Friday, October 25, 2013

Child Sacrifice

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On Wednesday morning I gave a lift to a man whose home burnt down in the Blue Mountains fires; he got on a train to try to retrieve some of his remaining possessions from a nearby suburb. As I dropped him at the station I could only hope he would come back safely. He did.  On 702 Radio I heard a heartfelt expression of gratitude by a woman named Melissa to all the interstate and out- of- area fire fighters. There is something about situations of vulnerability that brings out the best in people. Yet, we also have the horrific phenomenon of child sacrifice in our traditions and in other forms even today. The welfare of children is not always protected adequately; in some cases, other priorities have interfered with decision making by otherwise good people who should have been more focused on what is best for children.

Child sacrifice, more precisely a story about it, has united Muslims and Jews: Muslims celebrated the Eid last week that commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son; Jews read about it in the weekly Torah portion Vayerah. The same story - I am told by a Christian friend - has huge significance for Christians. Our Torah reading of last week included five instances involving a parent or a community and some form of sacrifice of a “child” (1), involving two brothers and three sisters.

Abraham had prepared to slaughter  his son Isaac   as an offering to obey God’s command (2). One way of understanding Abraham’s reaction to this command is that he has an inner struggle with his conscience or doubts (3) as illustrated in two Midrashic stories. In one story, Satan suggests “tomorrow you will be told you are a shedder of blood!” (4); in a second, Satan questions whether the command was from God or actually from Satan himself (5). Despite these thoughts,  Abraham persists with his mission and shows great faith, which is celebrated in Judaism. In the end, the notion of human sacrifice is categorically rejected by God, who tells Abraham via an angel that he has proven his loyalty but he “should not send his hand to the child nor should he do anything to him” (6).

Another case of a child being sacrificed is only hinted at in the text and is clearly condemned. God refers to  the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah “…their sin has become very grave, I will descend now and see whether according to her cry, which has come to Me, they have done” (7).  Commentary interprets “her cry” as referring to the cry of a specific girl (8). 

“They had announced in Sodom that anyone who gives bread to a poor person or a foreigner will be burned in fire. Plotis, the daughter of Lot…saw a poor person in the city square… Every day as she [Lot’s daughter] went out to draw water from the well she put some food from her house in her pitcher and would feed the poor person. The Sodomites wondered how this poor person remained alive. Until the matter became known and Plotis was taken out to be burned…” (9) 

According to Jewish teachings, the cruelty of Sodom was motivated by a deterrence strategy that was aimed at keeping outsiders out and to preserve wealth (10). There are echoes of this approach in asylum seeker policies referred to in Australia as “border protection”. In Sodom, the life of young Plotis was sacrificed in an effort to maintain this xenophobic policy; in our time children in detention continue to pay the price for deterrence strategies.

Plotis’ sisters are offered as the next sacrifice when Lot’s visitors are threatened with Sodomy by an angry mob. In trying to protect his guests, Lot offers his two daughters who “have never known a man” to the mob. (11). Lot’s action is strongly condemned in one Midrash that suggests he should have killed or allowed himself to be killed to protect his daughters (12). An alternative interpretation is that Lot has no intention of allowing his daughters to be violated. Instead he is thought to be sarcastic just as someone might say “my house is open for you, just take anything you want”, knowing that this would not be done (13).

Another sacrifice, not in terms of losing a life, but rather the loss of a parent- child relationship and home, relates to the case of Ishmael. Sarah becomes concerned about Ishmael’s possible adverse influence on her son Isaac   (14). One interpretation is that Ishmael captured grasshoppers and offered them as sacrifices to idols (15). Abraham feels very sad about his son Ishmael, but in the end banishes him, giving him some bread and water and sending him off with his mother. There are other opinions that Ishmael was shooting arrows at Isaac with the intent to kill him (16), so the decision to banish Ishmael is as much a case of child protection as child sacrifice.  I also draw some comfort from traditions that Abraham goes out to the desert twice over coming years to visit Ishmael, demonstrating that his fatherly love endures (17). 

