Rabbi’s Speech at a Mosque Exploring Stance towards Others and the “West”
(Edited version of my talk as part of an interfaith panel, talking about contemporary challenges in Judaism, at Imam Hasan Centre, Annangrove, Sydney, Australia, 1 July 2017)
I begin with acknowledgement of country in a way that reflects my Jewish heritage. We customarily allude to the Sidra, the Torah reading of the week. In it, we read an Emorite war poem, celebrating the victory in battle over the city of Heshbon by the Emorite King, Sihon.
“עַל כֵּן יֹאמְרוּ הַמֹּשְׁלִים בֹּאוּ חֶשְׁבּוֹן תִּבָּנֶה וְתִכּוֹנֵן עִיר סִיחוֹן:
“Therefore, those who speak in parables, say, “Come to Heshbon, it will be built and established, the city of Sihon”. (1)
The poet, the evil Balaam (2), contrasted a propaganda version of the condition of this city before and after its conquest by the Emorites. “When it was under the sovereignty of Moab [the poet claims], it was desolate and empty, but now that it was taken by Sihon, he will make it great and honoured, all people will flock to Heshbon to rejoice and dwell in it, because without a doubt it will be built and established because it is the city of Sihon”. (3)
As an Australian, I read this poem as a claim that Heshbon was almost a “Terra Nullius” (4) before the conquest by the Emorites. I link the poem with what I have learned about the experience of Aboriginal people from an Aboriginal man. He explained his history to me. When this land was taken by the English, the new power downplayed the existing civilisation, disregarding their traditions and lore relating to caring for land and each other.
Tonight, I pay my respects to the original people of this land, the Darug Elders, past, present and emerging, in a way that I can relate from my own traditions.
One challenge for people of faith is to truly honour the greatness of others and resist any temptation to see one’s own tradition as holding all wisdom. Indeed, our sages taught “if someone tells you that there is wisdom among the nations, you should believe him” (5).
As a Jew, I appreciate wisdom, altruism and sincerity in people of different religions and no religion at all. This includes the greatness of Western democracies as systems of government that deliver – albeit imperfectly – just outcomes to many people. I honour traditions of constraints on the powers of people in government and equality before the law among others. As a person of a minority faith in the West, I am particularly grateful for the freedom Western traditions of government give me to live according to my own beliefs and traditions. This freedom cannot be taken for granted. For much of Jewish history, it was denied us, as recently as in the lifetime of my own grandfather, during the last century, in the Soviet Union.
On the other hand, the relationship between the “West” and some people of faith living in the West, is not free of conflict. It is true that human flaws have always been part of the lives of all humans, regardless of culture. Still, living in a cultural context that includes voices – in entertainment and advertising – that promote hedonism, impulsivity and instant self-gratification, makes it harder for people of faith to fulfil some of the spiritual and personal growth related aims of our faiths. A utilitarian worldview will be at odds with one centred on divine worship and obligations.
I return to the verse about the conquest of Heshbon, looking at it not as a historical poem, but as an aid to remember a traditional moral message (6). Using traditional wordplay the Talmud interpreted it thus:
“Therefore the “rulers”, i.e. those who rule their [own evil] inclination [impulses], will say, let us come to the calculation of the world, the cost of [fulfilling] a commandment, against its reward. The [short term] benefit of a sin against its loss. …If you do this you will be built in this world [life] and established in the world to come [the afterlife]. If, however, a person makes himself like a young donkey, that follows pleasant talk… a fire will go forth from Heshbon…(7)” .
In this interpretation, my tradition is urging me to be duty-oriented. It warns me not to be drawn like “a young donkey”, after every beep alert on my mobile phone telling me there is a pleasant comment on whatsapp or twitter. Instead, I must focus on my obligations.
In respecting people of other cultures, we don’t lose the right to honestly critique competing cultural approaches that might entice us away from our own traditions. We have a right to be different from each other, which means we can make truth claims or virtue claims about beliefs, practices and ways of being. In doing so let us avoid Balaam’s error of thinking only one group has a monopoly on greatness. By inviting me, the Christian speaker and the parliamentarian here tonight, you are once again demonstrating the long-standing commitment of the Imam Hasan Centre to this principle.
1. Numbers 21:27-28
2. Midrash Tanchuma Chukkath 24, Num. Rabbah 19:30, cited in Rashi
3. Abarbanel, page 186, 27, in Horev 2008, Edition, Jerusalem,
4. The term is technically about ownership of land and means “a land belonging to no one”, but can be understood more broadly, to be a way of erasing the significance of the civilisation that came before. Ogleby, C. L. frames it as follows: “As the ships of the First Fleet anchored in Sydney Cove on the 7th February 1788, and the British flag was raised on the shore above the convicts and their masters to the echoes of a rifle salute and toasts of port, the foundations for a new Colony were being laid on British soil. Terra Australis had been claimed in both sovereignty and ownership by the British Crown as terra nullius – literally a ‘land belonging to nobody’. Although somewhere between one half and one million people inhabited the island (Mulvaney 1989, but estimates vary), their culture, customs and custodianship of the land was denied. Over the last 200 years the concept of terra nullius has been used to justify the dispossession of the original inhabitants of this country. It has also been responsible for framing attitudes towards the Aboriginal people and still forms the basis of all land law in Australia”. http://www.csdila.
5. Eicha Rabba, 2:16
6. This approach follows the Rashba as cited in Torah Temima, Numbers 21:18, notes 16 -21
7. Talmud, Bava Basra 78b, appreciating the word-play really depends on understanding the Hebrew original.