Friday, August 31, 2012

“Pelting the Rebellious Son” The Individual, Indulgence, & Submission

Labelled for resuse
From David Westerfield blog

The individual, our rights, needs and even desires are regarded as highly important in the modern western approach. Follow your heart, is a catch cry. There are societies that put much more emphasis on the communal interest, with the individual coming second. I live in both worlds. I sometimes feel indulgent, slack and “soft” in comparison with my mother, for whom the question seems almost never to be “what do I want?” but instead “what is my duty?” I wonder about the merit of sacrificing the needs/wants of the individual for the greater good and the merit of submission to a higher authority. Yet I also worry about the harshness some might employ in controlling the indulgent “inner child”. This is starkly symbolised by the proposition of an execution of the “rebellious son” by his parents handing him over to the community to kill him by pelting him with stones.  

Rebellion, a Capital Offence?
Let us start with the Torah’s text about the “execution of a rebellious son”. The Torah states:
“If a man has a wayward and rebellious son, who does not obey his father or his mother, and they chasten him, and [he still] does not listen to them, his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city, and to the gate of his place.
And they shall say to the elders of his city, "This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not obey us; [he is] a glutton and a (wine) guzzler."
And all the men of his city shall pelt him to death with stones, and he shall die. So shall you clear out the evil from among you, and all Israel will listen and fear” [i] .

This law is generally assumed to be a theoretical one that has never been implemented and will never be acted on[ii]. Even in its theoretical form it is completely at the parents’ discretion, which is one more argument for its impracticability[iii]. Still this law exists on the books as a moral teaching, which I find difficult to live with.  What might this teaching be?

More important than love?
Several possibilities are suggested. One our love of God overriding the “strongest love in the world, that between a father and son, or that of a mother to her son, in spite of this when the parents see their son straying to a bad way, it is forbidden for them to have mercy for him and they must restrain their love (for their son) out of love of God and to bring their son to the house of stoning, their love should be like the love of our father Abraham (Upon him be peace) who held back his love and tied up his son on the altar[iv]. 

This interpretation is disturbing in how far it suggests this should be taken. I wonder about a more general message about transcending our own inner world and “what feels right” to us to, not necessarily to act against our own conscience, but simply to do things that don’t resonate for us out of compliance with “the will of God”, or fall in behind the agendas and priorities of others in our communities. It is frustrating to watch people fixate on their personal vision who are unwilling to “take their eye of the ball” for long enough to give anyone else any assistance.  

Discipline not Indulgence
Other interpretations focus on various aspects of the rebellious son. The word “Moreh” which means rebellious is the same word for teach or show. “He wants to teach his father and mother knowledge, that his way is the right way, and this is the way of youth to imagine that they are the wise ones and they know how to conduct themselves…the son wants to educate his father[v]”. Gluttony is defined as involved theft of money[vi], which is then used to buy wine and meat eaten half raw[vii] in bad company outside the family home. The concern here is with excessive indulgence which is seen as corrupting. It is contrasted with a custom that when one hosts guests one should leave some space empty of plates[viii].  Of course this can be taken too far, we must remember that “stoning the indulgent” child is a threat that is never to be carried out!” There are so many delightful things in the world that God has created for our enjoyment as long as we partake of it in moderation.

There is also the danger that in being overly harsh toward ourselves we become hardened and cruel. A lovely story involves a Rabbi disapproving of a rich man eating very simply, hard bread etc. The Rabbi told him to eat steak and drink fine wine. This way he will recognise that the poor at least deserve bread and other basics, if he only gives himself stale bread, what crumbs will he offer the needy?

Submission to “The Official Position”
In contrast to the “out of control rebellious youth”, there is the case of the rebellious elder[ix]. This is a top level scholar who having arrived at a different conclusion to the majority of the highest religious court called the Sanhedrin, dares to defy the official ruling and guides people to behave in accordance with his own view. This is so that there not be “many Torah’s”, and serves to unify the Jews in their observance of the Torah.

