This blog is written by the National Director of Together For Humanity Foundation (TFH), Rabbi Zalman Kastel. It explores contemporary social issues as these relate to an Orthodox understanding of the Torah, (the Bible) and other Jewish sources. This blog which shares the personal thoughts and journey of an Australian Jewish man is part of the bridge building work of TFH and is written for readers of many faiths and none. It often references the Sidra, the weekly Torah reading.
Thursday, June 23, 2016
Did not make me a goy?! Sacred text, prejudice and Interpretation (Bahalotecha)
“Bless you God for not making me a goy" (the word "goy" is often translated as a non-Jew 1, but it's meaning is highly contested). These words confronted me in a series of
prayers that I have recited every morning since I was five. One morning I was
in a meditative mode, fully present and intentional with every word I was
saying. I paused. The most obvious inference in this prayer is that I am
grateful for not being made an impliedly inferior type of person. But this
makes no sense to me. There are many people I know personally who are not
Jewish and whom I deeply respect and admire.
If I skipped the prayer, it would mean rejecting the theological/legal
system that forms the basis of my Orthodox spiritual life. So I reinterpret the prayer to mean that
despite my acknowledgement of the various paths to personal and spiritual
greatness of the Muslims, Christians, Hindus, atheists/agnostics, traditionally
spiritual Aboriginals and others whom I so admire, I still thank God for giving
me my own cherished Jewish heritage and identity rather than any of those other
profoundly beautiful other ways of being.
Afterwards I thought, whom am I kidding? Don’t words have a fixed
meaning beyond their creative reinterpretations? Perhaps they do, but that is
how I chose to deal with it.
blessing about not being a non-Jewish person is followed by an expression of gratitude for not being a slave.
I thought that the two prayers could be interpreted in similar ways. To be a
"slave" has a certain appeal. As the CEO of a not for profit charity
I carry the responsibility for a mission and a few persons’ livelihoods. It's
often stressful. Like the Israelites in the desert, I'm tempted by the freedom
from responsibility that comes with being an employee or, in the case of the
Israelites, the lack of accountability to God they had as slaves of the
Pharaohs. 2 Yet despite the attraction of
"slavery" I choose to be grateful for the freedom to pursue my vision
according to my own conscience and I am happy to pay the price.
price of leadership can be high. In our Torah reading this week this theme can
lead us back to the theme of prejudice. The Israelites in the desert complained
and thereby challenged Moses and God. Moses was so frustrated that he would
rather have died 3 than continue with his impossible mission of
leadership unless God helped him. One group of people are highlighted as being
at fault; these were “the
multitude among them [who] began to have strong cravings.” 4 The multitude was “not of them 5” (the Jewish nation), but joined the Israelites during the exodus
from Egypt and in this case the ethnic Jews are said to have followed the lead
of the multitude and also rebelled.
there is an opportunity for a strong anti-prejudice lesson in our Torah reading
too. We read that Moses was married to a black woman, in fact
as black as a raven 6 and that Moses’
siblings were rebuked for wrongly criticizing Moses on account of his black
wife. I would assume that if his wife was black so was his non-ethnically
Jewish, Midyanite father-in-law, Jethro. Shortly before Moses descended into
despair he begged his father-in-law to stay in the desert. “Please don’t abandon us…you have been like eyes
for us7” Moses
pleaded. Moses cherished his
father-in-law’s advice. A few verses later we are told that Jethro did in fact
leave Moses without his support, and that Moses cried out bitterly about the
burdens of leadership. As our sages
taught us, there is wisdom among the nations.8 One of our greatest
scholars would rise in honour of the accumulated life wisdom of elderly people
who were not Jewish 9, while
Maimonides happily incorporated ethical teachings from non-Jewish philosophers
in his writing. 10
these highly plausible interpretations in the previous paragraph are far from unanimous.
The words “Kushite”/black
that describe Moses’ wife are taken to mean that she was not black but
undeniably beautiful 11 just as a
black person is clearly black. Another commentary argues that in fact Moses
didn’t really need his father-in-law’s advice at all and just pretended he
needed it out of humility 12. I suggest that when it comes to religion,
especially mine, interpretation is almost everything. So thank you God for
making me Jewish even thought I could have been gloriously wonderful in a
somewhat different way, being someone else.
This is one demonstration of creative interpretation of a religious text that at first glance seems to say one thing but can actually mean something else.
1. I object
to words like “goy” or non-Jew as a noun. I think that a person should be defined by what
they are and how they define themselves rather than how they are not like me. The literal meaning of the word "goy" is nation and can have a neutral meaning referring to a person from a nation other than the Jewish nation. The blessing traditionally is understood to reflect additional commandments that Jews are obligated in according to Judaism.
2. This comment is based on commentary to
Numbers 11:5 when the Jews talked about free fish they age in Egypt, which is
interpreted by Sifre, cited in Rashi, as being free from Mitzvot
3. Numbers 11:10-15
4. Numbers 11:4
5. Ibn Ezra on 11:4
6. Numbers 12:1-9 according to Ibn Ezra and Abarbanel
7. Numbers 10:31
8. Midrash Eicha Rabba 2:13 מדרש איכה רבה פרשה ב סימן יג
הרמב"ם בתחילת הקדמתו למסכת אבות ("שמונה פרקים") כותב: "ודע, כי הדברים אשר אומר אותם באלו הפרקים... הם עניינים מלוקטים מדברי החכמים (חכמי ישראל)... ומדברי הפילוסופים גם כן ומחיבורי
הרבה בני אדם. ושמע האמת
ממי שאמרה". על הפילוסוף היווני אריסטו כותב הרמב"ם: "הוא אשר לימד לבני אדם את דרכי ההוכחה
וחוקיה ותנאיה" ("מורה הנבוכים" חלק ב פרק טו(. cited in http://www.kipa.co.il/ask/show/86913
11. Sifre, Unkelous, Rashi, and Ralbag, see
Ibn Kaspi’s (cited in Nechama Lebovitz) withering critique of these teachings
that essentially take the verses to mean the opposite of what the plain text
appears to be saying