Friday, December 14, 2018

Br/others? Chanukah in Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem

A cheap white plastic ritual washing cup (Kvort in my mother tongue, yiddish) with two handles stirred strong emotions in me. Really. I felt that I was home among my people. The feeling surprised me. It confronted me with the challenge I still face, of navigating otherness and insular identities. The Jewish festival of Chanukah is a good time to grapple with this topic. 

Muslim Washing Stations (Wudu) at Sheik Zayed
Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi
Jewish Ritual Washing Cup, (Kvort),
at Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv
I spent the first two nights of Chanukah with my Jewish community at home in Sydney. I danced with my two youngest children after lighting candles. We sang about God's miracles in delivering victory to the Jews in their struggle to stand spiritually apart. It was a triumph over an empire that tried to coerce the Jews to assimilate into the dominant Hellenistic way of life. While different Jews will have their own approaches to Chanukah, according to my Chabad traditions, Chanukah celebrates the concept of the Jews as a nation who “dwelled alone” (1). 
Shaykh Abdulla Bin Bayyah seated, with Shaykh
Hamza Yusuf, Rabbis including Mark Lustig, David
Rosen and Zalman Kastel, Lighting Chanukah
Candles. Photo by Peter Sanders

On the third night of Chanukah I found myself on my first visit to an Arab country, Abu Dhabi. I was there to participate in the Forum for Peace in Islamic Societies, which was initiated by an Islamic authority, Shaykh Abdullah Bin Bayyah. Delegates at the Forum included many Muslim leaders from the Middle East, Africa, Europe and the US. Alongside these leaders were a number of Christian and Jewish leaders. The diversity of the participants reflected the aim of the conference: advancing an alliance of virtue between people of different faiths (2).

A highlight for me at the forum was when Shaykh Bin Bayyah joined me and the other Jewish delegates as I lit my Chanukah oil lamp. He was genuinely very warm in his conversation with us. I was deeply moved by the significance of the moment and the togetherness it represented. 

The interfaith candle lighting moment reflected the inclusive spirit of the forum as a whole. Nearly every panel had Jewish and Christian panelists alongside Muslim scholars. Kosher food was brought in from neighbouring Dubai. Still, communal Jewish morning prayers there provided an opportunity for me to sing the Hallel prayer together with members of my “tribe” alone. 

Loyalty to one’s “tribe” is a significant factor in how we live our lives. One speaker at the Forum, Rabbi Dr Reuven Firestone, recalled how early Islam taught people a universal approach to justice that could override tribal loyalties where appropriate. The challenge now is to apply this approach to overcome unconditional solidarity on the basis of religion, or as expressed in identity politics. 

Another speaker, Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani of the Fiqh council, Karachi, Pakistan, offered conference delegates a more technical legal approach that does not rely on transcending those ties, instead it emphasises obligations to one’s neighbours and fellow citizens. “There is an implicit pact between Muslims and non Muslims, wherever they live alongside each other, not to cause harm to each other. Violation of that implicit pact is a sin”. A Yazidi delegate man at the forum, pleaded for this principle to be applied in Northern Iraq so his people don’t live in fear and will not need to emigrate. “We are peaceful people” he declared. 

The bar set by the Mufti is not very high but it is a critical minimum. The forum usefully addressed coexistence at a range of levels. On one hand it openly confronted the problem of violent extremism on one end of the spectrum but Shaykh Bin Bayyah also called for the highest ideals of loving the stranger, quoting the Torah (3). In fact, he pointed out, the Arabic word for brother is almost exactly the same word as the one meaning other. What's amazing is that he said this in Arabic and it also works in English and Hebrew:
- Brother = Akh أخ
- Other = Akhr آخر. 
In Hebrew, Akh - אח and Akher - אחר.  

The combined message of striving for a ideal of togetherness while insisting that at least we do not harm each other is realistic and useful.

