I, We or All: A Review Essay on Refugees – I. Background

Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of Our Time, David Miliband, New York: Ted Books, Simon & Schuster, 2017.

Running on Empty: Canada and the Indochinese Refugees, 1975 to 1980, Michael J. Molloy, Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka, Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.


Howard Adelman

Part I of V: Background

From 2007-2010, David Miliband was the Foreign Secretary for the UK. He ran against his own brother for leadership of the Labour Party in Britain. When he lost, he became President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a humanitarian organization based in the U.S. with 27,000 employees engaged in both overseas relief and the resettlement of refugees. The lead author of the second volume, Mike Molloy, has been a Canadian ambassador and administrator in the Canadian government; he was the senior coordinator for the Canadian Indochinese Refugee Task Force from 1979 to 1980.

The latter volume, Running on Empty, is about the performance of Canadian government officials responsible for developing the policy framework as well as the administrative tools for locating Indochinese refugees in over 70 camps spread over seven countries, identifying, documenting, screening, selecting, processing, and arranging for their transportation to Canada. Immigration officials were also responsible overall for the reception and integration of those refugees within Canada. Further, because of the unique Canadian private sponsorship program, they also took on the duty of matching over half of those refugees with sponsors (32,281 of just over 60,000 Indochinese refugees). That was accomplished with the commitment of a surprisingly very small group of dedicated officials. Molloy shares authorship with three other retired immigration officers, including Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka. For convenience, however, I will dub the second, and very much thicker, volume, Molloy’s book.

Miliband’s book is a call to humanitarian arms to deal with the current overwhelming refugee crisis. Molloy’s book, one-third history and two-thirds government officials’ recollections, offers a historical retrospective on one country, Canada, and its response forty years ago to a single historically very large refugee crisis. Miliband brings to his work his personal experience of coming from a refugee family and his professional experience as a politician dealing with major issues. Molloy brings to the historiography of the Canadian response to the Indochinese refugee crisis his background as a dedicated and very experienced Canadian civil servant.

However, although background might, in part, account for the distinction between the two volumes, a major difference remains between the two works. Miliband wants to inspire goodwill while Molloy documents that the capacities and decision-making structures of institutions are critical to the resettlement of refugees – even without majority support for the extension of goodwill towards refugees. Is it possible that, whatever goodwill exists, it is scattered and diffused and what is needed, and possibly in short supply, is a regeneration of governmental institutional memories and skills?

Both books are demonstrations of how “our lives depend on strangers.” They are both about how civil society deals with refugees. Only occasional insertions of personal anecdotes bring to life the spirit and sacrifice of the refugees themselves. For both books are written from the standpoint of the rescuers rather than those rescued. For a brilliant, and very angular, perspective from the eyes of a refugee, read the 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen which I recently reviewed.

However, the Miliband and Molloy books have very different starting points. Miliband’s book addresses an ethical question: “What are the duties of the rest of the world toward the innocent victims of war?” What are our duties to strangers? Molloy’s book is a chronicle of administrative history, primarily a record of the role Canadian officials played in developing and carrying out policies and procedures of the Canadian government in attacking a large refugee crisis. One book is about what we ought to do and why. The other is about doing and behaving and the ethos that both informed and emerged from that activity. Miliband’s book is primarily about the need and importance of filling our hearts and minds with lofty ideals and principles. Molloy’s book is about how so few could do so much “running on empty.”

They did not do it alone. But they proved to be the fulcrum of the whole enterprise, for they brought together laws and norms, political leadership and administrative expertise, media relations and committed groups in civil society, that allowed any part of the whole amorphous movement to take advantage of opportunities that appeared – and undermine negative forces that also reared up. These elements formed a family. Not one of these elements was sufficient, but working together in relative harmony and in different combinations, each proved to be a necessary component for large-scale, effective and sustainable intervention to support the successful resettlement of large numbers of Indochinese refugees.

In practice, lofty moralism, in terms of universal obligations of all Canadians, seems to have played a very minor role. For the movement was not based on the universal rights of refugees nor universal obligations towards them. One can envision the possibility of the effort backfiring if leadership had stressed a universal obligation towards the refugees, for that would have meant putting what turned out to be a majority of Canadians on the defensive and, hence, possibly induce them to become more actively resistant. Instead, local efforts and witnessing seemed to be the order of the day rather than lofty moral imperatives. If this somewhat undermines the idea of “global citizenship,” so be it.

