Wednesday, October 11, 2017

“Goyim” A Sukkot Reflection: Attitudes to People Who Are Not Jewish (Vzot Habracha)

A Sukkot Reflection:
Proper Jewish Attitudes to People Who Are Not Jewish

Tuesday, Chol Hamoed Succot. A white bearded Rabbi walking with his student, told me that I was saved. He saw me stop on Kingston Avenue, Brooklyn, to consider giving a bill to a woman begging. He was relieved to hear that I had not given her money because he told me that she is a Gypsy, she is not Jewish. I was feeling bad that the Australian currency in my wallet was of no use to her so I told her I was sorry. Now, I was being told it was good I didn’t give her anything. I didn’t argue with the Rabbi that our law requires us to sustain the poor of the nations along those of Jews (1). Sadly, I did not think the argument would go anywhere. I grew up here and I know that the old Rabbi was reflecting an insular culture that is considered normal here.  

Sunday, Chol Hamoed Succot. I am sitting on an aeroplane during the Jewish Festival of Sukkot, with my seven year old son. For all I know, he and I might be the only Jewish people on this fight. It doesn't matter at all. Except for the fact that most of the passengers got a hot meal, while we got an apology for our absent Kosher meal. Nothing unusual about this, except that this is very different to how I would have experienced such a flight when I was a seven year old. I would have been acutely aware that I was surrounded by “Goyim”, a noun used in certain insular Jewish communities (such as my own) to refer to people who are not Jewish.

Jewish holy days are generally focused on Jewish stories and history. In the case of Passover, which commemorates the Jewish exodus from Egypt, the Torah explicitly forbids “any foreigner” from partaking of the Paschal lamb (2). An exception to this is the Sukkot festival that Jews are celebrating this week. The tradition for this festival not only permits involvement by non Jewish people, it adamantly insists on it (3). In addition,  concern for their welfare was a focus of the festival sacrifice schedule.

The total number of oxen offered as sacrifices during the festival was 70. These seventy oxen correspond to the original seventy nations of the world [representing all of humanity]...Israel brought these sacrifices... in prayer for their well-being” (4).

In the Torah reading relevant to the week of Sukkot we read a poetic phrase: “Also, You cherish nations; all his holy ones are in Your hand” (5). One authoritative commentator, Rabbi Ovadia Seforno, (1475-1550) explains the verse to mean that “even though you [God], cherish all nations and with [this love] you have made known that the entire human species is a treasure for You. For our sages have stated “humans are beloved as they have been created in the image [of God]”, (6) however in addition to the love God has for all people, Moses asserts a special relationship between God and the Jews who follow the Torah (7).

On the other hand, it is significant that nine other prominent commentators choose to stretch the meaning of the “nations”, who are beloved, as referring to the twelve Jewish tribes (8), or to converts to Judaism from other nations (9), rather than simply referring to the non-Jewish nations. One explanation of the reluctance to acknowledge the love G-d feels toward all people in these interpretations, is based on the context of this verse, which is focused on the Jews receiving the Torah from God at Mount Sinai. In addition the first word of the verse, “also”, indicates that this verse is a continuation of the topic in the previous verse (10).

The contrast between the one commentator, known as Seforno, who reads our verse as affirming the love God has for all of humanity, and the views of the other nine commentators, raises two questions. A. How did Seforno come to dissent from the other scholars? And B. Why would we take any notice of the lone voice rather than follow the majority?

In reflection on this question, I think of the transformational impact positive contact has had on my own way of relating to people who are not Jewish, changing it from one of distance to to one of deep friendship and appreciation. I suggest that perhaps the Seforno also had a unique perspective on his non-Jewish neighbours, based on his regular positive experiences of dialogue with them. We know that he had meaningful discussions with learned non-Jewish people. This involved him teaching Judaism or Jewish knowledge to certain non Jewish scholars, as a means of earning his livelihood. There is a record of Johann Reuchlin paying Rabbi Seforno the sum of one Ducat per lesson. (11).

