Words from the Rabbi – Adar I 5784

It’s been hard finding the right words to share with you all over the last four months. Every day since Oct 7th has been painful and it’s been hard to articulate some of the truths that I think should be shared. These thoughts are based on the sermon I gave this week on Saturday morning, and reflect ideas I’ve been grappling with since October. They very much represent work in progress and I invite you to share your own thoughts, experiences and feedback about what I’ve written so we can think through some of these difficult issues together.

The most often repeated law in the Torah is to not oppress the stranger, the fatherless, the widow. In patriarchal, clan-based society, these three people were the most likely to suffer without recourse to public structures to protect them. The stranger had no clan, the fatherless and the widow had no male patriarch to represent them. The Torah assures us that God will hear their shouts the moment they cry out to God, and will punish their oppressors. In the absence of society holding the powerful to account, God is supposed to fill the gap and protect the weak, or to put it another way, perhaps the Torah hopes that the fear of God will be enough to force the powerful to act morally.

The duty to take care of the weak and the powerless is a major emphasis in the Torah and throughout Tanach. Psalm 140 for example tells us “I know that the Eternal will champion the cause of the poor, the right of the needy”. This suggests a strong dichotomy in the world, between strong and weak, rich and poor, powerful and powerless. This idea might lead us then divide other groups into those same categories – men are powerful, women are not, citizens are powerful, strangers are not. This can sometimes be a helpful mental shortcut in life, a quick way to remind ourselves to see the struggles other people might be having.

It was something like this thought process that led to the idea of intersectionality, whose core essence is simple and has, I believe, a lot of value. Syracuse University website defines intersectionality in the following terms:

Intersectionality (or intersectional theory) is a term first coined in 1989 by American civil rights advocate and leading scholar of critical race theory, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. It is the study of overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination

This can be a helpful reminder that people don’t exist in single categories but in many. A person may be LGBTQ+ and also have brown skin, or disabled and a woman and so on. Identity is complex and therefore so is oppression. You can benefit from the privilege of being a man in our society (for example not getting catcalled on the street) while suffering because of your social status (not being hired for well paid work due to your accent), to name just one example of how sitting with multiple identities may impact your life.

So far so good. However, it has almost ironically led to some very black and white thinking, to the idea the world can be divided into strong and weak, oppressors and victims. It seems to have evolved into the notion that, if you can identify who is the weaker party, then you’ve worked out all you need to know about the morality of the situation. This can lead to the strange conclusion that the oppressed can do no wrong, and the powerful are always wrong.

This dogmatic approach has led, I believe, to an increase in antisemitism. Prof Karin Stögner, an academic in Germany, wrote on this topic on the Fathom website in 2020, which you can read in full here https://fathomjournal.org/intersectionality-and-antisemitism-a-new-approach/:

“Many intersectional feminist movements that stand up against racism have great difficulty in grasping how antisemitism works. They understand antisemitism as only a form of racism, while they reduce racism itself to the dichotomy of White and Black, with Jews implicitly or explicitly identified with ‘Whiteness’. This is analytically disabling because antisemitism does not run along the colour line, and consequently not along the binary divide ‘privileged / non-privileged’…

“The Whiteness frame, as a tool for making visible structural racism, not only proves to be completely unsuitable for antisemitism, but can even confirm antisemitism, as David Schraub (2019) has pointed out. The privileges associated with Whiteness include power, influence, money, property, education, dominance, participation, being heard and having a voice, cliques and networks, and positions inherited over generations. If this frame is applied to the White majority society, ingrained power structures can be made visible. If, on the other hand, it is applied to the Jewish minority, this frame can actually result in the confirmation of antisemitic stereotypes such as the excessive influence of Jews in business, politics and the media. Jews appear as the super-Whites. Schraub observes that ‘The hope in applying the Whiteness frame to a gentile White is to unsettle received understandings of the White experience – to make people see things they had not seen before. By contrast, the effect of applying Whiteness to Jewishness is confirmatory: ‘I always thought that Jews had all this power and privilege – and see how right I was!’’ (2019, p. 15)”

This is a real problem that is not, I think, inherent to intersectionality as an approach, but has become a large part in how it is processed, especially in the United States, and has been part of the rise in left-wing antisemitism around the world.

Another problem of thinking in these terms is that we can get sucked into battles of trying to prove how weak we are, and therefore how morally upright. If we only could figure out who was the bigger victim, we might say, we would know who was correct.

I’ve seen a lot of conversations like this play out when talking about Israel and Palestine. One side will say how tiny Gaza is compared to Israel, how many civilians have been killed or forced to flee. The other will retell the stories of atrocities from October 7th, the suffering of the hostages. Comparisons will be drawn not between Gaza and Israel but all the Arab countries vs. the only Jewish country. As if truth can be found by determining strength.

