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Friday, August 30, 2019
On the 26th of July I posted about having felt afraid at an important meeting, and talking too much because I felt anxious (1). This week I met with some of the same people, about the same issues, but I was quite calm and tuned in to the people I was meeting with. In this blog I explore my experience with fear and some of Torah’s wisdom on the topic.
After the meeting, I reflected on the difference between the two meetings I had. In the first I was quite high-energy and my thinking and talking was fast paced, and, on reflection, I was driven by an unprocessed fear of failure, to get the results I was hoping for. In the second meeting, however, my pace and energy level were moderate, or even subdued, and I was completely present to what the people I was meeting with thought, wanted and needed.
One factor that was different was mindfulness. At the second meeting I was aware of my various thoughts and motivations. Another factor was awareness of some Torah wisdom. The Torah calls us to do both what is proper, from the perspective of people, and what is good, from the perspective of God (2). The wording here is precise: while humans are capable of determining proper conduct, by ensuring we follow upright processes (3 ) and contribute the initial inputs to those in an ethical way; only the prescient God knows what outcomes will truly turn out to be truly “good” (4). This lowers the stakes. I don’t need to try to force an outcome. The outcomes are truly out of my hands and, therefore, are not my responsibility.
Another teaching that helped me relax, was the idea that I learned yesterday that if one can put aside selfish motives, then one can be confident of being guided to the right choices (5). So I need to focus on being altruistic in my motives and intentions, and leave the outcomes to God I combine these teachings with the secular idea of working “with” people; rather than trying to bend people to one’s will, which is incompatible with productive collaboration. Thus, I can choose to trust people, who have their own choices to make and their own wisdom in making those decisions; and I need not feel responsible to push for a particular outcome or conclusion.
Another strategy, is to initially embrace the fear, rather than run from it. Once I have accepted that I feel the feelings that I do, I can then open myself to support from others. Moses tells the Israelites in the desert that, ‘if they feel daunted by the challenge of conquering people, who [they estimate to be] more numerous and stronger than themselves, they should not be afraid because God will help them’ (6). Commentary makes the point that it is precisely when you acknowledge your fear and vulnerability, that you can trust God will help you and in this way you're able to put aside your fear. However, if one suffers from hubris and is overconfident, then he should not expect divine assistance, and had better be afraid (7).
6) Deuteronomy, 7:17-18.
7) Chida, in Torat Hachida, Ekev, 25 & 26, pages 76-77.
Friday, August 23, 2019
Last night Munzer Emad, a Palestinian man told his story at a Sydney synagogue. I felt grateful to be present, because I this was the first time I had seen this dialogue in a Synagogue in my community in St Ives. Munzer spoke from the heart, and his Jewish audience engaged with his story, despite the fact that “it was very difficult to listen to”, as more than one audience member reflected.
Rabbi Gad Krebs, who initiated this encounter for his community, reflected on his own journey that led to last night. Around the year 2000, the Rabbi, then a much younger man, was, by his own admission, very right wing politically. The Rabbi told us that he was greeted by a stranger with a pronounced Arabic accent, in Hebrew, while watching the Olympics on a big outdoor screen in Sydney’s Darling Harbour. The two men engaged in conversation. The Arabic speaking man initially said he was Egyptian, but later told the Rabbi that if he had told him where he was really from that would have been the end of the conversation. He then shared that he was actually a Palestinian from Gaza, and that previously whenever he had disclosed this fact in a conversation with a Jewish person that ended the conversation. Rabbi Krebs did not run away and instead continued the conversation. The two men lost contact, until a recent chance meeting when Rabbi Krebs and Munzer met, and after a while Gad realised that Munzer was the stranger he met in 2002.
Munzer is a softly spoken man. He argued passionately for connections between people. He argued that, although humans were not meant to fly or swim, we have beaten nature to do both of these things. On the other hand, despite being wired for connectedness, we override our nature in order to be fragmented. He reflected on the way that groups in conflict dismiss each others experiences and deal with the other as an enemy. He shared a surprising anecdote about the time he was around ten years old and Israeli soldiers marched through the street where he was playing; he felt confused and angered by their forceful presence. He threw a soccer ball at an Israeli soldier. The soldier smiled shyly and threw the ball back. A glimpse of the soldiers humanity that did not fit the narrative of this young boy. But a little connection happened anyway.
As a teenager, Munzer was mistaken for one of his brothers who was very active in throwing stones, so Munzer was taken into custody. When Munzer was interrogated, he was blindfolded. He asked his interrogator to remove the blindfold and make eye contact. On Sunday night he got much more than that, his generous spirit was mirrored back to him by his receptive audience.
I don’t think religious texts are key to war or peace, there are other significant drivers that I think are more central, but they are not irrelevant either. The day before Munzer’s talk, I was confronted with a text that seemed to suggest that God does not care about non-Jewish people. Thankfully, there is usually more than one way to read a Torah text.
