Saturday, May 20, 2017

Disgraced Cohen's Daughter's Punishment - Emor

As I am finalising my thoughts on this blog, my heart is full of inspiration from yesterday’s Inter-school Program, watching Christian, Jewish and Muslim students come together yesterday culminating in spontaneously making music together. In stark contrast to that, I consider enduring contradictions and divisions that challenge me and others. Experiences, narratives and texts can all alienate us from communities, both similar and different to ourselves.  In this post I explore one of these.

I have been thinking of one passage in the Torah that challenges me not to feel alienated from my own tradition. “The daughter of a Cohen/ priest who will profane herself through whoredom, her father she is desecrating, in fire, she should be burned (1). After thinking about it for a week, it seemed clear to me that there was nothing I could say that would reconcile this verse with contemporary mores. Over Shabbat (Friday night and Sunday) I was delighted to find a possible, at least partial, way through.

At the start of this discussion I make the following points: A) We need to look at how a religious text is applied today in the lived experience of the adherents of that faith rather than what the words are in the text. This is as true for non-Muslims looking at verses from the Koran as it is for those trying to make sense of Judaism.  B) It is useful to consider how traditions have been interpreted over time.

A Sydney Rabbi who told me that his sermon on the passage of the Cohen’s daughter, interpreted it along mystical lines. He said that it is by God’s design that this law does not apply today (as capital cases are no longer prosecuted since the destruction of the second temple two thousand years ago). Instead, he suggested that burning in fire represents passionate devotion to God to correct the sins of passion (2). Another contemporary approach to this matter took the form of a personal reflection on the responsibility of dads in  positions of religious leadership to be attentive to their children. The writer regrets that some of his religious study years earlier was at the expense of his family. Failure to properly guide children shames the father (3).   

Earlier traditions relating to this law make clear that we are dealing with adultery and a married woman (4). Furthermore, there are very strict laws applying to all cases of capital punishment. The perpetrator must have been warned by two witnesses immediately prior to the act which is then witnessed. This is a highly unlikely scenario. Traditions vary about how rare an event any capital punishment was when it was practiced at all, with one opinion that a Court that killed once every 70 years was a “murderous court”, and another view putting it as once every 7 years (5).

Despite the restrictions on actually putting a woman to death for this crime, the phrase itself raises concern for me. There are two aspects that bother me. One is the idea that a woman’s status is considered through the perspective of its impact on the honour of her male family members. The second is on the discrepancy between a misbehaving son and daughter (6).

Early traditional commentary is in line with a simple reading of the text: If he [her father] had been treated as holy (before), he will now be treated as mundane, (if he had been treated with) honor, now he will be treated with disgrace, as they will say cursed be the one who gave birth to this one, who raised this one” (7).

Fortunately this approach is not the only one. I take comfort from the approach of both of the early authoritative translations into Aramaic, neither of which mentions the father’s shame (8). One (9) subtly re frames it as “from the holiness of her father she becomes desecrated”. The meaning of the translation is that she is desecrating herself, and profaning “the holiness that she has as a heritage from her father”. As the daughter of a Cohen/priest she inherited social- spiritual capital that has now been lost (10). It is not about her father but about her.

The discrepancy between a daughter and a son can be considered from a historical and contextual perspective that suggests that the verse is a response to the practice of the “sacred prostitute”. It is argued that the daughters of idol worshipers’ priests would act as prostitutes at their places of worship (11). Evidence is found in a  phrase in the book of Hosea: “they sacrifice with the prostitutes” (12). If we accept this argument then it is reasonable that the warning is directed to females based on the historical-actual problem the passage is seeking to address. While this explanation is attractive to me, I have not yet found any earlier linking between this ancient practice and this verse in authoritative commentary.

I am conflicted about how to approach these types of texts. I can join my colleagues who try to make it ok. As demonstrated above, there are some plausible approaches to do that, at least partially. I can also simply put them out there for further reflection and study. When my own daughter was born we  chose a biblical name, Shifra, that was not identified as being the wife, daughter or mother of any important man because we want our daughter to know she matters for who she is and who she will become, including but certainly not limited to her roles as a mother, wife or daughter. I take comfort in this view being consistent with some of my traditions about this difficult verse. The discrepancy between the treatment of males and females, however is acknowledged as a matter of concern.

