Friday, February 9, 2018

Essentializing (Yitro)

I’ve recently had a few experiences related to the practice of essentializing, which have touched me. Essentializing a racial or religious group, in the context of this discussion, involves two main aspects: firstly, seeing a group as being defined by certain characteristics and, second, thinking of cultures or religious communities in either/or terms (1). 

Last Monday I felt enraged by the petulant, defiant expression on the face of the young man who gave a gun to a fifteen year old boy to murder the Sydney police accountant, Curtis Cheng. The accused man refused to stand before the judge hearing his case. The young man in the photo is holding up one finger. I understood this to symbolize his view that he is on the team of the one God while the rest of humankind is the evil undeserving “them”. I was furious.

One of the spiritual masters of my faith taught people to look within when feeling outraged. He argued that anger about others’ faults is actually a reaction to seeing something ugly reflected in the other, that we are trying to deny in ourselves (2). This explanation is not accurate in this case as I have very little in common with this young man.  However, I still reflected on my reaction to this incident. I think that it stirred me up because it forced me to confront residual essentialising tendencies I was not aware of.

Of course, I understand that the evil behaviour of an individual does not represent the nature of 1.6 billion Muslim people. I also know that even the complimentary phrase that “Muslims or Jews are good people” is a generalisation. Research found that even complimentary comments (based on being part of a group) can be experienced as being expected to conform to a stereotype rather than being seen as an individual (Czopp 2008) (3). Despite this knowledge, this image rankled me. I realise that, although I reject the essentialist stance, it still has some residual place in my thoughts. This made me feel ashamed, which then probably triggered my anger. 

The themes of essentialism and shame also came up for me in a movie parable, Zootopia, that I watched this week. The hero is a liberal, little rabbit named Judy Hopps, who becomes a police officer. The setting is a world in which a lion works in the same office as a lamb. Yet, all is not well in la-la land. The minority of animals that used to be predators, face discrimination and suspicion from the “prey” majority. When a few predatorial animals revert to being aggressive animals, Judy explains it based on biology. Judy's friend, the fox, is hurt and feels betrayed by Judy, who, herself, feels ashamed.

As a viewer, the premise of the Zootopia message can be inferred to be ‘that, like animals, humans of certain groups, eg Arabs or blacks, might have a different and savage DNA, but we can all be whatever we want to be, so let's get along’. I feel offended in solidarity with my fellow humans who are not like wild animals and should not be essentialized by implication (4). On the other hand, I think it invites the viewer to examine whether we too have a bit of Juddy Hopps’ fear lingering in our psyche.

The third confronting moment was reading commentaries on the Torah reading of the week. First, let me give the context. A convert to Judaism (5), named Jethro, was told about the punishments that God inflicted on the wicked Egyptian slave-masters of the Israelites, and the salvation of the Israelites (6). While Jethro gave thanks for the relief enjoyed by the Israelites, he didn’t show much enthusiasm about the punishments (7). The Talmud suggests that Jethro was pained by the suffering of the Egyptians because he felt empathy with them, despite his strong identification with the Israelites and their triumph. It advises people not to denigrate an Aramean (or non-Jewish people in general) in front of a convert up to 10 generations (8).

Jethro’s complex set of sympathies and the advice of the Talmud about sensitivity are interpreted darkly as evidence of his ‘non-Jewish nature’. It is linked to the assassination of Gedlia Ben Achikam, a Jewish governor of the holy land, in ancient times, by a descendant of a convert, and a caution against trusting the descendants of converts even after 10 or 24 generations! (9).

The essentialising of people of non-Jewish ancestry by attributing violent tendencies to their genealogy, is deeply troubling. Fortunately, there is an alternative more positive interpretation of the Talmud’s statement about 10 generations. Instead of a message of mistrust, it is taken as a lesson in compassion. With this approach, the 10 generations is not about the ancestry of the convert, who might be the audience of a derogatory remark, but about the target of the remark (the Arameans). It provides guidance about a situation like that of the Egyptians, where a nation has engaged in evil acts such as enslaving people, but it has not lasted 10 generations. In that case, we must not rejoice in their punishments as “their measure of evil is not full”. God, Himself, is also saddened by the punishment of people not entrenched in multi-generational evil. We should be, too (10).

