Thursday, July 14, 2016

Spirit vs Form - Kavana. Chukat

For 45 minutes I was in another zone as I combined mindfulness and meditation with my ritual morning blessings. I felt spiritually uplifted and filled with a deep gratitude for the wisdom of animals, my eyesight, having all my needs met and the dignity of clothing.

That was another morning.

This morning was a completely different story. This morning I recited the same blessings but I arrived late and feeling stressed about many things. Prayer is meant to be the "service of the heart[i]" but my mumbling this morning was just robotic compliance.

It’s now 8:53 am. I just sat down at my desk at work, but I have been on my way to the office since 7:05 after my uninspired worship. I had the wrong combination for the back gate of the Synagogue, so I missed my bus. Instead I tried the train but neglected to check the sign so I jumped on to the wrong train. 4 trains later I am finally here and I am not so sure that what matters is really love and truth, or if compliance with requirements, times and rules is actually more important than it would seem. Clearly, my work fostering acceptance and belonging depends on attending to these technicalities.

Religion can be inspiring and can engage the heart and mind, but it can also be experienced as oppressive. In our Torah reading this week we learn about the red cow that would be killed and burned; its ashes sprinkled on water to be used as part of a purification ritual[ii]. This commandment is expected to be obeyed because God has decreed it and we “have no permission to question it[iii]”. We are called to subjugate our minds to the will of God[iv] because obedience, not fulfilment is valued. 

On the other side of this argument, in this reading we hear that Moses and Aaron were reprimanded after Moses hit a rock, causing water to miraculously flow. They were instructed to speak to the rock[v] rather than hit it. The symbolism of talking to the rock vs. hitting it is instructive. Forty years earlier, Moses also drew water from a rock when he hit it by God’s command.  But four decades before, Moses and Aaron had been leading slaves; they were accustomed to being told what to do (the dominant approach, symbolized by a stick), but now they were free people. The “stick” approach was no longer needed – now it was time for a “words”.[vi]

The themes of submission vs. engagement of the heart can be discerned in some of the details of the “stick” story. Although God had instructed Moses and Aaron to speak to the rock, He also instructed him to take “the staff” along. This is puzzling: why bring a stick at all[vii]? One answer is that “The stick” they were told to bring along was the staff of Aaron that miraculously sprouted almonds[viii]. This dry piece of wood had miraculously produced water as part of the miracle of the almonds and was to be used as inspiration for the rock that was going to be asked to also produce water. The symbolism of ‘the’ stick (rather than any stick) is not of a lifeless instrument of coercion but of a fusion between obedience and engagement.

The episode with the rock follows the death of the elder sister of Moses, Miriam, from whom Moses and Aaron had previously sought advice. Perhaps her feminine influence could have helped her brothers be more alert to the nuances of God’s command?[ix]. Instead, Moses missed the subtle point about “the stick” of Aaron with the almonds and its implied message and instead hit the rock with “his (own) stick[x]”. One lesson for us from Moses’ mistake is the need for being “very settled” and attentive in carrying out instructions[xi] so that we don’t fail to achieve their purpose, rather than being rushed like Moses was, or jumping on the train without checking the board to see where it was going.

The apparently irrational ritual of the burning red cow is also complex. It has elements that can engage the heart. One theme is the quest for balance and pursuit of the middle path, which can be inferred from the inclusion of a piece of wood from a tall cedar tree and a lowly hyssop plant in the fire. It symbolizes the message that we should not be arrogant like the cedar, nor should we be too humble like the hyssop, instead we must work toward the golden mean[xii]

A message of our reading can be to combine the pursuit of transcendence and spiritual expression with submission to rules and rituals. In fact, I think if I was more obedient to the requirements to always pray with Kavana, to do an intentional ritual hand washing when arriving at the synagogue[xiii] and to be on time, then even on an off day, the morning blessings words of gratitude would have greater power to engage my spirit.  The social justice, inspirational side of Judaism is nurtured by the adherence to rules and rituals and the resulting refinement of the spirit and growth in God’s consciousness.  A bird needs two wings to fly, one is love that motivates our positive activity and the other is fear which motivates obedience to prohibitions and rules[xiv].

[i] Talmud, Taanis 2a
[ii] Numbers 19
[iii] Cited in Rashi to Numbers 19:2, the ritual of the red heifer is the ultimate example of the Chuka category commandments which are not understandable.
[iv] The words “this is the statue of the Torah” is also taken to mean that it would be better for a person to treat all the laws of the Torah as unexplainable commandments rather than try to find reasons for them- R. Mendel of Kotzk, quoted by R. Zeev of Strikov, in Greenberg, A, Y, (1992) Torah Gems, Y Orenstien/Yavneh Publishing Tel Aviv, this is consistent with the emphasis in Chabad Chasidism on Bittul, self-nullification. There is another very strong side of Chasidism that emphasises self-refinement and spiritual engagement.
[v] Numbers 20:8
[vi] Sacks, (2009) Chief Rabbi Jonathan, Future Tense, Hodder & Stoughton London
[vii] Klei Yakar
[viii] Numbers 17:17-23
[ix] Ralbag makes the connection with Miriam ‘s death and the loss of her advice, which he assumes was frequently sought, he does not refer to the feminine aspect which is my own addition
[x] Numbers 20:11
[xi] Ralbag
[xii] Seforno on Numbers 19:2
[xiii] The custom I am familiar with is for Jews to wash their hands when arriving at the Synagogue. Typical orthodox synagogues will have a wash basin near the entrance, but technically one can ritually wash one’s hands at home. Not doing it again at the synagogue is a missed opportunity for a “kavana” enhancing ritual
[xiv] Tanya