One very moving incident involves Hagar, the banished homeless maidservant wandering in the desert, who sees her son getting very sick and dehydrated;  so she puts him down under a tree. “She went and sat herself down the distance of arrow shots because she said (to herself) I will not see the death of the boy, and she sat  from afar, and she raised her voice and wept” (18). Her son Ishmael would have been desperate for her comforting presence, yet she feels so broken she cannot bear any more pain.

On Sunday, while I was writing the first draft of this article, I found myself stressed about a task set for me by an academic advisor. As I finally felt I was making some progress, I heard my son crying in another room. I had to tear myself away from what I was doing and try to comfort him. He was frustrated by his efforts learning to ride a bicycle. I took him to a park and, in almost no time, he triumphed with his riding and was thrilled!

I close with prayers for all vulnerable people suffering from fire, poverty, policies against “illegals” and children who depend on the good judgement and care of others.

(1)    There are various traditions about the ages of the five “children”, but all are referred to as the child of either Abraham or Lot.
(2)    Genesis 22
(3)    Leibowitz, Nehama, New Studies in Bereshit Genesis, p.196
(4)    Midrash Tanchuma
(5)    Midrash Vayosha, Bet Hamidrash Jellineck, Tel Aviv, Ozar Midrashim, Eisenstein, New York 1928, cited in Leibowitz, Nehama, New Studies in Bereshit Genesis, p. 206
(6)    Genesis 22:12
(7)    Genesis 18:21-22
(8)    Talmud, Sanhedrin 109b, quoted in Rashi, Beresheet Rabbah
(9)    Pirkey D’Rabbi Eliezer 25, cited in Torah Shlaima p.776. In this version she is a married woman rather than a young girl as stated in theTalmud. An alternative commentary states that she was raped (Midrash Chefetz, also cited in Torah Shlaima).
(10)     Ramban articulates this view powerfully
(11)     Genesis 19:4-7
(12)     Midrash Tanchuma Vayerah 12, an alternative interpretation actually praised Lot for his dedication to his guests and compares his sacrifice to that of Moses who was prepared to sacrifice himself for Israel (Pirkey D’Rabbi Eliezer 25, cited in Torah Shlamia p.794)
(13)     Drashat Even Shuiv, in the name of Rabbenu Chananel, cited in Torah Shlamia p.794. This interpretation is certainly more comfortable, although a similar case involving the rape of a concubine (Judges Ch. 19-20) suggests that this outlandish bargain could actually be struck.
(14)     Genesis 21:9-14
(15)     Tosefta Sotah 6
(16)     Tosefta Sotah 6, cited in Rashi
(17)     Pirkey D’Rabbi Eliezer cited in Meam Loez
(18)     Genesis 21:16

Friday, October 11, 2013

Integrity vs. Relationships & Lech Lcha

This week I was subjected to a negotiation-tactic-offence. I argued for additional information relating to a financial demand; this request was countered by a threat to discontinue the business relationship.  This is wrong. Love and other relationships should be managed so that they can be preserved without sacrifices of integrity. Indeed, our most valuable relationships can, in some circumstances, be strengthened by acting with integrity within the relationship and beyond it.  Yet, conflicts will sometimes occur.

The prioritising of integrity over relationships plays out dramatically at the beginning and end of the story of Abraham. 

God’s first call to Abraham is to move away from those closest to him. The sequence of the journeys Abraham is called on to make is instructive. He is first told to leave his land, then his birthplace and then his father’s house (1). This is because, in spiritual terms, the easiest shift is to leave one’s land and what it represents - familiar places and practices with which one has a relatively superficial connection. The hardest shift and “cruellest wrench” is the cutting off of one’s connection with one’s family (2).

God’s demand of Abraham to leave his past and parents is introduced with the words Lech Lcha, לך ,לך which is usually translated as “go for yourself” but literally means “go to yourself”; in other words, shift to be true to yourself (3), by breaking with your past.  Abraham’s greatest test is introduced with the same words: “go to yourself to the land of Moria” (4);  in this case, he is called to forgo his future (5) by killing his son, Isaac, again in the name of integrity in his service of God.

