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.

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