Friday, September 25, 2015

God’s children - disowned? Political, social justice and religious perspectives - Haazinu

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I object to the idea of God completely rejecting people. If we accept the proposition that God Himself rejected a group utterly, then why should mere mortals restrain their own bigotry or oppression? I am committed to the principle of the intrinsic worth of every human. On Wednesday this week, I was dressed in a ritual white robe, fasting and praying to my “father in heaven” for atonement. I feel cleansed and have a warm peaceful feeling. Yet in Judaism there is an argument against my assumption of an unconditional parent-child relationship between God and me.

We have an ambiguous verse in this week’s reading of Haazinu. If translated literally it reads:  “Destroyed/Corrupted to him, no, his children, their blemish, [a] crooked and twisted generation”. 1 One way of reading the first part of this text is “Corrupted to Him [namely to God, have they, the Jews, who are] not [any more considered to be] His children, [and this lost status] is their blemish…” The idea is that the status of being God’s children can be lost due to disobedience”. 2

While I can see the advantages of not setting one group apart as God’s children, I am uncomfortable with the idea of any group being deemed “God’s disowned children”. One source for the notion of a conditional relationship is in the Talmud, 3 but it comes not from the great sages but out of the mouth of an evil person, the Roman Governor, poster-boy for what not to do in Inter-faith dialogue, Turnus-Rufus the wicked. 4 The Governor asserted in an argument with Rabbi Akiva about the merit of charity, that when the Jews do not do the will of God they are no longer called his children but rather his servants. 5 He argued that because God does not provide sustenance to poor Jews, other Jews should not interfere in God’s plan by giving them charity.

Rabbi Akiva did not argue the point, which some might take as him agreeing with it. 6 I suggest Rabbi Akiva was focused on the main game, which was the attempted justification of the Roman cruel oppression of the minority exiled Jews, rather than the word play in the theological argument. 7 Rabbi Akiva, ignored the arrogant and flawed 8 attempt by Turnus Rufus to determine Jewish theology and instead drew his attention to the prophet’s call, to bring the “oppressed poor into your home”. 9 There is a pointed reference to the cruelty of the oppressive Romans and a clever move that enabled him to recapture the moral high ground as he negotiated the position of his people.

However this argument goes back even earlier between sages of the Talmud themselves, 10 but I have seen it argued that this dispute was resolved with the proponent of conditional “child status”, conceding in the end to his opponent 11 that in fact even when the Israelites behave poorly, they are castigated as it is our reading of Haazinu as “Sons in whom there is no faith”, 12 or “foolish sons”.   13

I find the alternative interpretations to our text above about “His children” more plausible. It has been translated as “They have corrupted for themselves, their good deeds, His beloved children”. 14 Or, in another interpretation it is the ‘Jews themselves that have turned their back on the relationship with God rejecting their status as His children in their hearts’. 15 Yet, God insists in the very next verse that the Jews should recognise Him as their father, God asking rhetorically “Is he not your father?!” 16 On the day after Yom Kippur I feel a little closer to my Father in heaven, whose parenthood, at least from His perspective was never in question. I pray that all of God’s children, regardless of their beliefs or behaviour be shown His love and compassion, and are valued by their fellow humans unconditionally.