The requirement to submit to the official position played out in the poignant story of Rabbi Joshua who believed that the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, was on a different day to the one decided on by the majority and the president of the Sanhedrin, Rabbi Gamliel. Rabbi Gamliel demanded the Rabbi Joshua publicly demonstrate his acceptance of the ruling by appearing before him with his staff and money bag. This would be violation of the holy day according to Rabbi Joshua’s opinion[x]. This must have been very hard for Rabbi Joshua. This incident and the disrespect to Rabbi Joshua later contributed to Rabbi Gamliel being deposed as president. There is a balance one must find here.

Judging texts and Individual Dignity
This material is also useful when we are tempted to judge the sacred texts of other faiths, not to simply read a text without considering the traditional interpretations. It is also important to consider seemingly unrelated teachings to gain a broader perspective. Reading the examples above could create the impression that the Torah is concerned only with the “greater good” and not with the rights of the individual, or even the obligations we have toward others. This is not true, of course. I am struck by the symbolism of the Torah’s command to a creditor seeking an object as surety for a loan from a poor person, “In the outside, you will stand[xi]”! The creditor has a right to demand an object from the borrower, but he dare not violate the sanctity of the vulnerable man’s home. According to one traditional translation, the lender is actually instructed to stand in the marketplace where the borrower will meet him with an object of surety of his choosing[xii]. Even a court officer is forbidden to enter the home of the borrower[xiii]!

There are several pathways to virtue. One relates to prioritising God and this has led many to do beautiful things. At the same time, there are many atheists who are highly ethical decent people. Another valuable path involves moderation, and still there are highly disciplined, dieting exercising self-centred even cruel people. In contrast there are some “go with the flow”, sensual ice cream eating people who are generous and loving. Jews are now in the month of reflection, Elul, leading up to the Day of Atonement. There is a lot to think about, including how gentle to be or not be with our indulgent inner child.

[i] Deuteronomy 21:19-21
[ii] Talmud Sanhedrin 71a, there is a dissenting view that this law was meant to be implemented
[iii] Maharsha on Sanhedrin, cited in Nachshoni
[iv] Rabbenu Bchaya
[v] Abarbenel (1437-1508)
[vi] Talmud Sanhedrin
[vii] Meam Loez
[viii] Shulchan Aruch 151
[ix] Deuteronomy 17:10-11
[x] Talmud Rosh Hashana 24b-25a
[xi] Deuteronomy 24:11
[xii] Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel
[xiii] Talmud Bava Metziah 113b, this is one opinion, the other opinion is that a court officer is allowed to enter the home.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Curbing Compassion for Asylum Seekers?

Restraining Compassion
Australians are witnessing a dramatic shift in refugee policy. Only a few years back a new Labour Government emphatically rejected the previous government’s strategy of sending Asylum seekers to a third country, Nauru. In a matter of days Legislation is being enacted to allow this practice to resume. It has not been an easy decision, clearly some government MPs have reservations. Refugee advocates see this as a step away from a compassionate approach. Some have cried racism and prejudice, claiming that if those seeking entry to Australia were white farmers from Zimbabwe there would be a much more welcoming stance. Others vehemently reject any accusation of prejudice.

There has also been some discussion about an article by a member of the Jewish community about the need to curb our compassion (not the authors choice of title), or redirect it from those on the boats to other refugees waiting in queues. What contribution does my tradition bring to this debate?

The Stranger
Perhaps the most repeated commandment in the Torah is to love the stranger, often combined with a reminder of Jews’ experience of being an outsider in Egypt where we were made slaves. We must be concerned with the welfare of those who are vulnerable and are seen as outsiders/strangers.

To Curb and Not to Curb Compassion
In our Torah reading this week we have instructions both to curb our compassion and not to do so depending on the circumstances.  We are taught to curb our compassion in cases involving a person who leads others astray by promoting idol worship[i] and a Murder[ii]. Both cases involve extremely serious threats to the community, the latter to life itself and the former to spiritual life. In the case of a vulnerable person we are told “you shall not harden your heart, and you shall not close your hand from your needy brother[iii].

