Saturday, September 24, 2011

Carrots and Sticks? Motives for worship and repentance Nitzavim- Vayeilech

Carrots, Sticks or Love?
Image reproduced with permission from
My 6 year old son told me about a story he learned at school. Rabbi Akiva was asked why he studied Torah when the Roman forbade it? He replied with a story about a sly fox that told fish “why do you swim back and forth to escape the fishermen, come up here on shore where you will be safe with me”.  He then explained that just as the fish would die without water, God would kills us if don’t obey the Torah so we better obey. While the original intent of the story is about Torah being as essential to the Jew as water is to a fish, to a six year old it took on a more literal meaning.

I wonder to what extent my son’s understanding is reflective of Torah’s own broader message. The punitive approach challenges me in two ways. It is jarring when viewed from a modern perspective that frowns on fear as a factor in personal decision making and bristles at the idea of an authority figure issuing threats. It is also out of step with my Chabad upbringing in which talk about hell or divine punishment was rare. Being the last week of the month of Elul during which I am supposed to reflect on worship and “return” to God is a good time to grapple with the motivations my tradition presents for doing so.

The Reward & Punishment Approach
Perhaps there is among you a man, woman, family, or tribe, whose heart strays this day from the Lord, our God …. The Lord will not be willing to forgive him; rather, then, the Lord's fury and His zeal will fume against that man, and the entire curse written in this book will rest upon him, and the Lord will obliterate his name from beneath the heavens... plagues of that land and the diseases with which the Lord struck it. Sulfur and salt have burned up its entire land! It cannot be sown, nor can it grow [anything], not [even] any grass will sprout upon it. It is like the overturning of Sodom, Gemorrah… which the Lord overturned in His fury and in His rage[i].  

This approach of warnings about punishment appears repeatedly in the Torah, often, alongside promises of reward. And you will return and listen to the voice of the Lord, and fulfil all His commandments, which I command you this day.   And the Lord, your God, will make you abundant for good in all the work of your hands … the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil.[ii]

I acknowledge the prominence of reward and punishment in my tradition. One of the main principles of Jewish faith is “I believe with perfect faith that G-d rewards those who keep His commandments, and punishes those who transgress Him[iii]”. The fact that this makes me uncomfortable is partially an expression of the conflict of being true to tradition while being part of the world and this time.

A Difference between Threats and Warnings?
My six year old said something mildly threatening to his older brother recently. After I reprimanded him, I reflected on the fact that my warnings to him when I was not happy with his behaviour were not that different from what he just said to his brother. I guess I can be more careful with the wording of my warnings. At the same time, I think one difference between legitimate warnings and offensive threats is that I have the authority to warn him and punish him for his own good, while he does not. While we are right in condemning tyrants for using harsh methods to control people, God surely has the authority to punish as he sees fit.   

Hurts me more than it hurts you
One teaching that softens this somewhat relates to the verse. “And I will hide my face from them[iv]”.  “This is said in way of affection like a person whose son sinned against him and (the father) tells the teacher to hit him but he cannot bear to see the beating of his son because has mercy toward him so he hides his face[v]”.

The Right Thing for the Right Reason
Being motivated in worship by fear of punishment or expectation of reward is not the ideal. Antigonus states in the Mishna “Do not be like the servants who serve the master on condition of reward, but rather be like the servants who serve the master not on condition of reward[vi]. One interpretation of this is that a person should think of the performance of the commandments as if he had an explicit condition that he would not get any reward, seeing his service as being for free,  so that he is not confused with the issue of a righteous who suffer and wicked who prosper[vii].  

Maimonides states that the ultimate motive should be “doing the truth because it is true[viii]”. A person should not say: "I will fulfil the commandments Mitzvot of the Torah …in order to receive all the blessings which are contained within it” He continues with this theme and even rejects the motive of trying to get to heaven. “Or (obeying the commandments) in order to merit the life of the world to come.  [Similarly,] I will avoid all the sins… so that I will be saved from all the curses… It is not fitting to serve God in this manner[ix]”.