1.    Deuteronomy 32:5, שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹּא בָּנָיו מוּמָם דּוֹר עִקֵּשׁ וּפְתַלְתֹּל
2.    Note that in Hebrew the same word “Lo- לא” is used both for no and not. This view is taken by highly respected classic commentators including Ramban, also known as Nachmanides, of the 13th century, Abarbanel 15th Century and more recent commentators: Ohr Hachayim 18th Century, Samson Raphael Hirsch 19th Century. The view of the most commonly studied and very authoritative Rashi from the 11th century is ambiguous. He states "they were his sons, but the corruption that they corrupted is their blemish”. One prominent supra-commentary, known as Mizrahi, emphasises the past tense in Rashi’s comment. “they were” [his children] meaning at the beginning, because it cannot be that they would be called His children after they have acted corruptly. This view seemed to be shared by Sifsei Chachomim, but it is disputed by Be’er Basadeh who asserts that Rashi sees the damage in the context of a non-negotiable parent child relationship, in which God is as protective of His children as one would be toward the apple of their eye but because of the sin God hides his face. Yet, he argues that the relationship is not confined to the past, prior to the sin as we can see from the way Rashi continues to refers to the Jews as God’s children in Rashi’s very next sentence. Sefer Hazikaron, agreed with Mizrahi that the relationship is conditional but also notes the evidence for a non-negotiable relationship cited by Be’er Basadeh, and states that he doesn’t understand it, and that further study is needed. 
3.    Talmud Bava Basra, 10a
5.    Talmud Bava Basra, 10a
6.    This might explain the direct quote from Turnus Rufus turning up in Ohr Hachayim but being attributed to those whose “memory is a blessing”, in Ohr Hachayim’s commentary to Deuteronomy 32:5
7.    See Maharsha on Talmud Bava Basra, 10a, beginning with “this makes them liable for hell”.
8.    Torah Temimah on Deuteronomy 14:1, refutes the binary proposition put forward by Turnus Rufus that Jews can either be the children or God as they are referred in some verses, which he asserts apply when they do the will of God, and they are refered to as servants of Gods in other verses which would apply when they don’t do the will of God. In fact, Moses himself is called a servant of God as a form of high praise, rather than punishment. 
9.    Isaiah 58, read as the Yom Kippur Haftorah, translation follows Maharsha’s commentary
10.    Talmud Kidushin 36a
11.    Torah Temimah on Deuteronomy 14:1 asserts that this implied in the Sifre on Deuteronomy 32:5
12.    Deuteronomy 32:20
13.    Jeremiah 4
14.    This is a composite of the translations by the classic translators, Unkelus (1st Century) and Yonatan Ben Uziel (One of the Tanaaim of the Talmud, possibly ever earlier than Unkelus), Rashbam (12th century) follows a similar approach, the cantillation marks for the words suggest a pause between the words “no/not” and “his sons” with the word Lo, marked by a Tipcha. Malbim (19th Century) takes the commentary into a completely different direction, which also does not follow the approach of God disowning His children.
15.    Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 32:5 and 6
16.    Deuteronomy 32:6

Friday, September 18, 2015

A God who hides: Vayelech and Yom Kippur

“Dont hide from me” pleads Hasidic singer Avraham Fried. The idea of God hiding has been used in response to the question “Where was God during the Holocaust?” and to explain the persecution of “Gods treasured people”. I am curious about how a people with a terrible history of suffering interprets the symbolism of a God with a hidden face”.

In our Torah reading this week (Vayelech), we encounter the idea of God hiding as punishment for a disloyal people. “My fury will rage against them on that day, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them, and they will be consumed, and many evils and troubles will befall them, and they will say on that day, 'Is it not because our God is no longer among us, that these evils have befallen us? And I will hide, [yes] I will hide My face on that day, because of all the evil they have committed, when they turned to other gods”.1

One Jewish response to God hiding that resonates for me is deep sadness. “Rabbi Johanan, when he came to the [following] verse, wept: And it shall come to pass, when many evils and troubles are come upon them. A slave whose Master brings many evils and troubles upon him, is there any remedy for him?!2  Some have argued that God didnt cause the Holocaust, or the terrible violence of our own time, that man instead is to blame. I agree that humans must certainly be held to account, but letting God off the hook in this way does not work for me. My orientation to God is as the source of sustenance and protection. God must have been present at Auschwitz and could thus arguably appear to be complicit in the evil deeds of the Nazis. The response to suffering I find most useful is in the statement that “it is not in our hands to grasp [the reasons for] the tranquillity of the wicked nor the ordeals of the righteous”.3

