Friday, July 26, 2019

Violence and Resilience of the Aggrieved - Leader and Survivor Kathryn Jones (Pinchas)

The other day I felt embarrassed when I reflected on how I had performed in an important meeting. Unfortunately, I had talked too much and listened far too little. On reflection, as I went into that meeting I felt quite anxious about the anticipated outcomes of that meeting but I was too preoccupied with work to deal with the fear. Dealing with our fears and grievances ensures they don’t fester and explode into an avalanche of words, or even violence. In this blog I reflect on my encounter with Kathryn Jones, a tall woman of Muslim faith and Anglo-Saxon-Australian heritage, who is a survivor of sexual abuse as a child and years of crushing domestic violence (1). She is a passionate advocate for thinking based strategies to counter it. However, I also want to explore how violence and fury might arise not out of mere thoughts but rather out of deeply held beliefs and ideals. As an example of the latter, I examine the case of Pinchas (or Phineas) that opens the Torah reading of this week and appears to approve of the extrajudicial execution of a sinner (2). 

Thoughts are powerful. At a recent Islamic Schooling Conference, I heard from Professor Stephen Dobson about one common thread between the Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik and the attacker of the Mosques in New Zealand. In both cases, there were long simmering grievances that we can assume were never adequately dealt with.

At the same conference I had the privilege of listening to Kathryn Jones talk about resilience. In her book,'Step Up, Embrace the Leader Within', Kathryn writes movingly of her profound pain: “My forehead rested heavily on the prayer mat soaked by the flood of tears…" She felt “worn down, beaten and empty”; (3) as her suffering in her abusive marriage became progressively more acute. Despite her childhood and her more recent pain, when I listened to Kathryn I felt a strong and positive energy emanating from her. In addition to her mentoring work with Muslim women, she is also engaged in interfaith outreach work in schools, with the Abraham Institute in Adelaide, South Australia.

Kathryn typically begins her talk by using a bubble machine that creates a continuous stream of soap bubbles that rapidly and continuously appear and disappear. The bubbles serve as a metaphor for thoughts. “Feelings come from thoughts in the moment...” (4) Kathryn told us. Jewish mysticism teaches that emotions are the offspring of our cognitive faculties (5). However, there is a difference between the traditional insight and Kathryn’s point, in that the cognitive faculties are not the same as the fleeting thoughts in the moment, instead they are our underlying processes of cognition, including understanding and knowing, and also encompass convictions.  

What Kathryn did next really struck a chord with me. She blew up a balloon and kept blowing until the balloon popped in a loud bang. The balloon was a metaphor for our minds, and holding on to all the air inside represents  ruminating and not letting go of painful, shameful and angry thoughts. The pressures that accumulate usually harm the person holding on to those thoughts, and, often enough, also cause harm to others.

I agree with Kathryn that violence often stems from the challenges of the human condition, and that it is wrong to intrinsically link it to any particular faith, as many do in  equating Islam with violence (6). However, religious as well as other ideals and ideas have often led to violence. One example of this is the way that the socialist dreams of the Soviet Union led to the purges, gulags and repression that have had a direct impact on members of my Chabad Jewish community including my own grandfather. The Torah reading this week has another example, in which a violent act, done for the love of God, appears to be condoned.

God rewarded Pinchas for his killing of a prominent Jewish man named Zimri and a non-Jewish woman named Kozbi, who had sex during a broader moral breakdown involving prostitution and idol worship among the Israelites (7). Thankfully, the Talmud tells us that Pinchas' act was disapproved of by the sages (8), which implies that this exceptional case should never be taken as license for anyone else to imitate his act (9). Still, this passage disturbs me. A surface reading of it seems to justify killing someone for what appears to be an inter-ethnic consensual sexual act. However, according to one traditional commentary this actually involved coercion. When Kozbi refused to sleep with Zimri, “Zimri grabbed Kozbi by her plaited hair...” (10). Be that as it may, it is still a confronting story.

