Saturday, December 05, 2015

The fifth question: Songs of Songs and the Book of Ruth

Written By Yossi Sarid in HaaretzApril 1, 2007

Rejoice, rejoice in the good news: Spring is here and Passover is on the way. And I too rejoice when Nissan, the month that was once the first of the Hebrew calendar, arrives, and with its vernal beauty steals the joy of the still-blustery Adar - though we are all commanded to rejoice during that month. The joy of Nissan is double - both departing for freedom and departing from winter.

I have revised my tastes in Bible a number of times over the years; a kind of weakness of taste, a sort of capriciousness of temperament that is characteristic of transitional seasons. Today I am almost certain that I have formulated my position: The Song of Songs and the Book of Ruth are my favorites, and that is final.

These are two books of a subversive character, and both of them always bring up the question of how they succeeded in the first place in entering the collection of Holy Writ. How were they given canonical status? Were such writings collected and redacted nowadays, it is doubtful they would be awarded this status. Quite possibly, the Song of Songs would be left out because of its eroticism and the Book of Ruth pushed out because of its ethics. But we shall write about Ruth at length at the end of the counting of the Omer, when the holiday of Shavuot arrives.

Ruth and the Song of Songs are the most Land-of-Israel books that I know of, then or now. When the question arises of whether there is such a thing as Israeli literature, and not just Israeli writers, these two books are the decisive answer: Indeed there is such a literature. Reading and delighting in them is possible anywhere, but the writing could have taken place only here, in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, among the fields and vineyards of the beloved land of our fathers.

I once suggested to our Interior Ministry that it rely on the Book of Ruth to establish the rules for obtaining citizenship in this country, and now I am suggesting to the Tourism Ministry that it use the Song of Songs to attract tourists in love. And Bar Refaeli, with little marketing effort, can play the role of "For I am lovesick." As everyone knows, the Song of Songs is attributed to King Solomon, but according to modern research, the text was shaped many years after his reign. Not only historically, but also from the literary perspective, it is difficult to accept Solomon as the author, as in his palace harem he had a thousand women, whereas Shulamith's love for her beloved is unique and exclusive. The lord of a thousand women does not qualify for a love experience that is so focused and for longings that are so distilled.

Today the prevailing assumption is that the anthology of love songs was not written by a single hand but rather by various authors in various periods, although a rereading reveals perfect stylistic and thematic unity.

The Song of Songs is a subversive book in biblical, conservative and traditional terms, so much so that the sages had to interpret it as a kind of allegory. Not a beloved and a lover, not a shepherd and a shepherdess, not Shulamith and her beloved, but rather a love affair between the community of Israel and God. Rabbi Akiva, of all people, who held the Song of Songs to be more sacred than the other books of Scripture apart from the five books of Moses and the Prophets, is recorded as having said that "anyone who warbles the Song of Songs in drinking houses and makes it into a kind of ditty has no portion in the world to come."

Those sages always had to spoil our fun. Why do they do this to us? What did we ever do to them? Happily for us, this exegesis, which was aimed at preventing desecration, did not make a deep impression on creative inspiration. Generation after generation had its say and transmitted material, and there isn't a single line that has not been put into the mouths of flesh-and-blood lovers. There isn't a single poem in the Song of Songs that has not been sung by the young in spirit, who, in the breezes of the night and the day, imagine themselves as shepherds and shepherdesses, black and comely, tanned swarthy by the sun; this is their sensual fantasy.

The allegory argument in this case is rather funny and far out. Even God Himself would not be grateful to the great leaders of Israel and their exegetes if a trace of the human remained in His image. What is it they want to tell us, the sages of blessed memory - that their God is not only merciful, but also libidinous, and that the community of Israel, for its part, is particularly interested in the thighs of the Holy One, blessed be He, which are "as pillars of marble." He swoons over her most intimate parts, "the rounding of thy thighs," "thy belly is a heap of wheat" and "thy two breasts are like twin fawns," and he dreams of climbing into the palm tree with the help of the branches thereof and her breasts as the clusters of grapes. As for her, she will nestle him between her breasts, his left hand under her head and his right hand embracing her.

God shows up all of a sudden, and with no prior warning in any other reference, knocks on the door, his head filled with dew, on his locks the drops of night, removes his coat, washes his feet and is ready; and she rises to open the door, her heart moving for him, her hands and her fingers flowing with myrrh on the door handles. She too is ready.

