Saturday, June 30, 2012

Parshat Hukat
A Dvar Torah in Honour of My Mother z'l

Below is a dvar Torah I gave in my synagogue today.

(For non Canadian readers it may be helpful to know that July 1 is Canada's Independence Day, commonly called "Canada Day.")

Dvar Torah – Parshat Hukat – 5772, 2012

Shabbat Shalom

One year ago – on June 30 2011 – my mother, Jeanette Nestel zichronah l'vracha died. She was buried on Canada Day. I want to dedicate this dvar Torah to her memory. My mother was a survivor of the horrors of WWII and she was great lover of Canada, a great lover of the Jewish People and of Israel, and great hater of injustice. I hope these word honour her memory.

Todays' parsaha, Hukat, seems at first glance to be particularly appropriate as the topic of a talk marking the anniversary of a death. It opens with a description of the mysterious rites of the Red Heffer, used, in Biblical times, to purify people who have come into contact with the dead. The priest is instructed to burn a pure red cow – skin, blood, organs, dung and all – sprinkle some cedar, hyssop, and scarlet into the fire, and then save the ashes. The ashes are later to be mixed with water and sprinkled over people who have become impure by way of contact with the dead, Thus they are re-purified and can once again take part in the religious life of the community.

In Numbers 19:11-22 we read in part:

11 He that touches the dead, even any person's dead body, shall be unclean for seven days; ...14 This is the law: when a person dies in a tent, every one that comes into the tent, and every thing that is in the tent, shall be unclean seven days. ...17 And for the unclean ones, they shall take of the ashes of the burning (of the Red Heffer) of the purification from sin, and with running water put it into a vessel.18 And a clean person shall take hyssop, and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it ... upon the persons that were in the tent of the dead, or upon him that touched a bone, or touched the slain, or the dead, or the grave.19 .... and he shall be clean at the evening.20 But that person that is unclean, and does not purify himself, that soul shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly, because he has defiled the sanctuary of the LORD; the water of sprinkling has not been dashed against him: he is unclean.21 This shall be a perpetual law unto you; ...

Well, ... I was in my mothers home just after she died - and with her body still there. And I touched her hand and kissed her cheek. And today – and not for over 2000 years – has there been any Red Heffer ashes with which to purify me.

So, am I in trouble? Am I “to be cut off from the midst of the assembly” as the Torah text tells us?

Fortunately I am not the only Jew to face this problem. One can safely assume that nearly all Jews today are in a state of ritual impurity because of the lack of the Red Heffer ceremony. Yet we all continue on and not one is banished. Jews have thankfully let go of this pseudo-magical rite. And while the Orthodox may believe that one day the Red Heffer will be re-instated, we Reconstructions have officially stopped praying for the return of the Temple. We have wisely rejected all that. And we do not delude ourselves with false nostalgia. We admit that we do not need , nor do we want a renewed Temple, even if it were possible.

If only we could get rid of the rest of our magical, dysfunctional, and habitual ways of thinking.

* * *

But the Red Heffer is not really what I want to talk about today. When reviewing the parsha I was more struck by the last part of the text, and by the associated Haftarah..

At the end of the Parsha, towards the end of the Israelites 40 years in the desert, as they approach the Promised Land, we read in Numbers 21:21-32:

21 And Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, saying:22 'Let us pass through your land; we will not turn aside into field, nor into vineyard; we will not drink of the water of the wells; we will go by the king's highway, until we have passed thy border.'23 And Sihon would not suffer Israel to pass through his border; but Sihon gathered all his people together, and went out against Israel into the wilderness, and came to Jahaz; and he fought against Israel.24 And Israel smote him with the edge of the sword, and possessed his land from the Arnon river unto the Jabbok, ...25 And Israel took all these cities; and Israel dwelt in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all the towns thereof.26 For Heshbon was the city of Sihon the king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab, and had taken all his land out of his hands, even unto the Arnon. ...31 Thus Israel came to dwell in the land of the Amorites.
So, here we have the people of Israel fighting what starts out as a defensive war, seizing land and expelling the native residence. The expulsion is justified in part, so the text tells us, because the Amorites themselves had, sometime earlier, captured the land from the Moabites.

And all this takes place outside of the promised land, in what today is the country of Jordan. There is no claim – here at least – that trans-Jordan is promised by God, or by anyone else,
to the Jewish people.

Rather the text seems to say that the Amorites captured the land from the Moabites and expelled them, and then we captured the land from Amorites and expelled them. Sounds like the beginning of Had Gadya.