The tendency to essentialise people as this or that, is a strong and harmful one. We need to be alert to it and seek alternative ways of thinking about people when these kinds of thoughts arise. No matter what our background is, we all have positive and negative qualities, and we should each be judged on our individual merit.      

1)     Armstrong, J, (2003)  Power and prejudice: Some definitions for discussion and analysis Jan Armstrong, University of New Mexico (3/24/03)  “Essentializing means attributing natural, essential characteristics to members of specific culturally defined (gender, age, ethnic, "racial", socioeconomic, linguistic...) groups. When we essentialize others, we assume that individual differences can be explained by inherent, biological, "natural" characteristics shared by members of a group. Essentializing results in thinking, speaking and acting in ways that promote stereotypical and inaccurate interpretations of individual differences. For example, feminists note that people essentialize women when they assume that girls and women are naturally emotional (versus rational), nurturant, docile, weak, vain, dependent (and so on). Essentialist thinking is often anchored in dualistic (two-category, either this - or that) modes of thought. Classic and contemporary social theorists identify and challenge essentialist and dualistic ways of thinking about the social world (...civilized/barbaric; masculine/feminine; intelligent/not intelligent; rich/poor; white/non-white...psychological/cultural...)”.
2)     Toldos Yaakov Yosef, in an interpretation of the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov.
3)       Czopp A.M. (2008) When is a compliment not a compliment? Evaluating expressions of positive stereotypes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44 (2008) 413-420.
4)     Matt Zoller Seitz, gives a fuller expression of my concern at
5)     Talmud, Sanhedrin 94a
6)     Exodus 18:8-9
7)     Alshich, and Torah Temima on Exodus
8)     Sanhedrin 94a
9)     Jeremiah 41:1-2
10)  Radak on Jeremiah 41:1, Rabbenu Tam, cited in Torah Shlaima on Exodus
11)  Maskil Ldovid, R. David Pardo, on Exodus 18:8-9  in Otzar Meforshei Rashi

Friday, December 22, 2017

Shades of Contrition Regarding Betrayal of Young People Miketz

But we are guilty regarding our brother, that we saw his distress when he pleaded with us but we didn't listen…” (1). These words were read in Australian synagogues last Saturday, just one day after the release of a report - from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse - about the betrayal of children (2). These words of contrition were spoken by the brothers of a defenceless young person who had been cruelly betrayed by them. The brothers of the Biblical Joseph had stripped him of his striped tunic, violently thrown him into a pit with snakes and scorpions (3), and then sold him into slavery (4). Both - the Biblical brothers of Joseph and religious leaders in our time - have offered apologies. However, contrition can be tricky to get right. In this post I explore the remorse of Joseph’s brothers and the implications for today.

As I read the Torah reading last week, I was struck by an apparent reversal of the brothers’ admission of guilt. Only seven verses after they accepted responsibility and linked their troubles with their crime, they seem to abdicate responsibility (5). The brothers found money in the bags of grain that they had bought from Egypt and assumed the money was planted there as part of a plot to accuse them of theft. They cry out “what has God done to us?!” This phrase is interpreted as them asking why God is punishing them “for no fault of their own” (6).  
The stark contrast between the contrition the brothers expressed and their complaint is discussed by various commentators (7). Some of these offer some technical, “very labored” (8) answers, giving reasons why the brothers felt they did not deserve any further punishment  after their ordeal in Egypt (9). Alternatively, the brothers thought that the main blame lay with the two key perpetrators, rather than those who had supported their deeds (10). For me, there are also simpler, more obvious implications of their cry, which relate to the difficulty of sincere and sustained contrition.  