Perhaps, it is better to work up from the local towards the global without taking our feet off the ground, though keeping in mind the necessity of a large co-operative international undertaking.

Both books are set within the context of waves of refugee crises that have plagued history since WWII and the enormous existential crisis they pose to the contemporary world. Many states suffer from natural disasters, most likely, many a result of man-made climate change. The governments of those states assume responsibility for countering the disastrous effects, sometimes with help from other states – heavy rains accounted for 246 deaths in Zimbabwe, 144 in China, 150 in Peru, 156 in Afghanistan, 174 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 213 in Sri Lanka, 300 in Colombia, 600 in Sierra Leone, and 600 in India. Many homes are lost. Thousands are displaced. Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico caused $95B in damages, killed an estimated 500-1,000 (64 officially) and 300,000-600,000 Puerto Ricans are expected to migrate to the mainland in 2018.

However, as devastating as these catastrophes are, they do not compare in any degree to the suffering and destruction that directly results from human causes, mainly the malfeasance of governments, the terrorism of non-government opponents and civil war between different sectors of society. Citing the Norwegian Refugee Council Grid 2017: Global Report on Internal Displacement, Miliband writes: “In 2016, more than 24 million people were internally displaced due to natural disasters.” This means that, of the 40.3 million IDPs, 60% were the result of horrific natural causes, 80.6% of those “the result of weather-related hazards.” But this is very misleading. As Grid 2017noted, “A significant percentage of total new displacements in the context of sudden-onset disasters are usually related to planned or spontaneous responses … in 2016, evacuations … present only short-term displacement occurring in a relatively safe and orderly manner.” (p. 31) In contrast, IDPs as a result of intractable and recurrent armed conflicts are disorderly and prolonged, averaging ten years. For many, “there is no end to their displacement in sight.”

This is the major continuing crisis of the post WWII years – the prolonged and enormous challenge of refugees, many of them warehoused in refugee camps for long periods. Both Miliband and Molloy are committed to emptying those refugee camps. They oppose warehousing or, as Miliband phrases it, “funeral homes for dreams.” (77) It is not so clear why or how these refugees can best be helped.

The greatest humanitarian crises result from terrorism and civil conflict which produce enormous numbers of internally displaced people and refugees. As Miliband wrote, “refugees and displaced people are fleeing wars within states.” Civil conflict in the Central African Republic resulted in 600,000 IDPs and 512,000 refugees. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, 4 million have been displaced, 1.7 million in 2017 alone; 2 million children are malnourished. The recent conflict in Burundi resulted in hundreds of thousands of refugees. In Myanmar, almost 600,000 Rohingya were forced to flee to Bangladesh as a result of ethnic cleansing.

In 2017, the Afghanistan conflict resulted in 23,000 fatalities for an accumulation of at least 1,250,000 over the course of that long war. In Iraq in the same year, there have been 13,000 fatalities with an accumulation of at least a quarter million during the war. In the Mexican drug war, there have been almost 15,000 deaths, with an accumulated total of over 100,000. In Syria, almost 40,000 died in 2017 leading to an accumulated total of 400,000 in that many-sided conflict. Relative to this record of fatalities in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mexico and Syria, refugees who survived may be considered the lucky ones.

Miliband writes about the Dadaab (“rocky hard place”) and Kakuma (“nowhere”) refugee camps in Kenya. (I lived in the first for almost a month and took my Princeton students to the second for a ten-day study mission.) He insists that “displacement as a result of conflict or persecution is long term, not short term.” He is correct. But it need not be, as evidenced by the resettlement of the Indochinese refugees. It is not simply because civil wars last longer, as Miliband correctly observes, but because Western countries await a definitive outcome in hopes that the refugees can be repatriated. There is a second reason, and a horrific one to acknowledge. Western countries only acted to initiate a large scale resettlement program for the Indochinese refugees when the countries where the Boat People first landed – Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong – threatened to send the boats back to sea if the Western countries did not agree to resettle them.

In the exodus of the Boat People from Vietnam, an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 drowned or were killed by pirates or perished from thirst and disease. These humanitarian crises are heart-wrenching. However, as Miliband documents, there has been in parts of Europe and in the U.S. a backlash against bleeding hearts, an advocacy of me first, of my people foremost, of a kind of nationalism and populism that views strangers primarily as a threat rather than as a responsibility or a crisis which calls forth a positive response. Both books are written against that background, Miliband’s much more explicitly.