One approach to the verse about the slave seems to be focused on making sense of the words, but also sheds some light on the reality they describe. “What is the meaning of ‘evils and troubles? — Rab said: Evils which become antagonists to each other, as for instance the [bites of] a wasp and a scorpion”. This is a classic catch 22: the treatment of one kind of bite is to wash it with cold water and that bite is made worse by hot water, while the reverse is true with the other.4 A variation of this bind is seen when “Jews in exile would be mistreated by a non-Jewish person. If the Jew complained it increased the hatred of the perpetrator and would be spread to others, but if he is silent then the perpetrator will become accustomed to doing this in this way”.5  Australian Muslims, like American Blacks, sometimes find themselves in a similar bind. If they complain they are the “Angry Muslim”, like the “Angry Black Man”; if they are silent the problems persist.

The attraction of the idea of God hiding, in some interpretations, is that one can continue to believe in benign divine providence and engagement with the Jews despite intensely cruel oppression. One such approach, implausible to me, is that Gods hiding his face is “in a way of affection” like a father of a misbehaving child who instructs the childs teacher to beat him but cannot bear to look himself, and turns away, because of his feeling for the child.6  This anthropomorphism comforts persecuted believers by telling them that although they may feel abandoned by God, God still cares. In fact He cares so much that it is as if he is looking away because he cannot bear to witness their pain. 

One of the themes of Christian antisemitism was the idea that God had rejected the Jews. Although God hiding his face from the Jews could be understood as supporting that idea, commentators argue that the opposite is true: “it is not as they [the Jews] think, that I [God] am not among them [which explains their suffering] but indeed in every place that they will be, my presence will be found there but I will hide my face from helping them”.7  Other commentators go as far as condemning the Jews for their belief that God had abandoned them, declaring that this lack of faith in Gods continuing providence is the very sin that leads to God redoubling his determination to hide from them.8

Sitting in the comfort of 21st Century Australia it is hard to imagine the hell experienced by our people in other times and places, or that being endured by members of many other nations and faiths today.  As I prepare for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, for me also a day for reconciliation with God, I wonder about this punitive cruel God. One way of explaining the Kol Nidrei prayer, which calls for the absolving of vows, is that God Himself is asking to be absolved from the system of rewards, punishments and hidingthat he promised in the Torah.  Yes, there needs to be accountability by the Jews for compliance with God's laws but punishment is not the only option available to God for holding us to account. The approach of restorative justice uses shame and awareness of the harm itself as more potent alternatives to punishment.9

Perhaps God hides because of an estrangement between humans and God, and our failure to live up to the ideals and principles that God calls us to live by. I am up for this kind of reconciliation.

1.       Deuteronomy  31:17-18
2.       Talmud Chagiga 5a
3.       Pirkey Avot, (Ethics of the fathers)  4:11
4.       Rashi
5.       Bchor Shor,  Meam Loez, p. 1247, Vagshal edition
6.       Bchor Shor, Chizkuni, Daat Zekainim Mbaalei Hatosafot,
7.       Seforno
8.       R.A Hacohen, cited in Meam Loez, p. 1272, Vagshal editiontheme is discussed in Meam Loez, p. 1248, Vagshal edition

9.       This theme is discussed in Meam Loez, p. 1248, Vagshal edition

Friday, September 11, 2015

Who will Rest and who shall wander? Rosh Hashanah

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At a time that terrible suffering afflicts millions in the Middle East and continues to traumatize those who have escaped, Jews prepare for our New Year and day of judgement: Rosh Hashanah.  In the synagogue the solemn words will ring out: “Who will live and who will die? Who will die in their time and who before their time? Who by fire? Who by the sword? Who by hunger? Who by thirst? Who will find rest and who shall wander?  Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued? …who shall be tormented?” This prayer talks about these decisions as being made by God alone. Yet, you and I are also making choices as citizens that might have some influence on these terrible questions.