A clear critique of the brothers’ complaint, quoted in the Talmud (11), was articulated by a young boy. He was an orphan and a nephew of the leading sage of that period, Rabbi Yochanan.“[The boy’s uncle] Rabbi Yocḥanan found the young son of [his brother in law] Reish Lakish, when he was sitting and reciting the verse: “The foolishness of Man perverts his way, and his heart frets against the Lord” (12).  The child told his uncle that the complaint of Joseph’s brothers when they asked “...What is this that God has done to us?” exemplifies the proverb that when one sins and encounters troubles, they often foolishly question why it is happening to them - despite their obvious guilt (13).  

It's hard for religious leaders to acknowledge the failures of our heroes. One of the men I most admired since I came to Australia, a leading Rabbi, was implicated in the royal Commission process as having failed to protect children. Similarly, in the Talmudic story, the senior religious leader appeared displeased with his young nephew’s critique of the iconic sons of Jacob. In contrast to the sages who praised the brother's contrition (14), this child drew attention to the weakness of their repentance. The senior sage Rabbi Yochanan “raised his eyes and stared at the boy. At this point, the boy’s mother came and took him away” to protect him from his uncle's “gaze”.

Some earlier attempts at apology (by representatives of the institutions where sexual abuse occurred) were described by Mr Manny Waks - a survivor of sexual abuse and campaigner on this issue - as “so qualified in its terms that he found it to be insulting” (15). Rabbi Moshe Gutnick was also less than impressed, making the comment that it was an “apology perfectly timed only a few days before the Royal Commission in order to maximise the PR effect”. He added, “and how did that make victims feel? They knew it was empty, they knew it wasn’t real…” (16).  

Last week the representative body of Orthodox Jewish clergy in Australia and New Zealand (RCANZ) issued an emphatic expression of contrition for the way we - collectively - responded to the betrayal of children and youth in terms of sexual abuse. It stated that “ The findings [of the royal commission] ... in relation to the failures of the rabbinic leadership of Yeshiva Sydney and Melbourne, must shake us to the core… We can make no excuses and any apology we may make at this time must not be mere platitude.  ...We must truly absorb the horror, that the Royal Commission has found, that instead of being protectors of the weak and innocent, Rabbis were directly responsible for the sexual abuse that occurred to children. There can be no greater shame, and no greater admonition to all of us, than that failure…. We of the RCANZ have resolved to do everything we can so that the light we generate dispels once and for all, the darkness that is the abuse of children and the abuse of survivors” (17).   I pray that this time the contrition is deep and enduring, and results in ensuring no child is ever betrayed by Jewish Australian religious institutions again.

We dare not backpedal on our confession, that indeed ‘we are guilty regarding our brothers [and sisters], that we saw their distress when they pleaded with us but we didn't listen…’

  1. Genesis 42:21
  2. Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse
  3. Talmud Shabbat 22a, cited in Rashi on Genesis 37:24
  4. Genesis 37:23-28
  5. Genesis 42:28
  6. Targum Yonasan Ben Uziel on Genesis 42:28,
     “וּנְפַק מַנְדַע לִבְּהוֹן וְתַוְהוּ גְבַר לְאָחוּהִי לְמֵימַר מַה דָא עָבַד יְיָ וְלָא בְּחוֹבָא דִילָנָא:”
  7. Maharsha, on Talmud Taanis 9a, Maharshal in Yeriot Shlomo and Tzeda Lderech on 42:28
  8. Torah Temima on 42:28 writes about the Maharsha טרח מאד
  9. Maharshah on Taanit 9a, Seforno and Tzeda Lderech on 42:28
  10. Maharshal/Yeriot Shlomo on 42:28
  11. Talmud Taanit 9a
  12. Proverbs 19:3
  13. Maharshah on Taanit 9a,
  14. Midrash Hagadol on 42:21 cited in Torah Shlaima, p. 1583, 77, Rabbenu Bchaya p. 341, Mosad Rav Kook Edition.
  15., p 195 (in the printed version, p. 205 in the online pdf version).
  16., p 195
  17. Statement of the Rabbinical Council of Australia and New Zealand

Friday, November 3, 2017

Masculinity and Faith. Sara Denounced to Abraham for laughing in Vayera

Toxic masculinity is on our radar, manifesting in sexual harassment, rape, aggression and chauvinism. I wonder about the nature of non-toxic masculinity. What is it exactly? Is it realistic to have faith that men will express their masculinity in healthy ways? I don’t know how to answer my first question. The answer to my second question is to suggest that the question itself is flawed, because realism is not very useful in deciding whether to have faith in men. Faith in men requires a positive choice to believe we can get it right, despite some of the evidence.