* * *

The haftarah, picks up on this story of the parsha. The haftarah's text is from the book of Judges. The story takes place 300 years after the war against the Amorites that is recounted in Hukat. The Israelite tribe of Menasheh is still living in the Gilead, the very territories captured from the Amorites. And now the Ammonites, a part of the larger Moabite nation, are massing to make war against them. The elders of Gilead, appoint Jephtah to be their leader (yes this is the same Jephtah who will later foolishly sacrifice his daughter to God, but that story is not part of today's haftarah.)

Jephtah organizes an army to defend against the Ammonites, but he also sends a message to the to the king of the Ammonites saying:

What quarrel is there between us, that you have come to me to fight in my land?”

And the king of the Ammonites replies:

Because Israel took my land when it came up out of Egypt, from the Arnon river unto the Jabbok ... ; therefore restore now this land peacefully.”

Jephtah is not impressed, and sends back a long reply with many counter claims.

First, he simply denies that Israel took the Ammonite's land,

Thus says Jephtah: Israel took not the land of Moab, nor the land of the children of Ammon”

He then quotes at great length from today's parsha, recalling how the Israelites had conquered the land from the Ammorites, not the Moabites or the Amonnites.

But Japhtah both leaves out, and adds, to the details related in the Torah text.
leaves out the part were the Bible acknowledges – and even emphasizes – the fact the the land had been previously occupied by the Moabites, and then uses the Amorites own recent conquest of the land to invalidate their rights to it. And Japhtah adds, what is nowhere mentioned in the Torah text: that its was God who brought about Israelites victory,

And the Lord , the God of Israel, delivered Sihon [to us]...” says Jephtah.

Later in his long reply to the King of the Ammonites Jephtah uses this supposed fact to justify Israel's claim to that territory.

So now the Lord, the God of Israel, has dispossessed the Ammorites in favour of his people Israel. Should you now possess it.

Japhteh then goes on two make three more arguments against the Ammonites claims to these territories.

  • First, why can't you Amonnites be happy with all the land that you do have access to as part of the larger Moabite nation.
  • Second, you Amonites are just like the rest of the Moabites – that evil King Balak in particular – who have always striven against Israel. (And he then goe on to reminds them that the Moabites are a cowardly people and have never won a war against Israel.)
  • Third, and finally, Jephtah reminds the Ammonites, it has been 300 years since you lost your land, why didn't you reclaim it before now?

As you might guess, the Ammonite king is not persuaded by any of these arguments. A war ensues, and Japhteh and the Israelites are victorious – inflicting, we are told, a “very great slaughter” on the Ammonites.

Thus ends the haftarah.
* * *
But this is not the end of the story. The Ammonites are not wiped out, nor do they give up. We know from other books of the Bible that the Ammonites continued to exist and to periodically attack Israel. They were eventually conquered, but not expelled or converted, by King David. Later, after the death of Solomon, their territory, and they themselves, became part of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Still later they regained independence as a tribute state of Assyria, when that empire defeated and eventually conquered and exiled the Northern Kingdom. And later still some of the Ammonites, joined with the Babylonians when they came to conquer, and ultimately exile Judea . Had Gadya

But finally, after the return of the Judeans from Babylon, there is perhaps a reconciliation of sorts. In the Book of Ezra we read of much intermarriage between Jews and Amonnites, so much so that Ezra and his followers demanded that this practice come to an end, and that all such marriages be annulled. It is not clear historically how much this ban on miscegenation was in fact followed by the common people.

The Ammonites eventually fade from history, but the Ammonites legacy is preserved today in the name of the capital city of Jordan: Amman – the Biblical Rabat Ammon, capital of the Ammonite Kingdom. And, of course, given all that intermarriage, so disapproved of by Ezra, there may be some Ammonite genes sitting among us today.

* * *

I see several analogies between these stories and the recent history of the Middle East. But what interests me in particular, are the theoretical and emotional claims made by all sides regarding national and state's rights to territory. We have in our parsha and in the haftarah many of the same arguments that are used today by proponents of both Jewish and Palestinian rights to all or parts of Israel/Palestine.

First, in the parsha itself we hear an echo of the oft heard, pro Israel argument that - we won the land fair and square in a war that you guys started, so buzz-off. We now get to keep it, and if need be, we can throw you guys out. We also hear echos of the oft repeated (but in my opinion specious) claim that in any case most of the Palestinians had recently migrated to Palestine from somewhere else, so its is OK to claim the land from them.

