Friday, December 28, 2012

Offending the Host Culture

Photo by Sheree Zielke, used under Creative Commons License

Should minorities pull their head in and show deference to the majority/host culture? A few examples; this week there was a major media storm in Sydney over a Facebook post that suggested Muslims are forbidden to wish people a Merry Christmas. According to an inside source the post was not an accurate reflection of a recent talk by a local Imam. In my own neighbourhood, St Ives, we had the issue with some Jews wanting to construct an Eruv (a few wires and sticks) meeting a lot of resistance and hostility. After losing a recent appeal, I am beginning to wonder whether it is time to “respect the umpire” and not “antagonize the locals”. A third example was the reaction to a decision by Parramatta Council to reinstate Christian Prayers at the beginning of Council meetings. Parramatta has a great diversity of religious beliefs, with those identifying as Christians in the census being the largest group but probably a minority[i].

In terms of the holiday greetings, I share the concerns of many Muslims and Jews about the importance of reciprocating the good will we enjoy from our Christian neighbours. In Maimonides’ code of Jewish law there are restrictions on interaction with people of other faiths around their festivals. There is also some leniency out of consideration about causing “hatred”[ii] or damaging relationships.  The Eruv is a bit more complicated, with at least some of the objections stemming from prejudice, raising the question of whether these attitudes must be repudiated, on balance I am concerned about antagonising people by being seen to be too assertive about minority interests.

Some objections were raised about excluding other faiths from the Parramatta Council prayers. Neil Kadomi, president of the local Islamic association called it ‘‘silly’’ and ‘‘discrimination’’. He said, ‘‘When the council starts to talk about trying to be religious, they are dividing the community[iii]’’. Yet some Jewish Australians commented in support of Christian council prayer on Facebook: “Since colonisation, Australia has been a Christian country. It had opened its Christian doors to allow people of all faiths to find shelter and build a home for themselves and their families. We have no right to enforce our ideology. We have to respect and give gratitude to Australia… Also by realizing that they have the right to continue with their tradition!  Sadly some people don’t understand gratitude…”

I also feel gratitude to Australia as a new migrant and have great respect for the Christian contribution to and role in this country and humanity. I wrote to the Mayor and other Councillors that Australia faces the challenge of properly honouring the enormous role of Christian faith in this blessed land while also being an inclusive multicultural country. I recognised that in itself the introduction of Christian prayer at Council meetings is a way of seeking divine guidance, particularly for Christian Councillors. We recognise the value of this and support it as long as it is done in an inclusive way. The chief concern for Together For Humanity[iv] is the way that the symbolism of exclusive Christian worship will be perceived by some in the community, particularly young people both or minority and majority backgrounds.

Academics studying prejudice are concerned with the way that a majority culture or belief becomes the norm and others are discriminated against by being considered "different". This has been called the "new racism". Several comments on the story in local media are consistent with the theory, seeing it as an affirmation of Australia as a "Christian country”.[v] I suggested that the introduction of prayer to Council is an opportunity to affirm the diverse character of your city and our country. One way to do this is by inviting representatives from various faiths to offer prayers... Taking up the opportunity in this discussion can support the efforts of teachers and governments to develop an inclusive society where all enjoy a sense of belonging and confidence to participate in all aspects of Australian life.

This is not a new dilemma. Joseph was a foreigner who did very well in Egypt, his father also thrived in Egypt, with his 17 years being among the best years of his life[vi] when he really lived[vii], in contrast to the rest of the years of his life that he described to Pharaoh as “few and bad[viii]”.  There is a problem though in that Jacob and his family have little respect or tolerance for the idol worshiping religion of the host nation. One way to manage this problem was to segregate the newcomers into their own enclave[ix]. Yet, the death of Jacob presented a problem, he was adamant that he not be buried in Egypt[x], according to one opinion this was because he didn’t want to buried among Egyptians who he considered wicked[xi].

Joseph was lucky to live in a time before Twitter and Facebook. His conversation with his father about the burial plans differs significantly to way he recounts the conversation to Pharaoh’s staff. Let us compare[xii].

Torah’s account of Joseph’s conversation with his father Jacob/Israel[xiii]
Joseph’s account of this conversation for Pharaoh[xiv]
29… (Jacob/Israel) said to him (Joseph), "If I have now found favour in your eyes, now place your hand beneath my thigh (a Symbol of an Oath),
'My father adjured (imposed an oath on) me, saying, "Behold, I am going to die”
and you shall deal with me with kindness and truth; do not bury me in Egypt.
30. I will lie with my forefathers, and you shall carry me out of Egypt, and you shall bury me in their grave."
 In my grave, which I dug for myself in the land of Canaan, there you shall bury me."
And he (Joseph) said, "I will do as you say."
31. And he said, "Swear to me."