Philosopher’s undue influence?
Another great scholar, Abrabanel[x] challenges Maimonides’ view on motives as being not in line with Torah and that it originates in the thoughts of non-Jewish philosophers such as Aristotle. They taught that one must do good for the sake of good. Abrabanel argues that their premise was a rejection of divine reward and punishment. As Jews who believe in reward and punishment we find rewards that are not directly related to the act that is being rewarded. It is also not the case that everything Torah forbids is inherently disgusting as can be seen from the teaching that one should not say ‘I will not eat pork because I detest it’ but rather say ‘I cannot eat it because God has forbidden it’[xi]. In other words, avoiding pork is not an essential truth, it is a subjective virtue based on God’s command[xii]. He also cites a proof from the Talmud that a person who vows to give a sum to charity on condition that his sick son will recover is considered righteous[xiii].

In spite of Abrabanel’s objections, the ideal of serving God for its own sake is accepted as an important standard of Jewish worship. This is particularly so in Chasidic teachings which emphasise love of God and awe or fear of disappointing God as key motivations for worship.  Still, even as we aspire toward the ideal, reward and punishment might be a useful fall-back position. Regardless of the motive, my challenge at this holy time of year is to fulfil the prediction that “you will return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and you will listen to His voice according to all that I am commanding you this day[xiv]. May next year be one of reward, truth, peace, justice, dignity and blessings for all humanity.

[i] Deuteronomy 29:17-27
[ii] Deuteronomy 30:8-9
[iii] Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishna Sanhedrin,
[iv] Deuteronomy 31:17
[v] Bchor Shor and others
[vi] Pirkey Avot, the Ethic of the Fathers 1:3
[vii] Meiri, Beis Habechira commentary to Pirkey Avot
[viii] Maimonides, Laws of Repentance, chapter 10 law 2
[ix] Maimonides, Laws of Repentance, chapter 10 law 1
[x] 1437- 1508 lived in Lisbon, Naples, Venice
[xi] Sifre 20, cited in Abrabanel on Pirkey Avot, as compiled and translated by Chill (1991)
[xii] Abrabanel on Pirkey Avot, as compiled and translated by Abraham Chill, A. (1991) Sepher Hermon Press NY p30-35
[xiii] Talmud Pesachim 8a
[xiv] Deuteronomy 30:2

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Gratitude and Faith and my friend the Palestinian Imam at NSLF

As I write these words, I am sitting in Canberra airport feeling very blessed.  I am reflecting on the fact that I can do better at being grateful. I was talking to a friend a few days earlier who asked if I was traveling these days. I initially said no. Then I casually remembered that the next morning I was flying to Canberra (Australia’s capital) to be a co-keynote speaker with a Palestinian Australian Imam/Sheik Ahmad Abu Ghazaleh at the National Students Leadership Forum[i] dinner.  What a delightful privilege it was to be speaking to spiritually switched on, sincere student leaders grappling with the essential questions of life, values, faith and leadership and their hosts; members of Australia’s parliament.

I talked to them about faith as a choice rather than a by-product of certainty, and of the experiences Ahmad and I had in doing our work together[ii].  I told them my story of being an awkward kid from Brooklyn, who is now privileged to work with profoundly good people in deeply rewarding work. This is on top of the magnificent gift of being surrounded by a loving family. I should “come into His gates with thanks, (into) His courtyard with praises[iii].

First Fruits and Gratitude
I recited a verse in Hebrew from the Torah about faith and gratitude from our weekly reading about how a farmer must bring his first fruit to Jerusalem[iv] and recite a pre-prepared speech or declaration of gratitude. And you shall come to the kohen (Priest) who will be in those days, and say to him, "I declare this day to the Lord, your God, that I have come to the land which the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us..." The speech then recounts the slavery and “our affliction, our toil, and our oppression” in Egypt, the Exodus and the divine gift of the holy land.  

Enlarge the “Good” we are grateful for
It is instructive that the farmer does not merely thank God for some figs, or grapes. The fruit came from a good land which he sees as a gift from God. The fact that he is not a slave in Egypt suffering oppression and affliction is also somehow rolled into the gratitude relating to the little basket of fruit. There is a temptation to minimize some of the good that is done for us. Perhaps we don’t want to be too indebted. People says things like can you “just do this little thing for me?” The impact of this is to decrease gratitude. Instead we are taught to be like the good guest, and we should maximize the significance of what is done for us[v].

