Jewish Men and the “Rape” of Dinah

Jewish Men and the “Rape” of Dinah

by

Howard Adelman

This week’s parshah, Vayishlach, has even more stories than last week’s Vayeitzei. But the one that has intrigued me the most is the story of the supposed “rape” of Dinah, the one female child among twelve brothers born to her father, Jacob. The reason is not because we read the story just around the time we honour women and rise up against violence committed by men against women. For the 25th of November is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. That is not why I have been particularly attentive to the story, though I read about the two weeks women have devoted themselves in The Campaign entitled, “Leave no one behind – End Violence Against Women”.

Why am I so attentive? I believe my curiosity, my analytic tools, my observations, have been especially acute these days because one famous man after another, in sports and the media, in politics and in business, has been accused of assaulting women. On the latter score, I am ashamed to note how many of those men are Jewish.

Why am I ashamed? I did not do those acts. I did not and do not condone them. My exceptional attention to these stories is not simply because I am especially intrigued by anyone who is both famous (or infamous) who is Jewish, though I confess that I read a number of articles about Meghan Markle, stories I would not normally have read. I looked them up because there were widespread rumours that the young lady newly engaged to Prince Harry of the House of Windsor was Jewish. She was and is not. The rumours are evidently false. They are fake-news. She did have a Black mother, though. That may be even more interesting in helping counter the horrors of racism than her being Jewish.

My intrigue with the men accused of forcing themselves on women without their consent preceded my noting that many of them were Jewish. In fact, I was shocked to discover how many of them were Jewish.  I had always believed, despite any absence of evidence, that Jewish men treated women more gently than gentile men. Of course, it was and is an ignorant prejudice. But it is one of those beliefs you hold onto from your childhood even though it lacks any evidence and seems on the surface to be patently false.

The recent stories might even lead you, erroneously, to the opposite conclusion. After all, in the effort to empower women, in the global campaign, still relatively in its infancy, there has been an outcry – see the hashtag #MeToo – encouraging women to set aside their fears of being shamed, shamed a second time for something for which they undeservedly felt ashamed in the first place. The magnitude of female harassment is astounding. The complicity of society in tolerating if not condoning such behaviour is perhaps even more astounding. But not surprising. After all, most of us know that the habit is widespread. Further, a man could be elected President of the United States even though 16 women have come out in the open and accused Donald Trump of molesting them.

However, I am not a righteous leader in that campaign, but a passive and sedentary follower. As such, I share in that complicity. But it is worse. I even feel the campaign somehow has gone too far when flirting, when catcalling, when joking, are all included as modes of harassing women on an equivalent level to men forcing themselves on women, grabbing their asses or their genitals. I do not think these very different types of behaviour are equivalent even though I understand the calls for zero tolerance, even though women have personally told me how this form of behaviour diminishes them and makes them feel very uncomfortable.

All that said, the fact that so many men are Jewish captures my attention more than the empathy I feel for these women. I am not wearing an orange scarf. Nor do I notice many others wearing orange. In fact, the evidence of witnessing and supporting such a campaign seems disproportionately low compared to the amount of pain and grief caused by such behaviour. One in three, to repeat, one in three women experience at least one incident of such violence in their lifetime. Every woman I have really known, including my two daughters, has had such an experience. I suspect the 1 in 3 is an underestimate. Certainly, among the refugees, among the civilian victims of war, the incidence of rape has been overwhelming. I recall when undertaking research on Indochinese how surprised I was to learn that as many as 50% of women refugees were violently sexually attacked.  I was even more surprised to learn of women’s resilience when, at the time, there was no campaign to empower women and enhance the feeling that they could resist.

In light of this unexpected knowledge, in the 1980s we set up a program to provide therapy for these women after their instincts for survival had subsided and the events were predicted to come back and haunt them. But those therapeutic tools were not for the most part needed. And when and if needed, they were diverted to helping men who suddenly became unemployed when the economic crisis hit in 1989 and experienced severe meltdowns.

In other words, I do not approach this problem with wide-eyed innocence. But I have not used my time and energy to advance reforms that will end impunity, that will prove that a culture of violence against women is not a natural part of our cultural landscape. Yet what do I focus my attention on? Not the pain and suffering of the women, but the number of the accused who are Jewish.

Harvey Weinstein, the most recent and one of the most painful examples, is Jewish. So is Al Franken, even though his apparent mistreatment of women was not nearly as frequent nor associated as much with explicit violence while, at the same time, clearly violating a woman’s space. But look at the much longer list of Jewish men who have been accused:

James Toback, the writer and director with films like Bugsy (1991) and Mississippi Grind (2015) to his credit

Leon Wieseltier, one of my favourite writers and editors

Mark Halperin, a journalist who was obsessed with stories about ambition and power, but evidently himself harassed women when he had such a position at ABC

Brent Ratner, a film producer

Jeffrey Tambor, the actor from The Larry Sanders Show and other sitcoms

Charlie Rose, rumours to the contrary, is not Jewish.

The list goes on. And these are but the tip of the tip of the iceberg, mostly drawn from public figures in entertainment, media and politics. Jews may be disproportionately represented on that list because Jews are disproportionately represented among those with money, power and influence.  Further, though all of the men come from a Jewish heritage, many of them have only a glancing relationship with their Jewish identity.

