Thursday, October 20, 2016

My Slavery Sermon: “Fat", Privileged & Uncaring

People just don’t care - I often find that infuriating!

But, the reality is that I don’t care enough about some things either, like modern day slavery for example. This sad fact came to my attention as I prepared to deliver last Saturday’s sermon as part of an interfaith initiative to combat modern day slavery.

I had prepared this sermon long in advance in collaboration with Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky (1) for the organisation, “Stop the Traffik”. So I began with the staggering figure from the 2016 Global Slavery Index which reported that nearly 46 million human beings are currently trapped in slavery.  This is the highest number of slaves in human history. I then shared the following anecdote.

Ashani’s (not her real name) father was sick, but the family had no money to pay for needed treatment. Ashani accepted a loan that she believed she would repay by working in a Mumbai factory, but when she reached Mumbai she discovered that her job would not be in a factory but in a brothel.

Trapped, powerless and penniless, she suffered in this place until finally she worked up the courage to escape. She returned home and soon married. However the brothel sent men to find her and force her back. They beat her up. When her husband tried to protect her, he was beaten too. She found herself not only back in the Mumbai brothel – but also pregnant. When her son was born, she was fortunate to get him back to his father.

Ashani owed 20,000 rupees, or around AU$400 but she was earning only a few dollars each day, and she was forced to pay rental for her cubicle in the brothel and for her room, board and clothing. She would realistically never be able to pay off the debt. She was enslaved. Ten women from Stop the Traffik readily agreed to pitch in $40 each to buy Ashani’s freedom.

I am ashamed to admit that Ashani’s story speaks to my mind but not to my heart. Perhaps this is related to what social scientists have discovered about the nature of empathy. Research has revealed a clear ‘empathy gap’ whereby our empathy is essentially geared primarily toward people we identify with, eg. neighbours or others who seem to be ‘like ourselves’ (2). This quirk of nature means it is harder for me as a white middle class Jewish Hasidic man to connect with the experience of an impoverished, brown skinned, non-Jewish, woman forced to work as a prostitute.

The challenge of the empathy gap must be met with a principled engagement with causes such as modern slavery. I look for inspiration from the prophets. Only a few days ago on Yom Kippur we read from Isaiah (3) about a person who cried out to God, "I have fasted but you have not seen!” God replied, “You fast but with a clenched fist!”  This is not the fast God desires. Instead, God demands that we “Loose the chains of let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke.”  The highest form of charity is not to share more crumbs from our tables but to ensure that more people have a seat at our tables of plenty.

My faith does condemn or shame me for having abundant material possessions. On the contrary, commentary tells us that God made the Israelites “ride on the high places” (4) (plural), giving them both material and spiritual blessings (5). Privilege, like power is an opportunity that can be harnessed for doing good but which also carries risk and responsibility. The Torah phrases the danger as the Israelites having become “fat and kicked” (6) also becoming “thick”, losing capacity to understand “fine truths” (7). Equally, privilege can dull people’s capacity to connect with the  brutal reality of the 46 million slaves who are, of course, really people just like me.    

The products of modern day slavery are found in the homes of ordinary citizens in every western city and town. They are present in our shops and supermarkets. Some years ago I was inspired by a teacher  who told me how her students learned to look for a Fair Trade label (8) on a soccer ball, so that when they play sport they are part of the solution rather than part of the problem.  

The Torah calls us to “cry freedom in the land for all its inhabitants!” (9). This phrase is surprising because the context is freeing slaves rather than everyone. However, a 17th century scholar explained that “in any country where freedom is incomplete even if only a few are slaves, all the people are slaves. Slavery is an affliction which afflicts both slave and master” (10).

Having focused on these traditions, I have jumped the empathy gap and now care more about my fellow humans who deserve freedom as much as I do. I commit to doing what I can to advance this cause.   

