Thursday, June 28, 2012

A shrug, a Serpent and Embracing Uncertainty

Our challenge is to embrace uncertainty. There are some things we can’t understand or control that we need to accept and run with. In coming days a cancer survivor and former student of mine is heading to the London Paralympics to play wheelchair tennis, a barely imaginable dream come true. A devout Muslim Arabic friend shares his worries about what the Muslim Brotherhood will mean for Egypt. The organisation I lead is preparing to launch an on-line diversity education resource for every school in the country with events in seven cities. I trust the work of our excellent team over the last two years will pay off, but I wish I could predict exactly how it will be received.  

Beyond Logic
The unknown is a theme that runs through our reading this week of the Sidra Chukat[i], which begins with the least understandable commandment, concerning a red cow’s ashes mixed with water that spiritually cleanses one person but contaminates the one who prepares it[ii]. The name of the portion, Chukat, means a law that we cannot understand. Some would assume that the logic is absolutely clear but simply hidden from us. The Lubavitcher Rebbe goes further; “these commands have no rational explanation; (emphasis mine) moreover, they defy reason… the Divine Will has not clothed itself in the garments of rationality[iii]”.

A copper serpent and letting go
The incident with the copper snake also sits outside common sense. The people had spoken against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this desert, for there is no bread and no water, and we are disgusted with this rotten bread[iv] [v]”. It seems the people craved the solid certainty of degradation of Egypt in comparison to the uncertainty of freedom in the desert and the still unseen “promised land”. (So) “God sent the venomous snakes against the people, and they bit the people, and many people of Israel died”. After the people sought forgiveness, “Moses made a copper snake and put it on a pole, and whenever a snake bit a man, he would gaze upon the copper snake and live[vi]”. The object that brought healing was symbolic of the one that brought illness[vii].

The serpent had no magical powers, when the Israelites looked at it they were also looking upward (to God) and committing their hearts to their father in heaven and they were healed[viii].  The choice of the Serpent specifically as symbol reinforces the point, as if to say “surely you realise it is not the object that is the active ingredient”, because the snake is the problem, yet it is the solution[ix].Centuries later, Elisha puts salt in the ‘bad water’ of Jericho which fixes the problem[x]. The very counter-intuitiveness of it is a lesson that there are times when we need to let go, and for believers this means to trust God.

From rigidity and domination to Persuasion and consensus building
A variation of this theme is when Moses is told a second time to make a miracle to get water from a stone, but to do it differently this time. The first time just after the exodus from Egypt Moses was told to hit the rock, now leading a new generation he was told explicitly to take his staff[xi] but to talk to the rock. Moses became very angry with the people and their complaints, and this led him to make a mistake[xii]. He hit the rock instead of talking to it. Because of this seemingly small error Moses is told he will not be the leader[xiii] to take the people into the Promised Land.

One interpretation of the problem in hitting the stone (which was previously the right thing to do) is that it was a different time, the people had changed and Moses failed to change his style accordingly[xiv]. It was appropriate for Moses to use rigidity, symbolised by hitting with a stick, as a leadership approach at the time he was leading recently freed slaves who were not yet ready for ambiguity and responsibility. For the generation that grew up free in the desert, they needed a leader whose style was one of persuasion of thinking independent people, this style would be symbolised by talking rather than striking, a much more murky process with far less control or certainty.

It is amazing to see Adam Kellerman who was diagnosed with Cancer in his right hip not long after I taught him for his Bar Mitzvah in 2003. It was an extremely difficult road, longs stints in hospital, hope, disappointments, chemo, infections, and 25 operations at the end of which he had difficulty walking and could never play his beloved soccer again. Somehow out of it all, Adam has created a stellar wheelchair tennis career[xv] and is soon heading off to the Paralympics. A scenario we would never have imagined in those difficult days. I am now keen to help him reach 500 likes on his Facebook page[xvi] (he has 359).  In Egypt, there are now promises of Coptic and female vice presidents. Who knows what will really happen there? In terms of our diversity education resource, we will make our best effort and then I need to trust teachers to make the right decision. There is much that is out of our hands, there is not much point worrying about it. It is not for us to complete the work, nor are we free to desist from it[xvii].

