Thursday, October 22, 2015

Being Jewish: Dissent, Self-Criticism and Self-Doubt (Lech Lecha)

I have been reading the often funny, interesting and nasty observations of Tuvia Tennenbom in his book ‘Catch the Jew’.1 Central to his story and argument are a few key caricatures. These include the ‘idiotic, fanatical, but sometimes interesting Haredi Jews’, the ‘self-critical, self-doubting, self-hating, incoherent, hypocritical, humourless leftist Jews’, alongside various non-Jewish villains. It got me thinking about the nature of being Jewish and the Jewish attitude to dissent and self-doubt.

Abraham, considered to be the first Jew, discovered God through his own logic and then defiantly destroyed idols to demonstrate their powerlessness, according to oral Jewish tradition2 (and also found in Islamic traditions). Abraham then miraculously survived the punishment of being thrown into a fiery furnace.3  This story suggests that part of being Jewish involves questioning established views and tearing down conventionally ‘worshipped but false symbols’. As attractive as the story is, it is not recorded in the text of the Torah, which arguably diminishes its significance somewhat. 4  Still, although some Jews in positions of authority might find it convenient to have all dissenters fall into line, the right kind of Chutzpa is clearly an important part of being Jewish.    

Being Jewish and a non-conformist5 also sometimes demands sacrifices in terms of relationships. The very first instruction from God to a Jew made him tear himself away from his land, his birthplace and his father’s house.6 7  The dislocation caused by “being removed is considered to be more difficult for people than all (other difficulties)”.8 but Abraham had to abandon friends and family for the sake of his love of God.9 Moving away is also understood in a symbolic and metaphoric sense “as the thinking spirit abandoning material things…in order to occupy oneself with achieving completeness”.10 The quest for completeness can also be linked to the ritual of circumcision11, which at its most basic level is a physical symbol of a close exclusive bond with God, called a covenant.

Someone on a mission for, and in relationship with, God one might be forgiven for exhibiting some hubris. Yet we find the opposite in Abraham, the archetypal Jew. When there is a famine in the land he does not rely on a miracle to save him, instead he travels to Egypt. When God promises Abraham the land of Canaan, he questions God: “With what (personal merit12) will I know that I will (in fact) inherit it?”13 After Abraham had rescued his nephew and his fellow Sodomites in battle, he was afraid in case perhaps just one of the people he had killed in battle may have been righteous.14 Abraham’s fear is linked to the proverb “fortunate is the person who is always afraid, but the one who hardens his heart will fall into evil”.15”  And Abraham himself is criticised by one authority for complicity in his wife Sarah’s mistreatment of his second wife, Hagar, conduct seen as a ‘karmic’ origin of conflict between Jews and Arabs in later times.16 Self-criticism and self-doubt are both very Jewish.      

So I say to Mr. Tenenbaum and to some who criticise me as a “dissenter”: I make no apologies for thinking deeply about how Jews can do better and how we get it wrong sometimes. This is my obligation as a Jew. If someone doesn’t like Jewish self-doubt or criticism, the Jewish response is to “be bold like a leopard in the face of those who mock him”.17

1.    Tenenbom, T (2015), Catch the Jew, Gefen Publishing
2.    Bereshit Rabba 38
3.    Bereshit Rabba 38. Whether Abraham miraculously survived being inside the fire or a miracle happened to change the Kings mind and free him is discussed by some of the commentaries. Abarbanel on Lech Lcha and Ramban on Genesis 11:28 mention the alternative view that a hidden miracle occurred that the thought to free Abraham was put into the kings heart to free him from prison. 
4.    Abarbanel, argues that whatever Abraham accomplished out of his own thinking and mind is less significant and worthy of being recorded in the Torah than what happened as a result of God speaking to him through prophecy.
5.    See Likutei Diburim of the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe, who links the meaning of the word Ivri/Hebrew to “one from the other side of the river” representing taking a different path to those around oneself.
6.    I wonder why only the father rather than the mother is mentioned here. In the same vein, the name of Abraham’s father, Terach, is given in the Torah while the name of his mother is not stated. A Midrash (Pirkey D’Rabbi Eliezer, cited in Torah Shlaima vol.1 p.542, note 4) states that his mother’s name was Amaslah, Amaslai.
7.    Genesis 12:1
8.    Pirkey D’Rabbi Eliezer, cited in Torah Shlaima vol.1 p.542, note 4
9.    Ramban
10.    Abarbanel, see also Likutei Sichos vol. 1 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
11.    Genesis 17:10-14
12.    Bereshit Rabba 44
13.    Genesis 15:8
14.    Bereshit Rabba 44
15.    Proverbs 28:14
16.    Ramban on Genesis 16:6
17.    Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, opening paragraph

