Friday, July 12, 2013

Words/Devarim - too much in your head?

Used under Creative Commons license, original photo from

Dedicated to my father who accomplished more with silence than I ever have with words and noise[i]’ or words to that effect, writes one author. As a Jew with many Muslim friends I wonder about the value of words and introspection in general, and particularly at this time of year when Muslim observe Ramadan and Jews observe “the nine days” of mourning relating to the destruction of our temple in Jerusalem over two thousand years ago. Intention and awareness is surely essential, mindless ritual cannot be right. Still, I wonder, can introspection lead me to be “inside my head” rather than engaged with my fellow man and God?

I have been reading the classic book Zen & Motorcycle Maintenance. I was struck by the narrator spending almost the entire book inside his head, thinking about himself as he was prior to a period of mental illness and electric shock treatment. He talks about the way that he was prior to his breakdown and treatment, eccentric, and recklessly idealistic, as if this was a different person who he even gives another name. The narrator’s son who is travelling with him on his motorcycle trip tries to connect with him but the father is preoccupied. It is only at the end of the book that the father’s earlier self asserts itself that he is fully there for his son, there is a lightness and joy and real presence. The story aspect of the book suggests two things to me. One is about the risk of filling my head with ‘too many words’, the other is about completely accepting myself as I am rather than wishing certain aspects of my personality or temperament didn’t exist.

Words and their limits
The name of fifth book of the Torah known in English as Deuteronomy is called Devarim in Hebrew, meaning words. The reading/portion this week[ii] is almost entirely a parting speech by Moses to the people shortly before his death. Moses refers to himself more in the section than in any other up to this point, 36 times. Yet, he is hardly introspective. Moses mentions once that he agreed with a plan to send spies that eventually went bad[iii]. He does not tell us if he feels responsible for his view or justified in it. Commentary suggests that he agreed with the plan because of the overwhelming consensus in favor of the plan by the people[iv], essentially blaming them despite his acquiescence. He also blamed the people for the fact that he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. “God also became angry with me because of you[v]”. Perhaps even more telling is that in comparison to the 36 references to his own role in the story, Moses uses words like you or direct references to the people 132 times, and references to “us” 75 times, so we have a ratio of 207-36 that tells us who is the focus in this speech.

This absence of public introspection in this reading can’t be taken as precluding private self-criticism. At least one commentary about Moses’ reaction to the rebellion against him by Korach, when he falls on his face is to examine his own heart whether he is at fault. Surely the point of our nine days of mourning this week and next is not just to remember what happened in the past but also to consider how we can behave more lovingly to merit a restoration of God’s grace and presence, the loss of which is represented by the physical destruction of a temple. The juxtaposition of the reading with the time of morning is intentional[vi] and calls us to reflect on a whole generation in the desert that falls from God’s grace and is excluded from the Promised Land just as our generation has failed to realize the rebuilding of the temple and through improving ourselves may yet merit the coming of the Messiah. More broadly, the process of Cheshbon Hanefesh, an accounting of the soul is  seen as a key tool for self-improvement.    

Self-Improvement and Self-acceptance
In seeking to improve ourselves, I think it is important that the starting point is a measure of self-acceptance. It is noble to try to develop better habits and to be alert or vigilant as my wise colleague Donna Jacobs Sife teacher to the darker thoughts and feelings that is common to almost all people. But we are taught that it is foolish and delusional for most people to think they can eradicate desires for evil, instead most of us need to accept that what God wants of us is to control ourselves rather than complete  eradication of aspects of our nature ()[vii].  I don’t know ,  I think transformation is possible in acceptance……