Notes and Sources

  1. Leviticus 21:9
  2. Conversation at Lag B’Omer event at Bondi with Rabbi Y. 14.05.2017 based on Chasidic sources
  3. Buchwald, Rabbi E, Lessons from a Cohen’s Wanton Daughter, He wrote….As one who completed the study of an entire cycle of the Talmud about twenty-five years ago, I know how enriching the experience can be… but looking back, it was inevitable that devoting so much time to the study of Torah came, at least in part, at the expense of the family, especially during the children’s critical nurturing years..
  4. Talmud Sanhedrin 50b
  5. Mishnah, Makkot 1:10
  6. Abarbanel, commentary on Emor question 5, p.225
  7. Talmud Sanhedrin 52a
  8. Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel, sees the reference to the father as a clarification of a matter of law, that she had gotten married through Erusin, but lived in her father’s house
  9. Unkelus/Onkelus, who lived around c. 35–120 CE, although the Talmud Megillah 3a suggests that this translation is was based on the teachings of the great Tanaaim Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, or even earlier but forgotten by the masses, and rerecorded by Unkelus,
  10. Meshech Chochma, Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, 1843-1926
  11. Daat Mikra on Leviticus 21:9, Mosad Harav Kook,
  12. Hosea 4:14

Friday, April 21, 2017

Blame the followers? On Leadership- Shemini

I lay awake at 4:30 am the other day. Not for very long, but still unusual for me to be awake worrying about work. I tend to do my worrying during the day.

Fear of failure is a natural part of leadership. However, I wonder to what extent a leader needs to feel responsible for outcomes that are ultimately dependent on the choices of many people, whether active supporters or disinterested “followers”? Perhaps leadership is overrated. Some leaders appear successful, when in fact they are merely taking people where they want to go anyway.  Should the primary potency and responsibility be recognised as being with the followers instead? Perhaps this idea is a form of shirking of my responsibilities as a leader disguised as modesty. On the other hand, I know that my mental and emotional strength as a leader is enhanced by the generous appreciative  engagement of my “followers”, either as participants in my work or at my Torah discussions.   

In the Torah reading this week we read how Aaron was encouraged to approach the altar when he was bashful and fearful about performing sacrifices on the altar (1). Aaron imagined the altar resembling an ox and this reminded him about his past failure when he built an altar for a false god, the golden calf (2). Aaron carried the burden of that failure for the rest of his life. Yet the main stimulus for him being involved with the golden calf was the loss of faith by the people, which all but forced his hand.

The wording of the phrase in which Aaron was invited to approach the altar relates to the question of the impact of followers on their leaders. “Moses said to Aaron, a) "Approach the altar and perform your sin offering…and atone for yourself and [atone] for the people, and b) perform the people's sacrifice, and atone for them (3). This appears quite repetitive, Aaron is told twice to atone for the people. However, the atonement for the people actually involves two different elements. Aaron’s offering of a calf as a personal sin offering for himself is also partially an atonement for the people (4). Aaron’s sin is not only his own. This idea is also found in the way the offering of the anointed priest’s offering is described as well. “If the anointed priest sins, to the guilt of the people, then he shall bring for his sin which he has committed, an unblemished young bull as a sin offering to the Lord” (5).

A sheikh I know reflected that we spend a lot of time giving leadership courses, perhaps we would be better off teaching people how to be followers. To all who have supported me in my work or teaching, thank you for helping me be as strong, mentally, emotionally and spiritually as I am. Thank you to the Australian supporter who sent me text messages about helping me from a hotel room in New York yesterday, at 7:00 am his time, while on holiday with his family. Thank you to the people who attend my Torah discussion group on a Saturday afternoon, who offer their thoughts, reflections and questions. Thank you dear reader for spending your precious time reading my thoughts. The success of leaders belongs to their followers as well as to the them. And when they fail, the buck stops with them... and perhaps a little bit with their followers too.