Is this what the Torah wants? On the contrary, we read in Exodus 23:2-3:

לֹֽא־תִהְיֶ֥ה אַחֲרֵֽי־רַבִּ֖ים לְרָעֹ֑ת וְלֹא־תַעֲנֶ֣ה עַל־רִ֗ב לִנְטֹ֛ת אַחֲרֵ֥י רַבִּ֖ים לְהַטֹּֽת׃
וְדָ֕ל לֹ֥א תֶהְדַּ֖ר בְּרִיבֽוֹ׃

2] You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty— 3] nor shall you show deference to a poor person in a dispute.

Judges, who have to find the truth, must be warned both ways. The Torah gives a stronger warning against siding with the mighty – perhaps it is human nature to follow one’s own self-interest, and there will always be the danger of judges wanting to help the powerful, who may after all be their friends and peers, setting aside the question of bribes or tit-for-tat repayment. But judges also need to be warned not to show deference to the poor person – in other words being the weaker party doesn’t mean that you’re always right. Of course oppressed people can break the law, can do harm.

Truth is a great thing, and something to be strived for. The Torah warns us “Keep far from falsehood” (Ex 23:7). Sifting through propaganda and spin was hard in the days before the internet and so much harder now, with social media’s algorithms rewarding sensationalism and creating echo chambers of thought. It has become so hard to find the truth, but, if we are to have any hope of finding it, we need, like the judges in the Torah, to look beyond power. Power is an important part of the dynamics of the world, but it can also conceal what is really going on.

But how do we reconcile this requirement for the judges to be neutral with the call to care for the stranger, the fatherless and the widow? Jewish tradition helps us here, with the desire to constantly balance mishpat, judgement, with chesed, compassion, and when the two are in conflict, we should err on the side of chesed. The rabbis tell an amazing story about the creation of human beings that illustrates this idea in Genesis Rabbah 8:5:

Rabbi Simon said: When the Holy Blessed One came to create the first human being, the ministering angels divided into various factions and various groups. Some of them were saying: ‘Let people not be created,’ and some of them were saying: ‘Let them be created.’ That is what is written: “Kindness and truth met; righteousness and peace touched” (Psalms 85:11). Kindness said: ‘Let people be created, as they perform acts of kindness.’ Truth said: ‘Let them not be created, as they are all full of lies.’ Righteousness said: ‘Let them be created, as they perform acts of righteousness.’ Peace said: ‘Let them not be created, as they are all full of discord.’ What did the Holy Blessed One do? God took Truth and cast it down to earth. That is what is written: “You cast truth earthward” (Daniel 8:12).

In the battle between Truth and Kindness, it is Truth that God chooses to discard. Chesed, compassion, takes priority over Mishpat, strict judgement.

We don’t have to solve all conflicts, we don’t have to know who was right or wrong, we have to help who is hurting, and be ready to see that different groups of people can all be legitimately hurting at the same time for different reasons.

Hostages in Gaza must be suffering beyond imagining. Many have been killed, and there are so many whose fate is unknown. The families of hostages around the world are going through unbearable pain. We can listen to their stories, make sure they aren’t forgotten. JW3’s Lovelock Hostage Bridge is one way to do so, and you can see more about it here: https://www.jw3.org.uk/israel-crisis. Our community has also joined the Board of Deputies’ ‘Adopt a Hostage’ programme and so we’re particularly thinking of Shlomi Ziv, who was working security at the Nova festival on 7th October.

Palestinian civilians are suffering tremendously, fleeing their homes, losing loved ones, parents, children. The scale of destruction is immense and the pain has been going on for generations.

Jews and Israelis around the world are suffering, from the trauma of Oct 7th, from fear of antisemitism, from fear to out oneself as Jewish, as Israeli.

Muslim communities in the UK are also struggling. I’ve heard them say how they feel unheard and unsupported, that Islamophobia is rife in the UK.

Trying to work out who is suffering the most, who is the weakest, is a fool’s game but intersectionality can help us remember that people can struggle in different ways, weak in one perspective while strong in another.

Most of all, the Torah rejects the idea that a victim is constrained by their experience, unable to be held accountable for their actions. “You were slaves in the land of Egypt” says the Torah, and from that comes the command to help others.

Rabbi Shai Held from Yeshivat Hadar in New York City notes that this isn’t just about us as a people: “But I would argue that we should also individually personalize the Torah’s demand that we remember. Each of us is obligated, in the course of our lives, to remember times when we have been exploited or abused by those who had power over us. (Such experiences are blessedly rare for some people. Tragically, they are part of the daily bread of others.) From these experiences, the Torah tells us, we are to learn compassion and kindness.”

We are supposed to use our experiences of suffering to build empathy, to find ways to see the suffering of others, and help to make the world a better place. Truth, Emet, is so important, but mostly we can’t wait until we can find it. Much more often than truth, we need Chesed, compassion and kindness.