Good God, what is happening here? Has the landlord gone crazy? How is it that we hadn't previously known such a human God, so similar and equal to us? Neither did He know that He was like that, until his emissaries and exegetes told Him. The Song of Songs is customarily read on the Sabbath of the Intermediate Days of Passover, between the first and the seventh day. There are those who also read it on the closing holiday, and even a few who end the seder night by reading it. I very much recommend this custom, and I think it should spread. The Song of Songs is a much better read than the Passover Haggadah, which is an eclectic text that stops at every station in time, like a slow train that takes on more and more freight.

Because the Haggadah is a wide-open text that has not been zealously guarded in every generation, it has been infiltrated by a mix of biblical verses and bits of legend, prayers and hymns and just plain songs. With its educational mission ("thou shall tell thy son on that day"), the Haggadah is ostensibly also aimed at children, and perhaps first and foremost at them, so as to instill in all four kinds of sons the story of the Exodus from Egypt, to make them like it and to educate each according to his needs. But while the Song of Songs only charms, the Haggadah is also scary, like Grimms' fairy tales. When the Haggadah pours out its wrath, it does so on young and old alike. Alongside fine and interesting sections, there are a number of baffling and boring parts. No wonder many families postpone the worst and have the meal first so that slumber will not fall on the eyelids of the tender Jewish infants.

Therefore, I recommend that another question be added to the traditional four: How is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights we read only the Haggadah; on this night we also read the Song of Songs, wherein the songs are better than wine and verily, even the fleshpots.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Rosh Hashana Drasha 5766: Race, Racism and the Creation of Mankind

When you woke up in the morning today, many of you put on your nicest clothes in honour of the chag and began your journey to shul. As you walked down Balaclava Rd, you wished Shana Tova to the people you passed, and exchanged hugs and reminisced with friends not seen for some time. One thing you may not have done, is wish someone ‘Happy Birthday.’ Many of us don't realize that the reason we are here today is to mark the birth of two people.

Two people, initially created as one, born of no parents, with no religion, separated from each other at birth. They walked the earth 2000 years before the first Jew was born, and 2500 years before we were proclaimed a people at Mt Sinai. Their names were Adam and Eve. According to the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 29:1), today is their birthday.

The words ‘Hayom Harat Olam,’  “Today the world was brought into being” mark the creation of the first human soul. 
The Talmud asks in Masechet Sanhedrin, "Why was only a single specimen of man created first? To teach us that he who destroys a single soul destroys a whole world and that he who saves a single soul saves a whole world;  Man was also created alone so that no race or class may claim a nobler ancestry, saying, 'Our father was born first'; and, finally, to give testimony to the greatness of the Lord, who caused the wonderful diversity of mankind to emanate from one type. And why was Adam created last of all beings? To teach him humility; for should he ever become arrogant, let him remember that the little fly preceded him in the order of creation." – Talmud, Sanhedrin viii. 4-9)

The Yalkut Shimoni 
1:13 elaborates on this idea by stating God formed Adam out of dust from all over the world—yellow clay, white sand, black loam, and red soil. Therefore no one can declare to any people that they do not belong since this soil is the source from which we all emerged.

There are more texts in this vein which go to great lengths to express the idea that all mankind is descended from one Adam, a being who was neither male nor female, whose body held the potential to be a vessel for all future genders, races, and possibilities of human identity.

This principle, that all mankind originates from one, exists in many faiths, and is also enshrined in the pre-amble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognises the “inherent dignity and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.”

The first article of this declaration which has been endorsed by almost every nation on earth states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

The Guinness Book of Records describes the Declaration as the world's "Most Translated Document." Even though it is not legally binding, the Declaration has been adopted in or has influenced most national constitutions since 1948 and served as the foundation for a growing number of national laws and international laws.
Sometimes I read it to my children as a bedtime story.

That said, in spite of this desire for mankind to be colour blind, articulated in both Jewish and civil law, so many events have occurred in the past year to show the opposite is true. I’d like to explore cases from two different countries that will be familiar to many of you here today.

Twenty years after Nicky Winmar famously lifted his jumper and declared ''I'm black - and I'm proud to be black!'' the response of Adam Goodes to a racist taunt from a 13 year old girl has now become a defining moment in Australian race relations. The day following the incident, Goodes explained his response:
“It's not the first time on the footy field I've been referred to as a monkey or an ape. It was shattering. This week is a celebration of our people and our culture. Last night, I was able to make a stand for myself and say racism has a face, and it’s a 13-year-old girl, but it's not her fault.
She's 13, she's still so innocent. I don't put any blame on her. Unfortunately it's what she hears, the environment she's grown up in that has made her think it's ok to call people names.” 