My time in Abu Dhabi wrapped up with a visit to the massive Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque with a Palestinian- Australian friend. From there I was back on a plane to a land very precious to both my friend and me.

I spent the final days of Chanukah with my son who is studying Torah in the Holy land of Israel. During my visit there was one more little identity conflict to deal with. I'm of Eastern European Yiddish heritage. On Chanukah “my people” eat Latkes, a kind of fried potato pancakes. But the Israelis have jam doughnut as their Chanukah food. Only partly in jest, my son and I engaged in a Latke hunt across Jerusalem, peering into numerous shop windows in the old city, only to see falafel and endless sugary doughnuts. We went to the ultra-religious area of Meah Shearim, but the elusive Latke could not be found. So we went to the yiddish speaking area of Geulah and bingo! The Latke search yielded two delicious oily specimens. I was with “my people” at last. 

Together and alone. As the great teaching by Hillel puts it. “If I am not for myself [my community] who will be there for me? But  if I am only for myself [and my kind] what am I? (4). As I reflect on my trip, I am grateful for the inspiration from the Muslim Imams, their hospitality and goodwill. I carry with me photos and memories of marble ritual washing stations in the Sheikh Zayed Mosque. Yet, I continued to feel a sense of home when looking at a cheap white plastic Jewish ritual washing cup. 


1) Numbers 23:9
2) This practical problem solving focus has been endorsed by Rabbi JB Soloveitchik in his essay, Confrontation, and chabad Rabbis I have discussed it with. It is also at the heart of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book, the Home We Build Together. 
3) Leviticus 19:34
4) Pirkey Avot, 1:14

Friday, November 9, 2018

Sermon On Pittsburgh, Universal vs Particularist

Eleven lives were extinguished violently in an incident in a Pittsburgh synagogue last week. Each of the murdered Jews represents an entire world destroyed (1). This atrocity confronts Jews everywhere with the very real and present threat of antisemitism. We are left to grapple with our emotions and thoughts arising from this heinous crime.

There were a range of reactions. There was an outpouring of Jewish solidarity and prayer events, including at my synagogue. Personally, I appreciated the condolences I received from a Coptic priest and my Australian Muslim friends, as well as the reports about Muslims having raised around $200,000 for the families of victims (2). Some on the left have refused to acknowledge the antisemitic nature of this attack. Instead, they wanted to focus the public discussion on Trump, prejudice in general and gun control. On the other hand, some have insisted that it is about none of these things. They assert that discussion should only be about antisemitism, and that any mention of broader issues is illegitimate and inappropriate.
The inclination to focus inwardly in the face of tragedy is compelling. In the words of Jeremiah, some of us want to scream, “Is there any pain like my pain?” (4). How can anyone dare bring other matters into the sacred space of our mourning?!
However, I think that it is morally imperative that we fully acknowledge the broader issues. As Hillel taught us, “If I am not for myself, who is for me, but if I am only for myself, who am I?” (5). Or as Martin Niemoller pointed out, failure to stand up for others is intricately linked with finding that ‘when they come for us, there is no one left to speak up for us’.

We are duty bound to recognise that the murder in the Pittsburgh synagogue is part of a global trend of animosity against, fear and dehumanisation of those perceived as others. The expression of these sentiments ultimately has lead to violence and even murder.
When the Torah responds to murder it speaks in the voice of God. God says to the murderer, Cain: “What have you done?! The voice of the blood of your brother screams to me from the ground” (6). The intentional taking of any human life screams to the heavens, and is heard by a concerned God. When explaining the penalty for murder, God links it to the principle that humans, regardless of their ethnicity or beliefs, were made in the “image of God” (7).

As we reflect on the desecration of those made in the image of God in Pittsburgh, we dare not stop at the ethnic religious boundary. When Jeremiah talks of the Jews crying out to the stranger walking on the road, “Is there any pain like my pain?”, he is not being prescriptive, he is being descriptive. This is a natural and understandable response. But it is still not the most ethical response.