But that is not my point. I suspect the Jewishness of the perpetrators has little to do with religious or ethnic identity, though I am unsure. Even though the list would include the less famous doctors and lawyers, dentists and rabbis, my focus is not on these men, but on myself. What do I feel and think as I have moved from reading the story of “The Rape of Dinah,” from a tale I once believed was about rape to what I now believe is really a story mainly about men, and not even mainly the man who committed the alleged assault, but the men, Dinah’s brothers, who took it upon themselves to revenge their sister’s supposed “defilement”.

Read the story in the Torah. Reread it. It begins by describing Dinah very briefly as the daughter born to Leah and, by implication, not to Rachel or the two concubines. Is that significant? Is it more than a matter of casual interest that this first verse continues by describing Dinah as having “gone out” to meet the daughters of the land in the same terminology that described Leah going out to meet Jacob after she bought the mandrake root to seduce him into sleeping with her? Leah had intrigued to have sex with her husband. Was Dinah a young adventurous girl exposing herself to great risk by going out and consorting with the daughters of the Hivites when she was unescorted? Rashi writes, “Daughter like mother.”

Whatever the case, though Dinah may be a young virgin, there seems to have been an effort to paint her as compromising her innocence. “Her skirt was too short.” “She showed too much cleavage.” “She must have been stupid to go to his hotel room alone to discuss business.” The story seems less about Dinah’s innocence and the alleged abuse she suffered at the hands of Shechem than about the events following her defilement”.

Was she even raped? Verse 2 in the Plaut translation reads: “Shechem son of Hamor, the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, took her and lay with her by force.” (my italics) Plaut in his footnote writes: “Literally, lay with her and forced her.” But Rashi puts the emphasis, not on force, but that Shechem seduced her and had anal intercourse with Dinah – he was intimate with her in an unnatural way. That was the real defilement. The majority of commentators translate the verb vaiyeneh וַיְעַנֶּֽהָ as either rape, or violated, or lay with her by force.

Shawna Dolansky from Carleton University wrote an intriguing essay called, “The Debasement of Dinah” in which there is a long discussion about the meaning of the term vaiyeneh וַיְעַנֶּֽהָ or innah to claim that the verb does not and cannot mean “rape” for in many of the uses the verb is conjoined with the consent and not the non-consent of the woman. It is a case of reading into the text based on our own presumptions and sensibilities. Further, the term associated with rape uses a different verb– חזק – which is associated with using force and overpowering a woman. As the commentator suggests, “Thus, it seems clear that the biblical expression for rape is ויחזק וישכב, “to overpower and lie with,” not ‘innah’.

For Dolansky, the issue is debasement and not using force against a woman; it is debasement, not of Dinah, but of the standing of the men in her family. Dinah is debased, not because she had sex with Shechem, whether under duress or through seduction, but because the family has been debased. Why? Because the sexual activity did not take place as a result of the consent of the family. It is the power and status of the men that has been compromised. The story is not really about Dinah and whether she consented or not, but about the status of the family, particularly the men in the family.

In other words, if Shechem did use force against Dinah, then the problem is how this affected the brothers. And there are certainly many suggestions that rape was not involved. For the very next verse says that Shechem was “strongly drawn to Dinah,” that he was in love with her and that “he spoke to her tenderly” and wanted to marry her. This does not sound like rape, for rape is about the demonstration and exertion of power, not about sexual attraction.

The defilement, which Jacob recognized, was not about his daughter having sex with a young man, but having sex, and sex with a non-Israelite, without the father’s consent. The outrage that the brothers felt is not cited as the use of force, but that Shechem’s outrage was even sleeping with Dinah (verse 34:7) However, as usual, Jacob was measured in his response. And also diplomatic. One wonders whether he would really have been open to Hamor’s offer of a huge bride price. However, Jacob’s use of trickery now came back to haunt him as his sons not only tricked the Hivite men into being circumcised, but when they were in pain, slaughtered them. The brothers, all the brothers, took the women, children and animals as booty.

In addition to committing an outrageous crime, they besmirched the meaning of the covenant. Instead of intercourse and interchange between the Israelites and the surrounding tribes on terms very favourable to the Hebrews, Jacob ends the story by noting: “You have troubled me, to discredit me among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and among the Perizzites, and I am few in number, and they will gather against me, and I and my household will be destroyed.”

What was the rejoinder by Simeon and Levi? “Shall he make our sister like a harlot?” The issue was not the supposed rape of Dinah, but the defilement of family honour. For without their consent, the sister was considered a whore even if she had been seduced and fell in love with Shechem. Honour and status were far more important than the safety and security of the Israelites and certainly far more important than any pain that Dinah might possibly have experienced.

What has this to do with a disproportionate number of men in the United States being outed for their harassment and forced attention against women? Because it is the same story – one not of the pain and suffering of women, but the power and status of men. That, unfortunately, is also the story of bystanders like myself who look on and focus on that power and its defilement rather than on what happened to the women. It is a story about national socialism, about the ideology of Bannon and Trump, about ethnic exclusivity, about the power of one’s group set off against another, and about women used as tokens in these conflicts over status and power.

