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

Friday, September 1, 2017

Deluge of Doubt Torah & "Natural" Ethics (Ki Teitzei),

Indecisive. Weak. Not good enough. Am I doing the right thing? Accusations and self doubt are part of the semi-conscious soundtrack of my mind and I am not alone. These thoughts can be distortions of reality and unreasonable. However, living with uncertainty is also a strength.

The verbal onslaught is not just internal. There is a constant stream of emotive arguments for one course of action or its opposite. For example, on Sunday night I listened to Michael Kirby. A dignified, and distinguished former judge of the High Court of Australia. He observed, how despite the fact that people praise him for his various accomplishments because he is gay he is treated like a second class citizen in his own country. In a telling reflection of the ferocity of the current public debate, he insisted that ‘he was not bullying anyone in putting forward his view’.     

Some people seek refuge from uncertainty in religious absolutes. However this depends on the question of whether the Torah claims to have all the answers and therefore ethical ideas from sources outside the Torah are not deemed valid? Or does Torah recognise ‘natural ethics’?

In the Torah reading this week we are confronted by the treatment of a captive “woman of beautiful appearance” (1) during a war in ancient times. In one interpretation (2) of this passage, it is about managing a man’s lust and seeking the lesser of two evils. The woman goes through a process that is designed to make her less attractive to this man in an effort to dissuade him from marrying her. It seems to be all about his needs, not hers.

The woman’s consent for having sexual relations with this man is required (3). However commentary tells us that as prerequisite for the marriage she was to be converted to Judaism and according to one view this could involve coercion (4). Even the marriage itself does not seem to depend on the full agreement of the captive woman/new wife (5).  

This law is only confronting if there is a standard of ethics that we measure the Torah against. If we assume that G-d’s law defines morality then it is not good by definition? Perhaps. However, I think that Torah does recognise the validity of natural ethics.

The Torah calls us to to do that which is good and proper in the eyes of God (6). However our tradition teaches that the word “proper” refers to faithful conduct in matters of trade and dealing with others in a way that is pleasing to people (7). Human concepts of ethics are clearly valid.  

Proper human conduct preceded the revelation of God’s law by twenty six generations (8). People conducted themselves “according to proper logic and faith without the Torah” (9). In fact if the Torah had not been revealed we could have learned modesty from a cat, to avoid theft from ants etc (10). The tradition that we could learn how to behave from observing the behaviour of animals and insects demonstrates that a) there are virtuous character traits that can be learned outside of religious law and b) that it would be proper to learn this from observing natural phenomena (11).

Judaism teaches that natural notions of ethics and religious revelation are interdependent, neither of these really works without the other (12). There are many nations of the world that have not followed the Torah yet, they are ethical (13). Torah, religious revelation and teachings,  can play a key role in setting a person on the right path, but there is also that which comes to a person from within himself and his natural conduct...And if a person does not have this natural preparation the commandments of the Torah will not be enough. Because commandments can straighten a person generally but it is impossible for them to address fine details that are constantly arising anew. [for this] one needs morals and natural ethics…(14).

Returning to the  law of the beautiful woman, there are alternative commentaries of some aspects of this that are somewhat less in conflict with natural justice. The required process of her crying for a month long is designed for her benefit, the mourning process being cathartic (15) and about honoring her parents. Shaving her hair, and cutting her nails are part of her spiritual transformation (16). Still challenging, but the woman is seen as person, not an object.

The question about the place of natural ethics, is also reflected in an astonishing teaching relating to the commandment to send away a mother bird before taking her chicks or eggs (17). If someone recites a prayer that attributes this commandment to God’s mercy that person is silenced (18). One explanation (19) for this is that the commandments are not to be understood as expressing mercy but as God’s decrees!”.This seems to be a dismissal of the merits of the natural ethical value of mercy as being unimportant, with the prefered emphasis placed on obedience.