Seforno was not unique in interacting with people outside his faith, but it can be argued that the quality of the contact experienced by many of his colleagues were often either adversarial or transactional rather personal. Two examples are that of Ramban/Nachmanides, who was forced to participate in a staged debate, and later exiled. Another example is the case of Abarbanel, who developed a very dim view of the monarchy (12), while serving in the royal courts of 15th century Spain, in what can only be assumed to be treacherous and uninspiring circumstances.

This brings us to the question about who is right in interpreting the verse above, the one scholar or the nine? One could argue that the Seforno cited a proof text so that makes him right. However, the truth is that this is the wrong question when studying these kinds of texts. In contrast to texts dealing with the law- Halacha, where one opinion is generally deemed valid, this discussion comes under the category of Aggadah, inspirational stories and teachings in which everyone is right, all have meaning. In fact, the Torah is said to have seventy faces (13).

This dual nature of the Torah is hinted at in the words Esh-Dat (14) which can be translated as fiery law. This phrase is cryptically linked to a teaching that the Torah was black fire written on white fire before it was given to the Jews (15). These two colors of fire symbolize the two defining characteristics of the Torah: Kindness and Truth.The color white represents light and pleasantness which is an essential element of the Torah. Black represents clarity and truth (16). Together, black and white, kindness and truth constitute the Torah.
This post is not an argument against the importance of truth, nor do I seek to deny that there are distinctions between adherents of a faith and those who think and live differently to them. My son and I had cucumbers and potato chips for lunch on our flight, and I had instant rice noodles (not as bad as it sounds, by the way). This is an argument to live the kindness of the Torah in our thoughts, speech and action toward God's beloved children who happen not to be Jewish.


  1. Talmud, Gittin 61a, Rambam Laws of gifts to the poor, 7:7
  2. Exodus 12:43
  3. Zechariah 14.
  4. Bamidbar Rabba 1, explained by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ulman, accessed 10.02.2017.
  5. Deutronomy 33:3.
  6. Pirkey Avot, 3:14?.
  7. Seforno on Deutronomy 33:3 the text of his interpretation is:
אף חובב עמים. ואע''פ שאתה חובב עמים ובזה הודעת שכל המין האנושי סגולה אצלך. כאמרם ז''ל (אבות) חביב אדם שנברא בצלם. מ''מ כל קדושיו בידך. הנה אמרת שכל קדושיו של קודש של אש דת הם בידך כצרור הכסף:
  1. Unkelus, Rashi’s first interpretation, Ibn Ezra, Ramban, Abarbanel, R. Bchaya (second explanation) on Deutronomy 33:3.
  2. Baal Haturim and Rashbam, on Deutronomy 33:3, a similar approach is taken by Bchor Shor that the divine cherishing that relates to the rest of the nations is to be applied only to those of them that are converts.    
  3. Sifsei Chachomim supra-commentary on Rashi Deutronomy 33:3.
  4. See introduction to Seforno, Mosad Harav Kook edition.
  5. Abarbanel commentary to the Torah, exact citation needed.
  6. Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15
  7. Deutronomy 33:2
  8. Cited in Rashi on Deutronomy 33:2
  9. Gur Aryeh on Deutronomy 33:2

Monday, September 18, 2017

My “Jewish God”?

In 2012, the last time I wrote about this topic, I began with the following disclaimer: “This is a critical reflection on certain aspects of my tradition. It has been suggested to me that, in highlighting these elements, I am reinforcing a misconception of Judaism as overly harsh. A balanced study of Judaism and the Yom Kippur service will show concepts of God as both compassionate alongside themes of judgement”. This disclaimer is still relevant.

On Saturday 23rd September this year, I will have the solemn Jewish New Year Holy Day prayers echoing in my mind. Many of these will reflect the idea of God as a judge. God’s verdicts will determine ‘Who will live and who will die? Who at their pre-destined time and who before their time?’ (1). One week later, Jewish people observe the Day of Atonement, where the theme of God as judge comes up again, along with language referring to God as father and king. It leads me to consider what the traditional Jewish concept of God is (This is what my topic means, not that there is a God that belongs to Jews or a God who is Jewish somehow.)  