Some have portrayed those arriving on our shores in boats as “queue jumpers”. Others have argued that because there are some Muslims who are extremists, this should influence attitudes to Muslim arrivals in general. Generalising from a tiny minority to a huge majority is neither reasonable nor just.

I don’t think it is racist to argue like my Darwin taxi driver did yesterday; that Australia’s charity should be prioritised to benefit people living in Australian, i.e. Aboriginal people living in dire poverty or that we should be equitable in our treatment of refugees whether they are in queues or boats. We are taught that in the administration of justice we must not be swept away by emotion[iv], instead we must be fair to all. Fairness includes being alert to unconscious prejudices that many of us still have in spite of our tolerant or accepting intentions.  

A teacher in Adelaide reflected last week on the fact that many Australians believed initial reports 10 years ago about asylum seekers that “those people” threw their children overboard. Some of us were prepared to believe that the people on these boats were so different from us that they lacked the fundamental human quality of parental love.

It is tempting when refusing to assist vulnerable people to portray them as undeserving. We are warned against this by our sages. The Torah states, “Beware, lest… your eyes will look in an evil way on your needy brother and not give him[v]”. At the simple level it means having an ungenerous perspective, but it is also interpreted to mean that in our reluctance to help a needy person we must not ascribe evil characteristics to the person seeking our help to justify our refusal[vi].

Changed Circumstances Justifies a change of policy
The home affairs minister, Jason Clare, argued on Radio this week that the Labour Government was justified in changing its position because the reality had changed. 600 people had died while trying to gain asylum in Australia by travelling here by boat. The principle is sound, when a law causes significant harm, it is quite reasonable to review the law. God made a law that had the potential to lead to a situation where “there would not be any poor person among you[vii]”. This would be the result of a system of Jubilee and Sabbatical years, in which poverty would not entrench itself[viii]. Every seven years all debts would be cancelled[ix] and poor people who sold themselves into slavery would go free, in the Jubilee they would regain ownership of any property they sold.

The Torah makes it clear that the blessed state of a poverty free society is conditional on obedience of the law[x]. This ambitious scheme was dependent on people transcending their natural self-interest. Some Twelve hundred years later, it became clear that the result of the law was to harm the very people it sought to help. The sage Hillel observed that in the lead up to the Sabbatical year people stop lending money to each other. He found a way around the law, essentially allowing lenders to transfer their loans to the court[xi].   

The application of the principle of changed circumstances to laws about Asylum seekers is less straight forward. In both cases well-intentioned laws are confronted with reality tests and found wanting. However, in the case of loans, the law was a direct and unavoidable cause of hardship. There was no other option but to give up the idealistic law. In the case of Asylum seekers, it could be argued that there is another option; we can choose to allow people to come here by plane which apparently is half the cost that they are charged by the operators of these boats. Others would argue that this is not viable as there are simply far more people seeking to come to Australia than it could accommodate.

More broadly we are meant to see our assistance to those in needs not as charity but as an act of justice[xii]. The Torah states that if a poor person will cry out to God because he cannot get a loan in the lead up to the seventh year[xiii], this will be considered a sin for the person refusing to lend him money[xiv]. This is because the person who has the ability to give is like a king’s bursar, entrusted by the king to distribute funds. When the poor person cries out it is like a citizen complaining to the king about the bursar withholding funds that the king had allocated for him[xv].  It has also been taught that the reason that one person is poor is order to create an opportunity for another to have the merit of providing for him/her[xvi]. Our decision to share our resources with an individual knocking on our door, either of our house, our embassy or in a leaky boat needs to be informed by the knowledge that ultimately all our wealth is not absolutely ours but has been given to us in trust, perhaps to share with that exact needy person.