In the end, God does not demand the life of Isaac, which suggests that, in the end, we are called on to combine love of God with love of family. Managing both in the right proportion is a huge challenge. I remember how hard my father worked in the service of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s cause of promoting Judaism (6), when I was a young child. My father kept talking to many people in the Synagogue after the prayers about the Jewish outreach work he was doing, while I was impatiently waiting to go home. Today I have my own cause; I wonder how well I am doing in balancing my “mission” with doing the right thing by my family.    

In Abraham’s life, this struggle plays out in various ways.  According to commentary, Abraham was meant to have a clean break with his family when he was commanded to leave his “fathers house”; yet, in not wanting to embarrass his nephew Lot, Abraham prioritises his relationship with his nephew over God’s demand, and allows Lot to come with him (7). So we are told that Abraham went as God commanded him, and Lot went with him (8) on his own initiative (9). It might also have been useful for Lot to recognise what this journey wasreally about for Abraham (acting in accordance with God’s instruction),  which was not Lot’s agenda (10).  With both Abraham and Lot compromised, it does not surprise me that a little while later the relationship hits a rough patch and they go their separate ways eventually (11).

Abraham is faced with another challenge when Sarah,  his first wife, runs into strife with his second wife Hagar. Sarah, who was childless, had offered her maid Hagar to Abraham as a second wife so that Abraham might have some children with her. When Hagar became pregnant she lost respect for her barren mistress (14). Sarah is very upset and says to Abraham: "I gave you my I have become cheapened in her eyes, may God judge between me and you.” According to commentary she rants: “All my embarrassment is from you, I trusted you for justice, I left my land and father’s house and travelled with you to a foreign land…now my humiliation is revealed before God, may he spread his peace on us and let the earth be filled with us and we won’t need the sons of Hagar, the daughter of Pharaoh, who is the son of Nimrod, who put you in a fiery furnace” (15).

Abraham replies with an absolute “yes dear, here is your maid in your hand, do to her what is good in your eyes”. Sarah's behaviour at this point is subject to many opinions; the text says “ותענה”; one translation is that Sarah abused her (16) and it is interpreted that she either enslaved her harshly (17), or hit her with a shoe (18). Hagar flees Sarah. One commentary states that “our mother sinned in this affliction and Abraham, too, by allowing her to do this” (19). I think it is fair to say that Abraham is concerned mostly with his relationship with Sarah, and does not give a great deal of priority to what would be ethical in this situation.

In some cases, it is certainly right to put family first and, even in less important relationships, it is sometimes appropriate to capitulate rather than to take a stand on principle, which is what I did in the situation referred to at the beginning of this post. Yet, there are times when, in order to live with integrity, we will be required to put truth, justice or God ahead of keeping our parents, children or spouse happy. May we all be blessed with the wisdom and courage to make the right choices   while also enjoying the blessings of  love.

Notes and sources:
1)    Genesis 12:1, In the case of Abraham our tradition tells us that he has already rejected the religious worldview and practices of his father, but this is not sufficient; he must also physically move away, which, in a world without regular communication, must have been almost a complete end to the relationship.
2)    Hakesav Vhakabala as discussed in Lebovitz, N. New Studies in Breshit Genesis p. 113, Ohr Hachayim makes a similar point
3)    Schneerson, Rabbi M.M. Likutei Sichos
4)    Genesis   22:2
5)    Lebovitz New Studies in Breshit Genesis p. 114
6)    The Rebbe has a teaching based on the Talmudic idea that all who went out in the wars of the house of (King) David would write a bill of divorce for their wives. (In case they went missing in action, their wives would be free to remarry). The Rebbe interpreted this as a call for sacrifice of family for the cause of promoting Judaism. 
7)    Ohr Hachayim
8)    Genesis 12:4
9)    Klei Yakar
10)    Ohr Hachayim, Radak interprets this differently and sees Lot as “listening to Abraham” and being loyal to Abraham’s ideas.
11)    Genesis 13:5-9
12)    She is referred to as Sarai at this stage of her life before it was changed to Sarah
13)    Genesis 12:11-19
14)    Genesis 16:3-6
15)    Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel
16)    Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, in the Living Torah.
17)    Rashi, Genesis 16:6.
18)    Beresheet Rabba, 45
19)    Ramban