This week’s decision by the Australian Government to resettle 12,000 refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria and Iraq, with a focus “on those most in need – the women, children and families of persecuted minorities”, 1 followed pleas by citizens as well as politicians. Last year I heard a representative of the Assyrian community describe the killing and devastation inflicted on his community by Daesh/IS. I connected with their pain and deeply wished this evil would stop! Now, thankfully, at least Assyrians will likely get some relief and be shown some compassion. 

On the other hand, one Australian Muslim who I respect and trust had a different perspective on the government’s announcement. “Muslims will forever remember a time that Australia turned its back on them, or planned too, when they are at their most vulnerable.  This is what radicalises people. Do you see why I say that this government doesn't really care about true de-radicalisation? This is the beginning of the end. Remember this moment! It's when we sacrificed our security, humanity and self-worth for political manoeuvring”. This perspective must be taken into account.

The decisions about who should be resettled and who will continue to suffer and “find nowhere to rest their feet” should be, and should be seen to be, based on need rather than ethnicity or religion. The right to save this one and leave another to suffer could only be claimed by God. Human justice must be procedural and impartial. The NSW Jewish community 2013 policy statement asserts that government should “not adopt any policy that arbitrarily limits or excludes from refugee protection any category of people with a genuine and well-founded fear of persecution in their homeland”. 2

The argument that a non-sectarian policy is necessary for social cohesion is consistent with an article written this week by former UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. It should be noted that Sacks is not on some kind of left-wing politically correct bandwagon. In fact in 2007, he wrote that “Multiculturalism has led not to integration but to segregation…societies more abrasive, fractured and intolerant…”.  3 This week he wrote that it “is hard is to love the stranger, one whose colour, culture or creed is different from yours. That is why the command, “Love the stranger because you were once strangers”, resonates so often throughout the Bible. It is summoning us now. A bold act of collective generosity will show that the world, particularly Europe, (or the west) has learned the lesson of its own dark past and is willing to take a global lead in building a more hopeful future. Wars that cannot be won by weapons can sometimes be won by the sheer power of acts of humanitarian generosity to inspire the young to choose the way of peace instead of holy war”. 4 As my respected Muslim correspondent quoted above points out, the opposite is also true.

We must be hard on the problems and refuse to accept the avoidable suffering of our fellow humans, regardless of ethnicity or religion.  On Rosh Hashanah, I will pray that ‘God reign over the world in a way that will be known to all’. To me, this means that principles of justice and mercy prevail rather than the interests of the rich and powerful or the short term political interests of politicians. At the same time, let us treat each other with understanding and grace. A beautiful Rosh Hashanah prayer asserts that humans are “like a fading flower, like a broken shard of earthenware, and a dream that flies away”. This is a challenging time for those who are suffering and for the preservation of the fragile fabric of our still largely cohesive society. I pray for wise, responsible and compassionate choices by all concerned. 

2., policy last updated (according to the website at 11 am on  10.09.2015) on 17.9.2013
3.    Sacks, J, (2007), the Home We Build Together, p.3, Continuum, London.
4. accessed 10.09.15

Friday, September 4, 2015

Our Toddler/Their Toddler My God/Your God, Aylan Kurdi and Ki Tavo

Aylan Kurdi with dad and brother
The image of the little boy, Aylan Kurdi, washed up on the beach and his cruel avoidable death calls out accusingly like the blood of the murdered Biblical Abel. God said to Cain “The blood of your brother is screaming to me”. 1 While responding to the immediate catastrophe is vital, we must also consider the factors that are inhibiting a compassionate response. One of these is a sense of that the desperate refugees are the other.