In our highly poetic Torah reading this week, we are told that “all of God’s ways are ’judgement’” (2). The Talmud takes this verse as a warning against daring to say that God is clement (e.g. one whose nature it is to let people get away with sins) or indulgent (3). This teaching is puzzling because God is praised in the Torah as forbearing of sin (4). An implausible resolution of this contradiction is that God is forgiving of one or two sins, but not with repeat offenders (5).

A far more compelling teaching encourages us to have faith and confidence in God’s forgiveness. God is described as “generously forgiving the instant one pleads for forgiveness…” (6). This teaching refers to the daily prayer that praises God for being abundant in forgiveness (7).  “It is characteristic of people, that if one injures another and asks his pardon which is granted, and then repeats the misdeed, it becomes more difficult to grant pardon again, and certainly a third and fourth time. But, by the standard of God, there is no difference between once and a thousand times. Pardon is a manifestation of [God’s] ...mercy. Divine [mercy is] not bounded and finite; they are infinite.” (8). .."For His mercies have not ended" (9).

Recently, I have been learning a little about assertiveness and management  from a wise woman, Michelle Brenner, and the impressive business coach Wade Ebrahimi. (10) (Yes, this is a plug.) A key lesson for me is about the importance of being clear in my communication as a “boss”. I don’t like the idea of being a “boss”. I would rather just be a colleague and still get everything magically done as I think it should. I am learning that I can continue to be collegial with those who report to me. However, I must also give them clear direction. I must differentiate between suggestions, requests and, if need be, orders. Similarly, God relates to humans in multiple ways - in mercy mode as well as holding us accountable. The former should not be taken to override the latter, particularly in a moment of decision making about whether or not to do the right thing (11).  

If I was seeking a neat resolution, I would end this discussion with the abundant forgiveness teaching above. One Jewish man I met the other day, thought of God as predominantly forgiving. That works for him. For me, I am caught between the different characterizations of God in both Torah and prayers.

I was struck by an anecdote that included an apparently tactless statement made to a grieving father mourning the death of his young son. The father was told that the death of young children is a Divine punishment of parents for the parents’ sins (12). The basis for this troubling idea is the verse “God saw and became angry, from the anger of his sons and daughters” (13). This is interpreted as parents provoking God, causing Him to punish the parents through their children (14). The modern reader can either howl in protest or respond with silence.

These teachings, somehow, sit side by side with parental concepts of God.  We read of God carrying the Jew like an eagle carries its young on its wings, (15) “nursing him with honey from bedrock” (16).

Despite the contradictions, I take some comfort from the fact that, whenever the Torah calls us to imitate God, there are always references to God as caring and compassionate, never cruel and harsh. “Just as G‑d is called merciful, so too, you must be merciful. Just as G‑d is called kind, so too, you must be kind...” (17). Similarly, we are taught:  "Just as God clothes the naked, ... so too, you must clothe the naked. Just as God visits the sick, ... so too, you must visit the sick. Just as God comforts mourners, ... so too, you must comfort mourners" (18).

I end, as I began, without a clear Jewish concept of God. I don't speak for all Jews, but I think it is fair to say that it is not a simple question to answer for those of us who seek guidance from traditional texts. This time of the year, with the days of judgement, repentance and atonement, is a time for re-engagement between the Jew and his God. I suggest that the repeated references, in our liturgy, to God as both father and king, is a useful indication of a complex Jewish understanding of God.  

1.     Reflection on who will live and who will die is prominent in the Unesaneh Tokef prayer, which is a key part of the Rosh Hashanah prayers.