I believe I am complicit in a much larger sense under the masquerade of my liberalism.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

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On the Beauty of Women: Vayetze

On the Beauty of Women: Vayetze

by

Howard Adelman

This section of the Torah offers a plethora of topics to consider. I offer a dozen:

  1. Why Jacob left Eretz Israel for Harar as an introduction to Israel-Diaspora Relations
  2. God of Time and Place
  3. Jacob’s Dream of the Ladder as an impetus to discuss horizontality versus verticality and the stairway or gateway to heaven; the ups and downs of belief
  4. Jacob’s Conditional Contract with God rather than Categorical Covenant
  5. Rachel at the Well
  6. Beauty
  7. Laban’s Deceit and Tricking Jacob
  8. Jacob’s Relationship to his Two Wives
  9. Jacob and his Uncle Laban
  10. Proxy Wives
  11. Conceiving and Naming Children
  12. Jacob’s Revenge on Laban: Streaked, Speckled and Spotted Young

Though tempted to write on the first (Israel-Diaspora Relations), I have chosen to write on beauty and reserve the other topic for another time. The latter seems a pressing matter given Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipy Hotovely’s allegedly very recent reprimand of American Jews for failing to send their children to “fight for their country.” However, it is also a very deep and profound political issue on which I want to reflect at greater length. Beauty, on the other hand, appears to be a relatively superficial issue.

Verses 16 and 17 of Chapter 29 of Genesis reads as follows:

16. Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.   טזוּלְלָבָ֖ן שְׁתֵּ֣י בָנ֑וֹת שֵׁ֤ם הַגְּדֹלָה֙ לֵאָ֔ה וְשֵׁ֥ם הַקְּטַנָּ֖ה רָחֵֽל:
17. Leah’s eyes were tender, but Rachel had beautiful features and a beautiful complexion.   יזוְעֵינֵ֥י לֵאָ֖ה רַכּ֑וֹת וְרָחֵל֨ הָֽיְתָ֔ה יְפַת־תֹּ֖אַר וִיפַ֥ת מַרְאֶֽה:

In the Plaut translation, Leah’s eyes are said to be רַכּ֑וֹת – translated as weak rather than tender. The adjective seems to have the same root as Rachel’s name, that is, רַך meaning tender, delicate or soft

Why is the term translated as “weak”? And what is the relationship between Rachel’s name and the depiction of Leah’s eyes? Do eyes reflect the soul? In a footnote, Plaut appears to undermine the translation in the body of the text: “It seems preferable to translate this as “tender eyes”, for the contrast is not between ugliness and beauty but between two types of attraction.” Plaut offers one escape from the apparent conclusion in the plain reading of the text that the ancient Israelites placed a great deal of importance on superficial beauty, that is, beauty that is on the surface, that appears, and not beauty simply as a manifestation of an “inner” beauty.

There are many cop-outs from this conclusion. There are different types of beauty. Beauty is only skin deep and what counts is inner beauty. Or beauty is a temptation offered by the devil.

The Greeks had a different escape route. Beauty was a transcendental value rather than phenomenological. Hence, what counted was eternal beauty, beauty that was timeless. In yesterday’s Toronto Daily Star, there was a story about Cindy Crawford at fifty and her “timeless beauty,” that is, as magnificent in her appearance at the age of fifty as she was when she was twenty. In this week’s Tablet.  An article on “Bombshell,” a documentary on Hedy Lamarr, a remote and haunting beauty of Jewish descent from an even earlier era than most readers can remember, told a tale of the most gorgeous woman in Hollywood at the time. But it is also a story of the brilliance behind the glamour, for Hedy Lamarr was also an amateur inventor who, with her colleague, the composer George Antheil, invented a frequency hopping radio device, the necessary precursor to wireless communication and WiFi. It was their contribution to the war effort and the desire to destroy Hitler.

Did Hedy Lamarr’s bewitching beauty and ascent into Hollywood’s stratosphere undermine her creative intellectual genius or even her development as an actress as she perfected her portrait of vixens and sultry and sensuous women climaxing with her role as Delilah in the biblical story of her relationship with Sampson? Can such beauty become so unearthly than it undermines productivity altogether and ends up sending its possessor into seclusion?

For the Greeks, beauty sat alongside two other transcendental values – Goodness and Truth. The main philosophic disciplines were, therefore Aesthetics, Ethics and Logic or the Science of Reason. The three are related to what we feel, what we desire and what we think. In Plato’s Phaedrus, these three primary drives as parts of the soul and corresponding transcendental values allow humans to soar towards the heavens.

There is also a hierarchy among the three, beauty being the least of them and reason the highest with goodness placed betwixt the two others. We progress from the body which is fair, to fairness and then to the highest rational forms which are both fair in appearance as well as in essence so that the shapely and the good together become the absolute beauty of truth. Aristotle connected each respectively with productivity, practicality and theory. Immanuel Kant would connect the three with judgement, practical reason and pure reason as a priori transcendental conditions of being-in-the-world rather than ways of rising above this world.

There is no indication in the Torah that beauty has a transcendental value in any of the above senses, though rabbis would later place the primary emphasis on “inner beauty”. But I am concerned with beauty as it appears, as it is expressed in the construction of the Mishkan later, in the depiction of Rachel (as well as Rebecca and Sarah), but also in the portrait of Absalom who is depicted as a man of beauty but NOT of morality.