When advocates for embracing diversity promote this principle, it is important that they don’t dehumanise or demonise people who express views or fears relating to immigration or religion. Instead, they should engage with people that they are trying to persuade rather than lecture them (8). The echo chambers in which violent extremists and bigots stew are reinforced by the heavily polarised shouting matches between otherwise reasonable people in the mainstream (9). It is ok to have robust disagreements about the merits and challenges of cultural and religious diversity, provided they are done in respectful, truthful and tactful ways that help us understand one another and our experiences that inform our views.   

We must stand against hate and demonisation in all its various forms, because it is right. We don’t need an additional reason, but if we did, let us do it to honor the commitment to welcoming the stranger shown by the compassionate Tree of Life community in Pittsburgh,who were attacked for this very reason. Let us do it responsibly and effectively.

1.      Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a
2. accessed 2.11.2018. Even this positive bit of information has led to a bit of controversy. Repeated social media posts about the fundraising effort, especially with a tagline of “this is Islam” was criticised by one Muslim (IA) as reinforcing a sense of two types of Muslims, the Good Muslims vs. Bad Muslims. I acknowledge the validity of this concern but I think in the right context it is useful to tell people about this welcome effort.
3.      Lamentations 1:12
4.      Ethics of the Fathers 1:14
5.      Genesis 4:10
6.      Genesis 9:6
7.      Pedersen A, Walker I, Wise M (2005), ‘Talk does not cook rice’ : Beyond anti-racism to strategies for social action, The Australian Psychologist, 40, 20-30.
8.      Stephens-Davidovitz, S. (2017) has some interesting data from google searches that supports this argument. See sections on the impact of Obama’s different attempts to defuse tensions. Curiosity and information method vs. lecturing about responsibility. accessed 04.11.2018  

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Cohen forbidden to marry a divorcee - Emor

The Torah forbids a Cohen, or a “priest” (1) to marry a divorcee (2). The explanation of this prohibition is that the role of the Cohen in worship requires him to be holy.  

This law disturbs me. I'm concerned that something negative is implied about divorced women. The assumption seems to be that, if a Cohen marries a divorcee, this would detract from his holiness. I will not “solve” this riddle in this blog. As a Jew, the discussion itself and questions, in general, have value irrespective of the answers.  

I posted a question about this issue on Facebook. More than 120 comments were posted in response. One Jewish woman asked why “no responsibility for the breakdown of a marriage is placed on the man”? And if there was an equivalent law about divorced men? A Muslim woman agreed. She wrote that “in many cultures ...we have this issue of the blame being on the woman too and divorce being such a taboo topic...that people are forced to stay together to not bring shame on the family”.

There are several approaches to explaining this law, written several centuries ago.

1. Blame: "...a woman, being divorced, will already show that a matter of disgrace was found in her, [so] it is not fitting that a Cohen should marry someone who was not fitting to be a wife [for her first husband], because he [the Cohen] is holy to his God” (3). The assumption is that “the husband did not divorce her out of the wickedness of his heart…” (4). So, it must be that the divorce was in response to a significant moral failure on her part (5).

This 14th and 15th century approach does not take into account the reality, we all know today, that divorce is often not the result of a woman’s shortcomings. Although circumstances were different at that time in terms of male dominance, Judaism has long recognised other valid grounds for divorce. One example given is “if she burned his cooking” (6). This trivial example makes the point that the specifics of the complaints couples have about each other, are unimportant. According to the Torah, the main reason for divorce is because there is hatred between the couple (7). Another valid reason given for divorce is if a wife finds her husband repulsive (8). Abuse and various other failings on the part of the husband are also grounds for divorce (9). Based on both factual and textual evidence, the blame approach is problematic.

