Monday, July 10, 2017

Silenced Man of God – Joshua, the “severed head” - Shlach

It is appalling to see the silencing of “men or women of God” or other voices of conscience when they are advocating for justice or compassion.  I am not denying that there are scoundrels, who cloak themselves in righteousness or clerical robes and promote cruelty or foolishness. However, this blog  focuses on the thwarting of people like artists, journalists, cartoonists and clergy, in their roles as social critics. The people who are supposed to be the brakes on the darker impulses of the powerful and the many, are prevented from playing their vital role in speaking for virtue, the weak and the few. This is like players in a sport turning on the referee.

This calls for some clarification: I  would like to emphasise that I am not concerned about people offering alternative views. What concerns me is when they attack the legitimacy of credible people with whom they disagree.

According to one scholar, this is the meaning of a peculiar expression in the Talmud relating to Joshua, the prophet. Joshua was one of twelve spies, who returned to the desert from Canaan (1). He dissented from the views of ten of his fellow spies, who were opposed to God’s plan for the Israelites to go to the Promised Land.  The majority were not content to argue their case on its merits. Instead, according to the Talmud (2), when Joshua tried to speak, they shut him up with the following statement:  “Will this severed head speak?!”

According to one commentary (3), the strange phrase was an attack on Joshua’s status and legitimacy or standing in the discussion.  Moses had added the letter Yud (Y), which is the first letter of God’s name, to Joshua’s name, changing it from Hoshea, to Yehoshua (4). This name change symbolised his special status as being one of two spies, deemed aligned to God (5). The other spies sought to dismiss Joshua’s special status with the suggestion that the “head of his name”, the additional Yud from the name of God, was disconnected or severed from the rest of his name and not legitimately part of his name at all. The technicalities in this case are quaint but the tactic is all too common today.

One response to the tactic is often for social critics to get creative in order to get people’s attention, using click bait or humour. Another strategy that is quite risky, is for the social critic to give the impression that s/he agrees with the mob, but then, when s/he gets their attention, to say what s/he really thinks. Caleb, Joshua’s fellow dissenting spy, tried that approach with limited impact (6).

Often this leads to frustration on the part of the social critic. “Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb…tore their clothes” to express their grief (7). They continued to speak their truth while no one was listening. The catastrophe they sought to prevent, came to pass, with the Israelites’ anticipated entry into the Promised Land delayed by a generation.  Failure, at least some of the time, comes with the territory.

Fortunately, in some cases, there are at least partial victories that protect some people or preserve some principle. Those of us who find ourselves in roles advocating for compassion and justice, need to be prepared for our opponents to try to sever our “heads”, to deny our legitimacy. We need to ensure that our egos do not cloud our judgement -  it is not about us - and that our emotions are managed well. Then, we need to get in there and do what we can.

For all of us, the message is that good “followership” is just as important as good leadership. If we are ever tempted to discredit people we know to be good, albeit imperfect, people, let us instead listen to their arguments on their merit, instead of trying to silence them, if they are saying what we don’t want to hear.


(1)    Numbers 13
(2)    Talmud Sota 35a
(3)    Maharsha, (Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Edeles, lived 1555-1631) on Sota 34b and 35a, building on what he deemed a forced explanation by the Aruch.
(4)    Numbers 13:16
(5)    Maharsha explains that, while God would have preferred just two spies to gather practical information, the people had insisted on a broader mission for the spies to determine if they should proceed with the conquest of Canaan at all. This expanded purpose required representatives from each of the twelve tribes.
(6)    Talmud Sota 35a 

(7)     Numbers 14:6

No comments:

Post a Comment