Again, other commentary offers an alternative view. The restriction on attributing the commandments to mercy is technical not theological. It applies [only] to mitzvot whose reasons have not been specified, therefore in it is not for us to decide what the motivation is. Furthermore, the required “silencing” is only after the prayer was recited with a caution to avoid saying it another time rather than being so terribly heretical that it needs to be corrected immediately (20). Another commentary states that to take the mother bird along with her young is “a way of cruelty” (21), implying that this commandment is indeed motivated by mercy.  

A final example from our reading is the insistence of the Torah that we show compassion for someone who escaped an oppressive situation and seeks refuge with us (22). Commentary about this law equates human concepts of what is to be regarded as cruel or merciful with what is pleasing to God and imitates God’s ways (23).  

Once we accept the importance of a human element in discerning proper conduct we are in the messy ambiguous space of subjective value judgements about specific situations. Of course we can bring religious wisdom to decisions, but we will still often need to grapple with the questions of what is right or wrong. It is not easy but would we really want it any other way? I think not.


  1. Deuteronomy 21:10
  2. Rashi on Deuteronomy 21:10
  3. Yeraim, cited in Ritva,cited in Yalkut Meam Loez states “It has not been permitted, only by her consent, he is not allowed to have intercourse with her against her will. Ramban on 21:11, states “it is not proper to sleep with her, in a situation in which she being “forced” [into conversion] as she mourning her family and faith and screaming in her heart to her god to save her and return her to her people and her god/s.”
  4. Ramban on 21:11, states that her conversion is by compulsion, however Ramban sees a process in which she is comforted and encouraged to accept her new reality, that she will never see her people again and therefore she will adjust to the point that her idol worship will be removed a little from her heart and she will cleave to this man. To what extent such resignation and acquiescence should be  considered consent is a tough question.  According to Rabbi Yonason in Sifrei and Sifrei Dbei Rav cited in Yalkud Me’am Loez she is not to be converted against her will, also according to the Rambam,  cited in Yalkud Me’am Loez p. 795, the conversion is voluntary.
  5. we are told in the Torah that if the Jewish man does not want to marry her that she goes free (Deuteronomy 21:14). According to Ibn Ezra’s commentary on the words “she goes free”, the assumption is that the man “should do her will”, which implies that we assume that she did not want the marriage.
  6. Deuteronomy 12:25 & 12:28
  7. Mechilta
  8. Vayikra Rabba 9:3, Tana Dbei Eliyahu Rabba 1
  9. Etz Yosef commentary on Vayikra Rabba 9:3
  10. Talmud, Eruvin 100b
  11. Ethics of the Fathers 3:17
  12. Yachin, Tiferet Yisrael commentary on the Mishna.
  13. Meiri on Avot 3:20 in Beit Habechira p.56, Vagshal publication 1971, based on Mekitzei Nirdamim, 5696
  14. Maimonides in the Moreh Nevuchim, cited in Ramban on 21:11, also in Chizkuni
  15. Chizkuni, he argues that it is similar to rituals performed as part of the transformation of the Levites when they were appointed to their roles in the desert temple (Numbers 8:7).
  16. Deuteronomy 22:6–7
  17. Mishna in Talmud, Berachot 33b, translation from
  18. Rashi on Talmud, Berachot 33b
  19. Maharsha, on Talmud, Berachot 33b
  20. Chizkuni
  21. Deuteronomy 23:16-17
  22. Ramad Vali, Mishneh Torah, Devarim.
רמ"ד וואלי - משנה תורה - דברים (דף 242-243) מפרש המצוה לא תסגיר בקשר לחילול השם וקידוש השם. אלו דבריו: " כי כבר ידוע שהוא בורח מפני אכזריות אדוניו שרדהו בפרך ואינו יכול לסבול את רשעתו. ואם ישראל ימסרנו ביד אדוניו יהיה חילול השם גדול, כי יאמרו הגוים שבני ישראל אכזריים יותר מהם, מאחר דניחא להו להחזיר העבד העלוב מוכה ומעונה בידו של אכזר. ואדרבה ניחא ליה לקב"ה שיהיו ישראל בחזקת רחמנים בעיני האומות... עמך ישב בקרבך. דהיינו במקום המוצנע, שלא ימצאנו אדוניו ולא יחזירנו לשעבודם.
במקום אשר יבחר. הוא ולא אתה. כי בחירת אחרים מצערת את האדם כשהיא כנגד בחירתו.
באחד שעריך. דהיינו בעיר ולא בכפר, כדי שתהיה הצלתו בטוחה ולא מתרופפת.
וגם בעיר עצמו. בטוב לו. ולא בטוב לך, שאם ירצה ידור בבית זה ואם ירצה ידור בבית אחר ולא תכריחנו לדור בפי רצונך. שאם תעשה כך, זהו חסד שלם המשתוה אל הנהגת אדון הכל, ואתה עושה נחת רוח ליוצרך, וקידוש השם לעיני העמים."