Talking Land with a Palestinian Sheik
As we were preparing our joint speech, Sheik Ahmad expressed some surprise about the way that I planned to talk about the holy land. In his speech he shared some of his own feelings about the holy land that he calls Palestine. He expressed his sadness about the time his son asked him to show him where he comes from on the world map, but there was no Palestine on the map. How to explain this to a child? 

Of course, we both want to see a just and peaceful resolution to the conflict. This does not mean that we have developed a shared position on the politics of it, we have not. Instead it is about listening to each other with respect, empathy and curiosity. This is less than the full agreement that many people on either side want but it enables us to see each other as human beings and work together to ensure that people of many groups including Jews, Muslims and Arabs are viewed as people not political objects. Following the lesson relating to the first fruit, I assert emphatically that is no small thing to be grateful for. 

Contrast with being verbally abused
It helps to consider the possibility of not having something to appreciate what we do have. At the dinner, I contrasted the love and friendship I enjoy with Sheik Ahmad with my experience last week in Lakemba (a part of Sydney with a high Arabic population). Two young Arabic men saw me across the street and asked each other in Arabic, Yahudi? Is that a Jew? Yeah, I am a Yahudi, I shouted to them across the street and waved. Most of what they said in reply is not fit for print. It was rounded off with heil Hitler and included the words Zionist, Palestinian and 1948 among the profanities and abuse.

What were you thinking? My choice
At the conference a young Arabic Muslim man asked the following question. He said he lived in one of the Muslim areas that I described. “What were you thinking when you chose to walk down these streets (looking like I do, a clearly identifiable Jew?)? I explained that in spite of being well aware of all the arguments against trying to bridge the divides between Muslims and others generally and especially with Jews, I choose to focus on the positive I have a choice between focusing on the men who abused me or to focus on people like Sheik Ahmad and many other Muslims and Arabs of good will. I choose to act and think with good faith toward the possibilities of the human family.

Faith as choice rather than certainty
For some, faith in God or religion might be about expressing what they have discovered to be certainly true. For me, faith is more about choosing to prioritize one set of ideas and facts over another. Not everything in my religion resonates for me and fits comfortable with my ideas about how things should be.  There are certainly aspects of the behavior of some adherents of Judaism that make me want to cry out (almost) like the Prophet Jeremiah  O who would give (make it happen) that I had a guesthouse in the desert, that I might leave my people and go away from them! For they are all adulterers…[vi]!  Yet, in spite of my reservations, I stick by my tradition. Like the choice I make to remain faithful to my work, this is a choice of faith, of being faithful to a path that carries in it great truths, guidance and sanctity alongside the other things I struggle with.

Gratitude to the Enemy?
Some might find it odd for a Jew to be expressing gratitude for a friendship with a Palestinian. Yet in our tradition we find Kind David expressing gratitude toward prince Hanun [vii] a member of the Amonite people who have the distinction of being one of the groups about whom it is written “do not seek their peace or good, forever[viii]”. These were the descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot who was cared for and even rescued by him from the sword and captivity. Instead of returning the favor to Abraham’s descendants these ingrates[ix]did not greet you with bread and water on the way, when you left Egypt” and passed near their territory.  David’s gratitude is justified creatively; it is only seeking the good of Amon that is a problem, not reciprocating it[x].    

A harsh thought about Gratitude
There is a confronting teaching that failure to appreciate the gifts we are given can result in these being taken away.  The passage about the first fruit follows the one that refers to the attack on the Israelites by Amalek[xi]. This juxtaposition hints at the idea that Amalek’s attack was a consequence of the Israelites being ingrates[xii], with their complaint “why did he bring us up from Egypt to kill us and our children by thirst?!”  There is some poetic justice in the fact that the attackers themselves, the Amalek, who were descendants of Esau were also ingrates.  Because Abraham was told that his children will experience a difficult exile, either the children of Jacob or Esau would have to fulfill the prophecy. With the Israelites suffering Egyptian slavery, Amalek was freed of this burden. God says let the Amalekites who are ingrates and pay back the Israelites who were also Ingrates.

