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 

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