Friday, August 11, 2017

Rabbi’s Speech at a Mosque Exploring Stance towards Others and the "West"

(Edited version of my talk as part of an interfaith panel, talking about contemporary challenges in Judaism, at Imam Hasan Centre, Annangrove, Sydney, Australia, 1 July 2017)

I begin with acknowledgement of country in a way that reflects my Jewish heritage. We customarily allude to the Sidra, the Torah reading of the week. In it, we read an Emorite war poem, celebrating the victory in battle over the city of Heshbon by the Emorite King, Sihon.
"עַל כֵּן יֹאמְרוּ הַמֹּשְׁלִים בֹּאוּ חֶשְׁבּוֹן תִּבָּנֶה וְתִכּוֹנֵן עִיר סִיחוֹן:
Therefore, those who speak in parables, say, "Come to Heshbon, it will be built and established, the city of Sihon”. (1)

The poet, the evil Balaam (2), contrasted a propaganda version of the condition of this city before and after its conquest by the Emorites. “When it was under the sovereignty of Moab [the poet claims], it was desolate and empty, but now that it was taken by Sihon, he will make it great and honoured, all people will flock to Heshbon to rejoice and dwell in it, because without a doubt it will be built and established because it is the city of Sihon”. (3)

As an Australian, I read this poem as a claim that Heshbon was almost a “Terra Nullius” (4) before the conquest by the Emorites. I link the poem with what I have learned about the experience of Aboriginal people from an Aboriginal man. He explained his history to me. When this land was taken by the English, the new power downplayed the existing civilisation, disregarding their traditions and lore relating to caring for land and each other.

Tonight, I pay my respects to the original people of this land, the Darug Elders, past, present and emerging, in a way that I can relate from my own traditions.

One challenge for people of faith is to truly honour the greatness of others and resist any temptation to see one’s own tradition as holding all wisdom. Indeed, our sages taught “if someone tells you that there is wisdom among the nations, you should believe him” (5).

As a Jew, I appreciate wisdom, altruism and sincerity in people of different religions and no religion at all. This includes the greatness of Western democracies as systems of government that deliver - albeit imperfectly -  just outcomes to many people. I honour traditions of constraints on the powers of people in government and equality before the law among others. As a person of a minority faith in the West, I am particularly grateful for the freedom Western traditions of government give me to live according to my own beliefs and traditions. This freedom cannot be taken for granted. For much of Jewish history, it was denied us, as recently as in the lifetime of my own grandfather, during the last century, in the Soviet Union.

On the other hand, the relationship between the “West” and some people of faith living in the West, is not free of conflict. It is true that human flaws have always been part of the lives of all humans, regardless of culture. Still, living in a cultural context that includes voices - in entertainment and advertising - that promote hedonism, impulsivity and instant self-gratification, makes it harder for people of faith to fulfil some of the spiritual and personal growth related aims of our faiths. A utilitarian worldview will be at odds with one centred on divine worship and obligations.