The Talmudic sage Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai told his students just before he died “I don’t know on which path they will lead me[viii]. This uncertainty about what awaited him in the afterlife is explained as resulting from such a great preoccupation with serving God “every day, every hour and every moment” rather than being aware of what was happening in inner emotional and intellectual world or ranking[ix]. I think this example highlights one extreme end of the spectrum perhaps. I think we can find the right balance between a helpful amount and form of introspection while still being in the world rather than preoccupied with words in our head about ourselves.
Beyond Words
Associate Professor John Bradley tells a lovely story about coming out to the Northern Territory as a PhD student and tells an Aboriginal uncle that he knows everything there is to know about dugongs. The uncle says, “uh huh”, and leaves it at that. Some days later they are up a creek somewhere and John is in the water checking out these animals when a dugong breaks his arm. He returns to the canoe in absolute agony. They are hours away from the nearest doctor. Then the uncle turns to him and says, “now, you know dugong!”  

[i] Abehsera, M. (1992) The Possible Man, Swan House
[ii] Deuteronomy/ Devarim 1:1-3:22
[iii] Deuteronomy/ Devarim 1:23
[iv] Ibn Ezra
[v] Deuteronomy/ Devarim 1:37, if not for the people’s lack of faith in the case of the spies Moses would not have been required to try to strengthen their faith by the planned miracle of talking to the rock and eventually hitting it instead for which he was punished (Panim Yafos). An alternative interpretation is that Moses says he did not go into the Promised land being buried in the desert instead, so that at the time of the resurrection those who died in the desert will join Moses and in his merit also rise from the dead. This interpretation translates the word בגללכם as for the sake of the people (Rosh). Another interpretation relates the word בגללכם to rolling or cause and effect, if not for the sin of the spies Moses would have already been in the land and build the holy temple that would have never been destroyed, as a result of their sin Moses did not enter and the temples were eventually destroyed (Ohr Hachayim)
[vi] Biur Halacha (528:4) as explained by Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer – in
[vii] Tanya
[viii] Talmud Berachos 28b.
[ix] The Lubavitcher Rebbe as translated by Eli Touger, retrieved from

Friday, July 5, 2013

Morsi and Gillard, democracy and diversity

Millions of Egyptians are celebrating this week, including Coptic Christians who have suffered persecution and insecurity on Morsi’s watch and others concerned about what they regards as private freedoms. For quite a few families it is a time for mourning those who died for the crime of expressing a political opinion at a rally. I cannot imagine what it is like for the women who were raped or threatened for the same reason.  Then there are the Egyptians who voted for Morsi in a democratic election, who have just had their democratic victory snatched out of their hands.  A less significant event is the political demise of Australia’s first female prime minister due not to demonstrations in the streets but responses to pollsters gauging her popularity. As this is a Torah based blog, I need to seek some inspiration in our Torah readings.

Failure to protect grounds for renouncing an election?
The process of the Egyptian intervention based on force by the military and shutting down media stations is a serious concern. Yet, the essential question of removing a democratically elected leader bothers me less. I heard a second hand account from a Coptic woman, who escaped to Australia after her people were brutally attacked by a mob in Cairo, a kindergarten was torched, an elderly church caretaker was set alight. Unfortunately, religious intolerance has a long history. For example,  our Torah reading this week encourages destruction of pagan houses of worship[i]. Still Morsi’s government’s failure to prevent religious-based violence is a failure in fulfilling the first responsibility of government to protect the citizens. We are instructed to pray for our government because without them people would swallow each other alive[ii]. Unfortunately in Egypt the government failed in that responsibility. An election is a social contract. If events show that a dreadful mistake was made there is a need for a mechanism to correct it just as the Torah allows for vows to be annulled if circumstances change[iii]. The question is about the best process for correction and what the longer term implications will be of the military taking control and the backlash from Morsi supporters.

A leadership change In Australia
We are fortunate in Australia to have other mechanisms for removing an elected leader.
On Wednesday afternoon last week, I was busy preparing two proposals for the Australian Government and the presumed in-coming Government, the present opposition that all the polls were predicting would win in a landslide. The proposals related to the need for rigorous policies about diversity that go beyond platitudes and tokenism and also sought funding for the work we do.  Several hours later we found out that the prime minister had been removed by a party room ballot. The usurper, who had been deposed himself by the person he replaced, claimed to be answering the call of the Australian people. Putting aside judgements about the truth of the claim, it is a noble view of leadership echoed in our Torah reading two days later in which Moses is instructed to “take” or persuade Joshua to take on the leadership[iv].