2. Blemish: Another approach sees the marriage partner’s virginity as important for the Cohen. Just as the Torah forbids a Cohen with physical imperfections to serve in the temple, it seeks “perfection” in his spouse (10). Needless to say, this approach does not sit well with the modern reader, including the writer of this blog. Surely, a woman’s worth is determined by her personal qualities far more than her virginity! And a man’s “completeness” surely relates more to his own spiritual achievements and shortcomings than the qualities of “his woman”.  

There is also a textual problem with this approach. The Torah states that only the chief Cohen, the Cohen Gadol, is forbidden to marry a widow, but places no such requirement on an ordinary Cohen (11). Jewish law also allows a Cohen to marry a woman who engaged in sex, despite not being married (12).  Clearly, marrying a virgin is not a precondition to serving as a Cohen.

3. Bedroom thoughts: A third approach centres on thoughts during sexual intimacy. Jewish tradition strongly disapproves of a couple being physically intimate with each other while their thoughts are about other people or sexual partners (13). This concern is part of a broader insistence of a union of hearts and souls during intercourse (14). Jewish law recommends that sex is to be “with the desire of both partners and their joy” (15). Overall, the physical sexual experience is deemed worthy and positive if there is a corresponding strong and pure spiritual union.   
Concern is expressed that a divorced woman is at risk of thinking about her past partner during intimacy with her current partner. This concern does not take into account the degree of probability that this will occur. (16). This thinking is linked to the law forbidding the marriage between a divorcee and a Cohen, who is meant to strive for perfection17).

This explanation might be more plausible if it applied equally to a divorced male Cohen and his possible thoughts about a former partner. I also feel uncomfortable with this explanation because it suggests that only divorced partners have this type of thought; yet our tradition acknowledges that anyone might have their thoughts wander during sex to think about someone they “saw on the road” (18).

4. Perception: For me, a more palatable approach is to locate the problem not within the divorced woman, but in the assumed perceptions of the community (19). With this approach, there is concern that people might respect the Cohen less because his wife has been divorced. A similar explanation is used for not allowing a Cohen with a physical “blemish” to serve in the temple (20). In fact, based on the problem being one of perception, a dispensation is given in the following circumstances: if the community is familiar with a particular Cohen who is blind in one eye, their familiarity with this Cohen would permit him to perform the priestly blessings because they are unlikely to be distracted by his condition (21). If we apply this “perception” approach here, we eliminate any disparaging implications about divorcees and explain this law as a practical concession to flawed superficial human perspectives.

Regardless of the approach one takes, the burden of all this holiness falls on women rather than men. This imbalance is partly corrected by the prophet Malachi’s scathing critique (22) of male Cohanim (plural of Cohen) who opportunistically abandoned their first wives in favour of the perhaps more exotic, idol-worshipping women they encountered.

The prophet thunders thus:

And now, O priests, this charge is for you...The Torah of truth was in his mouth, And he turned many away from sin… But you have turned away from that course...And I, in turn, have made you despicable and vile in the eyes of all the people… and this second thing you have done, You cover the altar of the Lord with tears, weeping, and moaning... But you ask, “Because of what?” Because the Lord is a witness between you and the wife of your youth with whom you have broken faith, though she is your partner and covenanted spouse...let no one break faith with the wife of his youth. ...For I detest divorce—said the LORD, not act treacherously.

Perhaps more interesting than all the text is the lived experienced of a modern day Cohen, let’s call him Abe, who is married to a wonderful woman, who had been divorced prior to their marriage.

Abe told me that he and his now-wife “were faced with a moral dilemma: he could continue to remain unmarried in the new relationship, which would not impact on his standing as a Cohen; or he could remarry, thereby honouring the relationship and those closest to them who believed in the sanctity of marriage. If he proceeded to marry her, Abe faced losing Cohen privileges. He had particularly enjoyed blessing the community as a Cohen.  

After consultations with various Rabbis, they decided to remarry. Unable to do so through an Orthodox ceremony, they did so through Reform.