I find this a bit harsh. I would be inclined to think that a compassionate God will forgive me my inadequate gratitude and whingeing. Yet, there is a strong message here about working on developing an attitude of gratitude. I choose to keep faith with the guidance here and put my discomfort on the back burner. This is not to say, I deny the difficult bits. My blog has confronted some of these even when I don’t have a neat resolution but also side-stepped other issue. 

This dual approach plays out in the portion of the first fruit, we talk about our gratitude, we mention the ugly times in Egypt, yet there is a letter Yud (equivalent to the number 10) missing from the word וַיְבִאֵנוּ and he brought us[xiii] to signify the 10 tests Jews challenged God with[xiv]. Not mentioned, but not completely ignored either, just de-emphasised. This, I think, is the challenge of faith and gratitude, with eyes wide open, seeing cups both half empty and half full but choosing to give greater important to the good, the instructive and the promising.  

[iii] Psalms 104:3
[iv] Deuteronomy  26:1-15
[v] Yalkut Meam Loez, Rabbi Yaakov Cooli/Rabbi Yitzchak of Agriso & Rabbi Yitzchak Arguiti
[vi] Jeremiah 9:1
[vii] Chronicles I, 19:1-2… Nahash the king of Ammon died, and his son reigned in his stead. David said, "I shall show kindness to Hanun the son of Nahash, because his father showed me kindness." And David sent emissaries to comfort him concerning his father, and David's servants came to the land of the children of Ammon, to Hanun to comfort him.
[viii] Deuteronomy  23:4-7
[ix] Ramban
[x] Meam Loez
[xi] Deuteronomy 25:17-19
[xii] Tzemach David, quoted in Yalkut Meam Loez,
[xiii] Deuteronomy  26:9
[xiv] Baal Haturim

Sunday, September 11, 2011

war, the beautiful woman, rebellious son and the greater Jihad (Post II, 9/11 Ki Tetze)

(Following on from and substantially reworked version of the post

Today, 11 September is a time to reflect on tragedy, war, prejudice, spirituality and prevention.

As mentioned in a previous post, the 10th anniversary of this indiscriminate brutal murderous act belongs first to the victims and their families. It is also a time to bear in mind the death of a huge number of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Along with care and assistance to the victims of 9/11 attacks, it is worth considering our guidance relating to asylum seekers in times of war[i], “Do not turn over an (escaped slave[ii]) to his master, who is rescued from his master to you. He shall dwell with you in your midst, in the place that he will choose in one or your gates, which is good for him…[iii]”.  This needs to be weighed up against the calls to “stop the boats”.

Ravages of War
The Torah is clearly not a tradition of pacifism. It asserts that there are some people who must be fought such as Amalek who attack the vulnerable, the stragglers and the tired[iv].  Yet, its discussion of war shows an awareness of its ravages, even of the spirit of the victors.

Despite Torah’s insistence on morality even in war expressed in the demand that “your camp be holy[v]”, it swallows a bitter pill when it accommodates the evil urge[vi] and lust of some soldiers. It tells the soldier who sees a woman of beautiful form[vii] among the captives that she will be permitted to him if he follows a set of procedures[viii]. She is to be brought into his home for a month and cry over her family and/or gods[ix], her head shaven, her decorated nails cut. This process cannot be carried out in another house[x], she must be seen by the soldier every day when he comes and goes[xi]. It is hoped that while initially the confidence that he will eventually be allowed to indulge[xii] will enable the soldier to delay gratification, eventually being confronted with this scene will enable him to call it off entirely when the excitement wears off.

If in spite of all this, they get married, there is a danger that in the end he will hate her and children born from this union will be rebellious as hinted at in the sequence of laws[xiii]. King David is said to have married such a beautiful woman named Maachah[xiv] who gave birth to Absalom who led a violent rebellion against his father. 

While not a prohibition of war, then a least a warning of some the devastation it causes.

We are told twice in the Torah to help a person struggling with a donkey, first we are told about a case with your enemy[xv], the second time we told about helping a brother[xvi]. This is interpreted as reflecting the truth that by working together we can turn an “enemy” into a brother. This will not always work, there are people for whom the blood of the others is of little consequence, these people need to be contained and fought. 