To be continued…


Coercion and Justice: Shelach Lecha Numbers 13-15

Coercion and Justice: Shelach Lechah Numbers 13:1 – 15:71


Howard Adelman

I left Canada just after Shavuot when we stayed up all night to study Torah and I personally gave a talk on the treatment of strangers and the treatment of refugees. As I write this morning’s blog in an apartment in Tel Aviv and before my last day in Israel on this trip, the city is winding up its all-night celebrations of White Night (Laila Lavan), the celebration of the city’s secular culture that began when UNESCO designated Tel Aviv in 2003 as a World Heritage Site. The celebration now consists of a myriad of cultural activities from poetry readings to concerts, outdoor dance parties to indoor lectures that only ends with the dawning of a new day. There is no symbol that is as significant of the gap between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, between the vitality of secular culture and the seriousness of Israel’s religious culture, between West and East that so divides modern Israel.

There are different ways to worship and different objects of worship, experimental poetry versus retelling and reinterpreting ancient narratives, playing and dancing to music or studying and dissecting ancient texts, and, as I would suggest from reading this week’s Torah portion, between the advantages and disadvantages of dealing with matters “straight up” as it were and tackling them through indirection. Next week we read and study Korach, Numbers chapter 16:1 to 18:32 and the account of the famous rebellion against the rule of Moses. The groundwork for that rebellion is set in this week’s portion, Numbers 13:1 to 15:41. Shelach Lechah, שְׁלַח-לְךָ, the sixth and seventh words in the portion.

The words mean to send, shelach, and to or for yourself, lechah. The latter is best known in synagogue services from the song, Lechah Dodi, the liturgical song recited Friday at sundown to welcome Shabbat prior to the evening or Maariv service. In secular celebrations, we celebrate the coming out and up of the sun, as in White Night in Tel Aviv. In religious celebrations at the beginning of shabat, we sing to the moon and invite the divine to come forth: “Come out my beloved, my bride to meet the inner light.” So the princes of the Israelite tribes are being sent out to reveal themselves as much as to scout out the land. Shelach Lechah begins with openness, with directness. The scouts are sent out, however, in order for the inner to come forth.

The portion is about the inadequacy of directness. We deal with the outer to bring forth the inner. Purportedly a story about Moses sending spies to the land that the Israelites are about to conquer, it is really about scouting out rather than spying on the land. There is no apparent secrecy involved, yet much is revealed about the Israelites that was hidden, so much so that what comes forth dooms the Israelites to wander in the wilderness for forty more years until “their carcasses” drop. (14:29) What emerges is not so much about the land that lay before them as about themselves. At the same time, Joshua is allowed to emerge as a national military leader in the same way Moses was taught to recognize himself as a political leader, removing the sandals from his feet so he too will realize that the land on which he stands is holy. To recognize this, each must take off his “dancing shoes,” must leave the secular (and the profane) behind at the entrance to the holy land.

Why must one come forth into the holy land with bare feet? When a finance minister in Canada introduces his budget, he dons a pair of new shoes. That is how we govern the realm of everyday life. But the land the Israelites are about to conquer is not an ordinary land. It is supposedly a holy land and only holy ones in bare feet are destined to exercise power in that land. “Put your feet [not your boots] upon the necks of these kings.” (Joshua 10:24) It is insufficient to have boots on the ground to win a true victory. One must enter the holy of holies unshod with your soul revealed as much as your soles are. For in the world of holiness, one may need military power to acquire civilian power, but one does not rule with coercive power but through the power and authority of the law and the rule of justice and, even more importantly, by baring your soul as much as ruling over the body politic.

I used to be very puzzled by this section. Here were the Israelites entering a land with an army of over 600,000. The Gauls could sack Rome with only 40,000 and destroy the Roman Empire. The army of the Mongol hordes under Genghis Khan numbered no more than 150,000. The Israelites had an army four times that size to conquer a miniscule portion of the surface of the earth. They sent out scouts (laturim) to literally “scout” out the land. They were not spies and were not called neraglim. The twelve princes were clearly not spies in any normal sense of the word. They were scouts. To conquer Jericho, Joshua would later send two true spies, not a dozen royal scouts and emissaries. True, the scouts needed to survey a much larger territory rather than just one walled city, but they were just scouts, not spies as we understand the term.