One apparent message of the Torah is that beauty is indeed related to productivity as Aristotle claimed, but in a very opposite way since there is such a close relationship in the Torah stories between the beauty of these women and their incapacity, in the case of Rachel and Sarah, to have children. Did their beauty in some way connect with their being barren? In Aristotle, beauty is connected with the products of craftsmen. In the case of women, do the founding fathers objectify women and regard them as things, as objects to be admired rather than as agents? Did their beauty somehow relate to their lack of agency in producing progeny?

Why then does the Torah appear to ascribe high value to beauty? Is it related to or counterpoised against motherhood, even if women, particularly beautiful ones, seem intent on bringing beauty into all aspects of life. Does beauty serve to obscure other qualities she possesses? In the Torah, Sarah’s disdain of what appear to be false promises and her jealousy of Hagar are on full display. So is Rebecca’s initiative, goodness and generosity, but also her favouritism and conniving. And what of Rachel?

In the biblical text itself, another notion of beauty would appear to come to the fore, not beauty as either an adjunct of productivity or a subversive force undermining it, but beauty itself as a deception, as futile, as a distraction. Beauty is not just aligned with malignant propensities, but is itself a danger. What makes a woman good – that she be God-fearing; this is what counts, not beauty. Yet, as my daughter’s essay on the Mishkan illustrated, in the construction of the tabernacle, enormous emphasis was placed on texture and colour, on decoration and beauty. The Torah suggests that emphasizing the spiritual at the expense of the physical, the internal at the expense of the external and especially physical beauty, is misconceived. Beauty penetrates the greatest inner sanctum of the Jewish spiritual realm.

There is no contradiction between external beauty and inner spiritual beauty. But neither is there any necessary correlation. However, there are risks associated with beauty – that powerful men may be attracted by the beauty of one’s wife as in the case of Sarah in the stories of Abraham and Pharaoh and of Abraham and Abimelech. However, there are also advantages as well as risks as depicted in the Book of Esther when the latter’s beauty bewitched King Ahasuerus.

Though brought up in Talmud Torah to believe that beauty, quoting Proverbs, was indeed vain – which made beauty all the more attractive to me – beauty has come to have enormous value to me as it had for Abraham, for Isaac and for Jacob. That value is not accompanied by connecting beauty with moral excellence. Nor is the value based on considering women as having different kinds of beauty or only being beautiful if she has an internal beauty. Finally, that beauty and attention to it is not considered by me to be a moral failure. Rachel was shapely and beautiful to look at. That beauty was not confined to women as Joseph had his mother’s beauty. Was that why he was Jacob’s favourite? But Joseph flaunted his beauty; Rachel did not.

The Torah, unlike the Greeks, did not give a transcendental value to beauty. Neither was beauty a reflection of an internal character – Ruth was perhaps the most “beautiful” woman in the Bible in that sense though not described as physically beautiful. There seems to be no indication of external appearances reflecting or emanating inner goodness. There is no inherent connection between physical beauty and inner moral fibre. Beauty just is, there to be appreciated, but a characteristic tied to both risk and opportunity, a factor which may be crucial to a story since Jacob apparently preferred Rachel over Leah because of her beauty. But the Kingdom of David would descend from Leah, not Rachel. Of the children of Jacob’s wives and concubines, Levi and Judah are both children of Leah.

Beauty is just part of reality, to be admired and appreciated but not denigrated, to inspire both the good as well as the bad. The Greeks fought a ten-year war with the Persians because of the kidnapping of the beauty, Helen, but there is no inherent moral lesson, positive or negative, in the depictions of beauty in the Torah. On the other hand, if one only looks at outward appearances and fails to take into account the inner spirit of an individual, that is a failure. Rachel like Rebecca, though different, had a very vital inner spirit as well as external beauty. In the Torah, there is no moral lesson to be derived from the appearance of beauty.

The Emotional Frame and the Akedah

The Emotional Frame and the Akedah

by

Howard Adelman

Today is American Thanksgiving. When President Abraham Lincoln was immersed in writing what would become his famous Gettysburg Address after the American Civil War had dragged on through one of the worst periods in the history of that conflict “of unequaled magnitude and severity,” he issued the proclamation on 3 October 1863 that made the last Thursday in November (contrary to the widely held notion that the holiday is on the third Thursday) a national holiday, a nation-wide day to celebrate and give thanks for the bounty Americans had received and to establish, in the words of the editor Sarah Josepha Hale, “a great Union (my italics) Festival of America.” Americans were asked to remember that extraordinary bounty, a remembrance which “cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.”

Lincoln wanted to remind all his fellow Americans that outside the horrific theatre of the civil war, that conflict had been confined to America and did not turn into an international conflict, that throughout the war, the rule of law had been maintained, the productivity of the country had increased as had the range of human freedom. He attributed that beneficence to the mercy of God. He asked God to extend that mercy, “to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

Six months before that proclamation, in Paris, James Abbott McNeill Whistler exhibited at the Salon des Refusés (the display of art rejected by the Royal Academy but nevertheless held under the sponsorship of Napoleon III) his first famous, indeed, at that time, infamous, “Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl” alongside the even more, perhaps most famous (and scandalous at the time) work by Édouard Manet, “Déjeuner sur l’herbe,” The Luncheon on the Grass. Please view on the internet copies of both paintings, but particularly Whistler’s.