Yet there are others who can be reached and improved through education and habit forming choices starting with ourselves. At first we might see the needs of another such as a lost object and be tempted to look away, but after forcing ourselves to do the right things a few times “you will not be able to look away[xvii]”. What is needed is engagement between communities but also an internal effort within individuals as well as faith communities to prioritise our hopes over our fears[xviii].

The Inner Struggle
The word Jihad burst into the consciousness of western world, at that point. For me, the word Jihad has come to mean something entirely different. In the 10 years since 9/11 I have made countless friends among the Muslim community. I have learned the idea of “the greater Jihad”, the battle with Evil within[xix]. When the Torah talks about war, it mentions enemies plural, one a physical enemy, the other the “inner oppressor and enemy, the Satan the evil inclination[xx]. If enough people of all backgrounds, can succeed with the greater Jihad, the lesser one of violent conflict will be less likely. 

This struggle will not turn us into angels, (in spite the ideal of complete eradication of evil[xxi]). For most of us, our challenge is not to become something entirely different[xxii] but simply to be human, half animal, half divine and to make good choices. These involve the ability to distinguish between ends and means, and no matter how pure and holy one’s cause, never to fall into the ugly place in which all the “others” are monsters are fair game and deserve to die because they are part of the dark side.

The stakes are high. Our portion talks about a rebellious child who can be put to death at his parent’s discretion if he disobeys them[xxiii] and he is a drunk and a glutton. On a literal level this is a pre-emptive punishment because such a person will eventually commit more serious crimes[xxiv]. There is an argument in the Talmud that the idea of the rebellious son is only theoretical and can never happen[xxv], it is only so that people learn from it and recognise that a failure to educate a child combined with indulgent habits and choices can lead to horrific outcomes and therefore intervene early[xxvi]. 

For me 9/11 is about the need to stand up to evil, not to be tolerant of small acts of violence which can lead to even greater violence. At the same time each of us must struggle with the evil inside of us, the temptation to paint our own as the good and see the other as collectively evil and deserving of destruction. May the victims of this tragedy not have died in vain, may bigotry and violence be removed from the face of the earth.

[i] Seforno
[ii] Unkeloos translation, first interpretation brought in Rashi
[iii] Deuteronomy 23:16-17
[iv] Deuteronomy 25:17
[v] Deuteronomy 23:15
[vi] Talmud Kiddushin 21b
[vii] Deuteronomy 21:10
[viii] There is a dispute among Talmudic sages (See Tosafot Kiddushin 22a) in the Jerusalem Talmud, and between Maimonides in Laws of War, and Rabbenu Tam in the Tosafot, who believe the soldier is permitted to be intimate with her just once before the procedure, while Rashi, Daat Zekainim Baalei Tosafot, Bchor Shor and Ramban take the view that there are to be no relations until after the process of a month or mourning etc. leading to marriage
[ix] Ramban
[x] Meam Loez
[xi] Rashi
[xii] See Tosafot Kiddushin 22a, explains this as the effect of “having bread in one’s basket”, stills hunger.
[xiii] Rashi, explaining the sequence of the case of the beautiful woman 21:10-14, followed by the hated wife in 21:15-17 and the rebellious son in 21:18-21
[xiv] Talmud, Sanhedrin 21a
[xv] Ex. 23:5
[xvi] Deuteronomy22:4
[xvii] Alshich, a creative interpretation of Deuteronomy 22:1-3 quoted in Leibowitz, N Studies in Devarim,.
[xviii] Mohamed Dukuly, explained to me in a phone conversation
[xix] I am grateful to those in Governments who take responsibility for protecting the community from violence, as long as they approach it ethically. With the physical security being attended to, I am free to focus on the beautiful meaning of the word Jihad, the spiritual struggle against Evil.
[xx] Klei Yakar
[xxi] Tanya Chapter 1, regarding the work of the Tzadik
[xxii] Tanya, part 1
[xxiii] Deuteronomy 21:18-21
[xxiv] Rashi
[xxv] Talmud Sanhedrin 71a
[xxvi] Nachshoni