2.     Deuteronomy 32:4: Surprisingly, Ramban suggests that Mishpat here relates to mercy.

  1. Talmud Bava Kama 3a: The context of this teaching is a story about a righteous man who dug wells for the community, whose daughter fell into a well but was saved from drowning in the merit of her father’s good deeds. Yet, her brother died of thirst, despite his father’s merit in supplying people with drinking water, because God is very demanding of the righteous and even small sins can result in harsh punishment.
  2. Exodus 34:7
  3. Torah Temima on Deuteronomy 32:4
  4. Tanya, Igeret Hateshuva 11
  5. The Amida, חנון המרבה לסלוח
  6. Tanya, Ibid
  7. Lamentations 3:22
  9. Torah Temima
  10. Talmud Kesubot 8b
  11. Deuteronomy 32:19
  12. Rashi on Talmud Kesubot 8b, also in Maharsha commentary
  13. Deuteronomy 32:11
  14. Deuteronomy 32:13
  15. Sifrei Parshat Eikev., cited in Maimonides’ Sefer Hamitzvot, Mitzvah 8, based on Deuteronomy. 28:9, 11:22, and 13:5
  16. Talmud, Sotah 14a

Friday, September 1, 2017

Deluge of Doubt Torah & "Natural" Ethics (Ki Teitzei),

Indecisive. Weak. Not good enough. Am I doing the right thing? Accusations and self doubt are part of the semi-conscious soundtrack of my mind and I am not alone. These thoughts can be distortions of reality and unreasonable. However, living with uncertainty is also a strength.

The verbal onslaught is not just internal. There is a constant stream of emotive arguments for one course of action or its opposite. For example, on Sunday night I listened to Michael Kirby. A dignified, and distinguished former judge of the High Court of Australia. He observed, how despite the fact that people praise him for his various accomplishments because he is gay he is treated like a second class citizen in his own country. In a telling reflection of the ferocity of the current public debate, he insisted that ‘he was not bullying anyone in putting forward his view’.     

Some people seek refuge from uncertainty in religious absolutes. However this depends on the question of whether the Torah claims to have all the answers and therefore ethical ideas from sources outside the Torah are not deemed valid? Or does Torah recognise ‘natural ethics’?

In the Torah reading this week we are confronted by the treatment of a captive “woman of beautiful appearance” (1) during a war in ancient times. In one interpretation (2) of this passage, it is about managing a man’s lust and seeking the lesser of two evils. The woman goes through a process that is designed to make her less attractive to this man in an effort to dissuade him from marrying her. It seems to be all about his needs, not hers.

The woman’s consent for having sexual relations with this man is required (3). However commentary tells us that as prerequisite for the marriage she was to be converted to Judaism and according to one view this could involve coercion (4). Even the marriage itself does not seem to depend on the full agreement of the captive woman/new wife (5).  

This law is only confronting if there is a standard of ethics that we measure the Torah against. If we assume that G-d’s law defines morality then it is not good by definition? Perhaps. However, I think that Torah does recognise the validity of natural ethics.

The Torah calls us to to do that which is good and proper in the eyes of God (6). However our tradition teaches that the word “proper” refers to faithful conduct in matters of trade and dealing with others in a way that is pleasing to people (7). Human concepts of ethics are clearly valid.  

Proper human conduct preceded the revelation of God’s law by twenty six generations (8). People conducted themselves “according to proper logic and faith without the Torah” (9). In fact if the Torah had not been revealed we could have learned modesty from a cat, to avoid theft from ants etc (10). The tradition that we could learn how to behave from observing the behaviour of animals and insects demonstrates that a) there are virtuous character traits that can be learned outside of religious law and b) that it would be proper to learn this from observing natural phenomena (11).

Judaism teaches that natural notions of ethics and religious revelation are interdependent, neither of these really works without the other (12). There are many nations of the world that have not followed the Torah yet, they are ethical (13). Torah, religious revelation and teachings,  can play a key role in setting a person on the right path, but there is also that which comes to a person from within himself and his natural conduct...And if a person does not have this natural preparation the commandments of the Torah will not be enough. Because commandments can straighten a person generally but it is impossible for them to address fine details that are constantly arising anew. [for this] one needs morals and natural ethics…(14).

Returning to the  law of the beautiful woman, there are alternative commentaries of some aspects of this that are somewhat less in conflict with natural justice. The required process of her crying for a month long is designed for her benefit, the mourning process being cathartic (15) and about honoring her parents. Shaving her hair, and cutting her nails are part of her spiritual transformation (16). Still challenging, but the woman is seen as person, not an object.