The Torah’s teachings about the role of men often seem at odds with modern perspectives about gender roles. Perhaps the most controversial concept is the idea of a man as the “head of the household”. God declared to Eve representing all women, that “he will rule you” (1). Perhaps that was a prediction of how men would wrongly fully dominate women rather than a prescription of how things ought to be. Yet, there is some evidence that God seemed to think that men are rightfully in charge of women. When the barren Sarah laughed about a divine promise that she would bear a child at an advanced age, God complained to Abraham about his wife’s laughter (2). Is this not an expression of Abraham’s “headship” of his household?!

The passage in which God appears to speak to a husband about his wife’s alleged misbehaviour has been on my mind this whole week. It linked in my mind to the image, circulated on social media, of actor Adam Sandler putting his hand on the leg of Clare Foy, an actress sitting next to him during an interview. In the widely circulated image, Foy looks uncomfortable. (I must mention that I had not seen the rest of the tape until later, nor was I aware that Foy released a statement that: “We don’t believe anything was intended by Adam’s gesture and it has caused no offence to Claire.Regardless of the facts in the Sandler-Foy case too many men behave in entitled ways toward women. Does this verse not imply that God regarded Abraham as Sara’s boss and therefore complained about his wife to him?!

Perhaps not. Both Abraham and Sarah both responded with laughter to God’s promise that Sarah, aged 90, and Abraham aged 100, would have a child together (4). Both of them were deserving of reprimand (5) because they doubted God’s promise based on the available evidence, of their advanced age and the impossibility that a birth could occur. God chose not to reprimand Abraham at that time because to do would detract from the celebration of a significant history altering act that Abraham was engaged in at that time. Circumcising himself which symbolised that men can constrain their sexual drive and commit to doing so as part of an overall covenant with God (6). There is a precedent that proves the principle that God would not distract from celebration of a great moment with punishment when a sin occurred around the time the Ten Commandments were given, but there was no punishment or reprimand (7).

Abraham had ample justification to be sceptical about a miraculous birth, and a covenant to transcend human frailties. This is expressed in him falling on his face (8). God hints at a reprimand by telling him “but indeed Sarah will give birth!” Have faith! (9)

Sara is keen on evidence based approach. According to one interpretation her laughter was not about God’s impossible promise, but in surprise to her body changing suddenly into a younger version of herself, losing her wrinkles and suddenly having her period. This is what upset God. This looking for evidence and only when it is presented belief follows (10). If we want our society to work, we need to believe despite some evidence to the contrary that we can make it work.

When God reprimanded Sarah, through Abraham, it was intended for both of them. For Abraham indirectly and for Sarah directly (11). In this interpretation the question about Sarah’s laughter is not about male position, but about a delicately delivered lesson about faith at a particularly tricky time. This removes one more Biblical excuse for male chauvinism. Based on available evidence, many men will continue to relate to women appallingly. However I choose to put aside that evidence and keep my faith that men can and will learn to relate to women as equals, with care and respect.

  1. Genesis 3:16
  2. Genesis 18:9-14
  3. Genesis 17:15-17
  4. Midrash Hagadol, cited in Osnayim Latorah, p. 121, (thanks to Chayim Lando for drawing this to my attention) and Akedat Yitzchak 18:1
  5. Akedat Yitzchak 18:1
  6. Exodus 24, as explained in Vayikra Rabbah 20, cited in Akedat Yitzchak 18:1
  7. Genesis 17:17 as interpreted in Akedat Yitzchak 18:1
  8. Genesis 17:18-19 as interpreted in Akedat Yitzchak 18:1
  9. Ohr Hachayim on Genesis 18:12-13, drawing on Midrash, Talmud, Bava Metzia, cited in Torah Shlaima p.761, 154.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Seeing and not seeing - Reflections on my trip to family in New York - Noach

