Friday, May 31, 2019

Dis/Connect Between Lands and “their” peoples - Bechukotai

Recently, I joined a group of Australian born Muslim high school boys in watching a moving film called Before 1770, produced by Shaykh Wesam Charkawi. The film shows deep connections between Muslims and the land of Australia. We learned that “for hundreds of years, Aboriginal Yolngu and Muslim Macassans interacted. They married, traded, exchanged, [and] learnt from one another... The Aboriginal Yolngu have, to this day, preserved words, which were taught during the stay of the Macassans, [including the words] Allah and Muhammad” (1).

This outstanding film helps address the alienation that some young people feel from the place where they live. One of the issues that Muslims tell me is important to them is the degree to which young Muslims in Australia feel or don’t feel a sense of belonging in this country. There is a narrative out there that equates being Australian to being white, being of Christian and Anglo heritage and adopting a set of secular, cultural norms relating to modesty and drinking for example. If a young person accepts that narrative then the choice to identify with Australia can also seem like a betrayal of his or her religious identity. This film appears to separate the choices young people need to make between: connecting with the place of Australia and its long history on the one hand; and identifying with contemporary Australian society on the other.    

Let us put aside the broader question of how people with diverse beliefs and cultures relate to each other in the present and continue with the idea of feeling connected to a place and its history. Are places significant or merely a meaningless platform on which the real drama consisting exclusively of people plays out?  

In my tradition the relationship between a people and a land comes up in the reading this week. The Jewish people had an obligation to allow the land to rest for one of every seven years. In this week’s reading the Torah describes the consequences for the Jews of their failure to meet this responsibility, among other sins. “I will scatter you among the nations...Then, the land will be appeased regarding its sabbaticals. During all the days that it remains desolate while you are in the land of your enemies, the Land will rest and thus appease its sabbaticals (2).

The imagery of this verse is of a land that is resentful toward “its people”. The land is appeased only when the debt to it/her has been paid (3). It fits with a contemporary perspective about an exhausted, polluted planet earth-mother whose patience with her wayward human children is running out and her wrath is soon to be unleashed. This idea resonates for me when I walk in nature near my home, in the shade of nature’s abundant trees and the combination of its quiet and birdsong. The earth deserves care and respect rather than being exploited carelessly.    

It was disappointing to me to read the most popular Torah commentator, Rashi’s, interpretation of the verse above as referring to appeasing God rather than the earth (4). While that might make sense from a literal perspective it removes the opportunity to engage our imagination with the image of an aggrieved living land. However, I was pleased to find a supra-commentary that insisted that Rashi actually did embrace the idea of the land being appeased (5). (5). I was delighted when I found further proof about Rashi’s view in his own commentary on another verse in Chronicles where he is explicit about the appeasement of the land itself (6). The view that the earth itself is appeased is also supported by other commentators (7).

More controversially the relationship between the holy land and the Jewish people is interpreted as being expressed in profound loyalty between the land and “its people”. The Torah states that as part of the process of the Jews being exiled, God “will make the Land desolate” and “your enemies will “desolate [as a verb] upon it” (8). This is interpreted to mean that no other nation that occupies this land will ever truly thrive on it (9). “They will not manage to build walls or towers on it… as the land will not receive any nation or tongue… the land will not welcome anyone until her chicks return to her” (10). (Of course, these types of teachings can make it harder for religious Jews to truly listen to Palestinian narratives of loss of a thriving life on the land. This important and painful discussion is beyond the scope of this blog post.)

Returning to the group of boys at the beginning of this blog post, I can appreciate various ways that connections form between people and places. We are embodied spirits and our bodies exist in places. Our wellbeing is enhanced when we feel connected to where we live and care for those places. Having spent a few more sessions with the boys since we watched the film I trust that they will develop the connections between themselves, their place and accurate understanding of and positive connections with their multicultural, multi-faith diverse fellow inhabitants of this blessed country.

