Friday, November 25, 2016

Religious Texts divide us? & sky-high and deep conversations with Sheiks - Chayeh Sarah

Sitting on a plane to Perth with an Aboriginal elder on my right, and a Muslim Sheikh on my left, it was only natural that my thoughts turned to coexistence. One of the oft repeated comments about Muslim-Jewish relations (and the relationship between Muslims and others in general), is that although Muslims and Jews got along well in the past, this was only the case when the Muslims had higher status and the Jews were subservient, or “Dimhi”. This argument dismisses the golden age of Spain as being irrelevant to coexistence in the West today.

Good intercultural understanding practice requires finding out what Muslims think about these assertions. Ideally, by talking to an actual Muslim person directly, rather than by performing a Google search. My own community, in St Ives, was recently maligned based on some of my neighbours’ findings on the internet in the recent Eruv controversy (1).

Fortunately, I was sitting next to a learned Sheikh on this flight to Perth. He explained to me that the word “Dimhi” means “under protection”. He told me that: “one statement of the prophet Muhammad (in the Hadith) declared that a person who harms a Dimhi will not smell the fragrance of paradise” and that protection of religion/s was a core purpose of Sharia. The Sheikh acknowledged that he is not surprised by the alternative interpretation of “Dimhi” by people like ISIS, but such groups don't just have a problem in their attitude to non-Muslims but with anyone, including Muslims, who thinks differently to them. They regard everyone unlike them as not being ‘rightly guided’.  

Another useful approach is to explore this notion of acceptance as being conditional on subservience in my own Faith. Abraham's son Ishmael is said to have become a good man later in life. We know this because in the report about Abraham's burial, Ishmael is mentioned after Isaac (2). This sequence is taken as proof that Ishmael, father of the Arabs, honoured Isaac by allowing him to go first (3). Hmm. Something about people in glass houses comes to mind.

My first inclination was to look for alternative interpretations. I found one that highlights the fact that the Torah mentioned the obvious fact that Isaac and Ishmael were Abraham's sons, in this context, in order to hint that they were both equal in their honoring him [Abraham] (4). I was happy to find this interpretation that emphasises equality rather than superiority.

This second interpretation does not cancel out the first. I slept on this matter and my discussion with the Sheikh. It occurred to me, lying in bed after midnight, that perhaps it didn't make sense to impose secular literary political analysis on a religious text. The text is working from the assumption that it is a matter of absolute fact that Isaac was profoundly righteous. Ishmael honoring him is evidence of him humbly disregarding his status as an older brother, which serves as a lesson in humility for us. In fact it is written that Ishmael’s humble gesture earned Ishmael the merit to enjoy a place in heaven (5).

It was something the Sheikh said on the plane the previous day that inspired me to step back and question my critical approach. We were discussing portrayals of the Jews in Islamic stories. I asked if he could tell me the ratio between positive and negative portrayals. He told me that this kind of analysis had not been done. Instead he shared one story with me about a very pious Jew who met an outcast Jew. The outcast noticed that the pious man was enjoying the shade cast by a cloud hovering just above him. The outcast sat down near the pious man but was arrogantly sent away. God then forgave the outcast and canceled the pious Jew’s merit so both were at square one (6). On reflection this Muslim story is primarily a lesson for Muslims about humility rather than a commentary on Jews. It was more useful to understand what the story means to those who are guided by it than to impose an external lens to view it through.

On my return to Sydney, I had a chat with another Sheikh to plan an activity to foster interfaith understanding. Our conversations followed media articles sparked by references to another Muslim story also involving Jews, which were made during a lecture presented by this Sheikh. In this story, a murdered wealthy man was temporarily miraculously brought back to life by Moses  to identify his killer: a greedy nephew. Jewish villagers who were relieved of suspicion by this miracle still failed to believe in Moses despite his performance of this amazing miracle. The punishment meted out to the Jewish villagers 3000 years ago for their lack of belief was that God hardened their hearts (7). None of the context of the 3000 year old story was clear to those who viewed a YouTube video of the lecture. To them the Sheik appeared to be saying that “the Jewish [people- presumably in any time and place] have hard hearts] with no mercy, only envy and hatred”. There is no way to know for sure if even some of the members of the original audience also failed to understand the strictly contextual nature of the remarks. Sacred text is read by imperfect humans with various opinions and possibly, prejudices.