  1. Torat Cohanim, in Torah Shlaima, p. 154.
  2. Raavad cited in Torah Shlaima, p. 154.
  3. Leviticus 9:7.
  4. Abarbanel, Vayikra, p.108 (Chorev edition). Abarbanel’s interpretation of the atonement for the people that was included in Aaron’s offering is that Aaron’s sin “was a great stumbling block for the people”. However, his reference to the verse in Leviticus 4:3 can be plausibly interpreted in the way that I am suggesting in this post, even though this is not quite the way he explains it.
  5. Leviticus 4:3. The translation is mine, others such as the translation on renders it as “If the anointed kohen sins, bringing guilt to the people, then he shall bring for his sin which he has committed”

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Prominence of animal sacrifices in Torah - Tzav

At the end of the Passover Seder last week, a former student asked me why the Torah includes so much detail about animal sacrifices. I haven't found a satisfactory answer yet. This aspect of my tradition “doesn’t work for me”, yet it is talked about endlessly in the Torah. Animal sacrifice has not been practiced in Judaism for two millennia, and is barely a “thing” for modern Jews. However, the vast number of chapters dedicated to instructions about sacrifices in the Torah is evidence that this aspect of my tradition is highly significant (1). A shocking story I read on Saturday makes it clear that traditional Judaism has little tolerance for avoidance of this confronting practice.

Modern Jews are not the first to have reservations about animal sacrifice. At first glance it seems that the ancient Hebrew prophets already thundered against the practice. Hear the word of the Lord, O rulers of Sodom; give ear to the law of our God, O people of Gomorrah! Of what use are your many sacrifices to Me? says the Lord. I am sated with the burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle; the blood of bulls and sheep and he-goats I do not want(2).

However, the critique of sacrifices by the prophets is not what it might seem. The verse preceding the one about the unwanted goats blood, sets the context by referring to Sodom. Sodom primarily represents cruelty to strangers and the poor, and theft in Jewish tradition (3), rather than homosexuality. Later in the chapter the prophet calls on the Jews to “learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the robbed, perform justice for the orphan, plead the case of the widow”. He call their leaders “…companions of thieves” (4). So the critique is not of sacrifice itself, which if done properly should remind people about God and lead them away from sin and therefore be pleasing to God, but a complaint about sacrifices that have not fulfilled their purpose (5).  

The Talmud (6) tells a gruesome story about a priest who was less than thrilled with the honor of offering sacrifices. the Temple courtyard cried four cries...Leave here, Yissakhar of Kfar Barkai, who honors himself and desecrates the items consecrated to Heaven. He would wrap his hands in silk and perform the service.

What ultimately happened to Yissakhar of Kfar Barkai? ...the king and the queen were sitting. The king said that goat meat is better, and the queen said lamb meat is better. They said: Who can prove which one of us is correct? The High Priest can, as he offers sacrifices all day. Yissakhar of Kfar Barkai came, and when they asked him this question, he signaled with his hand (in a mocking/humorous way) (7) and said: If goat is better, let it be sacrificed as the daily offering.The king said: Since he has no reverence for the monarchy, sever his right hand. He gave a bribe and the official severed his left hand. The king heard and had the official sever his right hand as well.(8).

The story is clearly linked to the symbolic and potent spiritual meanings of the sacrifices. Yissachar, in his covering his hands exhibited the opposite of the spirit of humility required in seeking closeness to God which is at the heart of these rituals (9). In fact, the Torah’s word to describe animal sacrifices is קרבן, which means “to bring or come close”. The verse the burnt offering which burns on the altar all night until morning, and the fire of the altar shall burn it(10),  is interpreted symbolically as describing processes of the soul and the heart. “All the evil and dark thoughts (represented by) the night, and unsavoury lusts..need to be burnt...consumed by love of God...” (11).