I'm sitting on a flight back home from New York with my young son. Last night both of us danced the night away at the wedding of my niece. I am still savouring the joy of being with family, and observing the delight of my young child. Yet, my tradition, turns our attention to sadness amid joy. A glass is broken during the Jewish marriage ceremony to remind us of loss 1).  Oddly, this sombre gesture is not honoured by a reflective silence, on the contrary, immediately after the crashing noise everyone erupts into joyous exclamations of Mazal Tov! Shifting our awareness away from and almost subverting the touch of sadness. This blog is a reflection on choices relating to seeing and “embracing all that is” 2).

My time in New York has been both happy and sad. I've spent time with my parents and siblings and my oldest three sons who are studying away from home. I feel unsatisfied with the short time we had. Our ten days together were cluttered with tasks and competing priorities. In the story of Noah’s ark, a family is in close proximity but they are so busy feeding the animals, including the nocturnal animals that the husbands and wives don't manage to organise to leave the ark together 3). Yet, it is in the mundane physical domain that love is often expressed, in a meal baked or bought, dishes cooked or cleared.

I was confronted by the importance of the physical dimension of love at a memorial service I attended in New York for Mendel Brickman, a friend and a father who died one year ago in his mid-forties. His spirit was felt strongly in the room in the words of his children and widow, and in a talk by a hospital roommate who was touched by his energetic kindness, and care. His spirit fought courageously against his loss of breath and health. He was always focused on the positive. In a sense, Mendel beat mortality by sheer force of will and his living on in the lives of his family. Still, they miss his physical presence, and so do I and so many others.

In acknowledging our physical humanity, we are confronted by the human imperfections we all have. In the first instance it's about averting our eyes from the embarrassing aspects of the other person. Two of Noah's sons covered their father's nakedness when he was drunk as they chose not to see his disgrace 4). A selective view of others is often appropriate.

However, sometimes we must choose to see and acknowledge disgrace and act. While in the US I learned of the revelations about the abuses of power by a movie mogul that were allowed to go on for too long. Powerful men feeling entitled to women's bodies is referenced in the Bible as a reason for Noah’s flood. “The sons of the Gods saw the daughters of men, that they were good [looking], so they took any women they chose” 5) even without consent 6). The Torah could not be more emphatic in its condemnation of this behaviour.

In summation. There is merit in an approach that generally emphasises the positive and overlooks some faults and sad parts of life. On the other hand, there are challenges relating to human frailties that need to be noticed and talked about in workplaces, communities or families. Ideally, talk would resolve matters in accordance with the teaching that ‘to be reconciled over a glass of wine is to have an aspect of the mind of God’ 7). In other cases people can show support in a range of ways from taking action to simply being there for each other with care.

Back in my seat on this plane I can see daybreak over the Pacific and I can see my content little son sitting beside me. I feel grateful.


  1. The breaking of the glass is symbolic, particularly of the destroyed temple in Jerusalem, but it represents broader loss.
  2. Bennett, P. In the Cranky Guru
  3. Talmud Sanhedrin 108b Comment on Genesis 8:19 and as explained by Torah Temimah on this verse.
  4. Genesis 9:23, see Rashi commentary
  5. Genesis 6:2
  6. Ramban, Ibn Ezra on Genesis 6:2
  7. Talmud Eruvin 65b

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

“Goyim” A Sukkot Reflection: Attitudes to People Who Are Not Jewish (Vzot Habracha)

A Sukkot Reflection:
Proper Jewish Attitudes to People Who Are Not Jewish

Tuesday, Chol Hamoed Succot. A white bearded Rabbi walking with his student, told me that I was saved. He saw me stop on Kingston Avenue, Brooklyn, to consider giving a bill to a woman begging. He was relieved to hear that I had not given her money because he told me that she is a Gypsy, she is not Jewish. I was feeling bad that the Australian currency in my wallet was of no use to her so I told her I was sorry. Now, I was being told it was good I didn’t give her anything. I didn’t argue with the Rabbi that our law requires us to sustain the poor of the nations along those of Jews (1). Sadly, I did not think the argument would go anywhere. I grew up here and I know that the old Rabbi was reflecting an insular culture that is considered normal here.  