Just as Thanksgiving should be viewed in the context of opposition, opposition between horror and beneficence, contrast between violent conflict and peaceful harmony, so too should both the Whistler and Manet paintings be examined for their tranquil harmony even though Whistler’s red-haired mistress, Joanna Hiffernan, poses on top of a white bear rug with the menacing head of the bear facing us with jaws agape. In the Manet painting as well, one views vibrant oppositions: nude or partially clad women, one in the foreground and one in the back, sitting on the grass or dressing in the background with two fully-dressed men. The great spots of light contrast with both the filtered light in the background and the dark leaves and trees of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.

In both paintings, what stands out most is their stark simplicity. Neither painting has a message. Neither painting is primarily about the subject matter. Though each carefully, indeed brilliantly, simply represents precisely what you see, both have instigated enormous debates about their “meaning.” Though each painting has symbols aplenty, it is the atmosphere, the composition, that is most compelling in each even as the woman in white in Whistler’s painting boldly gazes out directly at the viewer as if confronting the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

That is the way I invite readers to examine the story of the binding of Isaac. Don’t read into it. Read it. Absorb the atmosphere and bracket the powerful, almost overwhelming, interpositions into the text.

As I have written before, the tale begins by referring to the words or narratives that precede it and provide the frame for the story. Those stories were about different sets of emotions. What stands out in the Akedah tale is the seeming absence of emotion. It is a painting of white on white.

Initially, there is a puzzle: “God put Abraham to the test.”  What is that test? In the dominant interpretation, God was either betting, or was behaving as if he were betting, with Satan to demonstrate to everyone, especially his arch enemy, that even if God asked Abraham to make the most extreme sacrifice possible, Abraham would not refrain from doing so. Abraham was God’s loving servant.

But God does not command Abraham to do anything. He requests. He says, “Please.” It is not a test of obedience because no obedience was requested or demanded. Abraham had already said to God when he was called, “Hinaini.” Here I am. I am ready and willing. In what follows, no histrionics take place, never mind extremes of emotion such as fear and trembling. We are shaken up, we shudder as Isaac would soon do, when we suddenly come to a realization that wakes us up to a new reality and a new sense of who we are. There is no shuddering in the entire story. Instead, as God lays out the mission he has set before Abraham, the overwhelming sense we have is of tranquility. An atmosphere of serenity pervades the story and stands in stark contrast to the content.

Do not be distracted by the chatter. What we see before us is simply an apple. It is a fact. God asks Abraham to take his only son whom he loves to Mount Moriah as an offering. The response: no tearing of hair; no guffawing at the sheer absurdity of the request; no challenge to God for seemingly betraying all His promises. You would think that Abraham was simply taking his son on a camping trip. Supplies are organized. Camels are saddled. There is no sense that Abraham is depressed at the request or even saddened by it.

Is what is happening a test of Abraham’s faith in God? Is God’s relationship to Abraham on a parallel with Abimelech, based on a conditional trust and expectations each had of the other? There is no sense that this is a tale about trust and distrust for Abraham. For there are no contingencies introduced which question that trust. For God and Abraham are bound by a covenant. Covenants are not conditional. They are categorical. God’s request is not a categorical order. It is the relationship that is categorical. There is not an iota of distrust suggested in the story even as God’s trust in Abraham is being tested.

Gunther Plaut in his Commentary wrote that the story is about “adherence without faltering, obedience with complete trust.” That is a contradiction. For if Abraham is simply doing what he does to demonstrate absolute obedience, where is there any indication of possible slippage? If Sören Kierkegaard is correct in asserting that Abraham did what he did, “for God’s sake because God required this proof of his faith,” one cannot help noting that if proof was required, where is there any sense of doubt?

We are not reading about a trial. We are not reading about temptation any more than we do when we look at Whistler’s or Manet’s paintings referred to above. For what is apparent in each of those pieces of art is the absolute absence of any eroticism in a situation which on the surface might be read as erotic. What is apparent in the Akedah story is that there is no sign of any slippage in Abraham’s adherence to the covenant. So how can it be a test of trust versus distrust. Just as the scene is totally serene, it also absolutely lacks any display that Abraham is troubled by God’s request.

There is no crying and no raucous laughter. The scene is tranquil. There is no fear and trembling on display nor any anger. There is no sign of distrust or any indication that Abraham’s faith is being tested. Abraham tells his servants to wait for them and “we will go up there and worship and we will return.” This is not a Job story. When Isaac asked, “where is the sheep?” it is just a query about a fact, a necessary fact without which the sacrifice could not be performed.

Nor is there any apprehension. When the ram appears in the thicket, there is no surprise. Suddenly there is action. The two build an altar. Abraham binds his son and the old frail man lays him on the altar, not a child but a grown man. We become incredulous. And then the shock. Abraham raises his knife. There is no real build up to this dramatic moment. God through his angel stops the proceeding. Now there is a command. Do not raise your hand against the boy. God was being tested. Now God knew he did not have to fear that Abraham would withhold his son. The son in that instant became part of the covenant. The ceremony of passing the baton has been completed. There was no need to repeat the circumcision ceremony and even draw a drop of blood.