I return to the verse about the conquest of Heshbon, looking at it not as a historical poem, but as an aid to remember a traditional moral message (6). Using traditional wordplay the Talmud interpreted it thus:  
Therefore the “rulers”, i.e. those who rule their [own evil] inclination [impulses], will say, let us come to the calculation of the world, the cost of [fulfilling] a commandment, against its reward. The [short term] benefit of a sin against its loss. ...If you do this you will be built in this world [life] and established in the world to come [the afterlife]. If, however, a person makes himself like a young donkey, that follows pleasant talk… a fire will go forth from Heshbon…(7)” .
In this interpretation, my tradition is urging me to be duty-oriented. It warns me not to be drawn like “a young donkey”, after every beep alert on my mobile phone telling me there is a pleasant comment on whatsapp or twitter. Instead, I must focus on my obligations.    
In respecting people of other cultures, we don’t lose the right to honestly critique competing cultural approaches that might entice us away from our own traditions. We have a right to be different from each other, which means we can make truth claims or virtue claims about beliefs, practices and ways of being. In doing so let us avoid Balaam’s error of thinking only one group has a monopoly on greatness. By inviting me, the Christian speaker and the parliamentarian here tonight, you are once again demonstrating the long-standing commitment of the Imam Hasan Centre to this principle.
1.       Numbers 21:27-28
2.       Midrash Tanchuma Chukkath 24, Num. Rabbah 19:30, cited in Rashi   
3.       Abarbanel, page 186, 27, in Horev 2008, Edition, Jerusalem,
4.       The term is technically about ownership of land and means “a land belonging to no one”, but can be understood more broadly, to be a way of erasing the significance of the civilisation that came before. Ogleby, C. L. frames it as follows: “As the ships of the First Fleet anchored in Sydney Cove on the 7th February 1788, and the British flag was raised on the shore above the convicts and their masters to the echoes of a rifle salute and toasts of port, the foundations for a new Colony were being laid on British soil. Terra Australis had been claimed in both sovereignty and ownership by the British Crown as terra nullius - literally a 'land belonging to nobody'. Although somewhere between one half and one million people inhabited the island (Mulvaney 1989, but estimates vary), their culture, customs and custodianship of the land was denied. Over the last 200 years the concept of terra nullius has been used to justify the dispossession of the original inhabitants of this country. It has also been responsible for framing attitudes towards the Aboriginal people and still forms the basis of all land law in Australia”.
5.       Eicha Rabba, 2:16
6.       This approach follows the Rashba as cited in Torah Temima, Numbers 21:18, notes 16 -21
7.       Talmud, Bava Basra 78b, appreciating the word-play really depends on understanding the Hebrew original.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Angry Moses: You spared all the females?! Mattot

Image by Bas Leenders,  used under Creative Commons License
Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) 

The words scream accusingly off the page. Moses, himself, raged against the officers of his army returning from a war of vengeance against the nation of Midian. Moses asked rhetorically, “Have you allowed all the females to live?” (1)

I wrote about this two years ago, but the words don’t fail to disturb me anew. How can I reconcile my belief in the inherent worth of all humans, while also affirming the holiness of this sacred text? I don’t have an answer but I still feel compelled to explore and probe this text. First, by providing the context for how this text is read today in contrast with its historical context. Secondly, by reviewing how traditional scholars have responded to the text in their commentary and, finally, by offering a comment of my own.

Judaism does not permit this kind of behaviour today. This was an instruction, for a particular time over 3000 years ago, by the prophet Moses. Jews no longer have prophets and, therefore, no- one has the authority that Moses had (2). Most modern Jews are not aware of this particular passage. As for those who are aware of it, it is understood in more abstract and metaphoric terms. One example of this is the teaching that Midian, who attacked the Jews with no provocation, is symbolic of baseless hatred which we must eradicate from ourselves (3).

The context of the passage above was a battle ordered by God and presented in the text as revenge against the people of Midian. They (and the Moabites) sought to deliberately destroy the Israelites’ spiritual lives, by sending their daughters to seduce Israelite men and then pressure them to worship the false god Peor, thus incurring upon themselves Divine wrath(4). Theirs was a hostile act that attacked our way of life, at its core (5).

While it may still not justify the deeds in this story, we need to recognise the difference in the conditions of war today, among those who adhere to the Geneva Conventions, in contrast with the conditions of all-out war in ancient times. Today, nations can resort to sanctions to deter others from trampling on their rights, or engage in a limited military operation to protect their interests. In order to survive in ancient times, it is argued that you needed to be as cruel as other nations were (6).