In conclusion. Curiosity and dialogue is crucial. There is value in resisting the temptation to rush to judgement. On the contrary, we are taught to be patient in judgement (8). Some traditional teachings might not appear compatible with modern principles of equality and embracing diversity. Let us continue to grapple with these.

  1. See my blog post….
  2. Genesis 25:9
  3. Talmud Bava Basra 16a
  4. Yalkut Ner Haschalim, manuscript, cited in Torah Shlaima, vol 2, p.998, note 34
  5. Midrash Hagadol, cited in Torah Shlaima, vol 2, p.998, note 34
  6. Imam Ghazali, in revival of the religious sciences
  7. This kind of punishment is also found in the Torah, in Exodus, in the case of Pharaoh whose heart was hardened after he chose the path of defiance instead of letting the Hebrews go free.
  8. Ethics of the Fathers

Friday, November 18, 2016

Dignity, Dialogue and Donald Trump

Human dignity is greatly emphasized in Judaism. The threat that Trump’s election poses to the dignity of women and minorities is very serious. As one Trump supporter put it: “the effect of Trump is that everything becomes permissible” (1). The risk is that Trump will normalise bigotry and hate-speech to the extent that we are less aware and less questioning of hurtful and humiliating behaviour in the future. However, our solidarity with minorities does not require dismissing the indignities of those doing it tough, including rural white voters who voted for Trump in overwhelming numbers. . Furthermore, I suggest we even take a moment to think about Trump’s own indignity. I know, I ask for a lot from many who are outraged about this election, but there is a time for everything, (2) and now more than ever is a time for dialogue and exploration rather than building walls.  

My call for dialogue does not preclude howling in indignation. On the contrary, it might well be a time “to hurl (assertive but civil and strictly verbal) stones”. To speak of Trump without condemnation is, in most cases, to condone his sins. His rhetoric against Mexicans and Muslims recalls the cruelty of the city of Sodom to outsiders in a xenophobic effort to preserve the wealth of its fertile valley (3). Condemnation counters the normalization of deplorable views, but of course calling people deplorable based on their likely voting intentions is unwise, and it is also wrong.

As Jews we need to emulate Abraham, who welcomed all travelers into his homes even if their beliefs (5) and values were diametrically opposed to his own. On social media, I have noticed a ‘trend to unfriend’ those who support trump by those opposed to him. The research shows that engaging people with prejudices can be effective (6) (see the article referred to in this footnote for one touching example of successfully canvassing for Trans rights through non-judgemental conversation and empathy). In such conversations it is important to listen more than we talk.

I tried some respectful engagement myself this morning in a Jewish Whatsapp group that includes some Trump supporters, where someone posted a racist comment. Instead of moralising, I appealed to self interest by pointing out that the racists who despise Muslims, Mexicans and Blacks also hate Jews. My comments on the Whatsapp chat emboldened other members of the group to also speak out against racism within the group chat.

Some have argued, and I think correctly, that one factor that contributed to Trump’s support was an anger by white rural voters toward  sophisticated city people who talked down to them. This perceived disrespect is part of what drove the anger toward elitism that pervaded American society, that was exploited, by Donald Trump to drive passion and energy into his supporters. This anger doesn’t justify degradation of any group, but we should not ignore the manifest anger that exists. This anger is borne of passion and stems from stories and backgrounds that we cannot always comprehend - but we should try to understand it and address any genuine injustices and needs. The distinction between condoning specific expressions of anger and understanding their sources can be applied when thinking about Trumps relationship with the media.

One of the most powerful articles I read about Trump was by a journalist who observed Trump rile up his rural poor audiences against the “elite” journalists. He recounts: “I was huddled in the media pen with the traveling press, awaiting the moment Trump would point at us and incite his 5,000 minions to jeer... (but) it only now dawned on me, in the final week of the campaign, to my great horror, that the real reason they put us in the pen was so they could turn us into props...He never once failed to invite his crowds to heckle us. He was placing us on display like captured animals. Behold, Trump said to his fans, I’ve rounded up a passel of those elites you detest. And I’ve caged them for you! Allow me to belittle them for your delight. Here, now you take a turn—go ahead, have at it! Do it again, don’t be shy!”.