If the Lord will not build a house, its builders have toiled at it in vain; if the Lord will not guard a city, [its] watcher keeps his vigil in vain.
It is futile for you who rise early, who sit up late, who eat the bread of tension, Indeed the Lord will give sleep to his beloved [xviii].

[i] Numbers 19:1 – 22:1
[ii] Numbers 19:10
[iii] Schneerson, Rabbi MM, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IV, pp. 1056-1057 as adapted{2F39F577-95B6-40DA-BFCD-81DC8BAECB5B}
[iv] referring to the Manna
[v] Numbers 21:5-6
[vi] Numbers 21:9
[vii] An explanation of the serpent offered in the Zohar is that it reminded people of the punishment like a child who sees his father’s strap if afraid and behaves (Sehlach 175)
[viii] Talmud, Mishna Rosh Hashanah 3:5
[ix] Bchor Shor
[x] Kings II, 2:19-22
[xi] Numbers 20:8
[xii] Sifre Matot 157
[xiii] I find the situation with Moses in this reading really interesting. Moses, the great leader who defied Pharaoh, bargained with God, and successfully argued with angels tragically cannot see the completion of the journey of his people from Egypt to the Promised Land.  Moses faces complaints, loses his cool, both his siblings; Miriam and Aaron die. He approaches the king of Edom requesting passage for his people through that land, but this initiative falls flat, Moses’ polite request is met with a threat about which he can do nothing. Strangely, when his people are attacked by the king of Arad, Moses seems missing in action, his name is not mentioned. Instead the people themselves make a wow and pray to God (Numbers 21:1-3) without Moses playing any role (Aviya Hacohen, Yet, despite Moses’ disappointment and bereavement he ends our reading in triumph. The Israelites sing a song of praise (Numbers 21:17) . There is a victory in a battle against Sichon the king of the Emorites. They then confront the giant Og. God tells Moses not to be afraid and again the Israelites are victorious. Moses himself is credited with personally slaying the giant (Talmud Brachot 54b)
[xvii] Pirkei Avot
[xviii] Psalm 127:1-2, my translation follows Targum, Radak and Ibn Ezra which seem to be more in line with the simple meaning of the Hebrew and the flow of the content from verse 1, Rashi, Metzudat David, Metzudat Zion and Minchat Shai render is as “so will the Lord give sustenance/pleasure in the world to come, to one who banishes sleep from his eyes to occupy himself with Torah/service of heaven”.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Condemnation and Disassociation

Zbyszek reading a rescued Jewish tombstone previously
used as paving, image from film Shtetl: a journey home
A few days ago I was inspired by the action of Mousa[i], a nine year old Arabic-Australian boy who spoke up when he heard his school friends denigrating Jews. I was also moved by the reflections of a group of teenagers about their burden of knowing that they failed to stand up against injustice. Then there is the guy who both does and doesn’t stand apart, Zbyszek Romaniuk[ii]. He is a Pole from the small town of Bransk, Poland who despite his communities’ unwillingness to talk about its Jewish past makes a great effort to discover it, resulting in graffiti on his walls and threats against him. Yet, in his role as deputy mayor is arguably complicit with the silence. 

This is a discussion about the merits of standing apart from one’s group to challenge the group’s common prejudices or narrative, it is also an argument against condemning people for their failure to disassociate or condemn their own. I draw on the story of Korach.

Beyond “us and them”
Mousa’s example is inspiring, his stance is very important for overcoming divisions. Mohamed Dukuly[iii] is a dear friend who lived through the Liberian civil war but came out a champion of bridge building. He told me how he questioned his own group’s narrative. He wanted to know why the others hated his people, rather than just accept that it was simply because he was Muslim and they were Christian. He talked to members of the enemy tribe and learned about their experiences of arrogant behaviour by many of his tribesmen toward the tribe that was now hunting and killing his people, expressing rage felt for generations. He is one of those who are breaking the cycle.