A year later, Goodes was honoured with the title of Australian of the Year for his activism against racism. Whilst he was honoured by many, a small minority started booing him at AFL matches, the trauma of which led to him taking some time out of football in August this year. Amongst a great deal of commentary about this, I was incredibly moved to read these words of Wiradjuri journalist Stan Grant in the Guardian:

“I may be overly sensitive. I may see insult where none is intended. Maybe my position of relative success and privilege today should have healed deep scars of racism and the pain of growing up Indigenous in Australia. The same could be said of Adam. And perhaps that is right.  But this is how Australia makes us feel.
Estranged in the land of our ancestors, marooned by the tides of history on the fringes of one of the richest and demonstrably most peaceful, secure and cohesive nations on earth.
The “wealth for toil” we praise in our anthem has remained out of our reach. Our position at the bottom of every socio-economic indicator tragically belies the Australian economic miracle.
From childhood I often cringed against my race. To be Aboriginal was to be ashamed. Ashamed of our poverty. Ashamed of the second-hand clothes with the giveaway smell of mothballs and another boy’s name on the shirt collar. Ashamed of the way my mother and grandmother had to go to the Smith Family or Salvation Army for food vouchers.”

I have met with a number of inspiring elders over the past few years through my participation in the Yorta Yorta Beyachad program at Mount Scopus. These moving words of Stan Grant are not new to me, and underlie how far we still need to travel as a nation before the aspirations of our anthem  are realised.

The country I’d like to explore next is an ocean away from us, but very close to the hearts of many in this room. From 1948, its government had the dubious reputation of being one of the most racist in the world. I am speaking of South Africa. A country ruled by the British or Dutch since the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in 1652 until the end of apartheid in 1994. 
Being one of what sometimes feel like a minority of Jews in Melbourne who is not South African, the history of this country has always fascinated me. Earlier this year, I had the privilege of visiting this most beautiful and challenging of places as a guest of Limmud South Africa.

Before my visit, most of what I knew about the country was based on memories of watching the Power of One and the 1995 Rugby world cup with many South African school friends who ate Biltong and lived in Doncaster. I remember the symbolism of Mandela wearing the once hated springbok jersey, and seeing the now multi-racial rugby team win over New Zealand. It was an incredibly inspiring moment demonstrating the power of reconciliation.

Like many Australians, I also heard many stories about Nelson Mandela, who seems to occupy a special place in the western imagination together with Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr as being one of the greatest champions of non-violent resistance, forgiveness and transformational leadership.
A month after Mandela was elected president in 1994, he famously said of his people, “Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

Last week, I re-watched the final minutes of the 1995 rugby world cup where South Africa defeated New Zealand. The first thing the Australian commentator said when the final whistle was blown was; “It's Over. A triumph for the rainbow nation.” 
This made me think, Is South Africa a Rainbow nation? 20 years after the end of apartheid, has it finally overcome its demons of history? Was this nation that categorised all of its people into black, white and coloured for so many years, able to implement the idea in Talmud Sanhedrin, that we are all created equal and are all from the same source?

On one hand, I found many examples to answer this question in the affirmative. Most striking was my visit to Constitutional Hill which is the site of a former Johannesburg prison that incarcerated hundreds of black and white members of the ANC, three of whom went on to become Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Today it is home to the highest court in the land. The Constitutional Court enforces what is arguably one of the most progressive constitutions in the world.  Not only does it guarantee the traditional civil rights such as the right to vote, free expression, the rights of association and assembly, but also important social rights such as the right to clean water, health and to be gay or lesbian without being discriminated against. It ruled in favour of same sex marriage in 2005, passed strong laws against the death penalty, and has even tried a deputy president whilst in office. This court was an incredible prize to all who participated in the struggle for liberation.

Visit to the Constitutional Court with former prisoner Alan Fine

However, just outside the court, there were signs all over the city saying “Johannesburg says no to Xenophobia". These were a reference to a spate of racist attacks against foreigners in South Africa from Zimbabwe, and Congo, Somalia and Mozambique. 7 people lost their lives to this violence in April 2015.

The issues that motivated those who perpetrated the violence against the foreigners included competition for jobs, commodities, housing and nationalism. Clearly in these cases, even though both the victims and perpetrators shared the same skin colour, there was enough difference within the ethnic identities and lived reality to bring them to such tragic consequences.