Joshua’s spies were very different than the scouts sent by Moses. The latter were public and royal figures, not nameless intelligence officers. They were sent to bring back reports for a popular referendum on future action not to prepare the army of the Israelites for invasion and conquest. Should we go was the question, not how we should go about it. So Moses’ scouts reported back to the whole community at Kadesh, not just the military commander. These scouts met the Canaanite leaders and traded with them to return with the icon of Israeli tourism, a bunch of grapes hanging from a pole and borne by two carriers to bring back the message that this was a land of “milk and honey.” In Joshua’s mission, the two agents of Joshua’s equivalent of the CIA, were truly secret spies, interested only in intelligence, not the prospect of spoils. Further, there is no evidence of the twelve scouts traveling surreptitiously.

The twelve scouts were sent out to ascertain the strength of the enemy and the bounty to be acquired by immigrating into the land. Were the inhabitants few or many, welcoming or hostile, strong or weak? Were the towns and cities fortified? This was macro information available through public means and useless in devising a military plan of conquest. In fact, sending forth the scouts undermined any resort to military means for it removed the first rule of warfare, surprise as a result of secrecy. There is a huge difference between sending notables on a public mission of inquiry and sending spies to help design the strategy and tactics for conquest. The latter do not need to bring back the abundance of the fruit in the land. The scouts are on a mission of migration and settlement, not a military assignment. When the Israelites do opt for the latter, they approach from the east crossing the Jordan not along the Mediterranean coast to enter via the lands controlled by the Philistines or via the Judean Hills to encounter the Canaanites. They go the round way in and enter through Jordan to attack Jericho.

Clearly, when the scouts return they reveal that, although the Israelites had a huge army, they were not ready for battle. The leadership, with the exception of Caleb and Joshua, may have exaggerated the strength and hostility of the local population, but they were undoubtedly accurate in reporting back that the Israelites would not be able to migrate and insert themselves among the local population peacefully. They would have to spend forty years in the wilderness preparing themselves for battle and leaving behind the peaceniks who initially believed that entry could be obtained by immigration alone. They would have to enter through the back door as it were, through the exercise of coercion and based on intelligence and not just as a result of a public scouting mission, through Samaria rather than Judea.

So the modern Jewish state is called Israel and not Judea. The right wing revisionists recognized all along the hostility of the inhabitants and their resistance to large scale migration. The hawks, including Ben Gurion, recognized the necessity of using force to conquer the land, unlike peaceniks and the promoters of immigration primarily as the means of settling in Palestine. In contemporary Jewish ideological divisions, the positions have shifted. It is the hawks who are obvious in their goals. For the right, the political “conquest” of all of Jerusalem and Hebron remains an unfinished task. These hawks are not very secretive with respect to their aim of conquering all of what was for years referred to as Palestine.
That which comes indirectly results more from the failures of others than from one’s own arrogant and obvious actions. If we read today’s portion to grasp this as the lesson, we miss another main point. For the portion does not end with chapter 14 but with chapter 15. Chapter 15 is very different than chapter 13 and 14. Chapter 13 begins with the instruction to Moses to send forth the scouts and emissaries to survey the land of Canaan, but to do so to reveal themselves for themselves and to themselves. They could be revealed to others and even named because they were not literally spies. In the survey mission they would ascertain what the resources were and the strength of the local inhabitants.

What was their report after spending 40 days on their mission? It included no information on troop strength, locations and armaments, about the thickness of the walls around cities and other fortifications, only the fact already known that there were no parts of the territory free of people already living there. Those people, the local inhabitants, were fierce and determined to hold onto what they possessed. There were many tribes and enemies in the different parts of the territory, Ammonites and Hittites, Jebusites and Canaanites. Ten of the twelve princes reported back to Moses that the locals combined were stronger than the Israelites.

Those ten also possibly lied. The land was so tough that it devoured the people who lived on it. In any case, they said that it was inhabited by giants, and perhaps they were for undernourished populations are generally shorter in stature. In contrast and in comparison, the ten emissaries saw themselves as grasshoppers, inyenzi in Kinyarwanda, locusts to be those they threatened to swarm and who would strive to exterminate them in turn. What did the popular will express? Dismay and disillusion. The equivalent of a united Europe was not the promise they were led to believe it was. A populist revolt took place. Both Moses and Aaron bowed down before the will of the people. But Caleb and Joshua indicated that the hopes of and promises to the Israelites were now dead. Further, the people had lost their faith.
God remonstrated them and promised to decimate them for the absence of leadership and for the leaders and the population in general surrendering to their fears. “I will smite them with the pestilence, and destroy them, and will make of thee a nation greater and mightier than they.” Ten of the tribes would undergo the fate of Egypt, God threatened. Only the tribes of Caleb and Joshua would thrive to become a nation greater than that of Israel.