  2.  Leviticus 26:33 and 34
  3.  Chizkuni on this verse
  4.  Rashi on 26:34
  5.  Mizrahi, on Rashi 26:34, he explains that Rashi’s intention in shifting toward appeasing God is that ultimately, once the land itself has been appeased, the land, now reconciled to her people, seeks to appease God’s anger about how the land was worked during the Sabbatical year
  6. Rashi on 2 Chronicles, 36:20
  7. Chizkuni and Abrabanel, on Leviticus 26:33, Metzudat David and Metzudat Tzion on 2 Chronicles, 36:21
  8.  Leviticus 26:32
  9.  Rashi on Leviticus 26:32 based on Torat Cohanim/Sifra Bechukotai 6:8, 
  10. Bchaya, on Leviticus 26:32

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Interfaith Understanding through highlighting both commonality and difference, and inclusive and confronting texts and interpretations

14.05.2019. Yesterday, a group of visiting students from the Jewish, Emanuel School, sat at the front right hand side of a large room. A group of students from the host school, Granville Boys High, of mixed backgrounds including Muslim, Hindu and other unknown beliefs filed in. They sat down at the back left side of the room, leaving a big gap between them and the visitors. The day unfolded and something magical happened. As one student reflected at the end of the day “this morning we were two distinct groups, by the afternoon there was one big group”.

The desire to be one is strong. But we must take care that in trying to become one, we don’t simply become “color blind”, which means that we minimize difference. If we do, we don’t really embrace others as they are, we just pretend that they are exactly like ourselves(1).

The combination of acknowledging commonality while also recognizing difference was evident tonight at an Iftar dinner I attended. As the sun was setting many of the Muslims gathered to pray. It was also prayer time for me so I rose to pray alongside the Muslim worshipers. Unlike Muslim prayer, Jewish prayer involves minimal bowing. As I stood upright alongside the synchronized rows of men and women bowing in unison, the voice of a very young child called out loudly “why is that man not bowing?” The Muslim Sheikh and I reflected afterwards about how the two faiths worship the one God, but do it in different ways and that this is to be respected and celebrated. 

16.05.2019 I am sitting on a plane, traveling home to Sydney from Melbourne after speaking on a panel at my third Iftar dinner, at Deakin University. Our topic was how people of different backgrounds can get along better and the role that religion plays in this.

I suggested that religious leaders need to take responsibility for how we teach sacred texts. There are two ways we can do this. Either we directly confront “inconvenient texts” and grapple with how they are interpreted or we focus more on texts that have a positive inclusive message. My approach has been mainly the former, while Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ approach is the latter.

Before I switched my phone to flight mode I downloaded Sacks’ essay on minority rights(2). His starting point is the following verse. “If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them [as well as any(3)] (non-citizen) resident and an alien, so they can continue to live among you”(4). Sacks explains that: “There is, in other words, an obligation to support and sustain a resident alien and that not only does he or she have the right to live in the Holy Land, but they have the right to share in its welfare provisions.” The requirement for equal treatment is also recorded as law(5).

I am thrown by Sacks’ focus on this inclusive verse. I wrote out a list of all the challenging verses in the same reading, but I delete the list. I try to flow with his argument. He cited the example of an affair between the wife of alien soldier in King David’s army and the King.

King David has fallen in love and had an adulterous relationship with Batsheva, wife of a ger toshav, Uriah the Hittite. She becomes pregnant. Uriah meanwhile has been away from home as a soldier in Israel’s army. David, afraid that Uriah will come home, see that his wife is pregnant, realise that she has committed adultery, and come to discover that the king is the guilty party, has Uriah brought home. His pretext is that he wants to know how the battle is going. He then tells Uriah to go home and sleep with his wife before returning, so that he will later assume that he himself is the father of the child”. (6)

David’s plan failed. Uriah chose not to go home out of solidarity with the Israelites. Uriah’s words are recorded in the scripture. Uriah said to David, “The Ark and Israel and Judah are staying in tents, and my commander Joab and my lord’s men are camped in the open country. How could I go to my house to eat and drink and make love to my wife? As surely as you live, I will not do such a thing!” 