A mystical interpretation draws attention to the Godly fire that descended from heaven, which consumed the sacrifices, while the animals themselves are also identified with fire. In this approach, inanimate things are related to the element of earth, the vegetable kingdom is linked to water, while animals are related to fire. The ritual of an animal being sacrificed is meant to evoke a reaction in the fiery animalistic aspect of people to assist them in a spiritual journey of subduing and ultimately transforming the animal aspects of the soul (12).

None of this mystical or symbolic talk is much comfort to a goat that is being slaughtered. However, for those of us who are not vegetarian, I don’t think it is a deep respect for the life of animals that causes us to recoil from animal sacrifice, as much as it is a squeamish distaste for the confronting image of a life being extinguished. Yet, it appears that the confronting and messy nature of the killing, processing and burning of animals fat, flesh and blood is, for reasons I don’t fully understand, a vital part of the Jewish tradition (even if not actually practiced any more). Judaism is not meant to be an opium of the masses or source of inner peace. It is meant to be a disruptive, disturbing confrontation between finite sensual humans and their demanding, engaged God who calls them to justice, worship and self transcendence.     


  1. Ramban in his refutation of Maimonides.
  2. Isaiah 1:10-11.
  3. Talmud Sanhedrin 109a.
  4. Isaiah 1:17,23.
  5. Radak on Isaiah 1:11. Rashi takes a similar approach.
  6. Rashi on Pesachim 57b.
  7. Maharsha on Pesachim 57b, points out the significance of his right hand being severed in that the main service in the temple was done with the right hand and he put silks on his hands during the service, it was decreed in heaven that he he could not save himself with his left hand.
  8. R. Bchaya, on Leviticus 6:3, p. 423 (Mosad Rav Kook edition).
  9. Leviticus 6:2.
  10. Abarbanel based on Kuzari, p. 80.
  11. R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, in Likutei Torah, Parshas Pinchas, p.150

Sunday, April 2, 2017

In the moment but treasuring past triumphs- Tzav

Image by Jean Beaufort reproduced under CC0 Public Domain 
I was preparing a talk for 50 public servants recently. Although I could impress them with my best stories gathered over the years, I chose not to because that would not be authentic to where I am at right now. Instead I chose to reflect on a traditional Aboriginal story about a “Thicky Billa” (Echidna), that I read very recently that moved me. I shared how learning about the way Aboriginal people transmitted their teachings about being responsibility-centred vs. desire-centred spoke to me as a Jewish man. I also reflected on my delight being inspired by “Black Fella wisdom” as a former ‘racist’ from Brooklyn.

The principle of being present in the moment is linked to the Torah reading this week. In the temple ritual, there was a daily procedure that involved removing ashes from the previous day’s sacrifices [i]. One interpretation of this ritual is that we must not dwell on yesterday’s fire. The ritual “signified that each day we renewed our commitment to comply with all that is incumbent upon us…the relics of the previous day’s ritual must be removed before the new days ritual can begin…This must be done in worn out and old clothes [ii]. One must not regale oneself in pomp for that which belongs to the past; it is superseded by the present mitzvah (commandment) that each day bids us [iii]”.

This beautiful teaching could be taken to mean that we should completely forget yesterday’s struggles and achievements. I don’t think this is right. We can draw strength and learn lessons from past triumph over both personal and external challenges. If we juxtapose other commentaries with the one above we can discern a more nuanced message.

One teaching about the removal of ashes focuses on the word in the Torah that implies taking some (of the ashes) but leaving some [iv]. Another teaching suggests that one only needed to remove 10% of the ashes, leaving the other 90% in place [v]. Another aspects of the ritual required that the ashes were gently [vi] put down on the side of the altar rather than thrown away or spread out. It was put in a place where the winds did not blow strongly [vii].

These teachings suggest that what need to do is not forget past experiences of service, but rather that we must ensure that there is sufficient head space for adding new accomplishments alongside those of yesterday. However, we can certainly hold the past dear and cherish it.

