Thursday, June 23, 2016

Did not make me a goy?! Sacred text, prejudice and Interpretation (Bahalotecha)

Bless you God for not making me a goy" (the word "goy" is often translated as a non-Jew 1, but it's meaning is highly contested). These words confronted me in a series of prayers that I have recited every morning since I was five. One morning I was in a meditative mode, fully present and intentional with every word I was saying. I paused. The most obvious inference in this prayer is that I am grateful for not being made an impliedly inferior type of person. But this makes no sense to me. There are many people I know personally who are not Jewish and whom I deeply respect and admire.  If I skipped the prayer, it would mean rejecting the theological/legal system that forms the basis of my Orthodox spiritual life.  So I reinterpret the prayer to mean that despite my acknowledgement of the various paths to personal and spiritual greatness of the Muslims, Christians, Hindus, atheists/agnostics, traditionally spiritual Aboriginals and others whom I so admire, I still thank God for giving me my own cherished Jewish heritage and identity rather than any of those other profoundly beautiful other ways of being.  Afterwards I thought, whom am I kidding? Don’t words have a fixed meaning beyond their creative reinterpretations? Perhaps they do, but that is how I chose to deal with it. 
The blessing about not being a non-Jewish person  is followed by an expression of gratitude for not being a slave. I thought that the two prayers could be interpreted in similar ways. To be a "slave" has a certain appeal. As the CEO of a not for profit charity I carry the responsibility for a mission and a few persons’ livelihoods. It's often stressful. Like the Israelites in the desert, I'm tempted by the freedom from responsibility that comes with being an employee or, in the case of the Israelites, the lack of accountability to God they had as slaves of the Pharaohs. 2  Yet despite the attraction of "slavery" I choose to be grateful for the freedom to pursue my vision according to my own conscience and I am happy to pay the price.

The price of leadership can be high. In our Torah reading this week this theme can lead us back to the theme of prejudice. The Israelites in the desert complained and thereby challenged Moses and God. Moses was so frustrated that he would rather have died 3  than continue with his impossible mission of leadership unless God helped him. One group of people are highlighted as being at fault; these were the multitude among them [who] began to have strong cravings.” 4  The multitude was not of them 5” (the Jewish nation), but joined the Israelites during the exodus from Egypt and in this case the ethnic Jews are said to have followed the lead of the multitude and also rebelled.

But there is an opportunity for a strong anti-prejudice lesson in our Torah reading too. We read that Moses was married to a black woman, in fact as black as a raven 6 and that Moses’ siblings were rebuked for wrongly criticizing Moses on account of his black wife. I would assume that if his wife was black so was his non-ethnically Jewish, Midyanite father-in-law, Jethro. Shortly before Moses descended into despair he begged his father-in-law to stay in the desert. Please don’t abandon us…you have been like eyes for us 7” Moses pleaded.  Moses cherished his father-in-law’s advice. A few verses later we are told that Jethro did in fact leave Moses without his support, and that Moses cried out bitterly about the burdens of leadership.   As our sages taught us, there is wisdom among the nations.8  One of our greatest scholars would rise in honour of the accumulated life wisdom of elderly people who were not Jewish 9, while Maimonides happily incorporated ethical teachings from non-Jewish philosophers in his writing. 10

Yet, these highly plausible interpretations in the previous paragraph are far from unanimous. The words Kushite”/black that describe Moses’ wife are taken to mean that she was not black but undeniably beautiful 11 just as a black person is clearly black. Another commentary argues that in fact Moses didn’t really need his father-in-law’s advice at all and just pretended he needed it out of humility 12.  I suggest that when it comes to religion, especially mine, interpretation is almost everything. So thank you God for making me Jewish even thought I could have been gloriously wonderful in a somewhat different way, being someone else.

This is one demonstration of creative interpretation of a religious text that at first glance seems to say one thing but can actually mean something else.   

1. I object to words like “goy” or non-Jew as a noun. I think that a person should be defined by what they are and how they define themselves rather than how they are not like me. The literal meaning of the word "goy" is nation and can have a neutral meaning referring to a person from a nation other than the Jewish nation. The blessing traditionally is understood to reflect additional commandments that Jews are obligated in according to Judaism. 
2.  This comment is based on commentary to Numbers 11:5 when the Jews talked about free fish they age in Egypt, which is interpreted by Sifre, cited in Rashi, as being free from Mitzvot
3.  Numbers 11:10-15
4.  Numbers 11:4
5.  Ibn Ezra on 11:4
6.  Numbers 12:1-9 according to Ibn Ezra and Abarbanel
7.  Numbers 10:31
8.  Midrash Eicha Rabba 2:13 מדרש איכה רבה פרשה ב סימן יג
9.  Talmud 33:1
10.  Maimonides,
הרמב"ם בתחילת הקדמתו למסכת אבות ("שמונה פרקים") כותב: "ודע, כי הדברים אשר אומר אותם באלו הפרקים... הם עניינים מלוקטים מדברי החכמים (חכמי ישראל)... ומדברי הפילוסופים גם כן ומחיבורי הרבה בני אדם. ושמע האמת ממי שאמרה". על הפילוסוף היווני אריסטו כותב הרמב"ם: "הוא אשר לימד לבני אדם את דרכי ההוכחה וחוקיה ותנאיה" ("מורה הנבוכים" חלק ב פרק טו(.
cited in
11.  Sifre, Unkelous, Rashi, and Ralbag, see Ibn Kaspi’s (cited in Nechama Lebovitz) withering critique of these teachings that essentially take the verses to mean the opposite of what the plain text appears to be saying
12.  Ralbag

Friday, June 10, 2016

Religion vs. Art? Values clash and my name is not Asher Lev

Staying awake all night on the anniversary of revelation is one of many commonalities between Jews and Muslims. I only found out about this on Monday, in a discussion with some Muslim teenagers and a Sheikh. At midnight on Saturday this week,  I will deliver a talk to sleep deprived Jews at my synagogue as part of the all night learning related to the Jewish festival of Shavuot. I plan to focus as much on cultural conflict as commonality, which should keep my listeners awake.