Nevertheless, Abe has continued to be an active member of the Orthodox Synagogue. Although he disobeyed the commandment not to marry a divorcee, he feels accepted and comfortable over there. Looking back, though, he clearly misses not being able to “bless the people of Israel with love” during the ”Blessing of the Priests” ceremony. At the same time, he feels grateful for his loving, married relationship and thriving, blended family.
Abe does not feel resentful. He accepts that the dignity of the office of the Cohen needs to be preserved, even though he personally has chosen to prioritise the dignity of his wife and family.   

Abe’s choice is not condoned by the law. Sadly, he is paying a price for his choice, and I am sure this was not easy for his wife, either. In the end, I am left with the question: why does it need to be so?  

1.   The word Cohen is often translated as a priest. A Cohen is a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses. In the times that the temple stood in Jerusalem, they had a key role in offering sacrifices. Today, the main role of the Cohen is to bless the community.
2.   Leviticus 21:7
3.   Ralbag (1288-1344, France) on Leviticus 21:7, כבר יורה היותה גרושה שנמצא בה דבר גנות ואין ראוי שיקח הכהן לאשה מי שלא היתה ראויה לאשה: כי קדוש הוא לאלהיו. ולזה אין ראוי שיקח אלו הנשים אשר הם בזה האופן מהגנות:  See Gittin 90b which would seem to support the Ralbag’s approach.
4.   Abarbanel (1437-1580) on Leviticus 21:7, he creatively suggests that the phrase “he is holy to his God” can be applied to the ex-husband, who (for some unexplained reason) is assumed to have been holy and motivated in his decision to divorce his wife by religious puritanism because of her immoral conduct.    
5.   This approach is influenced by the first scenario of divorce given in Deuteronomy 24:1-3. “1. When a man takes a wife and is intimate with her, and it happens that she does not find favor in his eyes because he discovers in her an unseemly [moral] matter, and he writes for her a bill of divorce and places it into her hand, and sends her away from his house, 2. And she leaves his house and goes and marries another man, 3. If the latter husband hates her and writes her a bill of divorce, and places it into her hand and sends her away from his house…”  See various opinions and interpretations in the Talmud Gittin 90a and 90b that emphasise the woman being at fault as being the reason for a divorce.
6.   Talmud Gittin 90a and 90b
7.   Beis Shmuel on Shulchan Aruch Even HaEzer 119:3, while the language is quite male-centric, the key principle is that strife between the couple is the primary factor in consideration whether divorce is appropriate.
9.   Maimonides Yad Hachazakah, Hilchos Ishut, 14:8
10.                     Zohar, Raya Mehemna, on Emor, p.89b and 90a, on the verse “and he, a virgin”.
11.                     Leviticus 21:7 and 21:14
12.                     Shulchan Aruch Even Ezer 6:8
13.                     Talmud Nedarim 20b, midrash Tanchuma Naso 7
15.                     Maimonides, Yat Hachazaka, Deot, 5:4
16.                     Talmud Pesachim 112a and b, Talmud Moed Katan 23a, Tosafot starting with Ad.
17.                     Radvaz, in Taamei Hamitzvot, כבר ידעת כי המחשבה עיקר גדול בזיווג ואשה גרושה דעתה על אחריםSefer Hachinuch mitzva 272, and 273
18.                     Midrash Tanchuma, Naso 7b.
19.                     Sefer Hachinuch Mitzva?
20.                     Abarbanel on Emor,
21.                     Maimonides, Yad Hachazakah, book of Love, Laws of Prayers and Lifting the Hands 15:2, see Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 128.
22.                     Malachi 2

Friday, March 16, 2018

Bar Mitzvah speech to my son on becoming a restrained man

This morning you are celebrating your entering into the status of being a commanded man. Young men today can get the wrong idea of what it means to be a man, and particularly a Chabad man. It is less about dominance and more about restraint.