The ashes are also linked to the need for humility. On the other hand the lifting up of the ashes is symbolic of God lifting up those who are humbled [viii]. Our spirits need to be strengthened, to focus on meeting the challenges of today. One source of that nourishment may well be awareness of the progress on our journey so far.

[i] Leviticus 6:3.
[ii] See Rashi on 6:4.
[iii] Hirsch, S. R. In his commentary on Leviticus 6:3-4.
[iv] Jerusalem Talmud, Yoma Chapter 2:1, cited in Torah Shlaima, p. 141, 44, similar argument is made in Gur Arye.
[v] Talmud, Yoma 24a.
[vi] Torat Kohanim, cited in Torah Shlaima, p. 142.
[vii] Maimonides, laws of Temidim Umusafim, 2:15 according to the Roman print cited in Torah Shlaima, p146, 50.
[viii] Klei Yakar on Leviticus 6:3.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Process, Personality and Positions combine against Violent Extremism and Prejudice - Tzetzaveh

On the 14th floor of an office building this week, I confronted the fact that I will fail to achieve my purpose if my approach is more of the same. My work has been significantly personality driven. Muslim, Jewish and Christian people, often with charisma and great personal qualities have talked to 100,000 students and some others about how we can respect our differences and be friends. Despite the merit and value of this work to date, to changes things to a further extent requires a holistic approach and the collective impact of many factors.

I rode into the city on a crowded bus on Tuesday morning to attend a two day planning process about resilience and violent extremism. One could be cynical about the whole thing. During the second day it was clear that there wasn’t even a agreement about how to talk about the issue or issues; how on earth could we achieve anything?

For many people the words violent extremism equals Muslims, or even Muslim young men. Even some of the people who think that they should not speak this out loud, still think it is true, but are constrained by “political correctness”. Never mind violent white supremacists. Other people are furious about what they see as a soft approach to what they perceive as a massive threat. These people are become increasingly hostile to everything Muslim.

Those of us who work in “the field” know the vast number of young Muslims who have shown no sign of violent extremism. The real risk posed by violent extremism is not denied and is taken seriously because even a small amount of terrorism is too much. Still, we have concerns about the way that innocent people are being demonized, and we are concerned about feelings of alienation and other problems youth struggle with. There are valid questions about what is an ethical, truthful and practical way to articulate these issues.

However one defines the challenges we face relating to prejudice and violent extremism, there are plenty of quality people doing their bit. Yet, lacking a shared understanding or time  to even understand what others are doing, our efforts are often fragmented rather than coordinated or building on each other's work.

In the two days a group representing community, government, academic and business sectors followed a very effective process for thinking through the issues. We identified processes we will need for collaborating and communicating more effectively and being accountable for the degree to which we are contributing to a collective impact. We also considered the personal qualities of people being involved as well as the ways that roles and positions of leadership can be harnessed. I cannot divulge more because of confidentiality requirements but I am confident that something more holistic will emerge and contribute to better outcomes.  

The journey this week resonated for me in light of the Torah reading this week. It is the only reading relating to the time that Moses was alive in which his name is not mentioned. It would appear to be setting up the people for a time after the passing of the charismatic leader (1).

Three different methods appear to be provided for setting up a group of people, called Cohanim or priests, to function in a holy temple to create an institution to foster Moses’ message. The first is providing them with distinctive clothing (2), offering sacrifices and associated induction processes (3) and God himself making them into Cohanim (4).  

The text implies that the special clothing can transform ordinary men into priests or Cohanim (5).  However, many of the traditional explanations find ways around this interpretation. They suggest the clothing would just bring them into the role, rather than being transformative (6). Alternatively, they focus on how the clothing might symbolise the inner personal and spiritual transformation the ordinary men would be expected to work on as they took on the roles (7). Of course “clothings” and positions or formal roles is not enough. Personal qualities and integrity are vital in the people filling roles if they are to have some impact. Similarly, the induction procedures in the Torah for the Cohanim were extensive and highly symbolic (8). To me this reflects the importance of rituals and process in the quest for transformation.