  1. for another version of this sermon that was prepared in collaboration with Shoshana, the version on my blog is closer to the sermon I actually delivered.  
  2. Prinz, J, Is Empathy Necessary For Morality, accessed 14.04.2015
  3. Isaiah 58:3-7
  4. Deuteronomy 32:13
  5. Samson Raphael Hirsch on Deuteronomy 32:13
  6. Deuteronomy 32:15
  7. Seforno on Deuteronomy 32:15
  8. Stop the Traffik  is a rich source of information for us when we shop for clothing and for foods that are sadly connected with slavery, including fish, coffee, and chocolate.
  9. Leviticus 25:10
  10. Pnei Yehoshua, Joshua son of Joseph Falk, 1593-1648,

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Physical and mental illness does not devalue a person - Vayelech

I saw his fear filled eyes and anguished face across a crowded room. How long has it been since I saw him last? Thoughts of pity filled my mind. He was clearly suffering from a severe mental illness. Then I caught myself. Did I value him less because of his illness? Did I see the person and respect him for his intrinsic worth or did I see him primarily through the lens of his condition?

Jane Caro once said about ageing: "Your outside deteriorates, but by God, your inside improves". Yet, still, physical strength seems also to be erroneously equated with virtue. In the US presidential election, ‘Hillary’s health’ has been highlighted, not just because it is necessary for a demanding job but, in my view, as way of devaluing her as a person (especially as a woman) aspiring to leadership. Trump’s sniffles at last week’s debate were also jumped on by commentators, for the same reason. I object to that. Surely, there are people whose physical or mental health is not optimal; they might tire more quickly, be unable to walk, be in pain, depressed or anxious, yet they can be intelligent, compassionate and productive. It is wrong to suggest there is something shameful about a loss of physical strength or mental health difficulties. As the late Stella Cornelius used to say; The best things in this world have been done by people who were not feeling well that day” (1).  

The tendency to equate physical strength with virtue can be inferred from the commentary on the following verse. Moses, said simply “"Today I am one hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer go or come” (2). Rather than take this at face value, some of the classical commentators jump in with denial of his physical decline. “You might think that his strength was weakened, so the Torah tells you (in another verse) that although “Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died. His eye had not dimmed, nor had he lost his moisture” (3). His being unable to “go and come” is interpreted as him being denied divine permission to enter the promised land (4).

In one dramatic commentary we have Moses feeling afraid that the people might take his words literally and think that he is not physically strong. To counter this “Moses walked (5) the length and breadth of the whole camp quickly or vigorously to show that his strength at this time (at the age of 120) is the same as it was then (when he was younger)” (6).  

Alternative commentators, however, have no problem acknowledging the changing degree of physical strength or prowess of the great man of the spirit (7). A compromise position is that although Moses was still physically strong at the time he told the people “it is not proper that I fool myself that it will always be thus, because due to my being elderly, despite my current good health, I have no doubt that it will not be this way in the future, per force, weakness will come upon me quickly…” (8) Clearly, there is no shame in physical weakness, it is the way of all men and women, including the greatest.

At this holy time of the year for Jews (leading up to Yom Kippur when our fate for the following year is “sealed”), I wish everyone optimal physical and mental health and strength, and for those of us for whom that might not be possible, let us be spared the pain of stigma and judgement and instead do the best we can. This is certainly virtuous and honorable.


  1. Stella Cornelius, cited in a comment on my blog by Paul Reti, and also quoted to me by Donna Jacobs Sife
  2. Deuteronomy 31:2
  3. Deuteronomy 34:7
  4. Talmud Sotah 13b, based on Sifre, cited in Rashi, and second opinion in Daat Zekainim M’baalei Hatosofot. The interpretation is made more plausible when reading the second half of the verse that mentions the matters of permission: “and God said to me you will not pass this Jordan river”. This argument is challenged by Mizrachi and Maharsha who argue that the letter Vav means “and”, and we don’t find it used as “because”. Tzeda L’Derech counters that in fact in Genesis 2:5 the letter Vav which means: and, is taken to also mean ‘because’. The verse states: “God had not made it rain and, -meaning because- there was not a man to work the land”. Ramban also does not accept the simple meaning of the text and instead suggests that Moses’ comment was (a false) comfort for the people, implying that his imminent death was not such a great loss.
  5. This is the reason for “Moses going”, mentioned in Deuteronomy 31:1
  6. Klei Yakar
  7. Ibn Ezra, Bchor Shor and implied in Seforno
  8. Abarbanel