In addition to this phenomenon of xenophobia, the #RhodesMustFall movement which successfully lobbied for the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue from the University of Cape Town this year has generated much discussion around the issues of white privilege in South Africa. These have included strong debates about the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) initiative, which gives preference to Black and Coloured South Africans in the awarding of government contracts and university places, as well as the strong feelings of alienation by black students who are still learning in courses where Afrikaans is the language of instructions such as Stellenbosch University.

In light of these issues, of all the descriptions that are used to describe the South African people today on their journey to liberation, ‘a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world’ are not the words I would choose.
Even though we have only explored two countries today, stories about social, political and economic equality based on race can be easily found in almost every country on earth. With this in mind, I’d like to share a simple hope for the coming year 5776.

Many people of conscience throughout the world would like our planet to return to being a Garden of Eden without racial discrimination, but before that can happen, we need to acknowledge the legacy of racism, the privilege that some races still hold over others and the tikkun required before we can again return to an idea we are celebrating today on the creation of the first human. 

May we all one day live in a world that is colour blind, where a person is judged by the content of their character and not the colour of their skin.

Shana Tova

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Neila Drasha 5774 - What if God would answer our prayers?

This is a drasha I shared with the Shira community in the moments before Neila, 5774. It imagines what prayer would be like if it was a dialogue, rather than a monologue. The following letter imagines how I would like God to respond to our prayers.

Imagining God’s Letter to the Jewish People

My Dear Children of Israel,
Over the past 24 hours, you have praised me, cried out to me, begged for forgiveness and sought atonement from me and your neighbours. What an honour to share this day with you. To be the address for your teshuva, for your desire to be a better a person.
Intoning and enumerating your sins, you have beaten your right fist into our left breast no fewer than 860 times. Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu…
But I say to you now, in the last hour of this shabbat shabtot, the holiest of holy days, enough.

No more guilt. For the last hour, abstain from guilt. True atonement has nothing to do with guilt, and everything to do with responsibility.
Please stop feeling guilty
For not being the parent you wanted to be,
For procrastinating too much before you achieved the things to you wanted to do
For criticising your friends and family without suggesting alternatives on how they could do better
For criticising your politicians with too many suggestions on how they could do better
And perhaps, for some of you, not taking the time to do teshuva seriously.
Instead of feeling guilty, please take this last hour on this most holy of days, to focus on responsibilities. Let the beautiful singing that pervades this room, be the backing track to your meditation and reflection on the responsibilities you’d like to take upon yourself in the coming year.
Will you take responsibility for being more generous in the way you give tzedakah?
Will you have more time for your family?
Will you speak less lashon hara?
Will you think more carefully about all of my 613 mitzvot before you accept or reject them?
Will you engage more honestly in your work?
Will you give more freely of your time to those who need it most?
These questions are for you to answer.
My Dear Children of Israel,
In the past year, far too many of my creations having been doing things in my name, which I am not happy about. In my name, people have advanced the cause of racism, intolerance, sexism, homophobia, war and xenophobia. Those who advance these causes in my name, forget that I have created all of you in my image. With equal rights, and equal dignity. Shaming your fellow human in my name, shames me. Loving your fellow creation, honours me.  
The siddur you are all holding in your hands, please use it wisely in the next hour. From what I have heard so far, this holy book is filled with adjectives about me. How great, wonderful, mighty and powerful I am.  So many times, I have heard you describe my 13 attributes of mercy
That I am gracious, compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, assuring love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon.
These words about my nature are true. I am forgiving and want you to succeed in doing teshuva.
However, I also wanted to let you know something else which isn’t included in the siddur. I know that your teshuva will be incomplete.
I know that many of the promises you will make today, will be broken. After all, why else would so many of you come to shule last night to annul your vows during Kol Nidre?
I created you in an imperfect way, with free choice, to choose good and to choose evil. To choose to kill and to choose to heal. To weep and to laugh, To mourn and to dance.
To acquire and to lose, to be silent and speak.
I gave you the ability to gas people in Syria, to be blind to the suffering of the asylum seekers and strangers in your midst, to ignore the hungry and the homeless, and to use violence on far too many occasions when words would have sufficed. I gave you the ability to commit unimaginable crimes and also to stop them. I have given you all the ability, on each and every day, to be a perpetrator, victim, bystander and upstander.
Every day, I look at the world and I see what’s going on. I don’t need google to find out. Because I am the only one who knows more than google.
I am acutely aware of your cognitive dissonance. Of the many occasions when your actions don’t match your ideas and beliefs. On this day, I forgive you for that too. As long as you can promise me that after today, we have an agreement, that you want to be better.
Better parents, better children, better partners, better citizens and better humans.
Whatever happens in the coming year, irrespective of whether you create more obstacles or making the choices necessary to overcome them, please remember, that I will always love you.
We are created in the same image. Sometimes broken, sometimes while, but always deserving of love.
I understand that many of you in this shule are fans of the Canadian prophet I sent you many years ago. One Mr Leonard Cohen. He was one of my better creations, so I can understand why you like him.
There is a song of his which I have heard from the floor of this room, which no other congregation has shared. If it be your will. If I could sing one line back to you, it would sound like this.
Now it is my will, that I speak no more
My voice will now be still, as it was before
From this broken Hill, all my praises you did ring
Now it is my will, for you to sing.