Friday, October 9, 2015

Murder in Parramatta: Cain, shame and responsibility – Bereshit

One image has been playing on my mind since the murder of Curtis Cheng: the 15 year old killer waving his gun in the air and shouting. I see a link to the young murderer in Oregon who reportedly wrote that mass killings can get a person “known by no one” into the limelight.1

I do not have access to evidence about these murders. Instead I will tap traditional teachings for some possible insights. Escaping shame is a major factor in the first recorded murder I am aware of, that of Abel by his brother Cain. The vain, honor seeking2 younger brother Abel and his older brother Cain wanted God to settle the question which of them was greater, the shepherd Abel or the farmer Cain. They each brought offerings, but Cain and his offering were ignored while God turned to Abel and his offering3, by sending a miraculous fire4 and by blessing Abel with success while Cain’s crops failed. 5 Cain “was despising himself in his own eyes”6 feeling shamed by God,7 his face “blackened like a coal”.8 Cain’s shame then turned into rage, his face burning like fire.9 

One remedy for deep shame involves recognizing that one has a choice10 about the future as well as opportunity to take responsibility for past failure and come to terms with it rather than blaming others.11 God asked Cain why he was so angry and ashamed.12 God drew Cain’s attention to his ability to choose a path that would make him better than Abel.13 Unfortunately Cain chose not to avail himself of this option, instead allowing his anger to lead him to murder. Is there some similarity to Cain’s craving for status due to his shame,  in a 15 year old murderer holding his arm up as high as he can, waving a gun and shouting a religious slogan?  

A year ago another person, also drawn to Islamist extremism, and perhaps also seeking personal redemption though shedding the blood of others, had been dismissed by some as crazy. He was a criminal who victimized the women in his life. Was he viewed as being outside of human society and not quite human?  In some of our traditions Cain is seen in this way: his ‘breed’ “had two heads and four eyes”.14 We are told that his father was not Adam but the snake that impregnated Eve15, or the evil angel Samael.16 While there are reasons to isolate murderers, and to communicate a high level of disgust with their behaviour, the child’s face of the Parramatta killer reminds us of the chilling truth that killers are people like the rest of us.

We are now hearing incessant demands by some for Australian Muslims to “own this crime”. One Muslim writer expressed frustration that Muslims seem to be expected to prevent events like this, despite the obvious fact that this is not something they can guarantee. Italian people are not expected to prevent all “Italian crime”!

In fact, there are local Muslim community workers, including two amazing Sheiks I know, who are undertaking educational work that will hopefully make violent incidents like the Parramatta murder less likely. Some of these workers believe that, given the kind of public conversation we are having, highlighting their work in the media might be seen as conceding some guilt about or association with the crime.

There is always room for improvement, but I wish the degree of acceptance of responsibility for preventive education among Australian Muslims was better known. At the same time, I believe that non-Muslims have responsibility to do our part in ensuring we develop inclusive communities that preserve the dignity of all, thereby reducing the likelihood of school students feeling so alienated that they can be brain-washed to commit murder. 

Religion is sometimes a contributing factor to hostility; but it can also contribute to solutions. In Genesis we see God feeling aggrieved about the state of the world, and his response is to wipe out civilization.17 He is said to be saddened by the “humans on the earth”18, which one commentary interprets as being too much mixed up with matters of the earth, focused on the material and the body rather than the spiritual.19 In the Torah, God eventually promises never to destroy the world again, because he accepts the reality of human frailty. The symbol of this commitment is the rainbow.