Moses shifted position and once again stood up for loyalty to God rather than prostrating himself before the populist will. The bulk of the population, however, was led by fears even greater than the fear of their God that they had humiliated and brought shame upon. Moses once again prostrated himself before God and asked Him to forgive His people. So God did not smite them. He allowed the Amalekites and Canaanites to do the job.

At the same time, chapter 15 offered instructions on how the Israelites were to prepare for victory and how they were to perform once they had succeeded in conquest. The usual instructions on rituals of thanksgiving were presented in some detail. The key political instruction begins in verse 14. You shall not do to the inhabitants what they were prepared to do to you.
“And if a stranger sojourn with you, or whosoever may be among you, throughout your generations, and will offer an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the LORD; as ye do, so he shall do.” They shall do as you do and conform to the same law.

Strangers who abide by the customs of the land shall be welcomed and treated as equals for “there shall be one statute both for you, and for the stranger that sojourneth with you.” Verse 16 repeats: “One law and one ordinance shall be both for you, and for the stranger that sojourneth with you.” If either party disobeys the law in error, they shall be forgiven. But if that disobedience arises out of arrogance, by either the Israelite or the stranger who lives among you, those who committed the offence must be ostracized.

However, in verse 32, an allegory is told of a man who picks up sticks on shabat while the Israelites are still in the wilderness. Is that man an Israelite or a sojourner among them? Not likely the latter, for they are still in the wilderness and have not yet conquered the land. Further, as an Israelite, he is to be subjected to the most extreme punishment, stoning to death, and for what appears as a relatively trivial offence. In the light of the generosity to be offered to the stranger who respects your law, why is picking up sticks on shabat deserving of stoning?

It is not as if this stand commandment does not stand out. It is repeated again and again. Don’t light fires on shabat. (Exodus 35:3) Don’t cook on shabat. It is a day of solemn rest, that is rest from the labour of membership in the mundane world. (Exodus 16:22-26) You were not even to travel on shabat. (Exodus 16:29-30) Shabat was definitely not to be used as a White Night. The violation of shabat was a capital offence, for it was a violation of the covenant between the Israelites and their God.

What is common to the populism that backs off out of fear from moving en masse into a hostile land and the actions of the man who picks up sticks on shabat? They are situations in which people are both deliberate and defiant in their non-observance. The peaceniks fail to examine themselves as they move towards migration into the promised land. Those preparing to move in through the use of force must prepare for nation-building in advance and treat every local as a stranger in their midst with respect to protection by the law and punishment for its breaches. Strength must be married to the rule of law. But some breaches of the law by a member of the tribe which offends the centrality of the covenant between God and His people are subject to a death sentence by stoning.

Strength must be balanced with justice and realism has to offset our idealism. In any case, populism, surrendering to the whims of the people, the fears of the future and of strangers, may be the greatest danger. The dichotomy of being direct and open must be balanced with secrecy and the use of real spies. Direct talk and indirection are both requirements in politics. Importantly, the missions of plenipotentiaries must go forth, whether it be UNSCOP or inquiries into abuses of rights and of the laws of war, more to reveal our own inadequacies and short-sightedness than just record what is publicly observed. For over against Socrates, knowing thyself requires knowing the other and is accomplished by becoming acquainted with the other. Finally, living in the daylight of the everyday world and welcoming in the bride to meet the inner light of shabat are required to make a 24-hour day.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

“Observe” and “Remember” in a single word,
He caused us to hear, the One and Only Lord.
G d is One and His Name is One,
For renown, for glory and in song.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

To welcome the Shabbat, let us progress,
For that is the source, from which to bless.
From the beginning, chosen before time,
Last in deed, but in thought – prime.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

Sanctuary of the King, city royal,
Arise, go out from amidst the turmoil.
In the vale of tears too long you have dwelt,
He will show you the compassion He has felt.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

Arise, now, shake off the dust,
Don your robes of glory – my people – you must.
Through the son of Jesse, the Bethelemite,
Draw near to my soul, set her free from her plight.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

Wake up, wake up,
Your light has come, rise and shine.
Awaken, awaken; sing a melody,
The glory of G d to be revealed upon thee.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

Be not ashamed, nor confounded,
Why are you downcast, why astounded?
In you, refuge for My poor people will be found,
The city will be rebuilt on its former mound.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

May your plunderers be treated the same way,
And all who would devour you be kept at bay.
Over you Your G d will rejoice,
As a groom exults in his bride of choice.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

To right and left you’ll spread abroad,
And the Eternal One you shall laud.
Through the man from Peretz’s family,
We shall rejoice and sing happily.