Sacks makes the point thatthe fact that Tanakh [the Bible] can tell such a story in which a resident alien is the moral hero, and David, Israel’s greatest king, the wrongdoer or villain, tells us much about the morality of Judaism.”

On reflection, I think there is a need for voices like Sacks to highlight the positive. There is also a need to confront the texts that can be taken to legitimise bigotry, which I will continue to do. While in Melbourne I held some discussions with the Jewish Christian Muslim Association about doing exactly that. It irritates me to no end when I hear non-Muslims focus on apparently difficult Islamic texts. I think it is more useful for people to grapple with their own texts and be honest about what is in them. However it is also important to highlight inclusive texts. It is not an either/or choice. It is a case of “and”. Challenging and inclusive text are worth exploring, just as it is valuable to focus on both similarities and differences(7).

Rev. Ian Smith in conversation on 16.05.2019.
Leviticus 25:35, there are some conditions to this law. See Sacks.
Maimonides, in Yad Hachazaka Hilkhot Melachim 10:12, cited by Sacks. “One should act towards resident aliens with the same respect and loving kindness as one would to a fellow Jew”
2 Samuel 11:6-11 in Sacks
Pedersen, A., Walker, I., & Wise, M. (2005). Talk Does Not Cook Rice: Beyond anti-racism rhetoric to strategies for social action. Australian Psychologist, 40, 20-30.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Ashamed of one’s child

6 May 2019. As I write these lines, my third oldest son is in the air. He is flying to return to study Torah in Kiryat Gat, Israel, which is only twenty kilometres from Gaza. I was unsure about him getting on the plane yesterday. I am worried about him and all the people who live in that area, both the Israelis in Southern Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza. But, the choice is his, because I do not “own” my son.

I wonder about the independence of children from their parents. I worry about parents feeling ashamed of their children’s failures or shortcomings based on the view that these failures reflect on the parents. It is hard on both parents and their children.

The following verse in the Torah reading this week jumped out at me and got me thinking about all this. “And, if a kohen's (a priest’s) daughter defiles herself through harlotry, it is her father that she desecrates; she shall be burned in fire” (1).

Let us put aside the terrible punishment which I have previously explored (2), except to make clear that these kinds of punishments have not been administered for over two thousand years. Let us also not address the worthwhile questions of why it is the father that we are concerned about but not the mother (3), and why we focus on the sins of the daughters but not those committed by the sons (4). Instead, let us focus on the question of the parent-child enmeshment.  

The verse begins with the word “and”, which implies a continuation of the content of the preceding verses. These verses are focused on priests being “holy”, which also includes a prohibition against the priest marrying a prostitute or a divorcee (an odd combination). One can infer from this that a man’s status is tied up with “his” women, as discussed last year (5).

The Talmud suggests that people will curse the father instead of honoring him (6). To put it another way: the daughter’s behaviour "causes her father to become belittled in the eyes of his friends, who 'know' that he failed miserably in the way he raised his daughter” (7).  This really makes me cringe. It is the equivalent of ‘what will the neighbors say?’. The focus here appears to be on the reputational risk to parents in positions of religious authority. As one man put it, “I wonder if any “clergy kids” have any trouble understanding the [painful] logic behind this verse? …they are raised in an environment of “don’t do anything to embarrass me” [the clergyman] or diminish my reputation” (8).

I feel confronted by the idea that a person would not be free to live their life as they see fit just because someone else needs them to preserve a certain image for someone else. Perhaps, it could be argued that this loss of respect for the dad by his community is improper (9), but it is an unfortunate aspect of human nature. However, according to one authority (10), the loss of respect from peers has even been formalized into law. According to this view, a Cohen-father, whose daughter has changed her faith to worship idols or committed adultery, would not be accorded the honors he would normally get as a Cohen (such as being the first to be called up for the Torah reading). Thankfully, this particular practice of implied shaming and blaming is certainly not practiced today (11).