Friday, July 8, 2016

Dangerously Divisive! Korach & Pauline Hanson

Arguments are raging about how to respond to the election of the divisive anti-Islam senator elect Pauline Hanson. On one hand we are being urged to “listen [to,] not lampoon” Hanson and her voters. We are told that although ‘Hanson’s policies are misconceived’ we can must empathise with the economic pain of Hanson’s rural supporters and to accept that their “fears are natural, and understandable”. I suggested on twitter that ‘dialogue with fearful, resentful people must sit alongside ensuring that bigotry is not made respectable’.

On the other hand, there are very real fears that giving credence to bigotry will have devastating effects. Jarni Blakkarly wrote after the election of Hanson: “A lot of my friends who are people of colour and particularly Muslims are genuinely afraid at the moment.” Last time Hanson was in Parliament she made offensive comments about Aboriginal people and there was an increase in racist incidents in her state to the extent where Aboriginal people reported being afraid to travel on buses. A similar effect is currently being felt on the streets of the UK, as a result of the toxic Brexit rhetoric. Tim Soutphommasane correctly asserted that “We have plenty of examples about how licensing hate can lead to serious violence and ugliness in our streets and our communities ”.

In the Torah reading this week we have the example of Korach, a Biblical figure who challenged Moses’ leadership and threatened the cohesion of the Israelites. Of Korach it is written that ‘A man took a divisive stance and lost part of himself[i]’. There is something profoundly diminishing in the stance of hateful divisiveness. Yet, the threat dividers pose is seen as massive, and must not be underestimated. Shakira Hussein argues that Hansonism is part of an international trend and that those who are supporting the approach “are not just seeking to recapture the past. They’re looking to the future — and they believe that it belongs to them[ii]”. In the case of Korach, God himself intervened and had the earth swallow Korach alive[iii].  This reflects the power of words to undermine societal norms and cohesion. Ridicule of Hansonism and of her as a public figure representing offensive views is appropriate and a legitimate part of the battle of ideas.

Like Hanson challenging the Elites, Korach denied Moses authority as a messenger of God and falsely accused him of haughtiness: holding himself above the people[iv].  Yet, we know that Moses was a reluctant leader and is described in the Torah as a most humble man. In speaking the unspeakable, Korach shook the foundations of his society and emboldened others who wished to break free from the constraints of what was previously considered “correct” speech. In our time, like then, it is important for people to strongly distance themselves from divisive figures or risk being seen as legitimising their views. This is symbolically alluded to in the story of Korach when the people are instructed to physically distance themselves from Korach[v] because tho stand near Korach could be understood to be standing with him and his agenda[vi].

On the other hand there is value in a dialogue with Hanson’s voters, but in a way that does not to amplify their voices. Moses himself talked to some of the rebels and sought to reason with them. Moses send a messenger to two of the other rebels who had not approach him to invite them to meet him for dialogue[vii]. In many ways, Hanson’s voters are people like you and me. Many of them are suffering and have genuine concerns about the future of our country. They also have unacceptable and harmful views that need to be challenged. But the best way to do that is to engage with them in an appropriate way without causing further harm to our society. 

The nature of Korach’s punishment is illustrative of the nature of in-fighting and divisiveness. The ground opened and swallowed Korach alive[viii]. This is the nature of conflict, it is consuming[ix]!  When the Israelites saw Korach consumed as a consequence of the conflict they ran screaming[x], because they said: “lest we also be swallowed”. There is a struggle for hearts and minds and the direction we will take regarding differences. Let us fight hard, compassionately and wisely.

[i] Ohr Hachayim, to Numbers 16:1
[iii] Numbers 16:31-33, If I take the story of Korach literally, it troubles me because of what it implies about dissent and challenging authority but I am looking at it in more thematic or Midrashic terms
[iv] Numbers 16:3
[v] Numbers 16:26, Arama, Rabbi Y., cited in Lebovitz, N. Studies in Bamidbar Numbers, Malbim, Hirsch, S.R.,
[vi] Midrash Hagadol cited in Torah Shlaima
[vii] Numbers 16:5-12
[viii] Numbers 16:31-33
[ix] Chafetz Chayim
[x] Numbers 16:34, “screaming” is my creative interpretation/translation of the words in the verse that states “they ran to/for their voices” which is ambiguous.