However, an incident in 2011 suggests there might have been reveal a more personal l reason for Trumps enthusiasm for humiliating journalists, one which exemplifies the cycle of hurt and hate that Donald Trump was once a victim to, but is now perpetuating and leading. During that the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, Trump was repeatedly humiliated by President Obama and another comedian with cutting jokes. “Mr. Trump at first offered a drawn smile, then a game wave of the hand. But as the president’s mocking of him continued and people at other tables craned their necks to gauge his reaction, Mr. Trump hunched forward with a frozen grimace. After the dinner ended, Mr. Trump quickly left, appearing bruised” (7). He had been humiliated by 1000 laughing journalists. His revenge demonstrated that “hurt people, hurt people (8)”. We must break the cycle of hurt and take great care with our words (9). It is a time to heal!

Herein lies one lesson of hope from an otherwise draining election: We must employ a radical empathy and understanding to all those who we encounter, regardless of divergent ideologies. Indeed, Leviticus instructs that “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk.” Thus, despite the hate-filled rhetoric from Donald Trump and his supporters, that has served to embolden hate, and the hostility from city folk toward rural people, now is the time to move past that mood and embrace dialogue over division.

As Martin Luther King said “We’ve got some difficult days ahead..”, however “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”, for all people regardless of their skin color, gender, sexuality or faith. It our task, with patience, listening, compassion and curiosity as well as assertiveness to make sure that it does.

First published on At the Well.


  1. Ecclesiastes - Chapter 3
  2. Genesis 19, Talmud, Sanhedrin 109
  3. Rashi to Genesis 18:4

Friday, November 11, 2016

Eruv, An Angry Intercultural Misunderstanding And A Democratic Contest

It's the morning after a big night of democracy and I was still quite emotional about it. Two hundred of my neighbors attended a meeting at my local council to be part of a tense and dramatic debate about the “St Ives Eruv". “What is that?” many would wonder.  Apparently the answer to that question was hotly contested.

For some of my neighbors it is a highly divisive threat to the community, for others it's offensive infrastructure. For me, and for many Jewish members of the community, it's a technical religious solution to a practical problem, particularly for young Jewish mothers and their families. According to Jewish law, one should not carry anything in public areas on the Sabbath. For centuries this has meant that men and children went to the synagogue on Saturday morning for several hours of prayer and community while mothers of young children and babies stayed home, as pushing a pram or carrying a baby in public on the Sabbath is not permitted. Today's young women think of themselves as full members of the community and they are not happy to stay home, they also want to visit family and friends and to be included in community prayers on the Sabbath.

The solution to this problem has been the creation of a symbolic set of doorways, called an “Eruv” which would mean that the area encircled by these symbolic doorways would be deemed a great big courtyard, allowing them to push their prams and carry children. With the abundance of power poles in the area and the wires between them the simple addition of plastic conduits on the side of the poles completes the Eruv.

A few years ago an Eruv was proposed to the council, our local government authority. A website was created that referred to the Eruv simply as a wall. The council refused permission. I respect the democratic process and accepted the decision of our elected officials at the time. The organisers of the Eruv pursued the legal process further but eventually received legal advice that they didn't need council permission to proceed. The Eruv went up, allowing women to join their communities for prayers on the Sabbath..

Recently, the Eruv saga took a wild turn. A new application was lodged with council and some residents framed their opposition to it a leaflet. They claimed there was a real “risk of an Eruv morphing into a religious enclave”  Furthermore, “By the very nature of an Eruv, the process of segregation, as opposed to integration must take place.” And it was “establishing a modern version of the ghetto...and eventual expulsion of secular people who live within the Eruv.” These claims were essentially repeated to the packed meeting at Council.