The question about the place of natural ethics, is also reflected in an astonishing teaching relating to the commandment to send away a mother bird before taking her chicks or eggs (17). If someone recites a prayer that attributes this commandment to God’s mercy that person is silenced (18). One explanation (19) for this is that the commandments are not to be understood as expressing mercy but as God’s decrees!”.This seems to be a dismissal of the merits of the natural ethical value of mercy as being unimportant, with the prefered emphasis placed on obedience.

Again, other commentary offers an alternative view. The restriction on attributing the commandments to mercy is technical not theological. It applies [only] to mitzvot whose reasons have not been specified, therefore in it is not for us to decide what the motivation is. Furthermore, the required “silencing” is only after the prayer was recited with a caution to avoid saying it another time rather than being so terribly heretical that it needs to be corrected immediately (20). Another commentary states that to take the mother bird along with her young is “a way of cruelty” (21), implying that this commandment is indeed motivated by mercy.  

A final example from our reading is the insistence of the Torah that we show compassion for someone who escaped an oppressive situation and seeks refuge with us (22). Commentary about this law equates human concepts of what is to be regarded as cruel or merciful with what is pleasing to God and imitates God’s ways (23).  

Once we accept the importance of a human element in discerning proper conduct we are in the messy ambiguous space of subjective value judgements about specific situations. Of course we can bring religious wisdom to decisions, but we will still often need to grapple with the questions of what is right or wrong. It is not easy but would we really want it any other way? I think not.


  1. Deuteronomy 21:10
  2. Rashi on Deuteronomy 21:10
  3. Yeraim, cited in Ritva,cited in Yalkut Meam Loez states “It has not been permitted, only by her consent, he is not allowed to have intercourse with her against her will. Ramban on 21:11, states “it is not proper to sleep with her, in a situation in which she being “forced” [into conversion] as she mourning her family and faith and screaming in her heart to her god to save her and return her to her people and her god/s.”
  4. Ramban on 21:11, states that her conversion is by compulsion, however Ramban sees a process in which she is comforted and encouraged to accept her new reality, that she will never see her people again and therefore she will adjust to the point that her idol worship will be removed a little from her heart and she will cleave to this man. To what extent such resignation and acquiescence should be  considered consent is a tough question.  According to Rabbi Yonason in Sifrei and Sifrei Dbei Rav cited in Yalkud Me’am Loez she is not to be converted against her will, also according to the Rambam,  cited in Yalkud Me’am Loez p. 795, the conversion is voluntary.
  5. we are told in the Torah that if the Jewish man does not want to marry her that she goes free (Deuteronomy 21:14). According to Ibn Ezra’s commentary on the words “she goes free”, the assumption is that the man “should do her will”, which implies that we assume that she did not want the marriage.
  6. Deuteronomy 12:25 & 12:28
  7. Mechilta
  8. Vayikra Rabba 9:3, Tana Dbei Eliyahu Rabba 1
  9. Etz Yosef commentary on Vayikra Rabba 9:3
  10. Talmud, Eruvin 100b
  11. Ethics of the Fathers 3:17
  12. Yachin, Tiferet Yisrael commentary on the Mishna.
  13. Meiri on Avot 3:20 in Beit Habechira p.56, Vagshal publication 1971, based on Mekitzei Nirdamim, 5696
  14. Maimonides in the Moreh Nevuchim, cited in Ramban on 21:11, also in Chizkuni
  15. Chizkuni, he argues that it is similar to rituals performed as part of the transformation of the Levites when they were appointed to their roles in the desert temple (Numbers 8:7).
  16. Deuteronomy 22:6–7
  17. Mishna in Talmud, Berachot 33b, translation from
  18. Rashi on Talmud, Berachot 33b
  19. Maharsha, on Talmud, Berachot 33b
  20. Chizkuni
  21. Deuteronomy 23:16-17
  22. Ramad Vali, Mishneh Torah, Devarim.
רמ"ד וואלי - משנה תורה - דברים (דף 242-243) מפרש המצוה לא תסגיר בקשר לחילול השם וקידוש השם. אלו דבריו: " כי כבר ידוע שהוא בורח מפני אכזריות אדוניו שרדהו בפרך ואינו יכול לסבול את רשעתו. ואם ישראל ימסרנו ביד אדוניו יהיה חילול השם גדול, כי יאמרו הגוים שבני ישראל אכזריים יותר מהם, מאחר דניחא להו להחזיר העבד העלוב מוכה ומעונה בידו של אכזר. ואדרבה ניחא ליה לקב"ה שיהיו ישראל בחזקת רחמנים בעיני האומות... עמך ישב בקרבך. דהיינו במקום המוצנע, שלא ימצאנו אדוניו ולא יחזירנו לשעבודם.
במקום אשר יבחר. הוא ולא אתה. כי בחירת אחרים מצערת את האדם כשהיא כנגד בחירתו.
באחד שעריך. דהיינו בעיר ולא בכפר, כדי שתהיה הצלתו בטוחה ולא מתרופפת.
וגם בעיר עצמו. בטוב לו. ולא בטוב לך, שאם ירצה ידור בבית זה ואם ירצה ידור בבית אחר ולא תכריחנו לדור בפי רצונך. שאם תעשה כך, זהו חסד שלם המשתוה אל הנהגת אדון הכל, ואתה עושה נחת רוח ליוצרך, וקידוש השם לעיני העמים."