Thus, there would be progeny. Thus, there would be freedom from fear. There never was an iota of distrust in Abraham. And suddenly, just as the story lacked any real build-up, the narrative shifts. Children are born. Nations are created. And the foundation of it all is now not justice but mercy. Civil wars are fought over different senses of justice. Thanksgiving is held to celebrate God’s mercy and the bounty He provides. What we just read was a simple story of white on white about the absence of raw and basic emotions. People may read it as a story about obedience and demonstrating one’s faith. People may read it as a story about deep and profound emotional turmoil. People may also widely believe that American Thanksgiving is held on the third Thursday of November. But it is on the fourth.

What matters is not what people widely believe, but the story itself and its context. It is a painting of white on white and a celebration of God’s mercy rather than His judgement.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

An Introduction to Antisemitism

An Introduction to Antisemitism

by

Howard Adelman

Antisemitism or antisemitism? Years ago, Rabbi Gunther Plaut convinced me to spell this attitude and activity as an unhyphenated word in lower case letters because there was no doctrine of “Semitism” to which the modern hatred of Jews as a race (?), culture or ethnic group could be attached. Further, when the term was coined in 1879 to distinguish this hatred from anti-Jewish hatred, which referred to Jews as a religious group, Wilhelm Marr spelled the word without a hyphen. Another reason subsequently arose for writing the term as a single word. Semitic in linguistic studies referred to the Semitic group of languages, and antisemite would then be interpreted as prejudice against all who spoke any one of the languages in that group, including Arabs, which the term was not used to connote. Nor could the prejudice be against the Semitic race when there really was no such race and, in any case, Jews came from many racial strains.

Although modern antisemitism rose in conjunction with the new racism and antisemites defined Jews as a race, spelling the term anti-Semite buys into the possible validity of their claim, while antisemitism is a singular attitude and type of behaviour toward a specific people, Jews, whether religious or secular. Yet I sometimes spell the term anti-Semite, especially when it is not the central subject about which I am writing. The reason is simple. Antisemitic is accepted by Google spell check while antisemite is not. When I want to write the latter as one word, my automatic spell check program converts the word to anti-Semite. Using both words, antisemitic to refer to the attitude and anti-Semite to the people who hold that attitude, would be too bothersome. However, when writing about the subject, I choose to go against the general grain and spell the term “antisemitism” and call people who hold that attitude antisemites even though I must reverse the automatic correction in every instance that I type the word.

There are three very distinctive types of antisemitism: ancient anti-Judaism or theological antisemitism which I dub Type A; the classical version that arose in the nineteenth century and reached its apogee in the Holocaust, which I label antisemitism Type B; and antisemitism Type C which arose after WWII and has been its main expression in the last forty years. Type A antisemitism is rooted deep in history and it is the central theme of the Book of Esther which is read this week when Purim is celebrated. Type A antisemitism focuses on the Jews as chosen, on the Jews as the embodiment of the divine, with the Jews as trespassers and with the Jews as traitors, a fifth column in any polity.

One explanation for Type A antisemitism is jealousy. Jews historically claimed they were the chosen people by God. On Mt. Sinai, God commanded Moses to inform the Israelites that they would receive the Torah and, thereby, become to Him “a chosen people.” They may have been chosen to carry an extra burden of responsibility or to be a light unto the nations, but, as this explanation continues, others resented this claim for exceptionalism, even if it meant carrying an additional burden. In other words, in this explanation, the primary responsibility for antisemitism Type A must rest with Jews themselves and their beliefs.

But the claim goes further. In Jewish theology, Jews are the embodiment of the soul of God, the Shechinah, the feminine part of God that dwells on earth in the bodies of Jewish men and women and in the spirit of the people as a whole. This claim goes further than being chosen, for it suggests that Jews were chosen to embody God, to be the embodiment of God. Jews are the manifestation of God’s presence on earth. If you think chosenness was a grandiose claim, what do you make of embodiment of the divine?

The other two explanations for Type A antisemitism is that Jews are trespassers. In their own words, they are always sojourners. No land is naturally their land, even Israel. All lands belong to the indigenous people who lived there. But Abraham left his native land in Mesopotamia and came to a new land already occupied, but one promised by God to the Israelites. It could have been a positive sum game, but many if not most of the other tribes they encountered resisted this depiction of the Jewish mission. Further, if the sojourner is a stranger, if the sojourner is the Other, then when things go wrong, instead of embracing the stranger and treating him or her with respect and dignity, turn on them as scapegoats and insist they are illegal aliens and need to be expelled. Such a demand is enhanced when the goal is greater power as well as an opportunity to seize the property (or jobs) of the killed or expelled Jews.

This antisemitism goes back well before the refusal of Jews under Alexander the Great to accept and integrate Greek religious standards and norms, back at least to the Babylonian era when, according to the Book of Esther, leading Jews refused to bow down to the demand for unquestioning and total obedience to the king. Such action was treachery and worthy of being put to death, not because treachery had been charged and proven, but because the person was a Jew. A Jew was inherently treacherous. A Jew was inherently an alien in a nationalistic land because he or she had not become complete and total members of the polity.

