possible to improve children’s attitudes toward a racial outgroup without causing a negative impact on their feelings toward their racial in-group[9]”. We should not resort to reinforcing a weak sense of self by encouraging defining oneself by what one is not.

Pride takes many forms. One source for the idea of Jewish pride is the reference to the desirability of “lifting up the horn of Israel[10]”. The metaphor of raised horns can be understood to be about relief from being downtrodden but is also interpreted as being about glory, and power. According to the Talmud[11] Moses asked God how this could be achieved. God replied that the Jews’ “horn” could be uplifted[12] through giving charity. I am strongly in favour of pride that is compassionate and charitable, and creates a safe place for people to thrive and learn.

[3] Deuteronomy, 4:6 a related concept is the idea of behaving in a way that makes the name of heaven become beloved through your behaviour in the Talmud Yoma 86a 
בגמרא (יומא פו ע"א) מובא: "ואהבת את ה' א-להיך (דברים ו, ה) – שיהא שם שמים מתאהב על ידך,
[6] The Lubavitcher Rebbe,
בנוגע לטעם אמירת ההפטרה – מובא בכמה מקומות (שולחן-ערוך אדמו"ר הזקן אורח-חיים ריש סימן רפ"ד, ובכמה מקומות) שמלכות הרשעה גזרה על ישראל שלא יקראו בתורה ברבים, ולכן תיקנו לקרות בנביאים מעניין הפרשה. וגם כאשר בטלה הגזירה, לא נתבטל המנהג לקרות גם בנביאים...זהו גם המענה לאלו ש"תואנה הם מבקשים" וטוענים: כיצד ייתכן לומר שגם כאשר בני ישראל נמצאים בזמן הגלות, אין להם להתפעל כלל מאומות העולם (מלכות המדינה וכו'), ויכולים וצריכים הם לעמוד בכל התוקף על כל ענייני התורה ומצוותיהוהמענה לזה – על-פי האמור לעיל אודות הגזירה על קריאת התורה: אף-על-פי שגזירה זו היתה בזמן הגלות (כאשר "אותותינו לא ראינו גו'") – אף-על-פי-כן, ראו בפועל ממש נס גלוי, שכאשר בני ישראל לא התפעלו מגזירת המלכות (שכוונתה היתה לנתק את בני ישראל חס-ושלום מתורה), ואדרבה: בעקבות גזירה זו חידשו בני ישראל מנהג ישן – לקרוא בנביאים, שזהו עניין נעלה יותר מדברי תורה (כנ"ל), הנה לא זו בלבד שאומות העולם לא יכלו לגזור עליהם ולהרע להם בעניין זה, אלא אדרבה: על-ידי זה הצליחו לבטל גם את הגזירה שלא לקרוא בתורה. וזוהי ההוראה הנלמדת מאופן הנהגתם של בני ישראל במעשה בפועל ("מעשה רב...כלומר: בעניין האמור רואים במעשה בפועל שכאשר בני ישראל מתנהגים על-פי הוראת התורה מתוך "גאון יעקב", מבלי להתפעל מאומות העולם, ולא מסתפקים בהחלטות טובות בעניין זה, אלא מתנהגים כן בפועל ובגלוי, עד שאפילו אומות העולם רואים זאת – הנה לא זו בלבד שאומות העולם אין יכולים להרע להם חס-ושלום, אלא אדרבה: על-ידי זה פועלים שאומות העולם יסייעו לבני ישראל בכל ענייניהם(מהתוועדות שבת-קודש פרשת בשלח, ט"ו בשבט התשמ"ג. 'תורת-מנחם – התוועדויות' תשמ"ג, כרך ב, עמ' 924-922 – בלתי מוגה
[8] Mordechai Levovitz,
[9] Levi, S.R., West, T. L., Bigler, R.S., Karafantis, D.M., Ramizez, L., Velilla, E. (2005) Messages about the uniqueness and similarities of people: Impact on US Black and Latino youth. Journal of Applied Development Psychology 26 p.714-713
[10] The Hebrew metaphoric words of “lifting up the horn” a variously translated as relating to power in the Tehilat Hashem translation of the Amida, or glory in translation of the Avinu Malkeinu prayer, in the new Siddur with Hebrew commentary it relates the term to both power and glory or honor like an animal with horns being seen as powerful, and I guess if it’s horns are held high there can be an element of pride it in as well. The term is also used in Psalm 148, commentary there…. I would see it as possibly being protected from defeat. There is another take on it that is tangential to our discussion but will be on interest to some.
[11] Talmud Bava Basra 10b, cited in Baal Haturim on Exodus 30:11,  he links this Talmudic teaching to the juxtaposition of Exodus 30:10, which refers to Keren (corners of the altar) and the discussion here of giving. 
[12] Alluding to the words Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11) at the beginning of the Sidra with this name which begins by discussing the donation of half shekels by each Jew toward the construction of the tabernacle 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Linking religion to misbehavior: Abuse & shunning secular authorities - Mishpatim

As I sit down to write this, I am afraid of upsetting people, but also of doing the wrong thing. I have been listening to opposing arguments relating to cultural and religious diversity and seeing how each is true for the people who hold them. A binary paradigm would demand that I simply take one side and ignore the other. I don’t think a binary approach is working. Despite all the good intentions of advocates we are seeing the triumph of “Trumpism”[i], rising anti migrant sentiment in Europe and the Australian High Court ruling that allows asylum seeker families, including children, to be returned to Nauru[ii].  On the other hand, attempts at acknowledging the fears people have of the “other”, such as an article I wrote for an Australian tabloid, The Daily Telegraph, have met with a backlash. Along with positive feedback, there was a torrent of criticism ranging from thoughtful and partly justified, to defamatory. I apologised sincerely and got it taken down, but there are some principles worth considering regarding thinking and talking about out-groups.

