Friday, June 26, 2015

Submission Season: Chukat & Korach

On Monday morning, Sheikh Ahmed, my team and I discussed submission and assertiveness with Western Sydney, Lebanese Muslim, teenage boys who were fasting as part of Ramadan. Just before this month of fasting began, I joined a priest on a panel with Soner Coruhlu, another sheikh, who explained the spiritual side of fasting. He put fasting in the context of the inner struggle between the ego and emotions, on the one hand, and submission to God and following higher callings on the other.

In Western culture, we seem to value asserting oneself rather than submission. In Australian culture, we celebrate egalitarianism and irreverence. At the same time, these boys, like everyone else, are expected to submit to the rule of law and the obligations of citizenship.  We talked about the Magna Carta - how even governments must submit to the authority of the courts, and rule in a way that respects the rights of the people.

On Monday night, a Muslim man, a self-confessed “idiot at times (1)”, asserted on national television that the government “just justified to many Australian Muslims in the community tonight to leave and go to Syria and join ISIL (2)”. This has predictably caused outrage in the Australian media, and inflamed tensions. Living with people with diverse needs and standards, it is necessary to consider carefully how and when we either assert ourselves or submit to the will of others. 

I have been thinking about the limits of a self-assertive approach. In the course of my work, I found myself confronted by a person who defied my guidance.  He told a personal story, with a political reference, to a group of students in a context in which this was inappropriate.  When I gently pointed out to him what I thought was his oversight, he asserted his own view and told me that the political aspect of his story was intentional.  The fact that I am a leader in the field of cross-cultural bridge-building, counted for nothing. Unfortunately, he saw no need to accept any guidance.  In contrast to this, I shared an anecdote with the boys about how I submitted to the guidance of an Aboriginal elder, which, although hard at the time, I am very happy about after the fact.

In the current Torah readings, there is a strong message about submission. Last week, we read an extreme story promoting the virtue of “followership”: a man, named Korach, who refused to submit to the authority of Moses, was swallowed up by the earth as punishment (3). 

This week, we read about a ritual involving the slaughter and burning of a red cow, as a means of purification, after contact with death (4).  Death can be interpreted as symbolic - being completely disconnected from God (5). The ritual of the red cow is seen as a commandment without any rational explanation that we are forbidden “to think about”, or question (6).

This red cow had to be one that had never borne a yoke (7). The yoke is a potent symbol representing submission to God’s demands, just as an ox would accept the burden placed on its shoulders and comply with the demand to pull a plough. This symbolism can be interpreted in two opposite ways. Firstly, it can be interpreted that the Jews had thrown off the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, so they needed atonement through an animal that was likewise without a yoke (8).  Alternatively, it could be interpreted as atonement by the Jews for their inappropriate submission to the golden calf (9) - they accepted its yoke, and would now be redeemed by a yoke-less and, perhaps, symbolically assertive cow.

One of the interesting questions raised by one of the boys during the discussion, was whether it should still be considered as submission if one wants to submit. The sheikh and I both thought the answer is yes.

In the process of the preparation of the red cow, there is a high level of intentionality. The burning must be done “before his eyes (10)”: the priest must not be involved in any other task (11), but continue to look until the animal is reduced to ashes (12). One could not perform the ritual with two cows simultaneously as this would divide the attention of the priest (13). If a high priest performed this ritual, he would have to remove his regular, elaborate garments, including the breast plate with the diamonds inscribed with the names of the tribes, and perform the ritual wearing simple, white garments.  His thoughts must be focused on this ritual (14). Submission is not about the self being absent, nor is it about being weak and just caving in or shutting down. Instead, we are called to submit mindfully.  This is what happens in loving relationships between parents and children, and husbands and wives. The Torah points to broader applications of this gracious way of being. 

There will be times when assertiveness is the correct stance. There are other times that call for some give and grace. A season for submission is an opportunity to highlight this.

3)    Numbers 16
4)    Numbers 19:1-14
5)      Schneerson, Rabbi MM, Likutei Sichos, Vol 4, p.1058
6)      Rashi
7)      Numbers 19:2
8)      Bamidbar Zuta, from a manuscript, cited in Kasher, R. Menachem, Torah Shlaima, vol. 11, p. 25
9)      Midrash Agadah cited in Kasher, R. Menachem, Torah Shlaima, vol. 11, p. 23
10)      Numbers 19:5
11)      Ralbag, p.97 Mosad Rav Kook edition
12)      Sifrei Zuta,
13)      Ralbag, based on Tosefta
14)      Ralbag

Friday, June 12, 2015

Messiah, Facts, & Hope: a Jew’s conversation with Shia Muslims. Shlach

Photos by Ahsan Nader Photography
There is a difference between the presentation of ‘facts’ and the truth.