Friday, August 11, 2017

Rabbi’s Speech at a Mosque Exploring Stance towards Others and the "West"

(Edited version of my talk as part of an interfaith panel, talking about contemporary challenges in Judaism, at Imam Hasan Centre, Annangrove, Sydney, Australia, 1 July 2017)

I begin with acknowledgement of country in a way that reflects my Jewish heritage. We customarily allude to the Sidra, the Torah reading of the week. In it, we read an Emorite war poem, celebrating the victory in battle over the city of Heshbon by the Emorite King, Sihon.
"עַל כֵּן יֹאמְרוּ הַמֹּשְׁלִים בֹּאוּ חֶשְׁבּוֹן תִּבָּנֶה וְתִכּוֹנֵן עִיר סִיחוֹן:
Therefore, those who speak in parables, say, "Come to Heshbon, it will be built and established, the city of Sihon”. (1)

The poet, the evil Balaam (2), contrasted a propaganda version of the condition of this city before and after its conquest by the Emorites. “When it was under the sovereignty of Moab [the poet claims], it was desolate and empty, but now that it was taken by Sihon, he will make it great and honoured, all people will flock to Heshbon to rejoice and dwell in it, because without a doubt it will be built and established because it is the city of Sihon”. (3)

As an Australian, I read this poem as a claim that Heshbon was almost a “Terra Nullius” (4) before the conquest by the Emorites. I link the poem with what I have learned about the experience of Aboriginal people from an Aboriginal man. He explained his history to me. When this land was taken by the English, the new power downplayed the existing civilisation, disregarding their traditions and lore relating to caring for land and each other.

Tonight, I pay my respects to the original people of this land, the Darug Elders, past, present and emerging, in a way that I can relate from my own traditions.

One challenge for people of faith is to truly honour the greatness of others and resist any temptation to see one’s own tradition as holding all wisdom. Indeed, our sages taught “if someone tells you that there is wisdom among the nations, you should believe him” (5).

As a Jew, I appreciate wisdom, altruism and sincerity in people of different religions and no religion at all. This includes the greatness of Western democracies as systems of government that deliver - albeit imperfectly -  just outcomes to many people. I honour traditions of constraints on the powers of people in government and equality before the law among others. As a person of a minority faith in the West, I am particularly grateful for the freedom Western traditions of government give me to live according to my own beliefs and traditions. This freedom cannot be taken for granted. For much of Jewish history, it was denied us, as recently as in the lifetime of my own grandfather, during the last century, in the Soviet Union.