One of the markers of otherness is the belief that ‘the other’ worships a false God. Some people talk about the “Christian God” and how this differs from the “Muslim God Allah”. One man wrote on Facebook, without giving the context 2 of his citation of a fragment of Islamic scripture, “surely those Gods are not the same. One God is said to be about forgiveness and one is about cutting heads!” Religious competition is an old practice. One Torah text talks about ‘making known the difference between the true God who desires loving kindness and the false gods who desire wickedness’. 3

Difference of belief does not need to divide people. This week an Anglican Bishop, a Muslim Sheikh and I chatted and laughed about who is going to hell according to which faith. Yet despite our good time I am concerned that some people who believe that others worship a ‘cruel god’ might not care as much about the suffering of the ‘cruel-god-worshipers’ as they do about people who, like them, are saved and aligned with the good God. Is there a connection between an ‘us and them’ orientation and the fact that Aylan’s death has prompted one politician to comment that this doesn’t happen in Australia because “we stopped the boats”, instead of offering assistance?

Children sometimes ask the Together For Humanity teams of Christians, Muslims and Jews that visit their schools whether we all believe in the same God. I used to think that each of us could say something about our belief in an invisible God-creator who expects us to behave with care toward our fellow humans before the Christian would add something about his belief in Jesus. My incorrect or incomplete understanding of this was that Christians’ belief about God, the creator, was similar to mine but they think that at one point in time this God decided ‘to engage in some sort of “partnership” 4 with a human named Jesus. This simplistic view fails to account for the belief in a trinity beyond the limitations of time that was explained to me by the Bishop this week. Perhaps it is not that easy to answer a simple question about who does or does not believe in the same god.

The Anglican Bishop asserted that the term "Christian God" is wrong. "God does not belong to any religion! We belong to him, not he to us. There is only one God. A term like Christian God can even be idolatry. God is not a thing or a being.  We can have very different understandings about God, like different people might have ways of describing the same distant aunt that are so different from each other, that it sounds like they are talking about different people, although they are actually talking about the same person. And yet maybe sometimes we do get to the point where we are no longer describing the one God differently but in effect now talking about different Gods altogether. Only one of which is real”. 5

In my own tradition there are many references to the God of Israel, God of Abraham or in the ritual of bringing a first fruit offering, we have a formula by which God is referred to by the Israelite farmer as “your God” when speaking to the priest. 6 This does not mean that God is owned by the priest, nor is He owned by Israel, but rather that there is a relationship between the priest, Abraham or Israel with the one unknowable God. 7

Regardless of our beliefs about who is worshiping correctly, we must cross the barriers of “us” and
“them” through the practice of compassion. The horrific images on our computer screens are the living hell that our fellow humans are going through that echo the words of our reading this week: “You will be only wronged and crushed all the days… You will grope at midday, as the blind man gropes in the dark …You will be only oppressed and robbed all the days, and no one will save”. 8 But we can change the last words in the sentence, someone must save! That someone is us.

1.    Genesis 4:10
2.    Context was explained in a response by Sheikh Soner Coruhlu “this is in response to those who did their utmost to bring pain and suffering to the newly established Muslim community. They were vulnerable and instead of being nurtured they were tortured, persecuted, starved, and even killed for nothing other than believing in One Deity as opposed to the hundreds the idol worshippers believed in at that time.
It is not unlike Exodus 32:33 where the Almighty decrees quite clearly that He will blot those out who has sinned against Him. The punishment is also mentioned herein.
When we look at the context, we can see in both instances, that punishment is implied to evil doers and those that spread corruption and tyranny on the land. Who take advantage of the poor and destitute, steal what little belongs to the orphans, and indulges oneself in an almost animal like manner in order to satiate their desires even at the pain and suffering of others. Even Muslims fall into the trap of being picky with verses and use such verses with general application. Thus, such individuals partake in what we call selective retrieval in order to implement desired ideologies”.
3.    Rabbi Moshe Dovid Valli, (1696-1777) Mishne Torah page 243 on Deuteronomy 23:16
4.    One word in Jewish traditional sources to make sense of Christian beliefs in a trinity is שיטוף “Shituf” which means partnership
5.    My recollection of a conversation with Bishop Robert Forsyth that was cleared with him in a follow up email on the same day, both on 1 September 2015
6.    Deuteronomy 26:3
7.    Torah Temima on Deuteronomy 26:3
8.    Deuteronomy 28