Representative government and resistance to multiculturalism
I arrived in Canberra on the Thursday morning after the switch. There was an uneasy and subdued vibe in the parliament building. At my first meeting I made a robust argument for Multiculturalism to a conservative MP who argued against the word. He explained that to many of his constituents the word Multiculturalism represents license for minorities to self-segregate and the word would alienate them rather than bring them along. This approach to leadership is consistent with Moses’ asking “God of spirits of all flesh (to replace him with) a leader for the people[v]” “which is understood to mean that the leader should be the type of person “who will tolerate every person according to their distinctive spirit[vi]”. An alternative view in our tradition is that while a leader must be privately tolerant, the public persona must be forceful and fearless[vii]. I think political leadership can set a tone for the people by being a few steps ahead of them, but not too far ahead, especially in a democracy.

Cohesive society
In Australia, we generally have a consensus that racism is wrong. Historically Multiculturalism in Australia is “a construction of the state[viii]” which, despite wide acceptance by the population, has not been universally embraced - concerns have been raised about this policy being divisive. These voices have been louder in Europe where a champion of diversity, the UK chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, wrote that “Multiculturalism has run its course and it is time to move on”; “Multiculturalism has led not to integration but to segregation. It has allowed groups to live separately with no incentive to integrate[ix]. The situation in Australia is significantly different with a far greater degree of successful integration, yet segregation is a problem here too, with some young Muslims I have worked with not feeling Australian or connected to Australia at all. As the conservative MP correctly pointed out, integration is made harder due to the discrimination many young Muslims face. This level of discrimination was on display this week when an Australian MP of Bosnian Muslim heritage, despite his complete cultural integration, was attacked simply for taking an oath of office on a Koran. 

A way forward
This week we have seen the limits of which leaders need to be aware. Yet leaders still have great sway in terms of their influence. When a group of people talk to Moses and mention their sheep before their children he sets them straight and they correct the order in their next statement[x]. Teachers can challenge unhelpful ideas such as an inspiring Muslim woman educator I met recently who tells her Lebanese Muslim students that they are not victims and demands that they take responsibility for their future. A sheikh who ran a workshop with me explained to young men of Lebanese Muslim heritage that the Prophet Mohamed felt great loyalty to the Meccan pagan state because he was a citizen. He also argues that Australia with its rule of law and welfare policies is very consistent with Islamic principles. This needs to be combined with a decrease in the level of prejudice in the community as a whole against Muslims. More people need to have positive first hand experiences of interacting with the “other”. They also need to develop critical thinking skills to help process negative experiences with individuals to ensure they can still see the big picture and humanity beyond the problems.

I was in the Parliament last week at the historic question-time session with the old-new Prime Minister. It was a fascinating experience and while it was painful for the former Prime Minister, I take heart from a comment on Facebook, “in Australia we changed Prime Ministers, without an election but with no tanks in the streets”. Let us ensure we can all enjoy this blessed land free from discrimination, with the protection of benign responsible governments who enable us all to feel that we belong together. My prayers are also with the people of Egypt that justice and freedom prevail.

[i] Numbers 33:52
[ii] Pirkey Avot
[iii] Numbers 30
[iv] Numbers 27:18 as interpreted by Rashi
[v] Numbers 27:16
[vi] Rashi
[vii] Ramban
[viii] Taylor, S., Rizvi, F., Lingard, B., Henry, M., (1997). Education Policy and the Politics of Change. Oxon, Routledge
[ix] Sacks, J, (2007) The Home we build together. Continuum. London. p.3
[x] Numbers 32 compare verses 16 first sheep then children, 24 where Moses reverses the order and 26 where the people follow his cue.