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

Come in peace, her Husband’s crown of pride,
With song (on Festivals: rejoicing) and good cheer.
Among the faithful of the people so dear
Enter O Bride, enter O Bride;

O Bride, Shabbat Queen, now come here!

Come out my Beloved, the Bride to meet;
The inner light of Shabbat, let us greet.

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Holiness Code

The Holiness Code – Parshah Kedoshim Leviticus 19 and 20


Howard Adelman

Tomorrow on shabat we read one of the most important sections of the Torah, Leviticus 19-20, or the core verses of the Holiness Code which includes verses and chapters from last week’s portion (17 and 18) as well as those from the following week. (For reference, I have included chapters 19&20 as a separate blog.) Many of the core commandments of the 613 commandments governing Jewish conduct are included in this week’s portion. Any one of them is worthy of an extended commentary. It is virtually impossible to discuss all the injunctions contained in this one reading in a single blog for they are articulated so succinctly and briefly that reading these verses is akin to unpacking a box literally stuffed to the gills with moral injunctions. I want to examine more than one, however, not to analyze a single commandment, but to offer the flavour of the Holiness Code with a view to obtaining a glimpse of what it means to be holy. I will discuss the portion under four headings as follows:

I. Sex and Speech
II. Chukat Hagoyim and Loving Strangers
III. Respect, Rebuke vs Revenge
IV. Idolatry, Israel and Holiness

I. Sex and Speech

Why start with sex when discussing holiness? Why probe all the injunctions against misuse of a servant girl by a male boss (19:20), ban adultery (20:10) especially with your brother’s wife (20:21) or incest (20:11, 12, 14, 17, 19 & 20), castigate homosexuality (20:13) and sodomy (20:15&16) almost in the same breath, and then forbid having sex with a woman while she is menstruating (20:18)? Many of these are reiterations of injunctions in chapter 18. Bans on homosexuality seem totally misplaced for most of us with a modern sensibility. Adultery is not so good, but putting someone to death for such an act seems quite disproportionate to say the least. Sodomy seems more distasteful than deserving of such a harsh reprimand and saying that a servant girl should not be put to death when abused by a superior seems to perpetuate putting the blame on the female, though easing the punishment. And why is there an injunction against sex when your female partner is menstruating?

In other words, if sexual prohibitions are at once so basic and at the same time so deformed and misplaced, how can one suggest that obeying such extreme puritanical injunctions provides a path to holiness? I do not think it does. Further, the various penalties – from death to ostracism – do not seem to comport with our contemporary views of such actions or misdeeds. One predominant interpretation is that these injunctions against certain sexual conduct, allegedly profuse among the Canaanites and Egyptians, were intended to define the Hebrews as a pure and holy people in imitation of God, what Roman Catholics designate as imatio Dei. After all, they all seem to be placed in a context of being “clean,” where cleanliness is next to Godliness. And one characteristic of God is that (s)he is disembodied, does not have sex and inherently cannot be dirty.

This is the basic paradox. Humans are embodied. They have sexual drives. God is disembodied and does not need or desire to have sex. But God gave Adam a companion, Eve, precisely because Adam was a nerd and did not even recognize he had a body and needed to love and be loved. So does God want us to have sex and propagate the species? Clearly, the answer is yes. But God also commands that boundaries be placed around sexual behaviour. The reasons to me seem obvious and they are not about imitating God where holiness in the highest realm is defined as asexual. Rather, it is very practical and down to earth.

Yesterday I heard two more stories about young couples with very young children who, contrary to everyone’s expectations, broke up and are headed towards the divorce court. The epidemic – and it is an epidemic – of divided couples and marriages has to be a major concern. Adultery was involved. One partner “fell in love” with someone else. Or in another tale from the day before, one partner felt deeply dissatisfied and unfulfilled in the marriage. I am not suggesting that couples when they discover they are incompatible should remain married. On the other hand, the marriage commitment and bond should mean much more than simply abandoning a pledge because of an attraction to another or dissatisfaction with oneself and one’s path of self-realization.

That is why the sexual injunctions need not be considered as absolute puritanical injunctions, but as basic and profound guides about how a couple can realize holiness while engaging in sex and also bearing children. In other words, if we want to understand the sexual prohibitions, it will not be because we pay attention to the literalness of the commandments, but because we pay attention to their purpose related to the pursuit of holiness. And in my understanding of the Jewish religion, it is not because we envision holiness as equivalent to puritanical behaviour or asexuality, but, guides for embodied humans, thereby recognizing embodiment and how embodied sexual beings become holy.