Type B antisemitism arose with the Enlightenment, arose with the belief in the cosmopolitan assimilation of all into the religion of reason. In the pseudo-science of the time, there is an acceptance of Jewish chosenness, but Jews are chosen as prime targets for persecution and eventual destruction. Jews do not embody a divine spirit but an evil one which they inherit with their mother’s milk. Out of that alleged Jewish malevolence, Jews are engaged in a global conspiracy to a) control the economy of the world; b) instigate wars; c) exercise control over governments; d) control all media; or focus on e) alleged despicable patterns of Jewish personal behaviour. Jews are trespassers on the soul of the nation. This type of antisemitism is rooted in views of economics, military affairs, politics, sociology and psychology. Jews are an internal threat, a Fifth Column, that can eat away and destroy the national spirit.

In antisemitism Type C, Israel becomes the surrogate for Jews. Criticism of Israel is not antisemitism if, for only the simplest of reasons, that would make every single Jewish Israeli an antisemite. Antisemitism Type C is a grossly disproportionate focus on Israel as a target for criticism to provide grounds for the elimination of Israel as a state. For Zionism was an ideology chosen by a small percentage of Jews, but expanded to become a central tenet of belief for virtually all religious Jews and for the vast majority of secular Jews to unite the various strains of Jewry. The central goal of Zionism was “return,” return to once again become rooted in an ancient homeland promised to Jews by God. Therefore, by definition, Zionists were sojourners displacing the nationalism of the local population and eventually displacing a large portion of that population as well.

In A, B and C types, it is necessary to distinguish between expressions of antisemitism, between policies and actions versus antisemitic attitudes. In Type B antisemitism, many people are antisemitic. Only a very small proportion B-type antisemites express their antisemitism through violence, threats of violence or vandalism. As many as 10% of Americans and perhaps, a higher proportion of Canadians, may carry the B-type antisemitic virus. In the Anti-Defamation League 2014 poll, countries with populations of over 50% who hold B-type antisemitic attitudes include Turkey (71%) and Greece (67%), two otherwise erstwhile enemies. In Iran, following decades of anti-Israeli propaganda, antisemitic attitudes are, surprisingly, found in only 60% of the population. In Eastern Europe, the figures for Romania, Hungary and Poland are, respectively, 47%, 40% and 37%, and the latter has a large and very vibrant philosemitic movement as well. In the Ukraine, in spite of, or perhaps, in part because of the prominent role Jews played in its most recent revolution, the figure is 32%.

Countries like Italy, Spain and Latvia, where fascists and ex-Nazis played such a prominent part in their respective histories, the figure is almost 30%. In Argentina, for similar reasons, it is 24% with similar percentages for Central American countries with histories of right-wing dictatorships. And in the current Putin authoritarian Russia with its long and glorious history of both antisemitism and extraordinary Jewish achievements, the figure, even following the great Jewish exodus, is 23%. In Western Europe, one may be surprised to find Belgium with a figure of 21%, but not so surprised that it is 17% in France and 16% in Germany while only 12% in the UK and 11% in the Netherlands.

However, there is a huge difference between the percentage of a population that carries the virus and the number in whom that attitude expresses itself in vandalism and violence. In America, that expression manifests itself in only .01% of the population, 1 for every 3,500 who carries such an attitude. But the current situation suggests that it takes very little to shift the condition for many more to become activists. When exacerbated by international events or by a permissive political leadership, especially a leadership that expresses distrust of the Other, the opportunities and incentives to exhibit itself increases even more.

Further, there are six times as many Americans with antisemitic attitudes than there are Jews in America. In the world, there are an estimated one billion plus individuals who carry the anti-Semitic Type B virus, and in countries with a much less pronounced official government and societal antipathy to antisemitism Type B, the percentage of those who express their antisemitism may be much higher than in America. But even if the low American percentage is used, even if the widespread strain of Type C anti-Semitic virus in the Arab world who are also infected with the Type B virus is ignored, there are at the very least 300,000 activist Type B antisemites worldwide and, in reality, many more.

Nevertheless, there is a difference when antisemitism manifests itself in words and images and when it manifests itself in arson, bullet holes and beatings. However, while the latter gets the most attention and the former does when it is manifested in threats of violence, the most virulent strain of antisemitism is the C strain that is seen in a political activity, such as the BDS campaign, particularly the BDS campaign on campus that is rife with members who deny that they have the B strain. And most do not. However, many of them have the C strain, particularly among the founders and leaders, because their ultimate goal is not to force Israel to give up the West Bank, but to characterize Israel as an apartheid illegitimate state that should be eliminated from the map.

The most often asked question concerning antisemitism is not what it is but why it is. Since Purim is approaching, and since Haman as depicted in the Book of Esther was clearly an antisemite millennia before the term was invented, any explanation would have to transcend the particularities of a geographical region or a specific historical period. Jews have not been well liked by significant portions of populations. It is the persistence of antisemitism, it is its seeming immunity to education and prosperity, enlightenment and exposure, that makes antisemitism so puzzling.