I am trying to this as well. I have examined some of the hostility my people faced from Blacks in my native crown heights, in Brooklyn New York. Was it just bigotry or did some Jewish behaviour contribute? There were Apartment buildings that mysteriously ended up with exclusively Jewish residents. When I was in Kiev I was shocked to see a statue to Bogdan Chmielicki who I always thought of as a monster for murdering and attacking Jews. I still believe that this is true, but he was also a hero to the downtrodden serfs who were treated terribly by the “nobility”. Jews themselves oppressed, played the role of middle man, thus seen as complicit with the oppression and some doing well relative to the peasants. In the current conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and other Arabs I have also tried to understand both perspectives[iv].

Limits of being open to the other side and opposing one’s own
I am not convinced that challenging my own communities’ narrative is always the right thing to do. There are some arguments about our relationships with various others that I find compelling, convincing, or at least plausible. Some would argue that it is because of my biases, perhaps they are right. My point is that it is wrong to assume that whenever someone is unwilling to condemn their own community it is because they are a bad person. In some cases it is because they are sincere in their view that condemnation is not appropriate.

Besides principles or conviction, it difficult to be open to the other side when one’s own have been harmed, oppressed and even killed. In the film Shtetl, in which Zbyszek appears, at least some of the Jews show little willingness to consider Polish perspectives. Considering the way many Poles treated Jews (certainly not all Poles, many risked their very lives to save Jews, in defiance of the Nazis), I can strongly relate to this reticence even as it disturbs me. In one of the most shocking examples, we hear from a woman who returned to her town in Poland as a girl after surviving the concentration camps only to be hunted by locals whose names they knew, they were found hiding in a closet and killed by their neighbours.

When Zbyszek, in conversation with a Jewish historian, raises the issue of Jews being less than enthusiastic about Polish independence from Russia some years prior to WW II as a factor in Polish gentile resentment, this is dismissed by the Jewish historian, as justified by Polish anti-Semitism. Later when Zbyszek seeks to explain to Israeli teenagers the unwillingness of some Poles to save Jews at the risk of their lives, they dismiss his arguments. Finally at the end of the film Zbyszek himself fails to stand up for the other, despite his passionate interest in the Jewish past of his town. The contrast is stark, early in the film we see him digging out disgraced tombstones and collecting names to discover Bransk’s Jewish past, which is never discussed except in whispers. At the 500 years celebration of Brank he has an opportunity, as deputy Mayor, to mention the murdered Jews in his speech but he argues that as a public servant it is not his task to tell people what they are not prepared to hear. Instead he proclaims, “Bransk was always Polish and will forever be Polish”.

Without equating different situations as there are so many significant differences, as a general principle expecting people to challenge their own side all the time is not only unrealistic but it can itself be divisive. Muslims are continuously called on to condemn every violent act by anyone claiming to be a Muslim and assumed to be guilty until the condemnation quota is satisfied. Jews who do not want to see Israel dismantled completely or at least not prepared to condemn every Israeli action against Palestinians are seen as evil by many Arabs and Muslims. The common denominator is the ‘condemnation criteria’ which becomes a barrier to coexistence acceptance and interaction. The logic and merit of the argument against raising the disassociation bar must compete with the ethical argument against complicity with evil and the compelling craving to hear someone from the other side acknowledge what we see as a terrible injustice and condemn “his/her own”.

The Disassociation imperative in Torah
In the Torah there are three references to a call for disassociation in the case of Korach. He was a relative of Moses who challenged the legitimacy of his leadership and prophecy[v]. Korach ambushed Moses on a busy day when the presence of so many people would seem like business as usual[vi]. As the situation heats up the entire community gathers to see the showdown between the two men. First God tells Moses about people separating themselves from the wicked people[vii], Moses then tells the community "Please get away from the tents of these wicked men, and do not touch anything of theirs, lest you perish because of all their sins[viii]. Just as Korach had separated himself from the community to oppose Moses, it was important that the community separate from him[ix]. The fact that the people were standing with Korach’s group listening to them silently[x], is interpreted as implied agreement with their words and denial of Moses’ prophecy. They had to move away physically to symbolically distance themselves from Korach[xi].

In Jewish law this principle is expressed in the obligation to reproach sinners and the prohibition against flattery of evil doers (Chanifa). If someone violates certain prohibitions it is forbidden to give them honour or do anything that might imply approval of their deeds. An example of this is a wealthy donor who is involved in domestic violence. An organisation that would give him honour at their fundraising event would be in breach of the laws against Chanifa/flattery
[xii]. One who justifies the wicked, or condemns the righteous-both are an abomination to the Lord[xiii].