I will reflect on the play My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok that was recently performed in Sydney. Asher Lev is an artist who grew up in a Chasidic family in a fictional setting that is based on the community in which I was raised. The play raised questions about cultural clashes between faith and art. Asher endured intense conflict with his father who he accused of being afflicted with aesthetic blindness. His father saw Asher’s drawing as being, at best a waste of time and at worst a manifestation of the forces of evil, or the “Sitra Achra”, the other side. Asher’s decision to paint nudes against the wishes of his parents led his father to accuse him of moral blindness.

The conflict between the ideals of the Western art world and the world of Chabad Chasidim has been dismissed by one Rabbi, who cited the example of a Chasidic artist who was encouraged by the leader of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Schneerson (known simply as “the Rebbe”). The temptation to minimise cultural differences is a common one, but needs to be resisted, just as it is unhelpful to exaggerate the conflicts. The very real conflict explored in My Name is Asher Lev is the conflict between acceptance of the validity of art as an end in itself with its own valid traditions and a view  that art is merely a humble servant of worship, and must be subject to its restrictions.

The argument in the book between father and son also played out between the book’s author, Chaim Potok  and the Rebbe, when he attended one of the Rebbe’s public addresses. The Rebbe declared passionately “that if God has given someone a talent and an ability to write a book,...then regardless of the external form of the book in terms of its content, it must fulfil the purpose of persuading the reader that contrary to the views of the fools that think that the world runs without a Master in which might makes right, ... in the end righteous, justice and goodness will prevail”.

Potok did not respond directly to this argument, but he articulated his own philosophy about creative expression which could apply as much to art as it does to writing. In an interview he explained his choice not to meet privately with the Rebbe. Potok reflected that he “was concerned about how such a meeting would affect what I myself want to write about regarding this group. I didn’t want to meet personally with the Rebbe because it was very clear to me that this was a most unusual human being. I didn’t want to spend 20 minutes or half an hour in a room with him, and then have to rethink, undo, restructure, my imagination after that experience. A writer does the necessary encountering for his or her work, and when he feels that his imagination has enough encounter with the reality that he wants to write about, he walks away from the reality and lets the imagination work. You don’t let the reality overwhelm the imagination”.

For Potok,  art, of the written or visual form, is a process of great perfection and integrity that has roots in reality but must transcend the literal truth of reality, to the greater truth of the imagination.  Or as Pablo Picasso, stated: ““Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.”.

At the end of My Name is Asher Lev, there is a dramatic clash between Asher and his parents.  They come to see his exhibition and are confronted with a crucifixion he pained where his mother is portrayed as Jesus on the cross, suffering the torment of being torn between her husband and her son. Asher’s paternal grandfather was murdered by a Russian peasant in the lead up to Easter in an anti-Semitic act, presumably because of the mistaken belief that the Jews had crucified Jesus. Asher’s father regarded his son’s depiction of  him and his wife in a crucifixion scene as a terrible betrayal. He could not imagine any meaning of the cross other than the one he sees through the lens of his history and faith, both of which have strong objections to the symbol.  

To Asher, he had no choice if he wanted to be authentic. He was guided by artistic traditions about how to express his truth. The portrayal of the artist in Asher Lev echoes the words of the driven prophet Jeremiah: “But if I said; I will not mention Him, and I will no longer speak in His name, it would be in my heart like a burning fire, confined in my bones, and I wearied to contain it but was unable.  Asher’s powerful commentary on reality is inside him and eventually comes out whether he likes it or not. The conflict was intense and appeared unresolvable.

Someone asked me after the play if I agreed that Asher suffered from moral blindness. I said I thought it was more a case of social blindness for both father and son. Neither protagonist can understand the worldview of the other. Particularly in the case of Asher, there is little reflection on the nature of the conflict. Asher appeared to act impulsively in his drawing, or even allowed others to act for him in the case of the decision by the gallery owner to display the crucifixion, which he doesn’t protest but doesn’t explicitly give permission for either. The name of the book, “My Name is Asher Lev”, hints at a justification for hurting his parents in order to be true to himself. .  

I think there is more than one way to be authentic. I found a little while ago that expressing myself freely in an op-ed in the Daily Telegraph without really thinking through what I was saying, how I was saying it and my relationship with some of the people about whom I was writing was an unwise choice. Even as we express ourselves, we can still take the time to reflect on the perspectives of others. In some cases we will resolve to stand our ground and in others to yield. At this point in my talk, I will raise my voice, for emphasis in the tradition of the art of public speaking. I will urge my listeners to ensure that whatever they choose, they should be fully aware of their feelings and principles and awake to the implications of their choices. The louder voice will probably jolt at least one of my listeners from their snoring slumber who will open one eye and wonder what it is all about.