In the haftarah, in the Ammonites' claim “This was once our territory,” we hear echos of both the Palestinian claim and the Jewish claim that they are indigenous to the land. And moreover that indigenous rights trump all other rights.

Later in the Ammonites' words – “you conquered it on your way out of Egypt” – we hear an echo of the Palestinian claim that just because the Jews were fleeing oppression in Europe doesn't give them the right to claim the Palestinian’s land. It not our fault that you had to flee persecution, say both the Ammonites and the Palestinian’s, and we shouldn't have to pay the price.

Then, in Jephtah's long response to the King of the Ammonites, we hear echos of five current Jewish national claims to the land:

  • First, God gave us the land, so who are you – or we – to dispute that.
  • Second, we received the land not from you Palestinians (who in any case had never had state), but from the British, who had captured in from the Turks and who held it only based on the Mandate granted to it by the Great Powers at the San Remo Conference of 1920. So though you Palestinians may have lived here, you were not the rightful owners when we took over.
  • Third, that as part of the larger Arab nation, you Palestinians have plenty of other places that you should be happy to live in.
  • Forth, that you Palestinians – like all Arabs and/or Muslims – are vicious anti-semites and therefore we get to claim rights your land rights.

Jephtah's fifth and final argument, however, - namely that 300 years had past since the Ammonites had been expelled, so they had lost whatever rights they once had – that argument can can cut both ways. It certainly works against the initial justice claims of the Zionist project. We Jews, after all, had been mostly off that land for much longer than 300 years. But today this argument could also be used against the Palestinians. They have been mostly out of, at least pre 1967 Israel, for 64 years now. Not 300 years, but perhaps good enough for a Jewish claim against some Palestinian rights.

* * *

Of course, not only the Bible, but also modern political philosophers have dealt with the theoretical issues of national and states' rights to territory. Their views can be roughly divided into two camps. The justice / state camp, and the culture / national camp

The leading exponent of the justice / state theory was Emanuel Kant. He claimed that states have rights to territory because they impose justice. Furthermore, that it is necessary for states to control territory – i.e. to tax, to control resources, to control movement, to promulgate and enforce laws – in order to create justice. And the more just a state is, the more it can claim rights over a territory. In addition, states have rights to particular territories, because by promulgating and enforcing particular sets of laws and customs, states forge a common national identity for their citizens, and it is the citizens who are are individually attached to their own land.

In other words a state has a general right to control territory – if it provides justice - but its right to a particular territory is only a function of the individual property rights of its citizens and the states requirement to serve interests of it the citizen's. Furthermore, it is the state that forms, through the imposition of common laws, languages and customs, the national consciousness of its citizens. Kant himself predates the modern nation state, but his theory has been used down to the present day to justify the territorial claims of the liberal state. By this theory America has legitimate rights to Hawaii primarily because it brought, with its rule, a more enlightened, democratic and just system. And it also agreed to make the native Hawaiians citizens, and thus part of the larger American nation. Had the islands been claimed by the despotic tzars or the corrupt Spanish crown, that claim would not have been legitimate.

The problem with this theory, of course, is that it would allow America to take over and annex any territory were a reasonable standard of justice does not prevail, as long as it makes the residents of the territory citizens. And this theory says nothing about the consent of these new citizens - who as we all know – may prefer ethnic solidarity to a more enlightened regime.

The other major theory of territorial rights, the culture / national theory, argues that territorial rights have little to do with states and nothing to do with justice. They argue that the nation pre-exists the state, and that the state controls territory only in so far as it is an agent, or trustee, of the nation. It is the nation, not the state, that has rights to the land, because its culture is bound up in the land. Just as an individual obtains rights to land through actively caring for it, working on it, and modifying it (or so says John Stuart Mill) a nation acquires rights to a land by both imposing its culture on the landscape and, in turn, by being affected by that landscape. Nations build public buildings, houses of worship, monuments, etc. They cultivate in a certain way. They build roads and cities in a certain style. All this marks the landscape as theirs. In turn the built and natural landscape, and the local climate patterns, influence the culture of the nation: its literature, its national holidays, even its past-times, - in short its national consciousness. By this theory, Canada belongs to the Canadian nation because we built the CPR and we love hockey. We can rightly claim sovereignty over the north west passage, because no one else loves and celebrates the north the way we do, and because we are busy investing in northern infrastructure.

The problem with this theory, of course, is that it does nothing to decide if Quebec is or is not part of Canada – after all the Quebecois love hockey too – nor would it help adjudicate the Maine / New Brunswick border if it came to that. The landscape on both sides look pretty much the same, and cultures on either side of the border are not that different either. More pointedly, while the culture / national theory can be used by both Jews and Palestinians to make claims regarding Israel/Palestine, it cannot adjudicate those claims. Both nations have lots of cultural capital invested in that land.