Without irony, the Torah tells us that the killer is to be rewarded with a covenant of peace for his act of zealotry. His act of violence against a man who transgressed God’s expectations of the Israelites is said to have restored peace between God and the people (11). One commentary suggests that God’s gift of a covenant of peace was “a protection against an inner enemy, lurking inside the zealous perpetrator of the sudden deed, against the inner demoralization that such an act as the killing of a human being, without due process of law, is liable to cause” (12). We can say that while Pinchas acted out of zealous anger stemming from his deeply held beliefs, rather than from stewing in lingering unprocessed thoughts, he was nonetheless at risk of being haunted by the deed after the fact.

Violence can certainly be driven by outrage against a violation of a religious or secular ideal. In many cases there is a need for tolerance of divergent beliefs, in other cases there is a need to stand up to those who violate standards that are worthy of being upheld. On the other hand there are a myriad of grievances and hurts that cause harm to the people who continue to hold on to them; Kathryn’s example of letting it go is often worth emulating. Perhaps as people resolve lingering anger or resentment, it will be less likely to bubble out in violence, or even just expressions of unreasonable irritability with people, harsh words or sub-optimal ways of dealing with others.

Thank you very much to my son Aaron Menachem Mendel Kastel for his editing and assistance with this blog post. 


1)    Jones, K, (2018), Step Up, Embrace the Leader Within, Busybird Publishing, Victoria, Australia.
2)    Numbers 25:11-15.
3)    Jones, K. (2018), ibid, p. 7.
4)    Jones, K, (2019) Back to the Fitra Mentoring Program - Unbreakable Social Justice Through Emotional Resilience, presentation at the Islamic Schooling Conference, Melbourne Australian, 14.07.2019.
5)    Tanya chapter 6, et passim.
6)    Jones, K. (2018), ibid, p. 8.
7)    Numbers 25:1-15.
8)     Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 9:7.
9)    Torah Temimah to Numbers 25:13, note 31.
10)  Talmud Sanhedrin 82a.
11)  Ralbag, Be’er Basadeh, on 25:12.
12)  Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Berlin, in Ha’amek Davar, as quoted in Leibovitz, N., Studies in Bamidbar, Pub. Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora, the Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education, Jerusalem, p.331. Cf. also Ohr HaChaim Deuteronomy 13:18 for a similar concept in another context.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Turning Between Co-religionists and Others - Reflections on my participation in a Muslim schools conference Balak 2019

A bearded Muslim man, Dylan Chown, was talking to a woman with a face-veil. He paused his conversation with her and turned to greet me warmly.  Dylan then turned back to her and apologised, with real feeling in his voice:  I am sorry that I was rude to you”. These brief interactions occurred as participants were arriving to the Australian Islamic Schooling Conference. I observed the exchange and thought: this is what Muslims call “Adab”. I had learned at the conference, that Adab was something more than mere manners. Adab might be described as a set of religious, respectful and sensitive practices. The two  ‘turnings’ (towards me and back towards her) can also be used as a metaphor for the challenge of balancing attending to the priorities of our faith communities, while also relating to people outside those communities.   

Afeefa Syeed, the founder of Al Fatih, a Muslim school in the American state of Virginia, spoke about an example of how her students expressed solidarity with oppressed fellow Muslims. They visited George Washington’s cemetery at Mt Vernon, as part of their study of History. They had learned that some of the “slaves” (or, perhaps more appropriately, enslaved people (1)) had been Muslims. They asked to be directed to where those slaves were buried. This request was met with surprise: “why would anyone be interested in seeing that?” The graves were neglected, but the students said a prayer there (2).

This anecdote touched me. Alongside our concerns for humanity, there is a need, and great virtue in solidarity with one’s own community, be that a community based on faith or place. One of the Torah’s villains, the evil prophet and sorcerer Balaam, is described as being “without a nation” (3). Furthermore, this absence of national or communal ties is deemed to be indicative of exclusion from heaven (4).