Sunday, Chol Hamoed Succot. I am sitting on an aeroplane during the Jewish Festival of Sukkot, with my seven year old son. For all I know, he and I might be the only Jewish people on this fight. It doesn't matter at all. Except for the fact that most of the passengers got a hot meal, while we got an apology for our absent Kosher meal. Nothing unusual about this, except that this is very different to how I would have experienced such a flight when I was a seven year old. I would have been acutely aware that I was surrounded by “Goyim”, a noun used in certain insular Jewish communities (such as my own) to refer to people who are not Jewish.

Jewish holy days are generally focused on Jewish stories and history. In the case of Passover, which commemorates the Jewish exodus from Egypt, the Torah explicitly forbids “any foreigner” from partaking of the Paschal lamb (2). An exception to this is the Sukkot festival that Jews are celebrating this week. The tradition for this festival not only permits involvement by non Jewish people, it adamantly insists on it (3). In addition,  concern for their welfare was a focus of the festival sacrifice schedule.

The total number of oxen offered as sacrifices during the festival was 70. These seventy oxen correspond to the original seventy nations of the world [representing all of humanity]...Israel brought these sacrifices... in prayer for their well-being” (4).

In the Torah reading relevant to the week of Sukkot we read a poetic phrase: “Also, You cherish nations; all his holy ones are in Your hand” (5). One authoritative commentator, Rabbi Ovadia Seforno, (1475-1550) explains the verse to mean that “even though you [God], cherish all nations and with [this love] you have made known that the entire human species is a treasure for You. For our sages have stated “humans are beloved as they have been created in the image [of God]”, (6) however in addition to the love God has for all people, Moses asserts a special relationship between God and the Jews who follow the Torah (7).

On the other hand, it is significant that nine other prominent commentators choose to stretch the meaning of the “nations”, who are beloved, as referring to the twelve Jewish tribes (8), or to converts to Judaism from other nations (9), rather than simply referring to the non-Jewish nations. One explanation of the reluctance to acknowledge the love G-d feels toward all people in these interpretations, is based on the context of this verse, which is focused on the Jews receiving the Torah from God at Mount Sinai. In addition the first word of the verse, “also”, indicates that this verse is a continuation of the topic in the previous verse (10).

The contrast between the one commentator, known as Seforno, who reads our verse as affirming the love God has for all of humanity, and the views of the other nine commentators, raises two questions. A. How did Seforno come to dissent from the other scholars? And B. Why would we take any notice of the lone voice rather than follow the majority?

In reflection on this question, I think of the transformational impact positive contact has had on my own way of relating to people who are not Jewish, changing it from one of distance to to one of deep friendship and appreciation. I suggest that perhaps the Seforno also had a unique perspective on his non-Jewish neighbours, based on his regular positive experiences of dialogue with them. We know that he had meaningful discussions with learned non-Jewish people. This involved him teaching Judaism or Jewish knowledge to certain non Jewish scholars, as a means of earning his livelihood. There is a record of Johann Reuchlin paying Rabbi Seforno the sum of one Ducat per lesson. (11).

Seforno was not unique in interacting with people outside his faith, but it can be argued that the quality of the contact experienced by many of his colleagues were often either adversarial or transactional rather personal. Two examples are that of Ramban/Nachmanides, who was forced to participate in a staged debate, and later exiled. Another example is the case of Abarbanel, who developed a very dim view of the monarchy (12), while serving in the royal courts of 15th century Spain, in what can only be assumed to be treacherous and uninspiring circumstances.

This brings us to the question about who is right in interpreting the verse above, the one scholar or the nine? One could argue that the Seforno cited a proof text so that makes him right. However, the truth is that this is the wrong question when studying these kinds of texts. In contrast to texts dealing with the law- Halacha, where one opinion is generally deemed valid, this discussion comes under the category of Aggadah, inspirational stories and teachings in which everyone is right, all have meaning. In fact, the Torah is said to have seventy faces (13).