As parents of all faiths do their best to raise good children, so do our multi-dimensional communities - via social institutions providing education, health, welfare and policing and in more personal ways in our everyday activities. , In the wake of another tragic murder, I reaffirm my commitment to continue my own efforts to affirm the dignity of all, to try to ensure that shame, when it appears, can be more successfully harnessed for good, rather than become a driver for rage and violence. As flawed humans, people of all ages need to learn how to pursue excellence and success with patience and resilience, and how to promote justice with courage and compassion in a flawed world


2.    Abarbanel. The Hebrew name of Abel, Hevel, means air, which can be linked using modern slang to being ‘full of hot air’, the choice of shepherding sheep and “leading them” is seen as reflecting this pursuit of being important. In contrast to this view of Abarbanel, Ohr Hachayim (starting with the words Vateled et Kain) quotes the sages that Cain was of the aspect of evil and Abel was of the aspect of good. A synthesis of the two views might be found in the Ohr Hachayim’s assertion that Abel soul was also that of Moses, that means that Moses was a reincarnation of Abel and that in the wounds inflicted on Abel by Cain he removed the bad elements from Abel’s soul and the pure good was revealed. This is alluded to in the words in Genesis 4:1, “I have acquired a man, God” referring to Moses the man of God who only reached this level of being with God because of the suffering inflicted on him by Cain. This also links to story cited in Meiri about Moses having a flawed character that he overcame by his working on himself.
3.    Genesis 4:4-5
4.    Midrash Hagadol cited in Torah Shlaima, p. 312, 44, Rashi
5.    Pesikta Zuta cited in Torah Shlaima, p. 312, 45
6.    Midrash Hagadol cited in Torah Shlaima, p. 312, 44
7.    Seforno
8.    Minchat Yitzchak, cited and explained in Torah Shlaima, p. 312, footnote to 42
9.    Beresheet Rabba, 22
10.    Seforno on Genesis 4:6
11.    Abarbanel
12.    Genesis 4:6
13.    Abarbanel, this is based on his interpretation of the ambiguous word “Se-et” שאת in Genesis 4:7, which can be translated as forgiven, but also as uplifted as this word is used in Genesis 49:3
14.    Midrash cited in Torah Shlaima, p. 304, footnote 7
15.    Pirkey Drabi Eliezer, cited in Torah Shlaima, p. 304
16.    Pirush Yonatan citing the Midrash
17.    Genesis 6
18.    Genesis 6:5
19.    Radak

Friday, October 2, 2015

Brush Turkey “Battle” “Blessed Violence?” & prejudice - Vzot Habracha

Brush Turkey happily
back on his mound
The battle to banish the
Brush Turkey
Apart from reminding ourselves that perpetrators of violence should not be taken to represent everyone from any cultural or religious community, it is useful to explore the nature of violence. Not to condone it, but to remind ourselves that it is something that is done by people of many faiths and walks of life rather than being the domain of the poor or the Aboriginal as seems to be suggested by one journalist 1 this week, or intrinsic to Edom as suggested in Midrash relating to our reading this week of Vzot Habracha. 2

Let us define violence broadly as doing something that causes distress to another creature. I engaged in “violence” this week against a perceived threat, a male Brush Turkey who decided to create a mount for himself in my backyard. I believed, falsely, that they are very territorial creatures who might harm my two year old daughter. I began my battle to get rid of it. I got on the internet to gather intelligence against my “enemy” and learned that these are determined creatures that will not go quietly. I spent two hours under the cover of darkness, reclaiming my land. I covered his mound with a sack and other stuff. I cleared excess leaves and watched him pace the next day, as our battle of wills played out.

I was wrong about the Brush Turkey. A knowledgeable friend persuaded me that my next planned step, putting down chicken wire would be very cruel. He told me that they are not territorial. They will come for a few months, lay eggs in the mound then go away. He also suggested that I was the colonizer as “they were here before us”. So I removed the impediments to the mound making. Now I am getting a lot of pleasure watching this amazing natural process play out as this energetic creature builds his mount by flicking leaves backwards, for hours on end.