At the conference an Imam, an Australian Muslim school principal, a Catholic educator (5) and I conducted a breakout session together.  One activity involved exploring quotes from Islamic and Jewish sources with similar messages. One set of these quotes was the following pair:

……..and to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy, the near neighbor, the neighbor farther away, the companion at your side, the traveler, and those whom your right hands possess. (6)

...if a poor person and a rich person come to borrow money, the poor person takes precedence. ...If it is between one of the poor of your city and one of the poor of another city, the poor of your city takes precedence. (7)

In a similar vein, we heard how the Al Fatih students showed care for their non-Muslim neighbours by adopting and cleaning the road near their school for the benefit of all the locals and passing travellers. 

I told the conference that navigating my ties to my Jewish community and others has challenged me. I cited the verse: “You shall not mistreat, nor oppress the stranger, as you were strangers in [Pharaoh’s] Egypt” (8). As a younger man, I was good at embracing the second half of the verse, with my acute awareness of millenia of persecution of the Jews, including my own grandparents. It was only later in life that I engaged more strongly with the first and main point relating to the treatment of “strangers”. Justice for members of minority groups requires proper conduct not just in deed but even in word and thought.  Indeed the story of Balaam’s curses (9) is a dramatic example of how words, spoken or prevented from being said, matter.

Speaking positive words and thinking kind thoughts about “Strangers” can be difficult when there is conflict them and one’s own community. Afeefa shared an inspiring example of how her students engaged with people who appeared hostile. During the US presidential election many of her students felt concerned about how Muslims were being talked about by Trump. The students were encouraged to seek to understand, rather than demonise Trump supporters. They approached voters on election day, and asked them who they voted for and why. They heard from people who had lost their jobs and experienced other hardships, voting out of pain, not hate.

We were asked at the conference if in the work of Together For Humanity we talk about differences, or just the similarities. I explained that we certainly discuss both. To do otherwise would be dishonest and ultimately not helpful to building trust between communities.

Juggling similarities and differences is key to our work, and was also part of my preparation of the quotes for the conference. I was aware of the Islamic teaching that “...if anyone slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole people. And if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people” (10). There is a Jewish quote that is very similar, but with one significant difference. It compares the saving of a Jewish life to saving the world (11). Fortunately, I was able to find authoritative sources for universal versions of the same teaching, that equated saving any life with saving humanity (12).

There was yet another hurdle for me with these two quotes. One of the Imams I consulted about these quotes pointed out to me that the full verse includes a critique of some Jews failing to fully embrace this teaching. The full verse in the Quran has an additional statement at the beginning and the end, it states: “We ordained for the children of Israel, that if anyone slew a person ...Our messengers came to them with clear signs, but many of them continued to commit excesses in the land”. The Imam pointed out that it was not a comment about all Jews but some.

Notwithstanding the challenges along the way, seeing the quotes side by side was heart-warming for participants in our session, as they could see evidence of common values in our two traditions. This commonality and the goodwill between me and conference participants does not cancel out the differences between faiths and nations, or the many challenges. Sometimes we will upset people in our own communities or people outside them. We cannot be 100% focused on both at the same time. On those occasions we will apologize like Mr Chown did, but we will persevere with doing the right thing by both. Indeed, we must. 


1)       Khaldoun Hajaj, in a facebook post on 15.07.2019 challenged my comment about these human being “slaves”. He wrote “my contention concerns the use of the word Slaves. No one is a slave ... some of us are enslaved”.
3)       Talmud Sanhedrin 105a. It is a play on words, with the name בלעם (Bilam or Baalam) linked to being בלא עם (Blo- Am, without a nation)
4)       The Maharal, cited in Valdman, C. Y. in his commentary  Yosif Chayim on Ein Yaakov Hamevuar, pub. Machon Torah Mitziyon, Manchester, p. 446
5)       The Imam was Farhan Khalil, the Principal was Samir Halbouni, also a board member of Together For Humanity Foundation, and the Catholic was Kate Xavier, Senior Education officer of Together For Humanity.
6)       The Quran 4:36.
7)       Talmud, Bava Metzia 71a.
8)       Exodus 22:20. 
9)       Numbers 22:2-24:25.
10)    The Quran 5:32.
11)    Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a.
12)    Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:1 (22a),  states: whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world. The context of this teaching is a warning to witnesses in capital cases to speak the truth. It is a reference to the murder of Abel by his brother Cain and how this murder destroyed not just one man but practically half of the future of mankind. This context supports the Jerusalem universal version.  There are several additional versions of this teaching that are universal, these include, Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer ch. 47, Eliyahu Rabbah 11, Yalkut Shimoni on Exodus 166, and manuscripts from Parma, Italy in the mid-13th century, and from Cesena, dating to about 1400. See and