Disturbingly, from a modern critical perspective, our earliest commentators did not appear at all concerned about Moses’ desire to see the women dead. On the contrary, we find that Moses had asserted that the battle against Midian was God’s revenge, not that of the Israelites because he argued that “if we had been idol worshippers the Midianites would not hate us or pursue us” (7). Because of this perspective, Moses had a great desire to witness the revenge against Midian before he died (8). The Midianites led the Israelites to sin and ‘leading a person to sin is considered more serious than killing him!’ (9).

However, a later commentator read the phrase “have you allowed all the females to live?” not as a complaint that the Israelites did not kill all the women, but that they allowed all the women to live, including those who had been recognised as being the perpetrators, who seduced the Jewish men and then pressured them into worshiping idols (10).
Another argument was advanced that Phineas and the soldiers did not judge the women to be deserving of punishment because they would have been under the control of their husbands and forced into offering their bodies for the war effort (11). In addition, while two nations engaged in these bizarre battle tactics of using women to lead the Israelites to sin, revenge was taken on only one, Midian, while Moab was spared. This is explained by the fact that Moab felt genuinely threatened by the Israelites (12). These commentaries reflect that, at least, some value was placed on the lives of the Israelites’ “enemies” in our tradition.

My exploration of this text is far from comprehensive. As I did on my blog two years ago, (2), I leave this matter unresolved. I take some comfort from the fact that I am not the first to be concerned about these deeds. Scholars believe that questions were asked at the time and that Moses himself was disturbed and angered by aspects of the killing (13).  A senior editor of wrote that the “war of retribution on the Midianites...sends chills down my spine” (14). He asserts that “Jews are supposed to ask these questions, even if the answers are not satisfactory”. In asking these questions, we emphasise our abhorrence of genocide and racism, and our tendency to read these texts primarily as metaphoric messages about the importance of rejecting senseless hatred and the disruption of the cultural and spiritual lives of others.

1)       Numbers 31:14-15
3)       The Chasidic discourse known as “Heichaltzu” is a prime example of this.
4)       Numbers 25:18, 31:1-2, read in relation to Numbers 25:1-3
5)       Samson Raphael Hirsch on Numbers 31:3
6)       Rav Kook, Igros Hareia, vol 1, p. 100, cited in Sharki, R. Uri, Jewish Morality in War, Parshat Matot, מוסר יהודי במלחמה , לפרשת מטות - דברי הרב אורי שרקי,
7)       Bereshit Rabba on Matos, 2.
8)       Bereshit Rabba on Matos, 5, also in Midrash Tanchuma
9)       Etz Yosef on Bereshit Rabba on Matos, 5
10)   Seforno on Numbers 31:15
11)   Ohr Hachayim Numbers 31:16. However, in the end this argument was countered by the argument that the women had of their own volition and initiative manipulated the Jewish men to worship the idols, which went further than the acts that they were coerced into by the men.
12)   Ralbag, on Numbers 15, Balak, Toelles 1, Mosad Rav Kook edition, p. 135, and Chizkuni
13)   Chasam Sofer, Klei Yakar on Matos

Monday, July 10, 2017

Silenced Man of God – Joshua, the “severed head” - Shlach

It is appalling to see the silencing of “men or women of God” or other voices of conscience when they are advocating for justice or compassion.  I am not denying that there are scoundrels, who cloak themselves in righteousness or clerical robes and promote cruelty or foolishness. However, this blog  focuses on the thwarting of people like artists, journalists, cartoonists and clergy, in their roles as social critics. The people who are supposed to be the brakes on the darker impulses of the powerful and the many, are prevented from playing their vital role in speaking for virtue, the weak and the few. This is like players in a sport turning on the referee.

This calls for some clarification: I  would like to emphasise that I am not concerned about people offering alternative views. What concerns me is when they attack the legitimacy of credible people with whom they disagree.

