Friday, July 19, 2019

Norman Rothfield Dissent for Peace Justice and Dignity for All -Parshat Korach

Disclaimer: In this blog post I wrote about a man who dedicated himself to the needs and rights of his fellow man both within and beyond his community, as he understood them. I request that readers do not infer an endorsement of every political opinion that this passionate and prolific man stood for. It is not my intention to say anything other than what I wrote below. Zalman

Arno Michaelis is a former white supremacist leader, with tattoo covered arms - turned peace advocate. Arno walked into a Sydney Kosher restaurant to join me for lunch recently. He struck me as a passionate, joyful man. Soon after he was seated, he requested the super hot Yemenite spice called Srug, which he clearly loves. Over lunch, Arno quipped that he enjoyed “pissing people off”. “It is what led me to those activities back then...''. And “I still do…” he said. “Recently, I had 400 kids singing Salaam/Shalom in Arabic and Hebrew at an event in Milwaukee, I know it really infuriates the extreme right”. Arno clarified to me that although he has some “contrarian tendencies...I'm not contrary to people. I'm contrary to the ideas that found violent extremism, be they from either side of the political spectrum, or racial, or religious. My opponents are ideological and spiritual illnesses, not the human beings stricken by them”.

I have been reading the memoirs of the late Australian Jewish peace and social justice advocate, Norman Rothfield. In contrast to Arno’s comment to me, which appeared to make light of the hostility of his old peers, Norman expressed sadness about the loss of old friendships. He wrote that “...more painful was the attitudes of a few long-standing friends. Invitations gradually came to an end, to some homes we had visited for thirty years or more” (1).

I am intrigued by the motivations of those who get involved in communal affairs. Perhaps this is due to the influence of the Muslims that I work with, who emphasise intentions. Rothfield shared two key motivations in his book. One was personal; while growing up, he was confronted with his father’s “neglect of Mother... his failure to share responsibility and his vile temper”. There was a severe shortage of money and young Norman was disturbed by the unjust way that his father dealt with this. When his mother asked for money to pay the bills, his father “would lose his temper...he would accuse mother of incompetence and extravagance, which was nonsense. Her personal 'extravagance’, compared with his, was trivial… He had dozens of perfectly tailored suits…” Norman’s father would angrily “storm about, bang doors, then get in his car and disappear. I would then find my mother weeping bitterly, and moaning ‘what can I do?’” (2). These experiences led him to develop a determined approach to organising and acting against injustice.

A second motivation was a passion for justice, with deep roots in his Jewish tradition. While Norman lost his faith in some of Judaism’s Truth claims, he still embraced its ethical teachings, notably; the pursuit of justice, sensitivity to the wishes of one’s neighbour, and a vision of peace  (3). He rejected the argument that his not believing in the divinity of the Torah meant he had no right to quote the Torah. Indeed, the Torah is the heritage of every Jew (4).

It hurt him that he was falsely accused of being a traitor to his people. His work exemplified the principle “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?” (5). He cared passionately and advocated for his fellow Jews, in his work on the Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism and many other forums, over decades. However, his concern was not limited to his own people but extended to Palestinians, Aboriginal people and others. Norman called for people in the different communities to “recognise the bravery of the other side and recognise that they need help in reducing tensions” and find common ground between faiths (6). He vehemently rejected the formula of “my side, right or wrong” and courageously spoke his truth, even as he observed others fall silent under pressure to conform (7).

Despite the opposition, and later his advanced age, Norman continued his advocacy. In a touching tribute his son David gave his father at his eightieth birthday, he acknowledged the longevity of his father’s advocacy. “You are old, and for some twenty leap years, you have fought for one cause or another. Can’t you rest on your laurels? Take three jolly cheers and live calmly without any bother?” (8). However, endurance in controversy is linked in our tradition to the purity of motivation (9). This matters, because unlike Rothfield, the Biblical contrarian, Korach was driven by less altruistic instincts such as his arrogance, and lust for honor and money (10). Challenges to communal consensus should be evaluated, at least in part, by the motivations and track record of those offering dissenting views. Rothfield deserves the benefit of the doubt on both counts, with his positive intentions demonstrated in his vast amount of activity in close collaboration with fellow Australian Jewish leaders, over many years.   

Another consideration is timing. Moses tried to slow down the pace of the confrontation between himself and Korach, and suggested that some of it wait until the next morning (11). Their conversation was in the afternoon and at the time wine was a common drink consumed during an afternoon meal. “It is a time of drunkenness”,  Moses told Korach (12). However, Moses was actually hinting at the “drunkenness of controversy” (13) rather than that caused by wine (14). Like the example of Arno at the beginning of this article, contrariness or the drama of conflict can be a motive in fighting against others in a community. This is delicate work that requires the clarity of heart and motivation symbolised by morning. Over lunch, it became clear to me that Arno is overwhelmingly motivated by the joy of embracing and affirming the differences of his fellow human beings, his contrariness being merely secondary.


1)     Rothfield, N, (1997), Many Paths to Peace, The Political Memoirs of Norman Rothfield, Yarraford Publications, Melbourne, p.183.
2)     Rothfield, N, (1997), p. 5.
3)     Rothfield, N, (1997), p. 176-177 and in many other parts of the book.
4)     Deuteronomy 33:4.
5)     Hillel in Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14.
6)     Rothfield, N. (1998), The Trial of God, Hudson, Hawthorn, p.226-227.
7)     Rothfield, N, (1997), p. 137.
8)     Rothfield, N, (1997), p. 186.
9)     Ethics of the Fathers, 5:17.
10)  R. Vidal Tzarfati,  quoted in Chida, Torat Hachida, Korach 11, p. 100. See also SHaCh, quoted in Chida, ibid 4, p. 97: Korach was of the tribe of Levi which was the poorest Jewish tribe among those who left Egypt. Eleven of the twelve tribes had been enslaved by the Egyptians, the Levi escaped slavery. Therefore, when members of the eleven tribes saw the riches left by the Egyptians who drowned in the sea, they rightfully helped themselves to these treasures as compensation for unpaid wages. The Levites refrained as they had no rightful claim. Despite the disparity of wealth the Levites were not jealous of the other Jews. There was one exception, Korach, who lusted after money.
11)  Numbers 16:5.
12)  Rashi on Numbers 16:5, based on  Bamidbar Rabbah 18:6.
13)  Mizrachi supercommentary, on Rashi’s commentary to Numbers 16:5.
14)  Isaiah 51:21.

No comments:

Post a Comment