The original translation of Eruv as a wall probably contributed to this misunderstanding. However, a big part of the problem was that opponents of the Eruv relied on internet research to understand their own neighbours’ religion and culture, rather than talking to them directly. One local Rabbi has challenged his congregation to reflect on how much or how little effort we as a Jewish community make  to connect with our neighbors. On the other hand, we heard at the meeting from a warm-hearted Jewish teacher and mother named Megan who actually knew the names of all the diverse people who live on her street.. She talked passionately about how the Eruv helps her connect with the wider community, rather than being divisive. A young lady who was not Jewish passionately echoed Megan’s sentiments.

It was hard to tell which way the tense meeting would go. One opponent argued that the original refusal was the decision of the umpire and must be respected. One councillor argued that this was all about human rights. An Anglican minister argued this was about religious freedom. Another councillor argued this was not about tolerance or rights, it was about plastic conduits! I think asserting that “the issue is categorically not what the other person is saying", is one of the most annoying tactics to use in a conflict, cross cultural or otherwise. Clearly for the 200 people in the room is was about needs, process and principles, not just plastic.

A stand out comment was made by a councillor who had lived near a mosque in the inner city. He talked about how he made friends with the people at the Mosque and there were no problems. In response to the concerns about a religious enclave and objections to the plastic conduits, he asked rhetorically, “really?!”

In the end, the vote was eight for the Eruv and two against. There was a great feeling of joy in the room for those who won.

I approached an elderly Jewish woman who had spoken against the Eruv on the ground that it would create a Ghetto. I listened to her politely. She told me to get with the times, and embrace the modern idea of assimilation. I held my tongue. I wanted to say that in fact in these times, we longer expect people to hide their differences. This conversation was on Tuesday night, Australian time. By the next morning the results of the US election were known and it seemed she was up to date with the Trump era while I stuck in the past age of Multiculturalism. I don’t accept that this is the case. Trump’s attitudes to women and certain non-whites, in my view, represents a fading (yet substantial) relic, still putting up one last fight. Practically all the speakers against the Eruv were angry, people of advanced age. The world has changed to embrace difference, but we need to fight to keep the change and foster greater acceptance of diversity or at least tolerance. On Tuesday night on the North Shore of Sydney, we had one very sweet small victory. More to come!   

Friday, November 4, 2016

Sexism: Is Religion The Cause or The Cure? Genesis 1-6

I think religious teachings impact different people in different ways; in some cases they work to  legitimise discrimination against women, while in others they restrain people from engaging in sexist behavior and attitudes. This question was sparked by a discussion I had with a Muslim teenager last week in which he asserted that faith plays a restraining role in people’s lives, by preventing them from enacting certain behaviours and that without it people would be out of control. I wondered about the apparent tolerance, on the part of many Americans, of Trump’s alleged behaviour and attitudes toward women. Can this phenomenon be attributed to a decline in religious mores or on the contrary, could it be caused to some extent by “Biblical sexism”. I explore this theme by looking at my own traditions relating to Genesis 1-6 (1).

There is a little known variation to the creation story. In this variation is the legend of Adam’s first wife, Lilith. Both she and Adam are created in the exact same way, from the ground. Lilith and Adam quarreled; Lilith insisted that she was equal to Adam. Eventually Lilith flew away and left Adam and was replaced by Eve (2). This shadowy woman is thought of today as a demonic threat to babies. Her name is mentioned on the prayer cards my Chabad community places on a baby’s crib, requesting God’s protection from Lilith. One implication contained in this story could be that a woman seeking equality is a problem. One commentator (3) states explicitly that the woman could not be completely equal to the man because then it would be inappropriate for her to serve him as the Torah suggests (4).

In the aftermath following Eve and Adam’s decision to eat the forbidden fruit, Eve was told by God that her punishment would be for her desire to be directed at her husband and “he will rule you!” (5). It is useful to ask if this assertion is a prediction or a prescription about how things should be.

One tradition asserts that God’s statement that men will rule women is prescriptive rather than descriptive. In a later period a drunken King demanded that his wife appear before him and his guests to show off her beauty. When she refused he had her killed (6). Afterwards he was comforted by an adviser named Memuchan, who, according to this commentary, was actually Daniel. Daniel told the king not to cry over Vashti because the King had done the right thing according to the Torah which states “he (men) should rule over you (women)” (7).    