This dual nature of the Torah is hinted at in the words Esh-Dat (14) which can be translated as fiery law. This phrase is cryptically linked to a teaching that the Torah was black fire written on white fire before it was given to the Jews (15). These two colors of fire symbolize the two defining characteristics of the Torah: Kindness and Truth.The color white represents light and pleasantness which is an essential element of the Torah. Black represents clarity and truth (16). Together, black and white, kindness and truth constitute the Torah.
This post is not an argument against the importance of truth, nor do I seek to deny that there are distinctions between adherents of a faith and those who think and live differently to them. My son and I had cucumbers and potato chips for lunch on our flight, and I had instant rice noodles (not as bad as it sounds, by the way). This is an argument to live the kindness of the Torah in our thoughts, speech and action toward God's beloved children who happen not to be Jewish.


  1. Talmud, Gittin 61a, Rambam Laws of gifts to the poor, 7:7
  2. Exodus 12:43
  3. Zechariah 14.
  4. Bamidbar Rabba 1, explained by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ulman, accessed 10.02.2017.
  5. Deutronomy 33:3.
  6. Pirkey Avot, 3:14?.
  7. Seforno on Deutronomy 33:3 the text of his interpretation is:
אף חובב עמים. ואע''פ שאתה חובב עמים ובזה הודעת שכל המין האנושי סגולה אצלך. כאמרם ז''ל (אבות) חביב אדם שנברא בצלם. מ''מ כל קדושיו בידך. הנה אמרת שכל קדושיו של קודש של אש דת הם בידך כצרור הכסף:
  1. Unkelus, Rashi’s first interpretation, Ibn Ezra, Ramban, Abarbanel, R. Bchaya (second explanation) on Deutronomy 33:3.
  2. Baal Haturim and Rashbam, on Deutronomy 33:3, a similar approach is taken by Bchor Shor that the divine cherishing that relates to the rest of the nations is to be applied only to those of them that are converts.    
  3. Sifsei Chachomim supra-commentary on Rashi Deutronomy 33:3.
  4. See introduction to Seforno, Mosad Harav Kook edition.
  5. Abarbanel commentary to the Torah, exact citation needed.
  6. Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15
  7. Deutronomy 33:2
  8. Cited in Rashi on Deutronomy 33:2
  9. Gur Aryeh on Deutronomy 33:2

Monday, September 18, 2017

My “Jewish God”?

In 2012, the last time I wrote about this topic, I began with the following disclaimer: “This is a critical reflection on certain aspects of my tradition. It has been suggested to me that, in highlighting these elements, I am reinforcing a misconception of Judaism as overly harsh. A balanced study of Judaism and the Yom Kippur service will show concepts of God as both compassionate alongside themes of judgement”. This disclaimer is still relevant.

On Saturday 23rd September this year, I will have the solemn Jewish New Year Holy Day prayers echoing in my mind. Many of these will reflect the idea of God as a judge. God’s verdicts will determine ‘Who will live and who will die? Who at their pre-destined time and who before their time?’ (1). One week later, Jewish people observe the Day of Atonement, where the theme of God as judge comes up again, along with language referring to God as father and king. It leads me to consider what the traditional Jewish concept of God is (This is what my topic means, not that there is a God that belongs to Jews or a God who is Jewish somehow.)  

In our highly poetic Torah reading this week, we are told that “all of God’s ways are ’judgement’” (2). The Talmud takes this verse as a warning against daring to say that God is clement (e.g. one whose nature it is to let people get away with sins) or indulgent (3). This teaching is puzzling because God is praised in the Torah as forbearing of sin (4). An implausible resolution of this contradiction is that God is forgiving of one or two sins, but not with repeat offenders (5).