There are authoritative interpretations that explain this matter as being about the daughter herself, rather than about her father. In these interpretations it is the daughter, not the father, who is desecrated by an act of adultery (12).  

As I reflect on these teachings, I am left with the following thoughts. On the one hand, as parents, we are the guardians of our children, entrusted with their wellbeing and education; we are not their owners. We need to support them in achieving success, but with our motivation being primarily to look after their best interests, and our pride being a secondary consideration. The principle of individual freedom is sacred to me. No one should be pressured to live their lives just to conform to another person’s vanity, opinions or dreams (13). On the other hand, however, as much as I don’t like it, parents' self-esteem is often tied up with their children’s achievements or failures. We dream for our children, we put our heart into facilitating their success, and it is hard to then be philosophical if they seem to be underachieving. It is appropriate for children to take into account the impact of their choices on their parents and other members of their families. We are all interconnected.  

1)     Leviticus, 21:9, translation based on Ibn Ezra and
2)     Cohen’s daughter… blog post
3)     The Chida, in Torat Hachida, Vol 3, p. 96, 16
4)     Abarbanel, on the Sidra, question 5
6)     Sanhedrin 52?, cited in Rashi
7)     Chizkuni
8)     Myron Chaitovsky, in a Facebook discussion. 7.05.2019
9)     Haamek Davar
10)  Mordechai, Chapter 6, Sanhedrin, cited in Torah Temima to this verse, also cited in Rema to Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim, 128:41),  
11)  See commentaries to Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim, 128:41, Taz, who cites 128:39 as proof, Magen Avraham, שיירי כנסת הגדולה and and Teshuvos Shvus Yaakov, cited in Be’er Haitev.
12)  Targum Unkelus, particularly as explained by Meshech Chochma, interprets this as her losing the holiness that she had previously received from her father that she desecrates within herself rather than desecrating her father, Targum Yonasan Ben Uziel, he interprets the reference to the father as a technical condition of the law, that it only applies in a case where she is married, or betrothed, but still living in her father’s house.
13)  Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk’s teachings on this resonate strongly for me. Including the following, cited in Dr. Twersky’s writing:  If I am I, simply because I am I, and you are you, simply because you are you; then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you, this particular version is cited in The Rift in Israel: Religious Authority and Secular Democracy (1971) by Samuel Clement Leslie, p. 145,

Monday, May 13, 2019

Synagogue Attack and “Wrong” Emotions

5 May 2019. The following blog post was written early last week. Death is now raining down on the people of southern Israel and Gaza. I feel devastated. I was also deeply saddened by the loss of Lori Gilbert-Kaye when I saw two images side by side: one with her and her daughter in joy together, and a second of her distraught daughter at her grave. May her memory be a blessing.

27 April 2019. It is Monday morning and I am tired. My Facebook feed is overflowing with expressions of collective grief and condemnation relating to the attack on a Chabad synagogue, in California on Saturday. Text messages of support from Arab Muslim friends are received and gratefully acknowledged. Otherwise, I say nothing publicly. A human being was murdered, a precious life taken, injuries and trauma inflicted in this attack on Jewish people from my community. It follows massacres in Sri Lanka, Christchurch, Pittsburgh and Egyptian places of worship. A jumble of thoughts and feelings flow through me, but I have no clarity.  

I feel like I am 7 years old again, at summer camp in the Catskill Mountains. My cousin was in hospital then. He had fallen out of a second floor window a week earlier. I was not terribly upset on that particular day. I remember vividly walking with my camp counselor between the house we were staying in at the infirmary when he told me I was a “Pay-Tzadik” (a bad person) because I was not sadder or praying for my cousin. I felt deeply ashamed and confused.

Of course, I agree with the people, both Jewish and not Jewish, who urged more love and less hate. It is just that the words have been said so many times that they sound hollow to me. It was the raw outpouring of grief and outrage across the world that I felt unsettled by.  