Norman Rothfield Dissent for Peace Justice and Dignity for All -Parshat Korach

Disclaimer: In this blog post I wrote about a man who dedicated himself to the needs and rights of his fellow man both within and beyond his community, as he understood them. I request that readers do not infer an endorsement of every political opinion that this passionate and prolific man stood for. It is not my intention to say anything other than what I wrote below. Zalman

Arno Michaelis is a former white supremacist leader, with tattoo covered arms - turned peace advocate. Arno walked into a Sydney Kosher restaurant to join me for lunch recently. He struck me as a passionate, joyful man. Soon after he was seated, he requested the super hot Yemenite spice called Srug, which he clearly loves. Over lunch, Arno quipped that he enjoyed “pissing people off”. “It is what led me to those activities back then...''. And “I still do…” he said. “Recently, I had 400 kids singing Salaam/Shalom in Arabic and Hebrew at an event in Milwaukee, I know it really infuriates the extreme right”. Arno clarified to me that although he has some “contrarian tendencies...I'm not contrary to people. I'm contrary to the ideas that found violent extremism, be they from either side of the political spectrum, or racial, or religious. My opponents are ideological and spiritual illnesses, not the human beings stricken by them”.

I have been reading the memoirs of the late Australian Jewish peace and social justice advocate, Norman Rothfield. In contrast to Arno’s comment to me, which appeared to make light of the hostility of his old peers, Norman expressed sadness about the loss of old friendships. He wrote that “...more painful was the attitudes of a few long-standing friends. Invitations gradually came to an end, to some homes we had visited for thirty years or more” (1).

I am intrigued by the motivations of those who get involved in communal affairs. Perhaps this is due to the influence of the Muslims that I work with, who emphasise intentions. Rothfield shared two key motivations in his book. One was personal; while growing up, he was confronted with his father’s “neglect of Mother... his failure to share responsibility and his vile temper”. There was a severe shortage of money and young Norman was disturbed by the unjust way that his father dealt with this. When his mother asked for money to pay the bills, his father “would lose his temper...he would accuse mother of incompetence and extravagance, which was nonsense. Her personal 'extravagance’, compared with his, was trivial… He had dozens of perfectly tailored suits…” Norman’s father would angrily “storm about, bang doors, then get in his car and disappear. I would then find my mother weeping bitterly, and moaning ‘what can I do?’” (2). These experiences led him to develop a determined approach to organising and acting against injustice.

A second motivation was a passion for justice, with deep roots in his Jewish tradition. While Norman lost his faith in some of Judaism’s Truth claims, he still embraced its ethical teachings, notably; the pursuit of justice, sensitivity to the wishes of one’s neighbour, and a vision of peace  (3). He rejected the argument that his not believing in the divinity of the Torah meant he had no right to quote the Torah. Indeed, the Torah is the heritage of every Jew (4).

It hurt him that he was falsely accused of being a traitor to his people. His work exemplified the principle “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?” (5). He cared passionately and advocated for his fellow Jews, in his work on the Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism and many other forums, over decades. However, his concern was not limited to his own people but extended to Palestinians, Aboriginal people and others. Norman called for people in the different communities to “recognise the bravery of the other side and recognise that they need help in reducing tensions” and find common ground between faiths (6). He vehemently rejected the formula of “my side, right or wrong” and courageously spoke his truth, even as he observed others fall silent under pressure to conform (7).