A far more compelling teaching encourages us to have faith and confidence in God’s forgiveness. God is described as “generously forgiving the instant one pleads for forgiveness…” (6). This teaching refers to the daily prayer that praises God for being abundant in forgiveness (7).  “It is characteristic of people, that if one injures another and asks his pardon which is granted, and then repeats the misdeed, it becomes more difficult to grant pardon again, and certainly a third and fourth time. But, by the standard of God, there is no difference between once and a thousand times. Pardon is a manifestation of [God’s] ...mercy. Divine [mercy is] not bounded and finite; they are infinite.” (8). .."For His mercies have not ended" (9).

Recently, I have been learning a little about assertiveness and management  from a wise woman, Michelle Brenner, and the impressive business coach Wade Ebrahimi. (10) (Yes, this is a plug.) A key lesson for me is about the importance of being clear in my communication as a “boss”. I don’t like the idea of being a “boss”. I would rather just be a colleague and still get everything magically done as I think it should. I am learning that I can continue to be collegial with those who report to me. However, I must also give them clear direction. I must differentiate between suggestions, requests and, if need be, orders. Similarly, God relates to humans in multiple ways - in mercy mode as well as holding us accountable. The former should not be taken to override the latter, particularly in a moment of decision making about whether or not to do the right thing (11).  

If I was seeking a neat resolution, I would end this discussion with the abundant forgiveness teaching above. One Jewish man I met the other day, thought of God as predominantly forgiving. That works for him. For me, I am caught between the different characterizations of God in both Torah and prayers.

I was struck by an anecdote that included an apparently tactless statement made to a grieving father mourning the death of his young son. The father was told that the death of young children is a Divine punishment of parents for the parents’ sins (12). The basis for this troubling idea is the verse “God saw and became angry, from the anger of his sons and daughters” (13). This is interpreted as parents provoking God, causing Him to punish the parents through their children (14). The modern reader can either howl in protest or respond with silence.

These teachings, somehow, sit side by side with parental concepts of God.  We read of God carrying the Jew like an eagle carries its young on its wings, (15) “nursing him with honey from bedrock” (16).

Despite the contradictions, I take some comfort from the fact that, whenever the Torah calls us to imitate God, there are always references to God as caring and compassionate, never cruel and harsh. “Just as G‑d is called merciful, so too, you must be merciful. Just as G‑d is called kind, so too, you must be kind...” (17). Similarly, we are taught:  "Just as God clothes the naked, ... so too, you must clothe the naked. Just as God visits the sick, ... so too, you must visit the sick. Just as God comforts mourners, ... so too, you must comfort mourners" (18).

I end, as I began, without a clear Jewish concept of God. I don't speak for all Jews, but I think it is fair to say that it is not a simple question to answer for those of us who seek guidance from traditional texts. This time of the year, with the days of judgement, repentance and atonement, is a time for re-engagement between the Jew and his God. I suggest that the repeated references, in our liturgy, to God as both father and king, is a useful indication of a complex Jewish understanding of God.  

1.     Reflection on who will live and who will die is prominent in the Unesaneh Tokef prayer, which is a key part of the Rosh Hashanah prayers.

2.     Deuteronomy 32:4: Surprisingly, Ramban suggests that Mishpat here relates to mercy.

  1. Talmud Bava Kama 3a: The context of this teaching is a story about a righteous man who dug wells for the community, whose daughter fell into a well but was saved from drowning in the merit of her father’s good deeds. Yet, her brother died of thirst, despite his father’s merit in supplying people with drinking water, because God is very demanding of the righteous and even small sins can result in harsh punishment.
  2. Exodus 34:7
  3. Torah Temima on Deuteronomy 32:4
  4. Tanya, Igeret Hateshuva 11
  5. The Amida, חנון המרבה לסלוח
  6. Tanya, Ibid
  7. Lamentations 3:22
  9. Torah Temima
  10. Talmud Kesubot 8b
  11. Deuteronomy 32:19
  12. Rashi on Talmud Kesubot 8b, also in Maharsha commentary
  13. Deuteronomy 32:11
  14. Deuteronomy 32:13
  15. Sifrei Parshat Eikev., cited in Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot, Mitzvah 8, based on Deuteronomy. 28:9, 11:22, and 13:5
  16. Talmud, Sotah 14a