According to one scholar, this is the meaning of a peculiar expression in the Talmud relating to Joshua, the prophet. Joshua was one of twelve spies, who returned to the desert from Canaan (1). He dissented from the views of ten of his fellow spies, who were opposed to God’s plan for the Israelites to go to the Promised Land.  The majority were not content to argue their case on its merits. Instead, according to the Talmud (2), when Joshua tried to speak, they shut him up with the following statement:  “Will this severed head speak?!”

According to one commentary (3), the strange phrase was an attack on Joshua’s status and legitimacy or standing in the discussion.  Moses had added the letter Yud (Y), which is the first letter of God’s name, to Joshua’s name, changing it from Hoshea, to Yehoshua (4). This name change symbolised his special status as being one of two spies, deemed aligned to God (5). The other spies sought to dismiss Joshua’s special status with the suggestion that the “head of his name”, the additional Yud from the name of God, was disconnected or severed from the rest of his name and not legitimately part of his name at all. The technicalities in this case are quaint but the tactic is all too common today.

One response to the tactic is often for social critics to get creative in order to get people’s attention, using click bait or humour. Another strategy that is quite risky, is for the social critic to give the impression that s/he agrees with the mob, but then, when s/he gets their attention, to say what s/he really thinks. Caleb, Joshua’s fellow dissenting spy, tried that approach with limited impact (6).

Often this leads to frustration on the part of the social critic. “Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb…tore their clothes” to express their grief (7). They continued to speak their truth while no one was listening. The catastrophe they sought to prevent, came to pass, with the Israelites’ anticipated entry into the Promised Land delayed by a generation.  Failure, at least some of the time, comes with the territory.

Fortunately, in some cases, there are at least partial victories that protect some people or preserve some principle. Those of us who find ourselves in roles advocating for compassion and justice, need to be prepared for our opponents to try to sever our “heads”, to deny our legitimacy. We need to ensure that our egos do not cloud our judgement -  it is not about us - and that our emotions are managed well. Then, we need to get in there and do what we can.

For all of us, the message is that good “followership” is just as important as good leadership. If we are ever tempted to discredit people we know to be good, albeit imperfect, people, let us instead listen to their arguments on their merit, instead of trying to silence them, if they are saying what we don’t want to hear.


(1)    Numbers 13
(2)    Talmud Sota 35a
(3)    Maharsha, (Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Edeles, lived 1555-1631) on Sota 34b and 35a, building on what he deemed a forced explanation by the Aruch.
(4)    Numbers 13:16
(5)    Maharsha explains that, while God would have preferred just two spies to gather practical information, the people had insisted on a broader mission for the spies to determine if they should proceed with the conquest of Canaan at all. This expanded purpose required representatives from each of the twelve tribes.
(6)    Talmud Sota 35a 

(7)     Numbers 14:6

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Disgraced Cohen's Daughter's Punishment - Emor

As I am finalising my thoughts on this blog, my heart is full of inspiration from yesterday’s Inter-school Program, watching Christian, Jewish and Muslim students come together yesterday culminating in spontaneously making music together. In stark contrast to that, I consider enduring contradictions and divisions that challenge me and others. Experiences, narratives and texts can all alienate us from communities, both similar and different to ourselves.  In this post I explore one of these.

I have been thinking of one passage in the Torah that challenges me not to feel alienated from my own tradition. “The daughter of a Cohen/ priest who will profane herself through whoredom, her father she is desecrating, in fire, she should be burned (1). After thinking about it for a week, it seemed clear to me that there was nothing I could say that would reconcile this verse with contemporary mores. Over Shabbat (Friday night and Sunday) I was delighted to find a possible, at least partial, way through.

At the start of this discussion I make the following points: A) We need to look at how a religious text is applied today in the lived experience of the adherents of that faith rather than what the words are in the text. This is as true for non-Muslims looking at verses from the Koran as it is for those trying to make sense of Judaism.  B) It is useful to consider how traditions have been interpreted over time.

A Sydney Rabbi who told me that his sermon on the passage of the Cohen’s daughter, interpreted it along mystical lines. He said that it is by God’s design that this law does not apply today (as capital cases are no longer prosecuted since the destruction of the second temple two thousand years ago). Instead, he suggested that burning in fire represents passionate devotion to God to correct the sins of passion (2). Another contemporary approach to this matter took the form of a personal reflection on the responsibility of dads in  positions of religious leadership to be attentive to their children. The writer regrets that some of his religious study years earlier was at the expense of his family. Failure to properly guide children shames the father (3).   