There is no quick fix to any problem. Yet, I am confident that our efforts, following on from the two days this week, will yield even greater fruit as we start to see a new approach to facilitating and brokering collaboration. What will be different is a better mix of the three P’s, personal leadership by people with relevant positive qualities; some of these people will be strategically placed in positions of leadership and following wise, evidence based processes that will be tried, and invariably fail only to be replaced by others. In this, we will see a more cohesive nation with somewhat fewer angry people of any background.

  1. Exodus 28:3, & 29:29
  2. Exodus 29:1
  3. Exodus 29:44
  4. The Hebrew word is  לכהנו which literally means to make him into a Cohen. See Rabbi Avraham Mizrahi (1450 – 1526) who concedes that this is the clear implication of the text before opting for a non-literal meaning, also translation by Kaplan in Living Torah. Our sages (Midrash Hagadol, cited in Torah Shlaima Exdodus, Tetzave, p.157, note 24) state that “for all the time that their garments are upon them, their priesthood is upon them and their holiness endures in them, (but if) their garments are not on them, their priesthood is not upon them (either). R. Yona Ibn Janach (995 – 1050- Andalusia, Spain- In Torah Shlaima p154, note 11) entertains two meanings to the word, either to minister or to made to minister eg. to put the work upon to sanctify.
  5. Rashi as interpreted by Sifsei Chachomim, Chizkuni and other suggest we read the word as if it was written without a Vav and means to serve rather than to make into a Cohen.
  6. Malbim  (1809-1879, cited in Lebovitz, p 532), Sefer Hachinuch, the Lubavitcher Rebbe
  7. Midrash Habiur, cited in Torash Shlaima vol 20, p. 215, 68 explain the ritual of putting blood from a sacrifice on the their ears, thumbs and big toes. The ear that heard, on Mt. Sinai, I am...and you should have no other gods, after 40 days (the same ear) heard/was responsive to the voice of the people who demanded “arise and make for us a god” needs atonement. The legs that up to Mt. Sinai and then ran to make the golden calf need atonement. More specifically, the soft part of the ear is the part to use to block out ‘bad sounds’, the thumb & big toes played key roles…(note 68)

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Embracing Uncertainty and Pharaoh’s hardened heart Vayera

Aboriginal and Military men on Australia day on a navy ship
I am feeling daunted. I need to make things happen in a messy context of conflicting beliefs, ranging from relativist/postmodernist to “fundamentalist”/positivist. Some object to Muslim girls in hijabs being on an Australia day poster; others donate money to reinstate the poster and a third group who believe Australia Day itself is symbolically evil because of its celebration on a day when injustices were inflicted on Aboriginal people that lasted for many generations.

In addition, my core team at Together For Humanity is growing to 6. It was not that long ago when it was just 2 or 3. In the course of our work we deal with a range of people including genuine committed people who ‘get it’ and the insincere or misguided who present obstacles to meaningful conversations about contentious issues or our work more generally.  I need to lead this team through all of this ambiguity to get results for students, stakeholders and governments, all with their own sometimes conflicting interests, beliefs and needs.

One comforting thought that came up in discussions with some Muslim applicants during job interviews at TFH  was that “God’s will will be done”. Similarly, one religious response to the rise of a certain world leader who appears to be neither wise nor principled, is that God will guide him in accordance with the tradition that “The hearts of Kings are in the hands of God” (1).

The hunger for escape from uncertainty in faith is similar to the impulse that drives otherwise sane people to embrace a comical con-man and give him power. Yet, this comfort - of a compassionate God controlling the hearts of rulers- comes up against the reality that many rulers, past and present, have done and continue to do terrible things regardless of whatever divine influences are at play.
At a work level I trust God, myself and my team to do good and to navigate the complexities, while acknowledging that some external factors might be too difficult to overcome. I suggest that we are better off acknowledging the uncertain nature of reality (2), and that whatever divine influence there is, is more indirect and complex.  

This is a tricky topic for me. For many years I rejected the argument that ‘God didn’t do the Holocaust, men did’ (3). I grew up with a sense of God being the one that basically controlled everything. I thought: ‘Why would you pray to a God who had left the affairs of humans to the whims of sadistic tyrants?’