After we examine antisemitism is specific regions, we will return to this question and see if we can come up with some answer to explain the existence and persistence of antisemitism.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Welcoming Strangers and Ethnic Cleansing

Welcoming Strangers and Ethnic Cleansing: Parshat Mishpatim Exodus 21-27

by

Howard Adelman

What does the dictum to welcome the stranger have to do with ethnic cleansing?

Chapter 22:20 of Exodus reads: “And you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Chapter 23:9 reads: “And you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Rabbi Gunther Plaut used to remind me that the commandment mentioned most frequently in the Torah is the injunction to welcome the stranger. Rabbi Yael Splansky reminded us this past September, when our congregation initiated both a joint recollection with the Vietnamese community about the role Jews played in 1979 and subsequently in welcoming the Boat People to Canada, and when the congregation also launched its campaign to bring to Canada Syrian refugees, of Rabbi Plaut’s 221-page report on “Refugee Determination in Canada,” commissioned by the Government of Canada to propose changes to Canada’s refugee determination system. That Report began with a personal introduction:

“I was a refugee once, having fled from Hitler under whose rule I had lived for more than two years. I came to the New World exactly 50 years ago, after finishing law school in Germany and having been deprived of pursuing my chosen profession because I was a Jew. In a miniscule fashion my own life rehearses the story of my people who have been refugees all too often. I know the heart of the refugee, a person who desperately seeks for a place to stand, for the opportunity to be accepted as an equal amongst fellow humans….  I belong to the fortunate ones whose quest has been generously answered. My personal experience and my own religious tradition have moved me to put on Canada’s national agenda the larger issues that arise from a consideration of refugees and their problems.”

Rabbi Splansky went on to say that, “Every single member of our congregation has his and her own story of migration. None of our family lines is indigenous to Canada. Against the backdrop of Jewish history, we are relative newcomers to this good country. Therefore, we Jews easily identify with the asylum seeker, the migrant, the refugee who searches for a better life and a place to call home. No matter his religion, no matter her country of origin, the empathy comes easily to us.” Rabbi Splansky cited that week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (the text study was dedicated in memory of three year old, Alan Kurdi, a refugee child from Syria found drowned on a beach in Turkey). Splansky reminded us that, “Moses instructs the people to share the land’s bounty with the vulnerable – the orphan and the widow as well as the foreigner, that is, ‘the stranger’,” and to do so joyfully.

At the same time, in this week’s Torah portion, the text promises to execute a few of the most vulnerable and to turn most of the inhabitants of the land into the vulnerable by forcing most off the land.

The text commands the Israelites to execute witches. You shall not allow a sorceress to live.” (22:17) This commandment alone can be cited as a major source of persecution of women from the Biblical period through the Salem witch trials to current uses of text to demean women, whether in Judaism, Christianity or Islam.

More significantly, for today’s purposes, to force out the inhabitants, the Torah portion for this week promises that God will send the tzir’ah [insects like hornets, but they blind and make the person whom they bite impotent; perhaps the word is prophetic and the Israeli IDF is about to acquire CF-18 Hornet fighter planes to do the job.] The tzir’ah will “drive out the Hivvites, the Canaanites and the Hittites,” but by a process of stealth and gradualism “little by little” until such time as the Israelites have increased and can occupy the land.” (23:27-30) Reading this does it not remind us of the settlers in Israel in the West Bank?

According to Joshua 14, it took six years to overcome the military might of the Canaanites “to subjugate their portion of land and remove the defeated people.” But of the twelve possible tribes of Canaanites – the Canaanites themselves, the Perizzites, Gittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Jebusites, Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hivites, Hittites and the tribe of Raphaim – why are only three mentioned here for ethnic cleansing? After all, Leviticus (18:25) said that the land vomited up its inhabitants. And Deuteronomy (7:1) mentions seven, not three, though not all twelve. The Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Gittites and the tribe of Rephaim are omitted.

The omission of the latter five and the inclusion of seven could be explained because the five did not occupy land promised to the Israelites. Perhaps only three are mentioned here because they were the fiercest and the strongest and were in possession of the most strategic portions of the land. But why were the Philistines not included as well as the Canaanites?  In any case, whatever the number and the group, ethnic cleansing is ordained. How does one reconcile that with empathy for the stranger?

Only, I believe, by distinguishing between enemies versus strangers. Enemies are those who would do you in if they have the chance. Strangers are Others who are no threat. But how do you distinguish the two? After all, in today’s world, some would target all Muslims for exclusion and not just Daesh or al-Qaeda. One burlesque madman would even exclude Mexicans. Are Israelis to define all Palestinians as their enemies, including their own citizens, or only those determined to drive Israel into the sea?

It seems there will always be a political debate about whether the definition of enemy, on ethnic, religious or ideological grounds, should be drawn widely, moderately or narrowly. Some would not target any group at all, even determined exterminators – unless they are a direct existential challenges to one’s own people. I, myself, believe that some – like Nazis and members of Daesh – need to be targeted, but the targeting should be narrow and neither made moderate to allow a margin of safety and certainly not drawn broadly. The latter results in McCarthyism and fear- mongering of the worst order.

So welcome the stranger. Be reasonably cautious but do not exaggerate a danger.