On the other hand, the relationship between the “West” and some people of faith living in the West, is not free of conflict. It is true that human flaws have always been part of the lives of all humans, regardless of culture. Still, living in a cultural context that includes voices - in entertainment and advertising - that promote hedonism, impulsivity and instant self-gratification, makes it harder for people of faith to fulfil some of the spiritual and personal growth related aims of our faiths. A utilitarian worldview will be at odds with one centred on divine worship and obligations.

I return to the verse about the conquest of Heshbon, looking at it not as a historical poem, but as an aid to remember a traditional moral message (6). Using traditional wordplay the Talmud interpreted it thus:  
Therefore the “rulers”, i.e. those who rule their [own evil] inclination [impulses], will say, let us come to the calculation of the world, the cost of [fulfilling] a commandment, against its reward. The [short term] benefit of a sin against its loss. ...If you do this you will be built in this world [life] and established in the world to come [the afterlife]. If, however, a person makes himself like a young donkey, that follows pleasant talk… a fire will go forth from Heshbon…(7)” .
In this interpretation, my tradition is urging me to be duty-oriented. It warns me not to be drawn like “a young donkey”, after every beep alert on my mobile phone telling me there is a pleasant comment on whatsapp or twitter. Instead, I must focus on my obligations.    
In respecting people of other cultures, we don’t lose the right to honestly critique competing cultural approaches that might entice us away from our own traditions. We have a right to be different from each other, which means we can make truth claims or virtue claims about beliefs, practices and ways of being. In doing so let us avoid Balaam’s error of thinking only one group has a monopoly on greatness. By inviting me, the Christian speaker and the parliamentarian here tonight, you are once again demonstrating the long-standing commitment of the Imam Hasan Centre to this principle.
1.       Numbers 21:27-28
2.       Midrash Tanchuma Chukkath 24, Num. Rabbah 19:30, cited in Rashi   
3.       Abarbanel, page 186, 27, in Horev 2008, Edition, Jerusalem,
4.       The term is technically about ownership of land and means “a land belonging to no one”, but can be understood more broadly, to be a way of erasing the significance of the civilisation that came before. Ogleby, C. L. frames it as follows: “As the ships of the First Fleet anchored in Sydney Cove on the 7th February 1788, and the British flag was raised on the shore above the convicts and their masters to the echoes of a rifle salute and toasts of port, the foundations for a new Colony were being laid on British soil. Terra Australis had been claimed in both sovereignty and ownership by the British Crown as terra nullius - literally a 'land belonging to nobody'. Although somewhere between one half and one million people inhabited the island (Mulvaney 1989, but estimates vary), their culture, customs and custodianship of the land was denied. Over the last 200 years the concept of terra nullius has been used to justify the dispossession of the original inhabitants of this country. It has also been responsible for framing attitudes towards the Aboriginal people and still forms the basis of all land law in Australia”.
5.       Eicha Rabba, 2:16
6.       This approach follows the Rashba as cited in Torah Temima, Numbers 21:18, notes 16 -21
7.       Talmud, Bava Basra 78b, appreciating the word-play really depends on understanding the Hebrew original.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Angry Moses: You spared all the females?! Mattot

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The words scream accusingly off the page. Moses, himself, raged against the officers of his army returning from a war of vengeance against the nation of Midian. Moses asked rhetorically, “Have you allowed all the females to live?” (1)

I wrote about this two years ago, but the words don’t fail to disturb me anew. How can I reconcile my belief in the inherent worth of all humans, while also affirming the holiness of this sacred text? I don’t have an answer but I still feel compelled to explore and probe this text. First, by providing the context for how this text is read today in contrast with its historical context. Secondly, by reviewing how traditional scholars have responded to the text in their commentary and, finally, by offering a comment of my own.

Judaism does not permit this kind of behaviour today. This was an instruction, for a particular time over 3000 years ago, by the prophet Moses. Jews no longer have prophets and, therefore, no- one has the authority that Moses had (2). Most modern Jews are not aware of this particular passage. As for those who are aware of it, it is understood in more abstract and metaphoric terms. One example of this is the teaching that Midian, who attacked the Jews with no provocation, is symbolic of baseless hatred which we must eradicate from ourselves (3).