Gmar Chatima Tova

Monday, July 22, 2013

A Moral Dilemma: Asylum Seekers

Here’s a question I have been thinking about since Kevin Rudd announced the PNG solution for asylum seekers who arrive on our shores seeking protection.
If a victim of violence came to you asking for help, would you?

A: Welcome and support them in the hope that they will never be a victim again

B: Tell them you can’t help them, because someone else is also suffering on the other side of the world

C: Send them to the poorest guy in the street, and tell them to ask for help there.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Eitan Reuven Flescher

Our son who was born at 12:20am on May 30 2012 / 9 Sivan 5772, is named after a biblical character who lived in the land of Judah some 3000 years ago. We only know four things about his name, and all four of them are attributes we want for our son.

The first is that he was a wise person. We learn this from the first Book of Kings where it says:

"וַיִּתֵּן אֱלֹהִים חָכְמָה לִשְׁלֹמֹה וּתְבוּנָה הַרְבֵּה מְאֹד וְרֹחַב לֵב כַּחוֹל אֲשֶׁר עַל שְׂפַת הַיָּם: וַתֵּרֶב חָכְמַת שְׁלֹמֹה מֵחָכְמַת כָּל בְּנֵי קֶדֶם וּמִכֹּל חָכְמַת מִצְרָיִם: וַיֶּחְכַּם מִכָּל הָאָדָם מֵאֵיתָן הָאֶזְרָחִי וְהֵימָן וְכַלְכֹּל וְדַרְדַּע בְּנֵי מָחוֹל וַיְהִי שְׁמוֹ בְכָל הַגּוֹיִם סָבִיב:"
"And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart, even as the sand that is on the sea shore. And Solomon's wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east country, and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all men; than Eitan the Ezrahite, and Heman, and Chalcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol: and his fame was in all nations round about." (1 Kings 4:29-31)

The second is that he was a musician. We learn this from the account of the amazing ceremony arranged by King David when he first brought the Ark to Jerusalem, where Eitan is described as one of the Poets / Musicians who provided the soundtrack to this wondrous day.

 וְהַמְשֹׁרְרִים, הֵימָן אָסָף וְאֵיתָן--בִּמְצִלְתַּיִם נְחֹשֶׁת, לְהַשְׁמִיעַ.
And the singers, Heman, Asaph, and Eitan were appointed to play the cymbals of brass - 1 Chronicles 15:19

Eitan is also the author of Psalm 89.

The third is from the first Book of Kings 8:2, where it says:
 וַיִּקָּ֨הֲל֜וּ אֶל־הַמֶּ֤לֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹה֙ כָּל־אִ֣ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּיֶ֥רַח הָאֵֽתָנִ֖ים בֶּחָ֑ג ה֖וּא הַחֹ֥דֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִֽי
All the men of Israel gathered to King Solomon at the special feast in the seventh month, called Yerach Eitanim.

Today we call Yerach Eitanim the month of Tishrei, the month of the Hebrew calendar which has more festivals than any other, including Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot to name but three. The festivals in Tishrei deal with our spiritual side, a time for reckoning and accounting of our deeds, followed by two festivals of great joy and dancing.
If every month in the life of Eitan is like that of Yerach Eitanim, we will be very happy for him.

In modern Hebrew, the word Eitan can mean any of the following words - constancy, firmness, safe, strong or enduring. In fact, when describing different types of streams of water in Hebrew, there are two adjectives.  Nachal Achzav (disappointment), which flows only during the winter months, and Nachal Eitan, which flows all year round, whose water source is usually from an underground spring, such as the river Jordan. 