Arguments against condemning people for failing to condemn or disassociate
The danger is that if we take the argument for disassociation to the extreme then people attached to either side of a conflict that see some merit in their own group’s claims or narrative can never reach out and connect with people on the other side because they would think that the other must be avoided. Of course that is wrong. Moses himself seeks dialogue with his detractors[xiv], which teaches us that one should not continue conflict[xv]. At a later point in the story Moses and Aaron are invited to separate themselves from the community and God would destroy them all[xvi]. The response is to do the exact opposite, Moses instructs Aaron to “rush into the midst of the people[xvii]” with incense to achieve atonement. In this case the loyalty to the people was the most important virtue.

We must differentiate between active participants in a conflict and the general group who have not condemned. In the case of the crowd standing near Korach, Moses argues “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, if one man sins, shall You be angry with the whole congregation?” Moses differentiates between the active Korach and those who may have sinned in their hearts by doubting their teacher[xviii]. An alternative interpretation is that “although the whole congregation gathered, they did not sin[xix]”.

We also must consider the possibility that people are not sure what is right. One commentary explains the doubts people had about whether to side with Moses against Korach because they misunderstood Moses’ statement that “"In the morning, the Lord will make known who is His, and who is holy”.  They thought that if Korach and his group were wrong they would not get up from their beds the next morning.  Seeing Korach still alive, they thought that perhaps Korach would be proven right[xx]. We can give the benefit of the doubt to people who do not condemn what we think is wrong; they might think it is right or be unsure.

Consideration must also be given to whether or not there is any potential to make a difference by condemnation. A strong argument is made against culpability of citizens in the sins of their rulers because the impracticality of achieving anything by taking on their rulers[xxi].

Disassociation can be a powerful tool for peace, let us not use its absence as a reason to inflame conflict.

[i] Not his real name
[ii] Shtetl: A Journey Home". by Marian Marzynski,
[iii] Mohamed is a Together for Humanity presenter and has also contributed to “conscious connectivity: creating dignity in conversation”
[v] Numbers 16, as interpreted by traditional commentary
[vi] Chizkuni
[vii] Numbers 16:21
[viii] Numbers 16:26
[ix] R. Yitzchak Arama, in Akedat Yitzchak, cited in Leibovitz, N., Studies in Bamidbar Numbers,
[x] Midrash Hagadol
[xi] Malbim, R. Samson Raphael Hirsh
[xii] Ehrman Rabbi A (2002), the Laws of Interpersonal Relations, Artscroll Brooklyn, NY, based on Shaarei Teshuva 3:187-199
[xiii] Proverbs 17:15
[xiv] Numbers 16:12
[xv] Rashi
[xvi] Numbers 17:10
[xvii] R. Samson Raphael Hirsh on 17:11
[xviii] Ramban
[xix] Nachalat Yaakov on Numbers 16:22, R. Yaakov/Yekl Ben Binyamin Aaron, first published in 1642 Crakow, included in Chumash with 15 commentaries on Rashi
[xx] Meshech Chochma
[xxi] Ramban about the actions of Shimon and Levi in Shchem. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Diving in with strings attached

Photo by
used under creative commons license

I don’t believe success vindicates a decision, nor does failure prove the decision was wrong. A wrong decision might lead to success because of dumb luck or grace, while a well considered attempt can go sour.

This is a reflection on the merit of engagement outside our comfort zone, especially with people of other faiths, and for me personally the Muslim-Jewish relationship is a priority. 

One example of the challenge is being confronted by what seemed to me to be a misrepresentation of my own beliefs by Muslims. Three times this week I came across the Muslim idea that Jews consider the son of Ezra to be the son of God. This morning by an Imam, who told me that both the Jews and Christians believe in a son of God, an idea I never heard off before this Tuesday. I found that confronting, yet I persevere because there is so much beauty I have already discovered that I know I need to keep at it.
This week we read the story of twelve spies who are sent to Canaan, most of whom come back with a terribly pessimistic report, which results in the people losing faith and being condemned to spend the rest of their lives in the desert[i].