So he (Joseph) swore to him

Joseph omits the explicit desire not to be buried in Egypt. Instead he seems to fabricate the idea that Jacob wanted to be buried in a grave he dug for himself which may have been an Egyptian custom at the time for noblemen to dig graves and be buried in them[xv]. He also does not mention his support for his father’s plan which he commits to carrying out and then makes an oath to that effect. He does not want to appear ungrateful[xvi] or offend Pharaoh.  In addition Joseph tries to keep this whole discussion low key, rather than talk to Pharaoh directly he speaks to the “house of Pharaoh[xvii]” not to remind Egyptians that a foreigner occupies such high office and also out of concern that permission would be denied[xviii].

Navigating these types of dilemmas is not easy and tact is essential.  Respect is a two way street. There is a so called politically correct view that seems to be essentially: “White bad/Black good”. This approach seems to advocate for respect for all views except the “White”, “Anglo” or Christian perspective.  I think all people, including Christians, Americans, Anglo-Australians, Western, as well as Muslims, Blacks etc. and their ways of life are deserving of respect.  We must differentiate between approval and agreement and what Jewish sources refer to as “ways of peace” or in plain English showing respect and goodwill.

At the same time we need to consider the much maligned so called “politically correct” arguments as they really are instead of some “straw man” caricature. There are real prejudices that are subtle in giving an impression of what is normal rather than screaming racist abuse but these are very real in the harm their cause. There is a problem when a government authority in what is practically a secular state is seen to favour one faith over others. The bottom line is that we need to make the effort to strengthen rather that weakens relationships.

[i] in this table Christians account for 41% of the population with the next largest group being those who selected no religion 18%, and a further 12% who did not identify their faith, some of whom are Christians, perhaps even half. Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists are 13%, 7% and 5% respectively according to the numbers on this site.  
[ii] Maimonides Yad Hachazakah laws of Idol Worship and Practices of its Worshippers  9:1-2
[iv] an inclusive Multi-faith, Christian, Jewish, Muslim based diversity education organisation I lead
[v] these include the following “pleased that Parramatta City Councillors will be commencing council meetings with a Christian prayer. Australia is a Christian country, and has been since settlement” and “Running a local government requires the wisdom of Solomon and Australia is a Christian nation…” and a third “Australia is a Christian country... whoever oppose this idea shall denounce taking Christmas Day and Easter holidays as public holidays, either turn up to work or reject your public holiday pay entitlements. Otherwise, you are just in bad faith!
[vi] Midrash Hagadol,
[vii] Drashat Even Shuiv Parshat Vayechi, citing a Midrash
[viii] Genesis 47:9
[ix] Genesis 46:34
[x] Genesis 47:29 and 30
[xi] Midrash Tehilim, on psalm 26, Sechel Tov cited in Torah Shlaima p1731-1732
[xii] Similar analysis is included in Nechama Leibovitz New Studies in Bereshit
[xiii] Genesis 47:29 and 30
[xiv] Genesis 50:5
[xv] Nechama Leibovitz New Studies in Bereshit p.532
[xvi] Meshech Chochma
[xvii] Genesis 50:4, see interesting thought about how Joseph’s authority seems diminished and he is relegated to pleading through the staffers, seemingly lacking access to the King himself classic commentaries give more technical reasons about Joseph being in mourning and therefore it not being appropriate for him to appear before a king as it states in the book of Esther “one cannot come before the kind, dressed in sackcloth”.
[xviii] Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Chutzpah! "Inappropriate Talk"

"Tell the tall buildings in Mahattan, I am a Lubavitcher"
shouted Y at a late night "Farbrengen"/debate mocking the
idea that young idealists can tell the big world anything

This week began with the news of the terrible murder and loss of innocents in Connecticut. May their families find some measure of comfort and their souls find peace.
One confronting immediate response to these deaths on social media was to complain about the coverage of a western tragedy and calling attention to the violent or preventable deaths of children in other countries. Was it proper to use the opportunity to make that point at that time? Can there ever be a wrong time and can there ever be considerations of propriety that are more important than the life of a child?

On a far more trivial level, the other morning I had the slight discomfort of being in the same small room as a man I will call B., who won’t talk to me on principle.  He objects to my working together with Muslims or Arabs or Christians as a matter of religious principle. On one level is it hurtful, we have known each other a long time. I think there might also be some ego involved. B has not had the opportunity to study the Torah in depth yet he thinks it is his place to rule me, a Rabbi, out of order. I don’t see myself superior just because of a bit of extra knowledge, yet in this case I had a passing though of indignation. “Is it his place to issue Halachic rulings against what I do?!” It’s not serious but it ties into my topic, Chutzpa, which can be loosely translated as impudence.

As a rule, Chutzpah, which is modern slang is seen as kind of spunky and cute, is traditionally seen as a bad thing. Yet, the other side of the argument is that some notions of propriety and good manners may result in silence in the face of injustice.  Jewish law requires a student to reproach even a teacher if the teacher is doing something wrong ([i]). This past Sunday I was at a book launch about the protest against the Holocaust by Aboriginal leader William Cooper. I learned that the protest was completely ignored at the time, no record of it remains, it was never sent to Berlin, nor does it feature in the diary of the German Consul in Melbourne or his superior in Sydney ([ii]). The Nazis would have seen it as “inappropriate” that black Aborigines would dare tell them what is right. Yet his protest continues to inspire and challenge us today.