The context of the passage above was a battle ordered by God and presented in the text as revenge against the people of Midian. They (and the Moabites) sought to deliberately destroy the Israelites’ spiritual lives, by sending their daughters to seduce Israelite men and then pressure them to worship the false god Peor, thus incurring upon themselves Divine wrath(4). Theirs was a hostile act that attacked our way of life, at its core (5).

While it may still not justify the deeds in this story, we need to recognise the difference in the conditions of war today, among those who adhere to the Geneva Conventions, in contrast with the conditions of all-out war in ancient times. Today, nations can resort to sanctions to deter others from trampling on their rights, or engage in a limited military operation to protect their interests. In order to survive in ancient times, it is argued that you needed to be as cruel as other nations were (6).

Disturbingly, from a modern critical perspective, our earliest commentators did not appear at all concerned about Moses’ desire to see the women dead. On the contrary, we find that Moses had asserted that the battle against Midian was God’s revenge, not that of the Israelites because he argued that “if we had been idol worshippers the Midianites would not hate us or pursue us” (7). Because of this perspective, Moses had a great desire to witness the revenge against Midian before he died (8). The Midianites led the Israelites to sin and ‘leading a person to sin is considered more serious than killing him!’ (9).

However, a later commentator read the phrase “have you allowed all the females to live?” not as a complaint that the Israelites did not kill all the women, but that they allowed all the women to live, including those who had been recognised as being the perpetrators, who seduced the Jewish men and then pressured them into worshiping idols (10).
Another argument was advanced that Phineas and the soldiers did not judge the women to be deserving of punishment because they would have been under the control of their husbands and forced into offering their bodies for the war effort (11). In addition, while two nations engaged in these bizarre battle tactics of using women to lead the Israelites to sin, revenge was taken on only one, Midian, while Moab was spared. This is explained by the fact that Moab felt genuinely threatened by the Israelites (12). These commentaries reflect that, at least, some value was placed on the lives of the Israelites’ “enemies” in our tradition.

My exploration of this text is far from comprehensive. As I did on my blog two years ago, (2), I leave this matter unresolved. I take some comfort from the fact that I am not the first to be concerned about these deeds. Scholars believe that questions were asked at the time and that Moses himself was disturbed and angered by aspects of the killing (13).  A senior editor of wrote that the “war of retribution on the Midianites...sends chills down my spine” (14). He asserts that “Jews are supposed to ask these questions, even if the answers are not satisfactory”. In asking these questions, we emphasise our abhorrence of genocide and racism, and our tendency to read these texts primarily as metaphoric messages about the importance of rejecting senseless hatred and the disruption of the cultural and spiritual lives of others.

1)       Numbers 31:14-15
3)       The Chasidic discourse known as “Heichaltzu” is a prime example of this.
4)       Numbers 25:18, 31:1-2, read in relation to Numbers 25:1-3
5)       Samson Raphael Hirsch on Numbers 31:3
6)       Rav Kook, Igros Hareia, vol 1, p. 100, cited in Sharki, R. Uri, Jewish Morality in War, Parshat Matot, מוסר יהודי במלחמה , לפרשת מטות - דברי הרב אורי שרקי,
7)       Bereshit Rabba on Matos, 2.
8)       Bereshit Rabba on Matos, 5, also in Midrash Tanchuma
9)       Etz Yosef on Bereshit Rabba on Matos, 5
10)   Seforno on Numbers 31:15
11)   Ohr Hachayim Numbers 31:16. However, in the end this argument was countered by the argument that the women had of their own volition and initiative manipulated the Jewish men to worship the idols, which went further than the acts that they were coerced into by the men.
12)   Ralbag, on Numbers 15, Balak, Toelles 1, Mosad Rav Kook edition, p. 135, and Chizkuni
13)   Chasam Sofer, Klei Yakar on Matos