Despite the opposition, and later his advanced age, Norman continued his advocacy. In a touching tribute his son David gave his father at his eightieth birthday, he acknowledged the longevity of his father’s advocacy. “You are old, and for some twenty leap years, you have fought for one cause or another. Can’t you rest on your laurels? Take three jolly cheers and live calmly without any bother?” (8). However, endurance in controversy is linked in our tradition to the purity of motivation (9). This matters, because unlike Rothfield, the Biblical contrarian, Korach was driven by less altruistic instincts such as his arrogance, and lust for honor and money (10). Challenges to communal consensus should be evaluated, at least in part, by the motivations and track record of those offering dissenting views. Rothfield deserves the benefit of the doubt on both counts, with his positive intentions demonstrated in his vast amount of activity in close collaboration with fellow Australian Jewish leaders, over many years.   

Another consideration is timing. Moses tried to slow down the pace of the confrontation between himself and Korach, and suggested that some of it wait until the next morning (11). Their conversation was in the afternoon and at the time wine was a common drink consumed during an afternoon meal. “It is a time of drunkenness”,  Moses told Korach (12). However, Moses was actually hinting at the “drunkenness of controversy” (13) rather than that caused by wine (14). Like the example of Arno at the beginning of this article, contrariness or the drama of conflict can be a motive in fighting against others in a community. This is delicate work that requires the clarity of heart and motivation symbolised by morning. Over lunch, it became clear to me that Arno is overwhelmingly motivated by the joy of embracing and affirming the differences of his fellow human beings, his contrariness being merely secondary.


1)     Rothfield, N, (1997), Many Paths to Peace, The Political Memoirs of Norman Rothfield, Yarraford Publications, Melbourne, p.183.
2)     Rothfield, N, (1997), p. 5.
3)     Rothfield, N, (1997), p. 176-177 and in many other parts of the book.
4)     Deuteronomy 33:4.
5)     Hillel in Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14.
6)     Rothfield, N. (1998), The Trial of God, Hudson, Hawthorn, p.226-227.
7)     Rothfield, N, (1997), p. 137.
8)     Rothfield, N, (1997), p. 186.
9)     Ethics of the Fathers, 5:17.
10)  R. Vidal Tzarfati,  quoted in Chida, Torat Hachida, Korach 11, p. 100. See also SHaCh, quoted in Chida, ibid 4, p. 97: Korach was of the tribe of Levi which was the poorest Jewish tribe among those who left Egypt. Eleven of the twelve tribes had been enslaved by the Egyptians, the Levi escaped slavery. Therefore, when members of the eleven tribes saw the riches left by the Egyptians who drowned in the sea, they rightfully helped themselves to these treasures as compensation for unpaid wages. The Levites refrained as they had no rightful claim. Despite the disparity of wealth the Levites were not jealous of the other Jews. There was one exception, Korach, who lusted after money.
11)  Numbers 16:5.
12)  Rashi on Numbers 16:5, based on  Bamidbar Rabbah 18:6.
13)  Mizrachi supercommentary, on Rashi’s commentary to Numbers 16:5.
14)  Isaiah 51:21.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Reflections on Spirituality and Mental Health A Panel of a Rabbi, Imam and Psychologist at Limmud Oz 2019

“What draws you to this topic?” With this question, our impressive session facilitator, Shirli Kirschner, began our conversation at the Sydney Jewish ideas festival, Limmud Oz. For me,  mental  health is very important as a prerequisite for living my life effectively. I usually start my day with a walk in the forest. Like most people, my work involves stress. In my case, it can feel like I am pushing a boulder up a mountain as I do my work of fostering connections between people of different faiths.

Imam Farhan spoke movingly about a time when he felt deeply depressed after being abruptly fired from his first job as an Imam. He was told right after a controversial sermon to pack his bags and leave the Mosque. The Imam had a double message about faith and mental distress. On the one hand, he insisted that it was ridiculous for members of his community to expect the Imam to deal with everything. It is as ridiculous as expecting the Imam to do heart surgery! On the other hand, Imam Farhan spoke of the solace that faith can bring. He gave the example of the story of Moses, as told in the Islamic tradition (1). In this telling, Moses fled Egypt after he killed an Egyptian taskmaster, who was beating a slave. He sat under a tree and felt desperate, so he cried out to God for assistance. The assistance came quickly with a marriage proposal, a father-in-law and a job for ten years.