Personally, between the two, I feel that the culture / national theory better explains a group's attachment to a particular piece of land than does the justice / state model. But it does not really help us decide between two competing claims. Nor is it adequate in dealing with claims of peoples who have been long removed from their ancestral lands, where they indeed have strong historical cultural bonds, but weaker current ones – people such as the Serbs with respect to Kosovo, or the Mississauga First Nation with respect to Toronto. Nor does the culture / national theory deal adequately with minority groups and individuals who do not share the same ethnic loyalties as the dominant group within a given territory.

But in my opinion, one of the most serious problems with all these theories and claims, both Biblical and Modern, is that they assume a congruence between the state – which is the entity that effects legal and administrative sovereignty – the nation or ethnicity – which is the entity that commands emotional and cultural loyalty, a territory – which is the locus of both state sovereignty and national home. The attempt to enforce just such congruence of state , nationality, and territory is what lead to many of the horrors of 20th century Europe, horrors which my mother experienced all to well, and that largely drove the growth of Zionist movement and the foundation of the State of Israel.

Is there then, perhaps, another model that can mitigate against such nationalist conflicts? Yes there is. And it was one that was strongly advocated by the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism – Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. And it is also one which Canada – to a certain extent – models: that is, of course, multiculturalism and bi (or multi) nationalism.

Kaplan's ideas on multi-nationalism were a product of his deep pondering of the American experience and of his analysis of the failings of the European ethno-nationalist states of the first half of the 20th century. In a nutshell, Kaplan sought to break the congruency of state and nation. In fact, he invented the word Peoplehood and People (with a capital P) largely to avoid the confusion of the terms “Nation” and “State.”

Kaplan saw the Diaspora experience of the Jewish People not as one long tragedy of statelessness, but rather as an opportunity to teach the word how to maintains a trans-state nation, something he saw as positive model for all Peoples in the future.

"Kaplan’s essays, books, and diary entries indicate that the National Question was a central focus of his thinking throughout his very long career. From Kaplan’s first published essay (“Judaism and Nationality,” in 1908) to his final book (The Religion of Ethical Nationhood, in 1970) Kaplan’s goal was to define the Jewish People as the exemplar of a more progressive type of nationalism that separated the historical bonds of national groups from the political ties of citizenship, and its associated jingoism, and chauvinism.

Kaplan’s pre 1948 writings contrasted Jewish nationalism (and his understanding of Zionism) with other paradigms of nationalism that emphasized territory, sovereignty, or blood lines as the primary markers of membership. Kaplan viewed “absolute national sovereignty” as “liable to … destroy the very foundations of human civilization.” Jewish nationalism, he strongly believed, could teach the world the antidote to these trends: namely - cultural diversity, solidarity across geopolitical boundaries, and non-coercive criteria of inclusion.

Zionism, and here he understood Zionism as the Cultural Zionism of Aham Ha’am, and of Judah Magnes appealed to Kaplan largely as a movement capable of shepherding a new era of depoliticized, non-exclusivist – kinder gentler - nationalism. Instead of contributing to the division of the world into discrete territorial units, with homogeneous national populations, Jewish nationalism, so thought Kaplan, would underscore the practical and moral limitations of national sovereignty.

Modern democracies, including the United States, he hoped, would follow the teachings of cultural Zionism and refrain from demanding ethnic, religious, or cultural conformity of their citizens.

However, the establishment of the state of Israel, and with it the message that Jewish nationhood was synonymous with statehood, left Kaplan in a bind. The language of nationalism and Zionism had become too closely associated with national sovereignty for him to use it effectively to express his idea. Therefore, it was in the 1950’s that he introduced the then new term “Peoplehood”, so that he could continue his lifelong vision of promoting Jewish nationalism as a theoretical and practical replacement for the nation-state." - TPP p 24

Kaplan's vision was that all states (and certainly Israel) would be multi-national, and all nations (or Peoples) would be multi-state. This would, he hoped reduce national tensions and would make states less aggressive in their relations to other states.

Many of us are familiar with Kaplan's famous aphorism that, as post emancipation Jew's, we are “living in two civilizations.” But the true significance of these remarks is more than a mere factual observation on the state of American Jewry. This phrase encapsulates Kaplan's hope for all people.

A few quotes from Kaplan's writings can give us a sense of the breadth of his vision.

