Thursday, July 28, 2011

“Thorn in the side”, Norway's Utoya Island mass murderer vs. Multiculturalism

The horrific and tragic massacre in Norway should not be milked to push any agenda. I was disturbed by the glee with which some rushed in to score a point for their community against another or for a political position. Conservative commentators such as Keith Windschuttle[i] have reasonably asserted that he bears no responsibility for the actions of his murderous admirer. There can be no question though, that this horrific killing spree has reopened the question about how powerful cultures should respond to cultures that are different to them and are seen as threatening.

A very confronting passage in the Torah reading this week states the following;
“You shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their temples, destroy their molten idols, and demolish their high places... But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the Land from before you, then those whom you leave over will be as spikes in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they will harass you in the land in which you settle. And it will be that what I had intended to do to them, I will do to you[ii].”

It could be argued that because this statement was a once off command by God himself about the conquest of Canaan over 3000 years ago and God has not been making such statements recently we don’t need to worry about this. We are taught that the Canaanite peoples that this verse refers to have been mixed with other people[iii] and therefore it could be argued that this has no practical application. Something as harsh as this is not something that can be applied whenever someone feels like it. Still, I was raised with the belief that the Torah is a timeless document, so that at least in some sense these words still have meaning. But what can they mean?

An important concern for me is that some people might decide to apply this advice to modern dilemmas. One blogger who I never heard of and whose style suggests limited scholarship does exactly that. I find the idea of ethnic cleansing completely abhorrent. I searched the classic commentaries on this verse and did not find much that encouraged me. We have Joshua dramatically telling the Israelites as they crossed a temporarily dry Jordan River bed that the condition of entry into the Promised Land is driving out its inhabitants. Failure to do so will result in them being drowned in the Jordan[iv].

2000 years after the conquest of Canaan, this would be interpreted as relating to the inhabitants presenting a moral threat. "The Torah tells us that the idolaters who are not removed from the Land will be like "pins" in the eyes of the Jewish people. Meaning, they will dull the sensitivity of the Jew to see what is unacceptable as plausible. By being exposed to their corrupted value system and way of life, the Jew himself will lose his clarity and ultimately assume behaviour that is unacceptable for a Jew. This is similar to a judge who accepts bribery and is said to become blind.[v]"

By applying the principle that the words of Torah and poor in one place but rich in another[vi], we can find much support for this limited application. When this instruction is first given it states, do not cut a covenant with “them and their gods…lest they make you sin to me[vii]”. When it is repeated it states, “lest you cut a covenant with the inhabitants of the land and they go astray after their gods[viii]”. And additional reference talks about idol worship resulting from intermarriage[ix].

It is hard for us to imagine what the ancient world was like. There is a tradition that the temptation for idol worship in ancient times was extremely intense to a degree unimaginable for us. Perhaps there is some echo in the cravings some people have for more and more concrete and tangible approaches instead of the deep, hard to define, spiritual work.  Perhaps this was about Jews protecting themselves from the lure of polytheism and its decadence. “By your tolerance toward the polytheistic inhabitants…you become tolerant to polytheism[x]”. These fears were in fact realised when the Israelites did not banish the idol worshipping Canaanites, they intermarried with them and were influenced to worship idols[xi].

My difficulty with this approach is that these types of arguments are the latest mutation of the moral disease of racism, known as the “new racism”. It presents itself as being not about inherent superiority, instead arguing that there are irreconcilable differences that put the other beyond the pale.  It is often the case that the differences between groups are greatly exaggerated, with all the focus on the few differences, but ignoring the vast common ground. The question that is not dealt with adequately in the popular discourse about these things is what should people do when the difference are really significant?  

I think there is a place for robust discussion, if after careful investigation it is determined there are serious differences on matters of principle.  If one community believes passionately in gay marriage and the other thinks homosexual practices should be a capital offence you have a problem and pretending it is all ok is not a good idea. Similarly, issues such as abortion, pornography, and honour killings are all issues that are real and important. One writer suggests that a lesson from the command to “smash the idols” can be about drawing a line in the sand and campaigning against abhorrent practices such as foot binding[xii].

In Chasidic literature, the conquest of the seven Canaanite nations represents the struggle to manage and even transform the nature of our own emotions which according to the Kabbalah can be categorised under seven headings. These include kindness, severity, mercy, determination etc.  
When I was a young boy, my grandfather told me of the difficulty his family had in finding a Jewish school in the Soviet Union that had closed them down. He was lucky to find a story in a government newspaper that mocked Chasidic Jews in a town called Nevel as primitive people who immersed in a ritual bath before praying and ‘the water still dripped down their beards’. My great grandfather looked up from the communist newspaper and told my grandfather, this is where you will go to school. I am very grateful to be living in a time when I can live my life according to my beliefs without harassment. I believe this tolerance is surely an essential goodness.

In 1991, in the wake of the Crown Heights riots, when groups of young blacks ran around the streets and terrorised the Jewish residents, the black Mayor of New York, David Dinkins visited Rabbi Schneerson, knows as “the Rebbe. The Rebbe said that he hoped the Mayor would be able to bring peace to the city. "Both sides," Mr. Dinkins said. "We are not two sides," the Rebbe replied. "We are one side. We are one people, living in one city, under one administration and under one G‑d." I am not sure what the Rebbe meant, but I think the words he spoke reflect the way Jews should behave whenever we have the power to decide whether to see others as threats and thorns in our side, or as fellow members of the one human family.

[ii] Numbers 33:52-56
[iii] Mishnah Yadaim, 4:4, also Maimonides, book of judges, laws of kings 5:4
[iv] Talmud Sotah 34a, cited in Rashi on this section
[v] Ramban’s commentary, translation by Rabbi Yosef Kalatsky,
[vi] Jerusalem Talmud Rosh Hashanah 3:5
[vii] Exodus 23:32-33
[viii] Exodus 34:15-16
[ix] Deuteronomy 7:2-4
[x] R. Samson Raphael Hirsch
[xi] Judges 1:27-3:7
[xii] Aviva Presser Aiden,