So how is speech related to sexuality? Because it is through speech that men and women archetypically (men and men in cases of homosexual relations) initially have intercourse with one another. Recall that the use of speech was Adam’s hang up. He thought that words were all about naming and classifying and, in imitation of God, bringing something into existence by the speech act of naming and classifying. But a speech act is only asexual as a scientific enterprise. It is thoroughly sexual as a human enterprise.

Leviticus 19 verse 11 commands that you not “deny falsely” (Bill Clinton – “I did not have sexual relations with that woman) or lie. The two injunctions are different. Bill did not precisely lie, for he meant by sexual relations intercourse not fellatio. But he did deny falsely for his assertion was completely misleading. The same verse commands that humans should also not lie. Why is truth-telling the most basic injunction in human intercourse. Because truth-telling is a requisite of trust. And trust is basic to human relations.

Have I lied? More precisely, have I lied to my partner? I have. And each time that I did it was because I was a coward and did not trust my wife to respond in the way I wanted. But that is not trust. Trust entails respect and talking to another and addressing their highest natures. It is not based on fearing reprimands and scolding. Speech in intercourse must be honest, direct and based on trust. Every time I fail to follow this understanding, I betray myself, my partner or children or friend and, mostly, fail myself. Implicitly, I “swear falsely” and profane the name of God. So healthy sex and healthy honest talk are interdependent and foundational for holiness.

II. Chukat Hagoyim and Loving Strangers

If guidelines and injunctions about physical and verbal intercourse, about how to cultivate a healthy sex life and an honest dialogue between those with whom we are intimately related, are the foundation stones for a holy life, the second level of commandments address those with whom we are least intimate – strangers, particularly strangers who do not belong to our own tribe. And we all know, or should know, that the most repeated commandment in the Torah addresses how to treat strangers and then how to treat acquaintances or neighbours.

With respect to strangers, you cannot tease or belittle them and certainly not characterize them as “rapists” and “thieves.” You shall not taunt the stranger (19:33). More than that, you are required to treat the stranger as if he were a member of your own tribe. “You shall love him as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (19:34) On the other hand, you must also reject and ostracize strangers who cavort with Moloch, Ov or Yid’oni and even put to death any who give their children to Molech.

Who is Molech? A god of the Canaanites, a god that required child sacrifice. A holy people, immigrants and refugees, sacrifice themselves for their children. Followers of Molech sacrifice their children for themselves. That is why when we are married, have children and run into trouble, as most marriages do, the primary consideration must be not to sacrifice one’s children for the pursuit of one’s own self-fulfillment or gratification of one’s own physical desires. Now it is a rarity these days to follow that injunction. God knows, I have personally failed. But that does not detract from the value of the principle. In fact, it raises the principle to a higher value.

There is an intimate connection between the dedication to raising your children and to respecting and loving strangers, for giving of yourself for your children and giving of yourself for refugees. But not all so-called refugees. Not “refugees” who victimize children, who engage in terrorism or who exploit others. But why the demonization of those who worship Ov and Yid’oni as well as Molech? (20:6) Ov is a medium who claims direct access to the divine or nether world. Yid’oni is an oracle who claims to be a spokesperson for the nether world or the divine voice. Followers of Ov and Yid’oni are as despicable as those who follow Molech, those who follow the path of using and abusing children, sacrificing children for one’s own purposes rather than sacrificing oneself for one’s children.

What connection is there between denouncing mediums and oracles and the respect and love for children? Mediums and oracles for a holy people spout vapid nonsense. One should not follow a demagogue who promises he can lead you to the Promised Land. Only the Holy One can do that. Oracles who say “trust me” and “I know how to make a deal better than anyone” are not to be trusted. And anyone who follows that oracle because that oracle has accumulated a following also becomes suspect. There is NO privileged access to the nether world or to the future. And there should be no surprise that such oracles and mediums so often scapegoat strangers. By displacing hatred onto others and using the oracular voice, they would bewitch you into trusting them instead of yourself and your inner voice, surrendering yourself for a leader who believes in strength rather than holiness, betting on charms and omens rather than evidence and behaviour over the long run that builds trust. The pursuit of holiness does not depend upon trickery, but upon a consistent effort at honesty and truthfulness and a respect for others especially if they are strangers. The devil may not be Molech, but the devil may be Ov or Yid’oni.