Thankfully, there is an alternative perspective. In this interpretation, men ruling women would apply only  a consequence of an agricultural reality. One of the punishments for eating the forbidden fruit was that the production of food would require sweat of the brow and physical exertion (8). This would create an advantage for men, at the expense of women who would now be dependent on them. This “endangers the original equality (that God intended between men and women, but if the Torah is properly adhered to it would reestablish:) Man and woman again in an equal God-serving calling” (9). According to this view, with the shift to the knowledge economy, the value of brute physical strength has diminished and therefore the shift back to the ideal of equality of the sexes can and should be actively pursued.

The interpretation that supports equality would be consistent with the tradition that Eve was actually created at the same time as Adam, not from his rib, but as one part of a double human:  one side being Adam and the other side being Eve (10).

The divergent sets of guidance show the problem with jumping to conclusions about whether a religion “is sexist” or it is not. Interpretations vary both in text and practice. Outsiders to a tradition would need to be very cautious when making judgements or assertions. As an insider, I think it is useful to tease out the competing ideas,  to emphasise those teachings that support equality and to deal with the challenge of texts that might lead people to undesirable attitudes and behaviours.  

On the other hand it is useful to recognise the power that religion has in restraining people from wrongdoing, as my Muslim student suggested. In the unfolding story we are told disapprovingly of men’s treatment of women. The Torah’s standard for the male-female relationship is: “a man will leave his father and his mother and will cleave to his wife and they will become one flesh” (11) which is interpreted as finding common purpose “as if both of them are one existence” (12). This ideal was disregarded by Lemech who married two wives. One for the sole purpose of producing children, who he then left alone for the rest of her life, to live like a widow”, ignored by Lemech. The second wife was used only for sex, she was named Tzila, whose name means “shade” because she was always in Lemech’s “shadow”. She was given a contraceptive drink and was “adorned like a prostitute” (13). The objectification of women then degenerates with men taking from women “all that they chose” including rape. God was disappointed with the human project (14). The message is clear that God-fearing men would surely never consider behaving in such a manner or tolerating such behavior.

In conclusion, I passionately believe that it is generally wrong to blame specific bad behaviors or attitudes on a religion. Human beings are complex. We are driven by a variety of factors including individual characteristics, fears and experiences, psychological and cultural factors. However I think it is not truthful, nor useful to deny that religion can play a facilitating role in justifying sexist behavior or attitudes. Still, we must recognise the differences in attitude and emphasis between people who identify as adherents of the same faith and deeply explore the often complex and apparently contradictory teachings that lead to these divergences. No doubt many men’s faith prevents them from behaving badly toward women out of fear or respect of God. As for the rest, it is incumbent on all people regardless of religious affiliation, to strive for justice for all, including equality and dignity for the female half of the human family.

  1. Two main reasons for why I focus on my own faith tradition. a) I have expertise in my faith and know little about the faiths of others, I don’t think a Wikipedia/google based “research” of other faiths has much validity; on the contrary I think it is usually quite idiotic. b) I don’t think it is tactful to judge other people’s sacred texts. I accept that studies of religion students will need to think critically about other’s faiths. I suggest that in those cases, students approach the task humbly, as gathering provisional knowledge. People in positions of leadership, might be advised to take a more cautious approach.   
  2. Ben Sira quoted in Torah Shlaima part 2, p. 236, see note 256, the legend is mentioned in the Zohar twice,  Zohar Bereshit 34b, and Vayikra 19a, see also reference to Lillith in Talmud Shabbat 151a.
  3. Seforno commentary to Genesis 2:18
  4. Genesis 2:18
  5. Genesis 3:16, in Hebrew the same words are used to predict the future as to give a command. He will rule over you can also mean he should rule over you.
  6. The book of Esther
  7. Pirkey D’Rabbi Eliezer 48, cited in Torah Shlaima part 2, p. 275,121
  8. Genesis 3:19
  9. Samson Raphael Hirsch on Genesis 3:16
  10. Talmud Eruvin 11, cited in Rashi commentary to Genesis 2:21
  11. Genesis 2:24
  12. Seforno commentary to  Genesis 2:24
  13. Midrash Rabba/Beresheet Rabba chapter 23
  14. Genesis 6:2-3