In our Torah reading this week we have a touching example of disregarding propriety when the wellbeing of a child is at stake.  Judah approaches ([iii]) the Egyptian viceroy who is threatening to enslave his younger half-brother Benjamin. The body language implied in the approach is, at least according to one commentator, to be one of “war ([iv])”. He disregards the normal conduct of the world which is to ask permission first and only then to enter, Judah approaches first and ask for permission later ([v]). Another commentator has Judah “break down the door and come before Joseph with his brothers ([vi])”.

Judah’ begins by saying “please my master, may your servant speak words in the ears of my master and let my master not be angry with your servant because you are like Pharaoh ([vii]).  On one level we have the deferential language about servant and master, in fact in this one monologue Judah refers to himself, his father and brothers as Joseph’s slaves eleven times ([viii])! Yet commentators draw many inferences that paint a much more aggressive posture. Asking Joseph not to get angry is taken as proof that he plans to speak harshly ([ix]) that is likely to provoke the ruler. His comparison of Joseph to Pharaoh is interpreted by some, not as flattery but as a suggestion that just Pharaoh lusted after Sarah because of her beauty, Joseph’s interest in Benjamin was also based on desire for Benjamin’s beauty ([x]). Judah takes the view that when the wellbeing and safety of a child is a stake, restraint based on polite protocols must be disregarded.

The theme of disregarding protocol can also be seen earlier in Joseph’s story. After Joseph successfully interprets the king’s dream, he oversteps the boundaries and goes beyond his brief as dream interpreter. Rather than knowing his place and not “speaking before one who is greater than himself” ([xi]) as a slave and recently released prisoner in front of a king he proceeds to offer Pharaoh unsolicited advice about how to manage his economy and save his country. Even more audaciously, Joseph might have been angling for a senior government position as a prospective manager of the Egyptian economy ([xii]). “Now, Pharaoh should see (to find) a man, understanding and wise and put him in charge of the land of Egypt ([xiii])”.  Hint, hint… here Joseph broke with protocol and appropriate conduct, yet this breach saved the country from terrible starvation in a famine with the elevation of Joseph.

In the rich tapestry of views the same situations have alternative interpretations. Rather than Joseph seeking appointment to the position he suggested, he was merely doing his duty as a prophet who cannot keep back the prophecy ([xiv]). This experience of prophecy is described by Jeremiah as if “in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones and I weary myself to hold it but cannot ([xv])”.  We also find Pharaoh repeating his intention to appoint Joseph to the position as if Joseph did not believe it ([xvi]). First Pharaoh tell Joseph: “after God has made all this known to you, there is no one as understanding and wise as you (therefore) you will be (in a position of authority) over my house and according to your mouth will my nation be sustained, only in (occupying) the throne will I be greater than you ([xvii])”.  The story continues with Pharaoh speaking to Joseph again, “look, I have put you over all of the land of Egypt ([xviii])”. No Chutzpa here. Similarly, there are interpretations of Judah’s approach to Joseph that highlight his respect for the ruler and a more pleading and conciliatory stance ([xix]).

I think Chutzpa is a tool for exceptional circumstances. Perhaps the more typical stance is the one taken by Jacob when he blesses Pharaoh when he first meets him and when he leaves him ([xx]) to teach us proper conduct about how a person should enter to see the face of royalty ([xxi])”. So I defend the right of B, to ignore me if he thinks he is standing up for what is right and the “tweeters” to be insensitive to the time of mourning of some people in the sincere hope of saving others.  May we all have the wisdom to know when to be civil, proper and polite and when to scream and break down some doors with chutzpa!

[i] Talmud Bava Metzia 31a
[ii] Talk by Konrad Kweit and the book launch at the Sydney Jewish Museum 9/12/2012
[iii] Genesis 44:18
[iv] Bereshit Rabba 93 according to the view of Rabbi Judah
[v] Midrash Habiur, from a manuscript cited in Torah Shlaima p.1635
[vi] Sefer Hayashar
[vii] Genesis 44:18
[viii] Genesis 44:18-34
[ix] Rashi
[x] Daat Zkainim Mibaalei Hatosafot, and with variation in Bereshit Rabba 93 and other sources cited in Torah Shlaima p.1636
[xi] Pirkey Avot one of the seven definitions of the wise
[xii] Ramban to Genesis 41:33 
[xiii] Genesis 41:33 
[xiv] Abarbanel, cited in Leibovitz, N. New Studies in Bereshit p.448
[xv] Jeremiah 20:9
[xvi] Midrashei Torah by Anselm Astruc, cited in Leibovitz, N. New Studies in Bereshit p.447
[xvii] Genesis 41:39-40
[xviii] Genesis 41:41
[xix] Rashi, Bchor Shor, others
[xx] Gnesis 47:7 & 10
[xxi] Lekach Tov cited in Torah Shlaima p.1708