Further Considerations
On one hand there is something beautiful about the way no expense is spared when someone is in trouble, such as some adventurer in a row boat on the high seas who lost her paddle. Yet, questions about equitable use of limited public funds sometimes need to be asked. Questions also need to be asked about the justice of treating some people harshly in order to deter other people from risking their lives. Australia will be bringing in plain packaging for cigarettes to discourage smoking, it could be argued that if we applied the same logic being used in the asylum seeker debate to smokers, we would be locking them up to help deter others from smoking. 

There is more that can be said about all this. We are taught, it is not for you to complete the work, but you are not free to desist from it. 

Closing with hope that fewer people have the need to flee their home countries, and that wise, compassionate and equitable response are found to respond to those who choose to flee or migrate for whatever reason. Until then, let us never lose sight of humanity, both our own and those of all our fellow humans. 

[i] Deuteronomy 13:9
[ii] Deuteronomy 19:13
[iii] Deuteronomy 15:7
[iv] Exodus 23:3, “and the poor, you should not be glorify in his (legal) fight”.
[v] Deuteronomy 15:9
[vi] R. Shmelkeh of Nikolsburg, a variation of this also appears in Yalkut Hagershuni that reinterprets the phase in genesis 18:20 about the city of Sodom, “their sin is very grievance” which literally is understood as the words of God about the inhabitants of Sodom, but could also be interpreted as the words of the Sodomites about poor visitors to their city which justified their inhospitable practices. Both cited in Nachshoni, Y., (1989) Studies in the Weekly Parshah, Mesorah Publications, Brooklyn New York,  p.1280
[vii] Deuteronomy 15:4
[viii] Chizkuni based on the Bchor Shor
[ix] Deuteronomy 15:2, this idealistic conception of the cancelation of debts is hard to reconcile with the restriction of this amnesty only to Jews. One more practical explanation of the law by Chizkuni ties it to the ability to pay in normal years by selling crops. Jewish farmers were forbidden to sell crops in the Sabbatical year and therefore did not have the ability to pay. Non-Jewish farmers were not obligated to leave their land fallow which meant that they could pay their debts. According to this explanation Jewish craftsmen should have to pay, while non-Jewish unemployed people, especially farm hands who might find work on Jewish farms that would now be directly impacted by the Sabbatical year should be freed from their debts. This is not the case. Perhaps the counter argument would be that the law is formulated according to the majority. What I like about this argument is that it implies a rejection of discrimination by seeking a technical justification. Of course it would suit me better if the law treated both Jews and non-Jews equally.
[x] Deuteronomy 15:5
[xi] Sifrei, the technical fix interprets the words “do not press your brother for payment” as applying only to a direct transaction between the lender and “his brother”, it does not explicitly restrict the court from collecting debts, so by transferring the loan to the court collection becomes permissible.
[xii] This point is discussed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Likutei Sichot, based on the Hebrew word for giving to the poor being Tzedakah which is related to the word Tzedek/justice.
[xiii] During the 7th year all loans were cancelled in Biblical times. This led lenders to be reluctant to lend as the year approached.
[xiv] Deuteronomy 15:9
[xv] Michca Belulah
[xvi] Ohr Hachayim on 15:7

Friday, August 10, 2012


used under creative commons license
Fear Fuelled Flight
Fear is both a valuable tool in the quest for virtue as well a destructive force. Yesterday I needed to make an argument about diversity education policy in front of the Tasmanian Minister for Education and my fear of getting it wrong made it hard for me to prepare my speech.  Yet earlier this week I heard Australian Olympic Gold medallist Sally Pearson talk about being afraid while she competed. The mystics taught that love and fear are the two wings that make good deed soar to the heavens[i].

Motivated by Fear?
Two heroic women in the Torah displayed a combination of fearlessness and fear. When the Pharaoh demands that the Jewish midwives Shifra and Puah kill Jewish baby boys they defy him. The Torah explains their motivation. “The midwives, however, feared God; so they did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them, but they enabled the boys to live[ii]”. In a study of business success and failure, one characteristic of great business leaders was their fear that something could go wrong[iii].