Earlier traditions relating to this law make clear that we are dealing with adultery and a married woman (4). Furthermore, there are very strict laws applying to all cases of capital punishment. The perpetrator must have been warned by two witnesses immediately prior to the act which is then witnessed. This is a highly unlikely scenario. Traditions vary about how rare an event any capital punishment was when it was practiced at all, with one opinion that a Court that killed once every 70 years was a “murderous court”, and another view putting it as once every 7 years (5).

Despite the restrictions on actually putting a woman to death for this crime, the phrase itself raises concern for me. There are two aspects that bother me. One is the idea that a woman’s status is considered through the perspective of its impact on the honour of her male family members. The second is on the discrepancy between a misbehaving son and daughter (6).

Early traditional commentary is in line with a simple reading of the text: If he [her father] had been treated as holy (before), he will now be treated as mundane, (if he had been treated with) honor, now he will be treated with disgrace, as they will say cursed be the one who gave birth to this one, who raised this one” (7).

Fortunately this approach is not the only one. I take comfort from the approach of both of the early authoritative translations into Aramaic, neither of which mentions the father’s shame (8). One (9) subtly re frames it as “from the holiness of her father she becomes desecrated”. The meaning of the translation is that she is desecrating herself, and profaning “the holiness that she has as a heritage from her father”. As the daughter of a Cohen/priest she inherited social- spiritual capital that has now been lost (10). It is not about her father but about her.

The discrepancy between a daughter and a son can be considered from a historical and contextual perspective that suggests that the verse is a response to the practice of the “sacred prostitute”. It is argued that the daughters of idol worshipers’ priests would act as prostitutes at their places of worship (11). Evidence is found in a  phrase in the book of Hosea: “they sacrifice with the prostitutes” (12). If we accept this argument then it is reasonable that the warning is directed to females based on the historical-actual problem the passage is seeking to address. While this explanation is attractive to me, I have not yet found any earlier linking between this ancient practice and this verse in authoritative commentary.

I am conflicted about how to approach these types of texts. I can join my colleagues who try to make it ok. As demonstrated above, there are some plausible approaches to do that, at least partially. I can also simply put them out there for further reflection and study. When my own daughter was born we  chose a biblical name, Shifra, that was not identified as being the wife, daughter or mother of any important man because we want our daughter to know she matters for who she is and who she will become, including but certainly not limited to her roles as a mother, wife or daughter. I take comfort in this view being consistent with some of my traditions about this difficult verse. The discrepancy between the treatment of males and females, however is acknowledged as a matter of concern.

Notes and Sources

  1. Leviticus 21:9
  2. Conversation at Lag B’Omer event at Bondi with Rabbi Y. 14.05.2017 based on Chasidic sources
  3. Buchwald, Rabbi E, Lessons from a Cohen’s Wanton Daughter, He wrote….As one who completed the study of an entire cycle of the Talmud about twenty-five years ago, I know how enriching the experience can be… but looking back, it was inevitable that devoting so much time to the study of Torah came, at least in part, at the expense of the family, especially during the children’s critical nurturing years..
  4. Talmud Sanhedrin 50b
  5. Mishnah, Makkot 1:10
  6. Abarbanel, commentary on Emor question 5, p.225
  7. Talmud Sanhedrin 52a
  8. Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel, sees the reference to the father as a clarification of a matter of law, that she had gotten married through Erusin, but lived in her father’s house
  9. Unkelus/Onkelus, who lived around c. 35–120 CE, although the Talmud Megillah 3a suggests that this translation is was based on the teachings of the great Tanaaim Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, or even earlier but forgotten by the masses, and rerecorded by Unkelus,
  10. Meshech Chochma, Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, 1843-1926
  11. Daat Mikra on Leviticus 21:9, Mosad Harav Kook,
  12. Hosea 4:14