Listening to Farhan talk about Moses was delightful. Not just because I really like him and his humour and style. There was a feeling of an additional connection between us as Jews and Muslims by virtue of the fact that we both valued the same story, essentially. In the Torah’s version of this story (2), there is no mention of sitting under the tree, nor of the desperate prayer. However, the idea of Moses feeling emotionally low is expressed in another story in the Torah. In our reading this week, Moses’ beloved father-in-law and mentor left Moses to return home to Midyan (3). After his departure, when faced with complaints by the people, Moses fell into despair to the point of spurning the mission that had been entrusted to him by God (4). He cries out: “Alone, I cannot carry this entire people for it is too hard for me. If this is the way You treat me, please kill me (5).”

Our traditions can bring comfort for people in mental distress. However, they can also be a source of distress. The psychologist on the panel, Professor Amanda Gordon, reflected on her experience of the relationship between faith and grieving. She had long recognised the benefits of traditions of grieving,  such as the practice of Shiva, in which Jewish people will spend seven days at home after the death of a parent, child or sibling. Yet, when it came to her own experience of grieving for her mother, it did not go as conveniently as she might have expected. During the festivals, the Yizkor memorial prayer is read in the Synagogue. For Amanda, who had her first Yizkor this year, it was an alienating experience: she found that the feelings one might expect to feel, could not be activated on demand. Amanda cautioned that the same rituals that bring comfort to some people, can create challenges for others.

Expectations are a source of much sadness. Acceptance can provide us with relief. There are three important elements of acceptance: a) To accept ourselves as we are. A large part of the struggles people experience with mental health is tied up with the question about whether “we are good enough”. Tanya consoles us with the idea that אני לא עשיתי את עצמי - I have not created myself. We cannot blame ourselves for what we are! (6). It is God, who is responsible for our essential nature, not us. b) We need to accept our past mistakes and let go. God has an infinite capacity for forgiveness (7) and if He has forgiven me, I can forgive myself (8). C) A third acceptance relates to work-related stress. We are instructed to rest on the Sabbath, but in six days we should do “all our work” (9). This means that on Friday, when we finish work, we are encouraged to regard our work as complete and avoid thinking about it on the Sabbath (10). Any work not done in the previous week, is irrelevant to the week that passed. It is next week’s work! The psalms said it best: “It is a falsehood for you, early risers, delayers of sleep, eaters of bread of tension! Indeed He [God] will give sleep to those he loves” (11).   

Apart from acceptance, one of the most important elements of well-being, according to Professor Gordon, is connectedness. Imam Fahran talked about the importance of reaching out to people. He gave the example of someone who stops coming to the Mosque. It is important that people check if that person is ok. He linked this with Islamic teachings about the obligations to one’s neighbours, which “...apply to forty houses like this and like this and like this” – and he pointed to the front, to the back, to the right and to the left” (12). The Imam also talked about the alienated young people he worked with as a prison chaplain, and how they can go off in dangerous and violent directions. I shared the experiences young people have in Together For Humanity - experiences that build connectedness, not only between students and their peers, but with the wider community and people of different backgrounds and faiths. In fact, when I asked one Principal what the main benefit of our work was for her students, she said it was developing students’ connectedness.


1.       The Quran, Surah Qasas(28), Verse 22 to 28.
2.       Exodus 2:11-21
3.       Numbers 10:30
4.       Akedat Yitzchak Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, (1420-1494)
5.       Numbers 11:11-15
6.       Tanya chapter 31, see story of the “ugly man” in the Talmud, Taanis 20a&b,
7.       As we say in the Amida prayer. Blessed is God who graciously, forgives in abundance
8.       Tanya chapter 26
9.       Exodus 20:9
10.    Mechilta cited in Rashi
11.    Psalm 127:2
12.    Haddith, Narrated by Sunan Abu Dawood, Hasan Al Basri.