I have often been cautious in my bridge building work, afraid of alienating people I was trying to engage. I have a sense that being bolder at times is needed, yet I think the fearful instinct (If I can call it that) is also a valuable tool and the challenge is to know which to use when. My Liberian Muslim friend, Mohamed Dukuly told me a saying once from his people about keeping quiet 9 times so that one can have the opportunity to speak the tenth time. I think there is wisdom in that.   

Fear as a core of worship
The nature of fear advocated by the Torah is contested[iv], but its importance is not. After Moses reminds the Israelites about their past great failure when they worshipped a golden calf he rhetorically asks them “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord, your God, demand of you?” His answer is “Only to fear the Lord, your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, and to worship the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul[v]”. 

Messing up the little things
The Midrash has a touching portrayal of King David’s fear. There are some commandments that people are not careful with and “throw them under their heels[vi]” (or trample on them) as these are seen as “light” or low importance. David says “master of the world, I am not afraid (of transgressing) the “heavy” commandments of the Torah, as they are significant. What am I afraid of, the light commandments, perhaps I have transgressed one of them. Perhaps I did or did not do (what I should) as these are light…master of the world because the matters of the Torah as sweeter than honey I might have been dismissive of them…[vii].

We can be motivated by love and inspiration to do important tasks, but it is fear that helps us attend to the boring details that are important in the long run. “One who is afraid will not fail to do even one 1000th of his obligations because of his fear[viii]”.  This is related[ix] to the verse above, “Now”, as a beginner in worship, “what does God ask of you but to fear him” which is a foundational step, that will later lead you to “going in all his ways, to love him and serve him will all your heart and all your soul”.

In the end I think the speech in front of the minister achieved its purpose, he seemed to accept the merits of my argument. My love for the principle of respect for all people combined with my fear of saying the wrong thing, helped me speak from the heart and allowed the message to fly.

[i] Tanya, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi
[ii] Exodus 1:17
[iii] Collins J, (2009), How the Might Fall and Why Some Companies Never Give In, Random House Business Books
[iv] Views range from fear of punishment to awe of the greatness of God
[v] Deuteronomy 10:12
[vi] This is based on a play on words, the Torah (Deuteronomy 7:12) states “And it will be, because you will heed these ordinances and keep them and perform, that the Lord, your God, will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers”.  The Hebrew word that is translated as “because” is Ekev עֵקֶב which can also mean a heel and it interpreted as it will be if you obey the commandments that might otherwise end up under your heel, you will be rewarded…
[vii] Midrash Tanchuma, Ekev 1
[viii] Ohr Hachayim on Deuteronomy 10:12
[ix] Ohr Hachayim

Friday, August 3, 2012


I am sitting on a plane from Perth to Sydney feeling grateful for an amazing week. On Sunday evening, for the first time in the 10 years of seeking to build a partnership between Muslims, Jews and Christians I co-hosted a program in a Mosque with a Shia Muslim Imam. It was a triumph. After so many years needing to respond to the doubts of others, and even my own doubts, about how strongly Muslims favoured this partnership idea we had 600 Muslims show up to an event co-hosted by a Jewish-Christian-Muslim organisation.  I also ran professional development days for over 100 educators in Adelaide and Perth. Walked on a beautiful Indian Ocean coast beach at 5:30 this morning and heard nothing but the waves. Yet, just outside this wonderful silver lining is a little cloud called “Compromise”.

Don’t mention the war
The context is important. The situation in the land called both Israel and Palestine is extremely important. The issues are matters of life and death, terrible loss, humiliation, fear, justice and peace, and a lot more that is beyond the scope of this post. At the same time, there are significant prejudices against both Muslims and Jews in Australia and there is an opportunity to address this prejudice by working together on diversity in general. The event on Sunday night chose to focus on the latter issue rather than the former. It included speakers from various faiths, MP’s and quite a few Jewish, Christian and other non-Muslim guests. Being the end of a major Jewish fast day (9th of Av) as well as an evening during Ramadan both Jews and Muslims present broke their fasts together after dark sitting on the floor together. Participants loved it, the vibe in the room and the chatter on Facebook afterwards was overflowing with positive sentiment.