Friday, October 4, 2013

Humans Gone Ape? Affirming our Essential Humanity and a Beauty Named Naama Beresheet

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“Look at what they are doing to each other!” say some people , referring to Arabs or Muslims or both as a collective “they”, when they see the images or hear of the horror that is being perpetrated in Syria. This came up in a discussion about a Jewish teaching that people had descended to the level of Apes. The horrible murder and mayhem in Kenya led one participant to comment that  people like the Al-Shabab murderers are indeed apes, followed by the problematic comment about Syria. While people certainly do horrific, evil deeds, influenced by evil thoughts and speech, I think it is wrong to dehumanize them. Beasts kill for food, following their natural instincts without malice or evil intent; humans, on the other hand, make choices and carry out evil plans. It is the humanity of every human community, rather than the evil choices made by  some of their members,  that we should recognise. 

One important concept  about the nature of prejudice is the process of “essentialising”. This involves taking a negative characteristic or perspective about a member or several members of a group and reducing the group as a whole to that one characteristic and nothing else (1).  I heard of a chilling anecdote from Kenya  that one of the murderers responded to a 4 year old child’s assertion that he was a “very bad man” by offering him a Mars bar and telling the child that “we are not monsters” (2).  This interaction suggests to me that the killer, despite his evil side, is, in one sense, a person like me, rather than a demon. He wants to be perceived as a “good person”; he must think that he is making a “tough” decision that seems entirely justified in his twisted understanding of religion and morality.

I wish to explore the theme of essential humanity through the complicated case of a woman named Naama. This woman’s story carries a redemptive message about the enduring human spirit, regardless of ancestry or even after going through a “demonic” phase.

Naama’s birth is the result of an unwanted pregnancy. Her father Lemech, a descendant of the murderer Cain, married two women (3). One wife, Ada, was married for the purpose of child bearing; having served her purpose, she was   to spend the rest of her life “like a widow”, ignored by Lemech. The other wife, Tzila, whose name means “shade” because she was always in Lemechs “shadow”, was for sex. She was given a contraceptive drink and was “adorned like a prostitute” (4). Thwarting Lemech’s intentions, God ensures that Tzila becomes pregnant (5) and gives birth to a son named Tuval Cain and a daughter Naama. 

Unsurprisingly, Lemech’s two wives were jealous of each other and quarrelled.  Lemech finds it unbearable and cries out, “How are my sins worse than those of all people? that I have no quiet in my home, not when eating, not when drinking, not when going to sleep or waking up, did I kill a man(6)? Or choke little children to deserve this?! (7).

Tuval Cain and his sister Naama (8), raised in this household, are the world’s first iron workers (9) and arms manufacturers (10). Lemech  is unconcerned by the moral cost of creating weapons because he argues, much like gun control opponents do today, that he is not responsible for bringing the sword and murder into the world. He argues (11) that “the sword is not the only way to murder; in fact killing without it by repeatedly inflicting a barrage of wounds and bruises is a much worse death” (12). 

Naama, whose name means pleasant, was exceptionally beautiful (13). Men strayed after her (14), including the “sons of God”, meaning the children of the judges, who saw “the daughters of men, that they were good and they took all women as they pleased” (15).  Even demons fell for her. She is also thought to be the mother of Ashmadai, the king of demons (16). The commentary written by these ancient men is crying out for a feminist critique. Not attempting to offer it myself, I am instead considering this from the perspective of the religious mindset of scholars from between 500-2000 years ago, that describes this woman as one who would seem to be beyond redemption. This, however, is not the case.