  • The only way out of the present melange of historical civilizations and modern nations is to sanction living in more than one civilization. That is the inevitable lot of modern man. - JAAC p 305

  • Living in two civilizations … is not merely a necessity into which modern nations are driven by historical forces … its is a means of warding off the danger of raising the state to a religion. Far from viewing the hyphenated cultural allegiance of the citizen of a modern state with alarm, we should rejoice that there is present in the body politic an influence counteracting the dangers of chauvinism. - JAAC p 250

  • The ... metamorphosis which the Jewish People [has undergone] is emerging as a measure to which [all] nations will have to resort, if they are to retain a hold on their populations, which are now forced to find Lebensraum outside the mother country. Diaspora will, before long, become a common phenomenon with many peoples of the world.

[Thus] it is not at all inconceivable that we Jews are destined to achieve the type of society, which, due to exigencies of expanding populations, is likely to evolve everywhere: a land-rooted, yet [geographically dispersed] people. Societies thus structured must necessarily acquire the habit of living in two civilizations, one of their motherland, and the other of the country that they live in. Diaspora Jews, in having to live in two civilizations, are only sharing a fate which will [soon] be common to many peoples. Once again, the Jewish People seems to be the harbinger of a kind of society which is on its way to becoming a vehicle for ... [universal] social progress. - JWSp140

Kaplan, who one of the first and most vocal pre-war American Zionists, was also not shy about applying his multi-national principles to the State of Israel. In 1958 he wrote:

[Israel] as a modern state, ... should not be committed to any particular religion [or historic People.] Whether it should foster all the religions to which its citizens belong, or foster none of them, is purely a matter of practical politics. But whichever policy is adopted, all citizens of the state, regardless of race, colour or creed, must be accorded equal treatment.

... [Israel] insofar as it calls itself a Jewish state, and has Hatikvah as its national anthem, ... is not yet a fully modern [or ethical] state ....

Kaplan came to call his vision of a world of multi-national states and multi-state nations “Ethical Nationhood” or “Ethical Peoplehood.” and he thought it was the only way to save the world, and the Jews, from doom.

By the 1960's Kaplan seems aware that his vision of the egalitarian multinational state was going against the grain of Israeli – and, perhaps by then, North American Jewish – reality, and that he would likely be called naive or even dangerous by some. In his last book “The Religion of Ethical Nationhood” published in 1970, he argues back, quoting approvingly from a speech by Rabbi Alan Miller of the SAJ:

The Zionists want to normalize the Jewish People. But they fail to comprehend what should be normal for the Jewish People. ... By normalizing ourselves, [by modelling ourselves on other nations], we destroy our very Jewishness, and instead of becoming normal we shall become non-existant. We are a Diaspora people and a minority people, and especially in the Middle East. Not any kind of Zionism, but only spiritual Zionism, not nationalism but only ethical peoplehood, [only this] will suffice. ....

* * *
And so to close, the question and the challenge I want to leave you with today is this:

  • as we see our Israeli brethren mired in a seemingly endless conflict with the Palestinians over which people will have sovereignty over which piece of land;
  • as we see the violent, intolerant and frankly racist treatment of African refugees in Israel today;
  • as we see many of the Jewish citizens of Israel in constant fear of what see as “the demographic threat” presented by non-Jews,

does Kaplan's vision of the multi-national state – and frankly the Canadian experience of something quite similar – point to a way out of the zero sum game of the ethno-nation-state model? Can Israelis, and Palestinians, learn from the Canadian experience, or must we follow the model of Serbia.

Or worse still, are we doomed to follow in the footsteps of the ancient Israelites and Ammonites, who fought each other for 500 years and – as today's haftorah attests – with repeated cases of “very great slaughter”: ( a struggle that, by the way, ended badly for both peoples. ) Must we always opt for an ethnic fortress? Must one side's gain always be the other sides loss?

Or can we learn to think differently? Can we learn to question our habitual thinking about the need for a Jewish nation-state. Can we perhaps imagine, as Kaplan did, a multicultural or even multinational state, where Jews and Palestinians, and maybe even African refugees, can live together and share the land as full equals.

Thank you, and

Shabbat Shalom

JWS = Mordecai Kaplan, Judaism Without Supernaturalism (1958)
JAAC = Mordecai Kaplan, Judaism As A Civilization (1936)
TPP = Noam Pianko, The Peoplehood Papers 5 (2010) 

Labels: , , , , , , , ,


Anonymous Anonymous said...

yesh koach

4:23 pm  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home