III. Respect, Rebuke vs Revenge

If trust is basic, enhanced through the use of honest language and intimate physical attachment to another, if loving the stranger and evading the enchantment of those who would use and abuse children for their own pleasure, those who pretend to be mediums or oracles, on the next level of building blocks for a healthy and holy home, we locate the concept of respect. It is the first window of the second story of that home. And the most basic form of respect is that accorded one’s parents. Parents are enjoined to sacrifice themselves for their children and not sacrifice their children for themselves. In turn, children are enjoined to render parents respect and honour.

But respect extends beyond the family. You must respect not oppress the other. (19:13), neither robbing no exploiting him or her. Nor shall you curse another who is physically deaf or is out of range of your voice and cannot hear you. (19:14) You shall not diss another, whether cursing another driver who cannot hear you; in so doing, you demean yourself. If you belittle and insult another, another propensity of those who scapegoat others and put themselves forward as oracles, you undercut respect both for others and for oneself. You shall not engage in favouritism (19:15) and give greater respect to the rich than the poor, for all humans must be respected (19:16), but you certainly must respect the venerable and the elderly. (19:32)

But respect is not enough. You must go deeper and evacuate your soul of hatred. Hatred eats like an acid at your soul and is a sure guarantee preventing one from becoming holy. (19:17) And if you do not express that hatred, but feel it deeply inside, it is even worse. Better to vent than stew, but venting as a relief valve can be almost as poisonous. This does not mean you do not confront and rebuke another for their failings, for their dishonesty, for their demagoguery, for their dogmatism and for their lack of respect for others. “You shall surely rebuke your fellow, but you shall not bear a sin on his account.” (19:17)

Failure to rebuke, failure to confront, failure to express when you feel hurt by the actions of another, means that the weight of their sins will be borne by you and you will be weighed down by the inability to express what you honestly think and feel. But expressing those feelings and thoughts must be done in a context of respect for the other. Finally, if you fail to rebuke, fail to confront, if you carry a grudge and build up a store of hatred within and then seek relief through revenge, that is the final straw in betraying the commandment to be honest and respect another.

IV. Idolatry, Israel and Holiness

The culmination of these failures is idolatry. Making a molten figure into an idol is simply a metaphor for worshiping a material entity as if it were holy. The best sign of idolatry is when a leader ensures his picture appears everywhere or when a leader seeks to stamp everything with his own name. Whether one worships an idol or tries to become an idol oneself, perhaps the greatest failing of our age of celebrity worship, we indicate by such behaviour that we have betrayed the pursuit of holiness.

Let me give one perhaps trivial example, the current fad of tattooing one’s body, of making “cuts in your flesh”. For “you shall not etch a tattoo on yourself.” (19:28) Why not? What harm results? Enormous harm. For etching a tattoo into one’s flesh is an effort at make a fleeting feeling of the moment permanent and failing to recognize that things of the flesh can never be permanent. It is not because the body is God’s creation, for our bodies are made of the dust of the earth. It is not because we are enjoined not to mutilate God’s handiwork, for we are commanded as Jews to circumcise a male baby when only 8 days old. Rather, tattooing is related to idolatry, to deifying what should not be regarded as worthy in an effort to get in touch with the permanent, with the eternal.

It is clear in the Torah and it is a fear at a time of celebrating the day of Israeli independence, that Israel itself can be turned into an idol, worshiped in itself as the exceptional and the holy in total disregard of the behaviour of its politicians and its people. On the other hand, God has said to his people, “You shall possess their land, and I shall give it to you to possess it a land flowing with milk and honey. I am the Lord your God, Who has distinguished you from the peoples.” Jews are commanded to be a holy nation, a nation that gives witness to the highest values. This does not mean that other nations cannot express that role or aspire to holiness. Quite the contrary. But it is an overriding injunction for Jews as a people.

And that is what it means to be holy. It means being both intimate and honest with one’s partner, making one’s best effort at telling the truth, especially telling the truth to power, not sacrificing the lives of children for oneself but sacrificing oneself for your children, loving the stranger as oneself but never being so naïve as to fall into the bewitchment of a Molech, a medium or an oracle, not disrespecting or insulting the other, but being willing to rebuke that other when he or she offends, not building up resentments into a hateful cauldron or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, worshiping another as an idol or trying to embed in one’s own flesh a sense of permanence for the impermanent.

That is the core of the holiness code.