Socialising with Evil
People on both sides of the Arab Israeli conflict have been concerned about interacting with people they saw as justifying evil. One accomplished writer wrote this week about an event like ours (or perhaps it was ours) that she felt compromised by sharing polite conversation with people who advocated on behalf of one side in the conflict. Others chose to avoid the event altogether rather than be in the company or imply approval of people whose views they saw as abhorrent.

While I personally would prioritise the benefit that could be created in Australia through interaction, there are people I would not be prepared to associate with either. I respect the view of people who don’t want to compromise themselves by associating with those they see as evil[i] and appreciate they might have different views to me about who should be avoided.

Heartbreaking Compromise
The theme of Compromise appears in our Torah reading this week, when God warns the people of Israel that if they develop hubris[ii]and become religiously corrupted, creating an image… then God will scatter you among the nations and there you will worship Gods which are the handiwork of people, wood and stone[iii]. This outcome is a very severe punishment for a people who passionately advocated Monotheism.  As a result of their terrible suffering, many Jews, the Torah foretells, will be brought to forced conversions, worshipping idols but knowing full well that they are made of wood and stone…this would constitute the climax of their suffering – to be inwardly aware of their true faith and have to pay lip service to idols…[iv]”. This is a powerful articulation of the soul destroying nature of being compromised.  

The road to hell might be paved with good intentions, yet I think intent still matters. When a person kills another by accident, the Torah is concerned about whether or not the killer hated the victim[v]. If there was no hatred the killer can escape to the safety of a city of refuge. I think the sincerity of people who hold views other find abhorrent should be taken into account. In some cases it is not a callous indifference to the rights of the victims but a belief in a set of arguments that mitigate the severity of the harmful acts of those they support.

It would seem to me that the benefits of interaction outweigh the downside. If things will ever change, surely interaction can also help that happen. Certainly in my experience my view of the conflict has become far better informed, my understanding of and concern about the perspective of the other side greatly developed through interaction.

Inspiration from people in the conflict itself
Another factor to consider is the amazing example set by people living with the conflict. Most inspiringly, there is a group of bereaved parents from both sides of the conflict who come together.  If they can do it there, surely people thousands of kilometres away can also interact.

Compromise as a positive
I think we also need to consider the positive connotations of the word ‘compromise’ which can be very helpful in creating peace. We are taught, “A person should always be as soft as a reed and not as hard as a cedar[vi]. The Torah teaches us to “do that which is upright and good in eyes of God[vii]. This interpreted as advocating for going beyond the letter of the law and insisting on rights, instead going with compromise[viii].

[i] This principle is reflected in the verse, “one who justifies the wicked, or condemns the righteous-both are an abomination to the Lord (Proverbs 17:15). In Jewish law this principle is expressed in 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. (Ehrman Rabbi A (2002), the Laws of Interpersonal Relations, Artscroll Brooklyn, NY, based on Shaarei Teshuva 3:187-199). One who justifies the wicked, or condemns the righteous-both are an abomination to the Lord.
[ii] The word in the text is “vnoshantem” which is translated by Unkelus as “you will become old in the land” which interpreted by Daat Zekainim Mbaalei Hatosafot as “you will say we have already been settled in the land, there will not be more anger (from God) or destruction, I hereby set heaven and earth which last for ever as witnesses against you that you will indeed be destroyed
[iii] Deuteronomy 4:25-28
[iv] Abarbanel, cited in Lebovitz, N, Studies in Devarim Deuteronomy p.53
[v] Deuteronomy 4:42
[vi] Talmud, Taanis 20b
[vii] Deuteronomy 6:18
[viii] Rashi