To be a man, some might think is about being loud and beating your chest. To  dominate. To bend others to your will. To get what you want. This is wrong.

Our sages taught: who is a strong person? One who conquers his evil inclination! (1) To control oneself is at the core of being an adult, man or woman. Having celebrated International Women’s day this past week, in this post #metoo age, it is a good time for men to remind ourselves that our task is to be humble and respectful of others’ needs, wants and rights. We need to focus our dominating to our own base inclinations.

There is also a misconception about what it means to be a Chabad man. The modern Chabad man seems to be an action figure. Unstoppable energy and frenetic activity. The chabad man will put teffilin (ritual prayer boxes) on every man, feed cholent (a sabbath food) to every lost Jew and acquire big buildings in every corner of the planet. This is not untrue, but it is not the most important part of being a chabad man.

You read for us from the Torah. Almost all of the reading was about activity - building a house for God (2). But the first part of the portion is not about doing anything at all. In fact, it is about the opposite. It is about not doing forbidden work on the Sabbath (3).

Why the digression? Surely, ‘since the temple symbolised God’s presence among the nation, its construction should take precedence over resting on the Sabbath. Surely, action seems a much more eloquent witness of faith than merely the absence of work’. Clearly, this argument is repudiated in God’s command in the midst of the discussion about the temple work that the Sabbath rest must be observed (4). Instead of saying  “don’t just sit there, do something”, say “don’t just do something, sit there!”. To be a Jewish man requires time spent thinking, meditating, reflecting and being still.

A story is told about two Hasidim who sat down to do a “Farbrengen”. They poured some vodka into their two cups. They sat silently together for a long time during the night. They didn’t need to say anything, they knew each other thoughts. After a few hours, they poured the untouched vodka back into the bottle. This story is closer to the true meaning of being a Hasid than running around, which is a necessary and temporary distraction from the inner life of the Hasid.

However, the spirit one brings to the activity is important as well. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks highlights links between the creation story and the building of the temple in our reading.  The book of Genesis begins with God creating the universe as a home for humankind. The book of Exodus ends with human beings, the Israelites, creating the Sanctuary as a home for God.

Sacks links both creation processes with the concept of Tzimtum, literally contraction, but also self-restraint. The Jewish mystics were troubled by the question: If God exists, how can the universe exist? At every point in time and space, the Infinite God should crowd out the finite. Nothing physical or material should be able to survive for even a moment in the presence of the pure, absolute Being of God.

Tzimtzum is the solution to this problem. For the universe to exist, God hid Himself and limited His presence in the world. That created space for the world, and for us.

This self-restraint needs to be reciprocated by humans. The making of the temple required the people to make space for God in our world and lives. It is in the space vacated by us that God’s presence can be felt in our midst. We engage in self-limitation every time we set aside our devices (pun intended) and desires in order to act on the basis of God’s will, not our own.

Sacks continues: So, for six days a week God makes space for us to be creative. On the seventh day, the holy Sabbath, we make space for God. There are secular places where we pursue our own purposes. And there are holy places where we open ourselves, fully and without reserve, to God’s purposes.

The highest achievement is not self-expression but self-limitation: making space for something other and different from us. Great parents make space for their children. Great teachers make space for their pupils. They are there when needed, but they don’t dominate. They practice tzimtzum, self-limitation, so that others have the space to grow.

So Levi, as a young Jewish man of the Chabad tribe, of the Kastel- Eichel- Stark-Blau clans, as a member of the Chabad House and your school communities, and as a resident and citizen of the great laid back land of Australia, go forth, and do what the Lord demands of you: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk in a low-key way with your God (5). Good on ya cobber. We are all so proud of you. Mazal Tov.

  1. Pirkey Avot
  2. Sidra Vayakhel Pekudei Exodus 35-40
  3. Exodus 35:2-3
  4. Abarbanel in Leibovitz, N, Studies in the Weekly Sidra. Exodus.
  5. Micah