Standing behind the Messiah’s cream and green birthday cake at a Shia Muslim Mosque in Sydney, University student, Ali Safdari, questioned the prospects for a redeemer being able to pull humanity out of the ‘unjust mess’ it is in. He cited several facts to support this bleak assessment, all of them true. He put a challenge to a range of speakers from different faith perspectives to explain the “promised redeemer” in this context.

One speaker, Shaykh Hamid Waqa, a Shia Muslim Sheikh with an American accent, a Christian father and Jewish mother who studied in Iran, explored the range of perspectives within Shia Islam toward the Madhi-Messiah. Some were content to do nothing more than pray for the redeemer. Others on the very fringe believed they could force the hand of God by increasing injustice in the world thereby hastening the Madhi’s arrival. A third group believed that increasing justice will hasten his coming. He also talked about the importance of being ready for the Mahdi and the risk of people simply not being prepared to follow the redeemer when he appeared.

The range of views about the Messiah or Moshiach in Judaism is interesting to consider alongside those of Shia Muslims. I was raised within the Chabad movement which has put a huge emphasis on hastening the coming of the Messiah and preparing for it, actively and urgently (1). Despite our tradition teaching that the Messiah might come in a generation that is completely guilty, I have never heard anyone suggest this was a good way to hurry things along. On the other hand, many Jews are certainly more comfortable with a passive stance toward the Messiah.
At my brother’s wedding on the Sunday prior to the interfaith panel, I chatted with my father’s cousin. He made the argument that the Torah’s complete silence on the Moshiach and  afterlife, both of which are not mentioned at all in the Torah itself, is tied to Judaism’s focus on justice in this world and our life on earth. We are not content to allow injustice to fester because we hope for a better world in the afterlife or when the redeemer comes. It is our task to make things right, here and now. 

The Talmud relates: When Rav Zeira happened upon scholars who were engaged [in calculating the date of Moshiach's arrival], he told them, "I beg you! Do not postpone it ... for it has been taught, 'Three things come when the mind is occupied otherwise: Moshiach ...(2)"  Being too focused on Moshiach, according to this teaching is not appropriate.

For me the Messiah is not just about the future but about living with hope right now that the world as it is at present is not final. That a world in which the strong does not harm the weak, represented by the image of the “lion lying with the lamb” (3) is possible. I suggested that although there is some value in young people “maintaining the rage” and being dissatisfied with the world as it is, it is important to see the half of the cup that is full. The relative freedom we enjoy to express whatever views we hold and follow our religious beliefs and the realization, at least in part, of Martin Luther King Jnr’s of dream with the US having a black president that was unimaginable only a half century ago.

Hope can be difficult. One of the great insights from the East is not to be too attached to one’s hopes and as a result one is seldom very disappointed. Yet, Judaism demands hope. The Spies Moses sent to report on the Promised Land to the freed slaves in the desert sinned with one dispiriting word, the word “but” (4). Although they brought back lots of accurate information, they also included one hope destroying word. “We came to the land to which you sent us, and it is flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. But, the people who inhabit the land are mighty, and the cities are extremely huge and fortified, and there we saw even the offspring of the giant” (5). They also sequenced their “facts” in such a way that the positive part was first and out of the way so that the ‘bottom line’ appeared to be the hopelessness of the situation (6).

I concluded my talk at the Mosque with the following reflection: “The emphasis on the Moshiach motivated a lot of activism. I can confidently say that if not for the Jewish belief in the Moshiach, I would not be standing here today. I would not have gone out of my comfort zone in New York with my family to move to Australia. I certainly would not have founded an organization called Together For Humanity that brings together Muslims, Christians and Jews to teach young people about respect for differences. It is only because we were raised to hasten the coming of the Messiah. It is because I had learned to refuse to accept a flawed world that I was driven to meet all of you. For this I am very grateful”. 