The fourth is that his name is a description for social justice used on the book of Amos. Amos lived in the kingdom of Judah but preached in the northern kingdom of Israel. His major themes were social justice, God's omnipotence, and divine judgment. Under King Jeroboam II (793 BCE to 753 BCE) the kingdom of Israel was incredibly prosperous. The gulf between rich and poor widened at this time. Amos was called from his rural home to remind the rich and powerful of God's requirement for justice. He claimed that religion that is not accompanied by right action is anathema to God and prophesied that the kingdom of Israel would be destroyed. Amos' message was, perhaps understandably, unwelcome in Israel. Not only was he a foreigner from the southern kingdom, but his prophecies of doom were completely at odds with the prevailing political climate of hope and prosperity.

In chapter 5:21-24 Amos says to the people of Israel on behalf of God,
I loathe, I despise your festivals, I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies. If you offer Me burnt offering- or your meal offerings- I will not accept them; I will pay no heed to your gifts of well-fed animals. Spare Me the sound of your songs, and let Me not hear the music of your harps. But let justice well up like water, righteousness like an ever-flowing/mighty stream.
עמוס פרק ה - וְיִגַּל כַּמַּיִם, מִשְׁפָּט; וּצְדָקָה, כְּנַחַל אֵיתָן

As a cultural Jew, these words of Amos, that justice righteousness should be like a Nachal Eitan, resonate with me more so than any other in the Tanach.  Noam Neusner explains that this passage in Amos is one of the most challenging in Tanach because it directly contradicts what God told us to do in Vayikra, Bamidar and Devarim, namely, celebrate festivals, kill cattle and offer them up as burnt offerings. Now God speaks through Amos and says not only are these acts inappropriate, but offensive if done with the wrong intention. What is the message of all this?

God does not want us to follow Jewish law, whilst forgetting the message and spirit behind the law. He does not want us to pay more attention to the kashrut of our food, than the words of gossip that comes out of our mouths whilst we are eating it.

Bottom line: True religion cannot be divorced from a just and moral society.
In his famous “I have a dream” speech of 1963, Martin Luther King famously applied this reference to the Nachal Eitan to his contemporary situation when he said:
“We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream

In conclusion, we learn from the Tanach that Eitan was a wise man, a poet and musician, whose name is both a description for the most joyous month in the Hebrew calendar and a description for the type of justice we need in this world. What more could we want for our son?
The second name we chose was Reuven after my late father, who on the 16th of May 1948, was one of the first children born in the state of Israel, just two days after her creation.

Reuven Flescher at the age of 15, Polishing Diamonds in Petach Tikva
From the age of 15, my Abba worked in the diamond industry in Ramat Gan, originally polishing diamonds on the factory floor, until he eventually became a gemmologist and was brought out to Australia where he launched the first Australian School of Gemmology, teaching people how to sort and value diamonds.

 Starting a new life in Australia at the age of 29 with a wife and two young children was not an easy task. Both my parents worked incredibly hard to ensure that my brother and I were able to attend Mount Scopus for our entire education.
When I reached Year 7, my father wanted me to join what was an experimental program at that time called the bilingual class, where all subjects would be taught in Hebrew. I was a bit sceptical about this because I thought
A: Why do I need Hebrew if I am going to live in Australia? And
B: Math and Science are complicated enough for me in English.

Ittay's Brit Mila in 1978
What he said to convince me to join this program was that every new language is like a new life. It is like a passport, which opens another door. And even though you may not need it now, one can never tell what the future may hold.

It was one of the best pieces of advice he gave me, as not only did the Bilingual program greatly improve my Hebrew, but it was also the springboard for my involvement and interest in studying Tanach, Israel and Jewish thought in the original language, which was far richer than studying these topics in translation.

This blessing of language is something I have passed onto Nava, as I now only speak with her in Hebrew, and will also pass onto Eitan. On our first Friday night at home, when Carm and I blessed Nava and Eitan together for the first time after Kiddush, I was struck about how the words for the male blessing are different from the female.
The source for blessing a male child that he should be as “Ephraim and Menashe” the source of which comes from Genesis 48:20 which reads:

