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

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