(1) The Talmud (Shabbat 31a), states that one of the four questions a soul is asked when facing the Heavenly Court is: "Did you yearn for the Salvation?" The Talmud states: When they bring a person for judgment, they will ask: "Did you deal faithfully in business? Did you set aside fixed times for Torah? Did you try to have children? Did you anticipate the redemption?"
(2) Talmud, Sanhedrin 97a
(3) Isaiah 11:6
(4) Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, in Akedat Yitzchak, cited in Lebovitz, N., New Studies in Bamidbar, Abarbanel goes further in his analysis of the Hebrew word, “Efes” אפס that can be translated as “but”, but can also be translated as “nothing” and indicating lack or cancelation such as “is there no more, a man?” in Samuel II 9:3, or “there is no more money” in Genesis 47:15. The spies are therefore saying that everything good they said about the land “is as it if as never been, it is all nothing and emptiness because the nation is strong”
(5) Numbers 13: 27-28
(6) Abarbanel, he points out that the sequence was the opposite of their terms of reference given to them by Moses, in which the first two questions were about the people of the land and only then did he ask two questions about the produce of the land (numbers 13:18-20), but in the answer these are reversed for effect. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

Speech to my brother and his bride at their wedding, Intra-faith diversity shining together Bahalotecha

My brother Sam got married last Sunday. I was privileged to be the officiating Rabbi. Sam has chosen an alternative path to the Hasidic and orthodox one followed by our parents and his siblings. Sam’s wedding was a blend of orthodox tradition, light even irreverent humour, Hasidic and more contemporary music and dances, gender-segregated and mixed seating tables. Here is an edited version of my speech to my brother.

Sometime in the 1970s before Dora or Sam were born, an angel thought about these two wonderful souls and paired them, Dora for Sam and Sam for Dora (1). Clever little angel, that one, I think.  I am sure anyone who has had the joy of seeing both of you together would agree. 

Today you stand here, as two half souls separated before birth only to be reunited today.

Here is some inspiration from the Torah reading this week. A candelabra with 7 branches representing diversity spread out in many different directions, but the light all shines in one direction toward the holy ark(2) that contained the tablets with the ten commandments and was covered by two cherubs looking lovingly at each other. Dora and Sam, you are very different people in perhaps somewhat superficial ways. Dora was raised in a home with a lot of music and song. I was delighted to meet your parents and to learn that caring is evident in both your parents working lives. Your dad showed caring for his staff’s happiness and wellbeing at work and your mom for her little clients’ motivation and development. Good, grounded people who have given you a firm foundation for the caring, warm, loving, sensible person that you are. I could say a lot about you Dora, but perhaps my little niece S. articulated it better than I can with her tight hug when she saw you on Thursday.

Sam was raised in the Kastel household, a world away. Yet, you can scratch beneath the surface, look beyond the long black coat and the particular Niggun-combinations our father would sing at the Shabbat table. What we got was a compelling sense of right and wrong from our mother that continues to resonate in your life as an individual, a comforter of the dying and Rabbi of your conservative Staten Island congregation. Like your father, every day of your life is dedicated to service.

Together, both of you, as your parents before you are essentially glowing with similar compassionate loving light. And yet, neither of you are your parents and as much as they are all worthy of admiration, that is still a good thing. You are also not each other. Challenging and supporting each other because you are different.

When the first man and first woman were created, our sages tell us they were created back to back (3). Eve was not Adam’s rib, but one side of this double human. Only as two separate people could they look into each other’s eyes, see each other’s faces and as the primary Kabbalistic text, Zohar puts it, “to receive light in light, face in face” (4).       

There is another aspect in this as well.  In the Torah it states that Eve would be an Ezer Knegdo, a Help Opposite. According to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, this means that you will need to allow each other to occasionally stand opposite, to feel opposite, to think opposite. A life’s partner must be able to say no if that is necessary—the ‘kenegdo’ part—moreover, the lips may be moving one way, but the heart may be saying no silently until the heart breaks from the weight of the "nos." The couple must be able to correct each other, complement each other.  You are good at this. This is a great strength.

I wish you abundance of happiness together, everything you need and a lot of what you want. I love both of you as do so many of the people privileged to know you. Keep being you, imperfect, but beautiful in your distinct ways. It is wonderful to see you fulfilling your destiny. Mazal Tov!

This blog post is dedicated to another young man with the same Hebrew name as my brother, Shmuel Ben Rina, who died this week and to his loving partner C, and their two young children. He was planning his wedding too. May the memories of his distinct light and spirit bring some comfort to his Mother, father, partner and children.

(1)    The Talmud Sota 2a states: "...forty days before the creation of a child, a heavenly voice calls forth and proclaims; 'So and so's daughter for so and so's son bride and groom'...."(2)    Ralbag(3)    Rashi: quoting Midrash. The word usually translated as a rib צלע, can also be translated a “a side”, as in God made of Eve out of one of Adam’s sides.(4)    Zohar part 3, 44b