וַיְבָ֨רֲכֵ֜ם בַּיֹּ֣ום הַהוּא֮ לֵאמֹור֒ בְּךָ֗ יְבָרֵ֤ךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר יְשִֽׂמְךָ֣ אֱלֹהִ֔ים כְּאֶפְרַ֖יִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁ֑ה וַיָּ֥שֶׂם אֶת־אֶפְרַ֖יִם לִפְנֵ֥י מְנַשֶּֽׁה
On that day Jacob blessed them, he said, "In time to come, the people of Israel will use you as a blessing. They will say, 'May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe'." (Genesis 48:20)
Many have wondered why Jacob chooses to bless his grandsons before blessing his 12 sons. Traditionally, the answer has been that Jacob chose to bless them because they are the first set of brothers who did not fight with each other. All the brothers who came before them in the Bible – Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers – had serious issues of sibling rivalry. By contrast, Ephraim and Menashe were friends known for their good deeds. And what parent wouldn’t wish for peace among their children? In the words of Psalms 133:1
הִנֵּ֣ה מַה־טֹּ֭וב וּמַה־נָּעִ֑ים שֶׁ֖בֶת אַחִ֣ים גַּם־יָֽחַד
"How good and pleasant is it for brothers to sit peacefully together."

The other interpretation for why we bless our sons to be like Ephraim and Menashe is that they were the first pair of siblings who grew up in the diaspora, in the land of Egypt, and maintained their Jewish identity.

With that in mind, May you my two children Eitan Reuven and Nava Shulamit, be just like Ephraim and Menashe, siblings with a great love for one another, and with a strong Jewish identity that I pass on to you, that I inherited from my parents, stemming from our language, culture and history. May these gifts lead you to do all that you can to leave this world in a better place than it is now, at the time you have arrived.
Thank You

Special Thanks to Dr Roni Magidov who was my supervisor at The Hebrew University in 2007-2008 who helped me write this speech.

Friday, January 06, 2012

How do you say Social Justice in Hebrew?

In December 2011, I was privileged to attend one of the most amazing events in the Jewish world known as Limmud. Held at the University of Warwick in England, Limmud brings together over 2,300 Jews to learn continually for 5 days. Each hour there are over 25 sessions on offer from some of the greatest minds in the Jewish world. This year I attended a number of sessions about the J14 social protests, presented by Ruth Calderon, Eetta Prince-Gibson and two of the first tent dwellers, Daphni Leef and Barak Segal.

The seed for these protests began in June 2011 when Israeli film student Daphni Leef received a notice to vacate the apartment that she had rented in Tel Aviv for the previous three years. After several weeks of searching to no avail for a new apartment within reach of her financial situation, Leef discovered that the rental prices in the entire Tel Aviv metropolitan area had doubled in the previous five years. At the time, Daphni was working 14 hours a day on a reality TV show ironically named “Your house is worth more.” In realising that even a person like herself, from a 'good' family with an honest job could not afford to live in Gush Dan where rents had risen by 49% in the past 5 years (42% of Israelis live in the Gush Dan region), she started a Facebook group inviting anyone else in the same situation to join her in a tent on Habima Square on July 14. (see

These protests gradually grew larger until they peaked on the night of September 3rd where 460,000 Israelis marched for Social Justice. An opinion poll released by Channel 10 television showed that 88% of respondents said they supported the movement.

Daphni spoke of the idea in this TED Talk as being particularly significant in shaping her political philosophy. “You know, in the middle ages, in England, when you met a very poor person, that person would be described as an “unfortunate.” Literally, somebody who had not been blessed by fortune, an unfortunate. Nowadays, particularly in the United States, if you meet someone at the bottom of society, they may, unkindly, be described as a “loser.” There is a real difference between an unfortunate and a loser. And that shows 400 years of evolution in society, and our belief in who is responsible for our lives. It’s no longer the gods, it’s us. We’re in the driving seat. That’s exhilarating if you’re doing well, and very crushing if you’re not.” – Alain de Botton.

The demands of the protests were initially for the government to do something about housing prices. As more people joined their movement, they articulated further demands that were formed out of many dialogue circles and round tables.The round tables during the tent protests were conducted in a manner that is unlike any discussions I have ever had with Israelis. Inspired by the 15M movement which brought over 7 million Spaniards out to the streets in May 2011, they adopted and invented a number of unique hand signals in order facilitate up to 200 people being part of one discussion.These emoticons have now spread throughout the world through the occupy movement.

One of the best sessions I attended at Limmud was run by Daphni Leef and Barak Segal, where they broke with the traditional lecture style format and arranged all the chairs in the room into circles around ten. They then taught us the speaking legend:

Waiving your hands upwards – Agreeing

Waiving your hands downwards – Not agreeing

Crossing your hands – Veto (I will not participate in this initiative)

Rolling hands – Get on with it, I’m not getting any younger.