The first risk is taken by God who unlike most of the Torah does not command Moses to either send or not send spies. Instead he tells him to send based on his own opinion[ii]. Moses feels pressured into it[iii] and rather than risk the people displeasure he caves in and worse still he is persuaded to send spies who will lead everyone to second guess G-d and the great next step the nation needed to take. At the end of his life Moses will reflect bitterly on how this played out, “all of you came close to me..[iv]”.

An interesting bit of context is the great fall of Moses’ own confidence[v] from when he uses variations of the word “Good” five times as he tries to persuade his father in law to come along to the land[vi], to his utter despair only a few verses later after the people demand meat to eat.

See the contrast;  
From: ... “We are travelling to the place about which the Lord said, I will give it to you. Come with us and we will be good to you, for the Lord has spoken of good fortune for Israel... And if you go with us, then it will be that good which God will do good for us, we will do good for you.

To;  Moses heard the people weeping... The Lord became very angry, and Moses considered it bad. Moses said to the Lord, "Why have You treated Your servant so badly? Why have I not found favour in Your eyes that You place the burden of this entire people upon me? Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that You say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom as the nursing mother carries the suckling,' to the Land You promised their forefathers[vii]?

Moses is advised to get other leaders well known to the people to help him, leaders who might be more in touch with where the people are at, a touch of democracy. It is plausible to suggest that his confidence is shaken, so that when the people insist on spies, he is open to being led by those he is meant to lead. Perhaps it is too hard.

One reason given for the spies not wishing to enter the land is that they thought leaving the desert and getting involved in the mundane reality of working the land would compromise the high degree of spirituality that the people were able to maintain in the desert[viii]. Another view is that they projected their own low opinion of themselves onto the Canaanites. “We were as grasshoppers in our eyes, and so were we in their eyes[ix]”. In either case, the stance is highly risk averse. The fact that this ends badly does not mean God made a mistake by giving Moses the choice. It is only by having the possibility to make poor choices that our noble choices have meaning.

The question of whether to play it safe can also be found in the discussion of the Nazirite who vows to abstain from wine for a period of time. When he (or she) completes the vow he must bring a Sin offering to “atone for sinning against his soul[x]” because he denied himself the enjoyment of one of the (permissible) pleasures God had provided[xi]. This view is hotly contested; with suggestions that the sin refers to coming into contact with the dead[xii], that avoiding wine is a good thing, the sin is avoiding non-alcoholic grape juice[xiii], or the sin is in the motive for the vow which is often anger[xiv].

The end of our reading contains the command to tie strings to the corners of one’s garments so that we do not stray[xv] after our eyes[xvi]. The strings remind us of the commandments. To me this suggests that we proactively seek to mitigate risk, but we don’t withdraw from being confronted.
Tonight, I spoke with another Imam who explained that he thought the son of Ezra thing could have been a marginal belief of a small obscure sect rather than a belief of all Jews. I also checked on a discussion on the Facebook page, Jihadi Jew with some very interesting posts by Ben Abramson that shed additional light on this. The sky has not fallen.

The bridge building work I have been involved with has had its share of successes, and there are still greater tasks that I don’t know if we will achieve. Some uncertainty can be managed and the rest is out of our hands. Regardless, engagement with eyes wide open is the right and ethical choice. I don’t intend to run from it.

“It is not the critic who counts...(but) the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat[xvii]”.
– Theodor Roosevelt

[i] Numbers 13-14
[ii] Talmud Sotah 34b
[iii] Yalkut Shimoni 742
[iv] Deuteronomy 1:23
[v] Rabbi Benny Lau,
[vi] Numbers 10:29-32
[vii] Numbers 11:10-12
[viii] The Lubavitcher Rebbe
[ix] Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk
[x] Numbers 6:11
[xi] Talmud Taanit 11a
[xii] In the Talmud itself
[xiii] Sifsei Chachamim
[xiv] Beer Basadeh
[xv] I find it interesting that the same word stem appears at both the beginning and end of our portion,
 first שְׁלַח לְךָ אֲנָשִׁים וְיָתֻרוּ אֶת אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן
Then וְלֹא תָתֻרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם
[xvi] Numbers 15:38-41