As I reflect on my battle with my new friend. I notice how quickly people can be moved to perceive a threat and seek to eliminate it. The thinking can be focused on how to conquer the enemy instead of exploring how we might be able to coexist. Yet, unfortunately, not all conflicts are so easily resolvable. There are real enemies. These are not monsters. They are people that are essentially like me who are up against something they think threatens them or something precious to them.

This is one way for me to think about an implied message in the Torah reading this week that killing even family members is virtuous. Moses says of Levi. “The one who says of his father and mother, I did not see them, and his brother he did not recognise and his children he did not know”. 3 This is taken to mean that he was willing to kill his relatives who worshiped the Golden Calf, including his grandchildren. 4

I  Find this particularly disturbing in light of the following. In the final moments of Moses’ life, he blesses all but one of the Jewish tribes, 5 the one tribe that is left out in Simeon. This is the second time that all are blessed except for Simeon. Jacob’s deathbed blessings to almost all his sons instead contained a curse of Simeon’s and his Brother Levi’s anger because of their massacre of the inhabitants of the city of Shchem. However when Moses does his blessings, Levi is blessed while only Simeon misses out. One way of explaining this is that both brothers were like “borrowers” when they massacred the people of Shchem. However Simeon did not redeem himself, 6 Levi did redeem themselves in their conduct during the golden calf, which might be about the fact that they showed their loyalty by not worshiping the calf, but of course they also demonstrated their loyalty by the very disturbing killing in the previous paragraph.

To fight is not glorious although sometimes a decision is made that to fight is necessary to protect that which one cherishes. I recently attended a ceremony, alongside an Australian Sheikh of Turkish descent at Australia’s War Memorial. We heard about the personal sacrifices by young men who gave away most of their lives and about families who lost multiple members. Dr. Brendan Nelson, who spoke to our group, told us that the miserable business of war was ultimately about; love of country, about loyalty to “mates” and that our ability to live our lives in freedom is a result of their sacrifice. I was moved by the speaker. Yet, I am also aware of the temptation to minimize the brutal consequences of war on the “enemy”, the non-combatants caught in the cross fire, the psychologically damaged soldiers who suffer for years after the war in addition to “our soldier-martyrs” who lost their lives.
Violence is a complex business. We must continue to strive against it. It is a fight worth getting into, with compassion and determination.

2.    The verse states “God came from Sinai, and shined from Seir” (Deuteronomy 33:2), which is linked in Me’am Loez to a Midrashic story that God offered the Torah to various nations including Edom but was turned down. In the case of Edom, they refused to accept the Torah because of the prohibition of killing which the Midrash sees as being very much part of the nature of Edom.  Essentialising is one key element of prejudice which sees the person not as an individual human being to be taken as they are.
3.    Deuteronomy 33:9
4.    Rashi based on earlier sources, more specifically it is relates to them being willing to kill their grandfathers, half-brothers and grandchildren who worshiped the golden calf. Klei Yakar interprets this as a reference to the dedication to Torah study at the expense of family as the sage Rabba states in the Talmud (Eruvin 44) that Torah is found in one who is cruel to his children like a Raven and Rav Ada Bar Matna dismissed his wife’s concern when she asked him question “what will be with our young children?” as he was preparing to leave to study at the academy of Rav. He replied “there are plenty of greens in the meadow" Talmud Eruvin 22a, a variation of the theme of acting harshly to protect something, in this case one’s learning
5.    Deuteronomy 33:6-25
6.    Sifre 33:8, Ibn Ezra relates this to their idol worship and sinning with the daughters of Moab. The sin in this case was not that of Simeon alone, however it was predominantly members of this tribe that were implicated. This can be seen by the dramatic decline in the number of people of the tribe of Simeon in the census at the end of the book of numbers (26:14), 22,200 in comparison to the number of members of this tribe in the earlier census at the beginning of the book of numbers (1:23) 59,300.