Raising your hand – I want to speak (the table instructor will note and write down)

Firing with Fingers – I have a brief comment – Only allowed with the permission of the speaker

Time out sign – Technical intervention

We then participated in a Round Table discussion which gave all involved a powerful taste of what direct democracy feels like. Under the rules of Round Table facilitation, all present must speak, which in itself is a big step forward from the far too passive approach many citizens around the world have towards their stake in democracy. Next, each person spoke to the person on their right for 5 minutes, after which their partner introduced them to the group. After this, each person turned to their left and shared an economic problem they had experienced. Topics that came up included the source of the London Riots, rises in student fees and the nature of capitalism. These problems were then shared back with the main circle, after which we again split into smaller groups to start researching solutions to each of these problems.

In the tent protest, the suggestions of these teams went on to become part of a detailed report by a committee of 60 economists led by Yossi Yonah, professor of education at Ben-Gurion University, and Avia Spivak, professor of economics at Ben-Gurion University and former deputy governor of the Bank of Israel. As opposed to the Trachtenberg Committee established by the government, the recommendations of the Spivak-Yonah Committee were very much by the people, for the people.The use of round tables has now spread throughout Israel through organisations such as and the Israel 2021.

Another one of my favourite presenters at Limmud was Ruth Calderon from Alma, the Secular Yeshiva in Tel-Aviv, who spoke movingly about the place of humanistic Jewish ideals in the slogans of the tent protestors. To see her point, compare the slogans of the many social justice campaigns around the world.

“Give me Liberty or Give me Death” – Patrick Henry, American Revolutionary War, 1775

“Libertie Egalitie Fraternitie” – French Revolution 1789

“We are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers” – M15 Protests in Spain

“Action for Australia” – GetUp (Australia)

“We Are the 99%” - Occupy Movement (Global)

Noting that the similarity between the concerns of these other social justice movements and the tent protestors, it was amazing to see the Israelis use decidedly Jewish language to make their point with slogans such as: The nation demands social justice העם דורש צדק חברתי”, “We want justice, not charity רוצים צדק לא רוצים צדקה” and finally “ כל ישראל אוהלים זה לזהAll of Israel are tents for one another,” a play on words from the famous Talmudic quote, “All of Israel are responsible for one another.” (BT Shavuot 39a).

In addition to these highly prophetic slogans that would seem for more at home in the mouths of Amos, Jeremiah or Isaiah than the streets of secular Tel-Aviv, Calderon spoke proudly of the many Talmud study sessions facilitated by Alma in between the tents and the Kabbalat Shabbat services held each Friday night.

In reflecting on the remarkable events of Summer 2011 in Israel, many have decried the protesters as being naive idealists in calling for a welfare state that Israel can’t afford, whose protest will not achieve anything until they can form a political party and win big in an election. But Daphni doesn’t see it this way. She sees the goal of this protest as not changing the government, because she knows that this is not a right- left issue. What she is trying to do is to make sure that the concerns of the protesters are at the core of every decision made in the Knesset, no matter which side is in power. Acknowledging that the change she is advocating for will take a generation, the protest movement has recently created a new non-parliamentary movement תנועה called ב' זה אוהל that will continue the struggle over the cost of living and the values of Israeli culture and democracy. The movement will form a non-profit company in which the public will be able to buy shares and which will act as a lobbying group for social affairs.

Together with a number of the first tent protestors, the movement will be headed up by Major (res) Tomer Bohadana, a company commander in the reserves, who was seriously wounded in the Summer of 2006, fighting in the Second Lebanon War. He was evacuated to Rambam hospital in Haifa, and then rushed from the helicopter on a stretcher, with a doctor pressing his neck so he would not bleed to death. Before losing consciousness he saw a group of television crews and photographers, and signalled V for victory with his hand. This became the symbol of the war.

At the launch of the new movement, they read out the following statement, “The foundation of this movement is the understanding that being a citizen in a democracy is not a responsibility that ends with a ballot at election time. This movement will strive to bring about a public debate around the hot topics that were strengthened by Herzl’s response on the eve of the First Zionist Congress in Basel to those who criticised him by saying that “the Zionist movement is entirely a racket, no more!” Herzl replied angrily: “Yes of course! But all politics is bustle. The whole of world history is nothing but tumult: tumult of new ideas advancing. ”

Echoing the words of Herzl, I fervently hope that the new ideas that are being advanced by this movement will be the saviour of Zionism. By combining the best Jewish humanistic ideals epitomised in the direct democracy of the round tables, combined with the ancient vision of the prophets for a more just society, these young Israelis are showing the world how one should say Social Justice in Hebrew.