Naama lived in a time where the human population became so degenerate that they were described as having their faces changed to those of apes, people became Centaurs, (17) half men, but also “like horses and mules without understanding”(18). Yet, our sages tell us that she was pleasing in the “end of her actions”; the angels sought to stray after her but she ran away from them (19).  She eventually (20) married the righteous Noah (21) and is therefore the mother of us all.

The key point for me here is that, despite the fact that we can behave in ways that might best be described an inhuman, nothing, not ancestry, family influence, personal choice, character or even horrific evil deeds, schemes and thoughts, like those of Al Shaabab, can ever erase the essential humanity of us all.

Also, there has been much discussion on facebook about a Muslim tradition or Hadith regarding Jewish people who sinned and were turned into apes. This can easily be misconstrued by non-Muslims and Muslims themselves as dehumanising. I am afraid this might feed anti-Jewish bigotry for some Muslims as well as generalised hatred of Muslims by some Jews. Yet, for me as a Jew, I find it fascinating that the idea of ‘humans gone ape’ is clearly articulated in my own tradition for a very similar reason. 

1)    Hall, S. ed. (1997) Representation, Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, London, Sage. p.245
3)    Genesis 4:19
4)    Midrash Rabba/Beresheet Rabba chapter 23
5)     Pesikta Zutra, Rashi, Rabbenu Bchaya
6)     Genesis 4:23
7)    Rabbi Yossi Kara, cited in Bchor Shor, An alternative interpretation (Radak) is that he is so enraged by this that he threatens to kill them, boasting of his capacity to do this as if he had already (Ibn Ezra and Radak) “killed a man” and could do the same to his wives if they continue to displease him. Ibn Ezra and Radak, support their view by citing the common usage of the past tense to refer to future events
8)    Midrash Hanealam (literally, the hidden midrash, cited first in the new Zohar 19b, and in Kasher, M. M., in Torah Shlaima (1992), Jerusalem. Beit Torah Shlaima) The text only tells us about Tuval Cain’s occupation but the unusual phrase “and the sister of Tuval Cain” was Naama, is taken to mean that she was like him with the same level of expertise.
9)    Genesis 4:22
10)    Rashi and Ramban. The word Tuval in the name Tuval Cain means spice, which is taken to mean that he extends Cain. Whereas Cain killed with his bare hands, Tuval Cain and his sister enabled killing with greater efficiency and ease (Midrash Rabba/Beresheet Rabba chapter 23)
11)    This is based on yet another interpretation of the phrase “did I kill a man?” in Genesis 4:23,
12)     Ramban, Rabbenu Bchaya
13)    Midrash Rabba
14)     Zohar Chadash Part 1, 55
15)    Genesis 6:2, commentary discusses whether this was consensual as the “sons of God”, according to one commentary, refers to the descendants of Cain who were exceptionally attractive, “beautiful and tall”, leading women to abandon their husbands (Midrash cited in Torah Shlaima); or it might have involved rape, particularly by the sons of the judges, an alternative meaning to the phrase “sons of God”, who grabbed women and raped them in the market place. Their example was followed by ordinary men as well (Sifre/Sifre Zuta). According to one commentary, the verse Genesis 6:4 “the fallen were on the earth”  refers to the Hebrew word for a miscarried foetus, a נפל (Nefel),  and suggests that many of the women who became pregnant were given a type of drink that caused them to miscarry because of their shame, and the earth was filled with aborted foetuses (Tzror Hamor- cited in Meam Loez).    
16)    Midrash Hanealam ibid
17)    Midrash Rabba/Beresheet Rabba chapter 23  
18)     Torah Shlaima citing מו"ע  (not sure who this is).
19)    Midrash Agada, cited in Torah Shlaima  
20)     I am taking the liberty here of compiling a composite image here that includes many different perspectives. I am not suggesting that the original commentators saw it as one narrative, they clearly did not.
21)     Midrash Rabba/Beresheet Rabba chapter 23