Like many things in Judaism there are conflicting views. In the Torah reading this week, we learn how God planned to manipulate the Pharaoh’s emotions by “hardening his heart” (4) so that he would initially ignore God’s messengers of freedom. One authority taught that in matters of the kingdom, the choices of the king are restricted by God and the king is like a messenger of God. “If these matters were given over to his choice completely just as his private activities are, this would be an astounding danger to the nation under the sovereignty of that king” (5).  

Despite the risks of out-of-control rulers, I was delighted to read the work of one of our great authorities who challenged the simple understanding that God manipulated Pharaoh’s emotions. This scholar dismissed attempts to justify divine control as very strange and difficult! (6) Instead he argued that the choices of kings are not manipulated in a puppet like fashion (7). Rather, God acts in such a way that can lead the ruler to make a particular choice. In the case of the Pharaoh, God indirectly hardened his heart by bringing plagues on the Egyptians in what seemed to be happenstance: a plague began but was not sustained. This created an opportunity for the Pharaoh to dismiss the significance of the plague as a natural occurrence.   

Another view about this is the punitive approach that explains the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart as an exceptional punishment for his wickedness (8). However this implies that normally kings do have free choice (9). All in all, it is fair to conclude that Judaism’s teaching about the nature of God’s intervention in the affairs of rulers is complex and that is ok.

I read a delightful thought this week about embracing complexity. “The dilemma of rigor or relevance. In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp.  On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solution through the use of research-based theory and technique.  In the swampy lowlands, problems are messy and confusing and incapable of technical solution.  The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large,...while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern…” (10)

So it is clear, that a lot of what matters is inherently unclear but that is where the opportunities for contribution lie. So I take a deep breath and dive into the swamp. I am comforted by the belief that in some mysterious way my heart will be guided.   

  1. This often quoted Jewish teaching appears to be based on Proverbs 21:1 states: A king's heart is like rivulets of water in the Lord's hand; wherever He wishes, He turns it. The book of Ezra 6:22 it states: And they celebrated the feast of unleavened bread seven days with joy, for the Lord made them joyful and turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward them to strengthen their hands in the work of the House of God, the God of Israel. Rashi’s commentary on Ezra 6:22 makes clear that it is God who turned the heart of the King of Assyria. Ibn Ezra’s commentary on the verse is less clear. He points out that Assyria had previously destroyed the land of Israel, but now his heart was turned from his evil thoughts to good and this is the reason to strengthen their hands. It is not clear if Ibn Ezra agrees with Rashi that it is God who turned the hearts or with Sadiaa Gaon in note 7 that kings turn their own hearts. I found some of these references at
  2. See the work of Donald Schon who sees reality as inherently uncertain and complex.
  3. Harold Kushner in When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
  4. Exodus 7:3
  5. Ralbag, on Proverbs 21:1,
    אילו היה פועל המלך מסור בליבו לאלו העינינים בשלמות כדרך המסור לבחירתו פעולותיו לעצמו, היה זה העניין סכנה נפלאה (= חמורה) אל העם אשר תחת המלך ההוא" וכו'
  6. Abarbanel on Exodus 7:3
  7. Abarbanel, see also Rabbi Saadia Gaon who characterised the idea that there is some kind of supernatural divine planting of thoughts in the hearts of kings is an exaggeration, instead it is the king himself who turns his own heart as he desires, in Emunot Vdeot, Maamar 4, close to the end.
  8. Shemot Rabba, 13:4- cited in Torah Shlaima, on Exodus 10:1, parshat Bo, page 1, Rashi on Exodus 7:3, Maimonides, introduction to Pirkey Avot, chapter 8. This formulation is articulated as being withheld from repentance, although this concept is also explained psychologically by Ohr HaAfelia, (Torah Shlaima, on Exodus 10:1, parshat Bo, page 2- in note 2 from previous page) that being entrenched in a particular sin is itself the active factor in being withheld from repertance.
Schon, Donald