Discriminatory talk is a serious moral hazard. The pursuit of justice must start with protecting those with less power from those with more power[iii]. Laws concerning freeing slaves come first[iv] in a series of practical laws in our weekly reading.  To deprive people of freedom is like “murdering them while they are still alive[v]”.  Yet, there are limits on supporting the vulnerable. We are instructed not to glorify the poor person in his fight[vi]. Justice for the vulnerable does not mean that the vulnerable can do no wrong.  Censoring discussion about tensions between members of minorities and majority groups is a well-intentioned but ultimately destructive posture.

A student leader at a rural retreat, a girl in year 11, told her peers and my team who were running the session that the best strategy for dealing with tensions between groups is just to “pretend it is not happening”. However, “pretending” will often fail. Anti-racism literature insists that “Participants must feel ‘safe’ to speak honestly and frankly, including talking about negative experiences. If people feel under attack and think they will be labelled as racist, they are less likely to listen or engage”[vii]. One effective conflict resolution strategy is referred to as adopting the “and stance” which seeks to understand both sides of a dispute because both stories matter. Acknowledging the others’ stories can make it easier for them to add your perspective to theirs[viii].

One critic of my approach, author Randa Abdel Fattah, questions the difference between saying race (of religion) has everything to do with these crimes, and saying it has something to do with it.  The answer for me is in the benefit and truth of the latter vs. the harm and falsehood of the former

An example of this is the way we should talk about the failure of some Australian Rabbis to turn to Secular authorities in cases of suspected child sexual abuse.  It is wrong to say that the Jewishness of the Rabbis was to blame for their behaviour. This is simply not true as we can see that other Jews, including religious Jews, have trusted secular authorities to deal with these problems.  Blaming Judaism falsely taints a community with the wrongful deeds of some people and institutions.

Yet it would be reasonable, and not anti-Semitic, to look beyond the question of assigning blame, and instead explore whether the Jewish faith was a “contributing factor”[ix] in these terrible choices. People and their decisions are multi-faceted and multi-determined.  Although there were factors affecting individual Rabbis’ choices other than faith, such as concern about institutional reputation, personal loyalties, poor personal judgement that also contributed, these do not negate the validity of discussing the role of faith as one factor among others.

One part of the puzzle is the teaching that demands that Jews go to a religious court rather than a secular court even if there is no concern about the specifics of their laws[x]. Going before a court of “the worshipers of stars and constellations” is seen as first denying G-d and then denying the Torah[xi]. But the practical application of religion is often more complicated. Despite this preference for a religious court called a Beit-Din, if a Jew refuses to attend a Beit-Din, one can get dispensation to go to a secular court. Similarly if a litigant did appear before Jewish court but then refused to abide by the judgement one is permitted to turn to non-Jewish authorities to force him/her to do what the Beit-Din ruled[xii]. This demonstrates a hierarchy of imperatives. The preference for a Jewish court is of lesser imperative than justice.  This approach of course should have prevailed in cases of suspected child sexual abuse.  Further questions can be asked about other contributing religious factors such as the emphasis on respect for authority and the lack of sex education in some religious schools[xiii].

The other advantage to seeing faith as a factor is that it means one can think about how faith could be harnessed to influence people to make the right choices.  It would be perfectly reasonable to call on Rabbis like me to try to use religious arguments to persuade a recalcitrant colleague to fall into line and report suspected abusers to police. In fact this is exactly what was vigorously attempted by senior colleagues in Australia years before this scandal became public, but to our great shame, not early enough to protect the vulnerable, and not strongly enough to persuade absolutely everyone completely.  

We need to move beyond the binary approaches where conflicts are attributed entirely to culture and religion or not at all linked and completely irrelevant. We need to move away from accusing those who want to explore faith as a contributing factor of being prejudiced. There is a complexity in the human spirit and complexity when humans with varied needs and assumptions meet in a rapidly changing world.  I don’t believe there are whole cultures or faiths that are incompatible with my own. It is just that mutual curiosity and effort are required for fostering understanding and coexistence.  

[i] Beinart, P. Trump may have lost in Iowa but Trumpism won. The fact that the moderate in the GOP race is now peddling a version of The Donald’s message testifies to how profound his effect has been. …In the final weeks before Iowa, Rubio grew markedly more anti-immigration…
[iii] Ibn Ezra commentary to Exodus 22:20
[iv] Exodus 21:2, Abarbanel, p. 339, first paragraph argues that despite the principle of “there is no Mukdam or Me’Uchar in Torah” eg. not everything is chronological, and that we cannot read too much into things on the basis of proximity (View of Rabbi Yehuda in Berachos 21b), still it is implausible that there would not be significance in the order of elements within a passage or section.
[v] Abarbanel, p. 340, last paragraph
[vi] Exodus 23:3
[vii] Pedersen, A., Walker, I., & Wise, M. (2005). Talk Does Not Cook Rice: Beyond anti-racism rhetoric to strategies for social action. Australian Psychologist, 40, 20-30
[viii] Stone, D. Patton, B, Heen, S. 1999. Difficult Conversations. Penguin Books.
[ix] Stone, D. Patton, B, Heen, S. 1999. Difficult Conversations. Penguin Books.
[x] Talmud Gittin 88b, cited in TS p9, 28
[xi] Midrash Tanchuma, cited in Torah Shlaima p.9, note 28
[xii] Mechilta, Nezikin 1, cited in Chizkuni p. 261