Moses told the Israelites that “when you look up to the sky, and behold the sun and the moon and the stars ...you must not be lured into ...serving them. These the LORD your God has set aside for all [the other?] nations everywhere under heaven” , but as for you [the Israelites], the LORD took and brought you out of Egypt... to be His very own people (1).
This has been taken to mean that God has set the nations up to worship the stars, and it is only the Jews whose worship is important to God (2). This seems wrong, surely God would not lead people astray (3). As an Assyrian Bishop told me the other night, in his church they don’t pray that God should not lead them into temptation, because surely God would not do that. Instead they pray not to be tested by “trials”.
A story about this text is an early example of the influences of interfaith contact on interpretations of text. A group of Jewish sages were tasked by King Ptolemy to translate the Torah. When they got to this verse they modified the translation to say that God set aside the sun, the moon and the stars to provide light to the nations (4).
Further commentary suggests that the planets are so valuable for all the nations, that they can never be destroyed, and this presents the risk of them being worshipped (5). Alternatively, the nations of the world might believe in a fragmented concept of the universe, so they see the sun and moon as being more important than earth. However, the Jewish people are invited to think of earth as central, as it is the place where humans worship God (6) and make ethical decisions. Such decisions include to deeply honor and cherish all human beings regardless of ethnic or religious identity. This was the invitation Munzer extended to his audience. It was glorious being part of a room that transcended the divide between the Jewish and Palestinian peoples, and filled with such warmth and goodwill.
1) Deuteronomy 4:19.
2) Talmud, Avoda Zara 55a.
3) See Torah Temima to Deuteronomy 4:19, notes 41 and 42.
4) Talmud 9b.
5) Chasam Sofer on Vaetchanan.
Friday, August 16, 2019
A precious life was taken this week in Sydney. Once more, the question of whether this murderer was a Muslim and a terrorist has been taken up. Most reasonable people already know to avoid premature assumptions and tarring all Muslims with the same brush. This time, I want to focus on the victim, rather than the perpetrator. One factor that was different this time, is that the murdered person, Michaela Dunn, was a sex worker. Impassioned pleas have been made that we ensure we relate to her as a full human being. This got me thinking about the degree to which we truly value all human beings regardless of differences. Do we really? Or perhaps there is some threshold of similarity that we look for, before we truly embrace someone.
Yesterday, I spent the morning at a religious leader’s forum, held in the boardroom of Sydney’s main Sikh temple. At my table were Hindu, Catholic, Muslim and Zorastrian religious leaders. There, I heard a story about the arrival of Zoroastrians to India. When the Zoroastian or Parsi priestly leaders sought to settle in Gujarat, the local ruler sent them a bowl "brimful" of milk; to signify that the surrounding lands were full, and could not possibly accommodate any more people. The Parsi head priest responded by slipping some sugar into the milk and sending it back. He implied that the strangers would dissolve into local life, like sugar dissolves in the milk, sweetening the society but essentially assimilating into it, adopting local customs and language (1).
As I listened to the story, I wondered to myself about assimilation - or the 'melting pot' - as a strategy for managing difference. This story can be understood as supporting an assimilationist argument. Of course, it could be interpreted as simply integrating into society - not disappearing entirely. However, for me, the image of the bowl of milk looking exactly the same afterwards, despite the arrival of the new element, was disturbing.
I unexpectedly woke up at five am this morning. I had a lot on my mind and I didn't feel like going back to sleep for just another hour. As I often do, once I was awake I thought of my great grandfather. Whenever he woke up in the middle of the night, rather than going back to sleep, he would study Torah. So I read a few passages from Toldot Yaakov Yosef, a book that is generally associated with a different community to my own. What I read seemed to contradict the teachings of my Chabad tradition, to value people regardless of the level of their observance. A tradition which had me spend time with recovering drug addicts and convicted criminals as a teenager. Yet, this text suggested that the way to come to love Jews less religious than oneself, is to first influence them to become like oneself. I found it very surprising to see such an interpretation in a Chasidic work.
Essentially, the argument put forward by this author - whose material I usually love, by the way - is that the way to fulfil the commandment to love your God with all your heart, is by becoming more like God (2). “As He is merciful, and gracious, so should you be merciful and gracious… and one should seek to be as similar to God as one can”. (3) Once we become more similar to God, we will be drawn to love Him. In the same way, with the commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself (4), the advice is to influence one’s fellow so that she “becomes more similar to oneself” (5), which then enables one to love their neighbour.
I am very pleased that my tradition is very different to this. While we are also called to seek to influence our fellow Jews to obey God, our love for every person, including those who sin, is entirely independent of this aim and is even an end in itself! (6).