There was a time when I would be part of the choir. I would feel that this is not just any mass murder. No, this is an attack on us! When I was growing up in Brooklyn and we heard about a tragedy the first question was if there were any Jews involved. Now it was the Jews in a Chabad synagogue who were involved! Should I have felt like emoting like crazy? Instead I felt inclined to be quiet.

In the past my loyalty to my own people was questioned by others because of my empathy with Muslims. This time I questioned myself. Why am I not more upset about this?

It must be said that it is, generally, not useful to judge ourselves for having the “wrong” emotions. I care about hatred of Jews and I have done more to counter this than many of the emotional posters on social media. This matters more than the intensity of my current emotions.

Research into reducing social distance between members of minority communities and the “white” population found that it is possible “to improve children’s attitudes toward a racial outgroup without causing a negative impact on their feelings toward their [own] racial ingroup”1. I wonder if that finding is entirely true for me. Does my identifying with Muslims and Aboriginal Australians and empathising with their plight make me less tuned in to my own people? I am not sure.

What is clear to me is that we must care for “our own communities”, however we define them, as well as for those from backgrounds that differ to ours2. It is not for me, or any advocate for coexistence, to minimize the hatred against any group, and that includes Antisemitism in all its forms, which is wrong and must be combatted.

30 April 2019. The one emotion that I am both drawn to at this time to but also feel a little reluctant about is hatred toward bigotry itself. I think we learn from a young age that hatred is a bad emotion. The Torah commandment states “do not hate your brother in your heart”3. One commentator interprets the words “your brother” in this verse to indicate the degree to which we must avoid hatred. He argues that even the kind of hatred which is merely to feel a small measure of distance, e.g. to feel not quite like a brother, is still forbidden4.

Perhaps because of teachings such as these, hatred is a taboo emotion for many people. Yesterday I asked a group of Muslim and Jewish twelve year olds spending a day together: if hatred is so bad, why did God create hatred? The students replied that hatred was created for the purpose of being rejected, or as a contrast so we can better appreciate love.

It is nice to hear these sentiments but I think hatred has a purpose. Once, a gay student in a Together for Humanity program stated that she thought it was ok to hate her tormentors, her peers who taunted her and made her life miserable. One opinion in the Talmud suggests that hating evil doers has merit 5. Thankfully, this idea has been so heavily qualified and restricted according to one scholar 6, as to make it practically meaningless in terms of hating people. Instead we are taught to hate evil deeds 7 rather than sinners. I certainly and passionately hate, the twisted thinking, the indulgence of stupid lazy and insular thinking that legitimised the murder of a Jewish woman in a synagogue. I will continue to work to counter it.

1.     Levi, S.R., West, T. L., Bigler, R.S., Karafantis, D.M., Ramizez, L., Velilla, E. (2005) Messages about the uniqueness and similarities of people: Impact on US Black and Latino youth. Journal of Applied Development Psychology 26 p.728
2.     Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14
3.     Leviticus 19:17
4.     Ohr Hachayim commentary, translation/adaptation is from His “approach to this verse is based on the unusual structure of the verse. It should have read: "לא תשנא בלבבך את אחיך, the word "in your heart" which we consider central should not have been written at the end. [Based on his understanding of Hebrew Grammar] the source of the hatred, the heart, should have been mentioned before the object of the hatred, a fellow Jew. ...the message is that a person should not think that the Torah only forbids the kind of hatred which is the forerunner of acts of revenge or violence but does not forbid harbouring ill feelings towards someone in one's heart. By mentioning the object of one's hatred immediately next to the prohibition to hate, the Torah made it clear that even the kind of hatred which is not related to acts of retaliation is forbidden. As soon as a person distances himself mentally and emotionally from his fellow Jew he begins to violate the prohibition of hatred as defined by the Torah in this verse”.
5.     Talmud Pesachim, 113b, Maimonides in Yad Hachazaka, Hil Rotzeach Ushmiras Nefesh 13:14
6.     Tanya, chapter 32
7.     Beruria in the Talmud, Brachot, 10a