In the early hours of Leil Shavuot morning, I was fortunate to have the oppotunity to examine some texts at source, and become a little more informed about how anti-Semites use Jewish source texts out of context to discredit Judaism. In particular, several of the specific texts that Brendan O’Connell had cited in his anti-Semitic tirade were taken and examined.
It is very true that the texts that were cited the now infamous anti-semitic video that was cast in Perth do exist. However any self-respecting and educated Jew will know that you cannot just pick up a Tanach and read a literal text. Maybe other religions look for the plain meaning in the form of literal verse, but Judaism just does not work like that. We have many interpretive concepts. One of them does include “pshat” – the plain meaning of the verse. However without the benefit of Rabbinic Judaism, the commentaries of the written law, and the expounding of the Oral law through the Talmud, the biblical text cannot be navigated. Even Pshat cannot be determined without the aid of commentators.
For example, one of the texts quoted was cited by the anti-Semite O’Connell was a seeming obligation for Jews to “kill every goy”. When you look at the passage and the commentaries, it is quite a different situation. The text itself is about Amalek. This nation is singled out due to the banality of its evil. The Amelikites attack the most vulnerable and defenceless members of society without mercy. They cannot be rehabilitated or shaken from their most depraved level of immorality. Amalek is the Jews biblical nemesis. Its genetic resurgance is Haman and Hitler. We proclaim at the Passover Seder that the evil of this nation rises in each generation, and the Torah teaches that its memory must be obliterated.
However, far from practically sanctioning the murder of any human, the Rabbinic commentaries recognise this state of evil in philisophic terms only. They set an ethical principal that is akin to saying that appeasement will not work when you are dealing with an unwavering enemy such as Amalek. On this level it must be recognised that a threat to innocent life must be thwarted, because this is the most ethical form of action. Jewish history is sadly littered with examples of how this situation would apply, and it is little wonder that the Rabbis of hundreds of years back would debate such issues in such a stark manner. This aside, the conclusions of the Rabbinic discussions absolutely emphasise the sanctity of human life and do not advocate murder unless it is in the most dire and extreme of case, being self defence of the last resort.
Talmudic law carries a large number of statements and directives as to when various Capital punishments should be applied through judicial decision making. However the Sanhedran court never exercised this. They never sentanced any litigant to the death penalty. It is part of Jewish law to serve in Principle terms only.
It is sad and unfortunate when a non-Jewish person uses their prejudice and combines it with their ignorance to conclude that Judaism is a violent and dangerous religion. Judaism is built on the precept of peace, and deisres nothing more than an idylic state of being where war is removed from the world. However, for the sake of its survival, including that of modern day Israel, there is an obligation for the Jewish nation to defend itself from the murderous intentions of those who desire the eradication of Judaism.
Sadly its not just non-Jews who campaign against what Judaism stands for. It is even worse when Jewish people are at the helm. For example, over east the Jewish community of Melbourne is outraged that the anti-Semitic play Seven Jewish Children was supported by Jewish people, including performers such as Miriam Margolyes, who was welcomed into the Perth Jewish community with misplaced love and affection.
Over in Perth we also have a big problem. We continue to get Jewish texts distorted and decontextualised almost on a weekly basis in the Maccabean. Our paper holds an awesome responsibility to promote rational Jewish debate for this community, that it totally abrogates. Just imagine that Jewish people can pick up articles from this paper, and believe them to be true (at worst), or even open perspectives (at best) that represent Judaism! Far from positively influencing the development of Jewish unity and thought, these are very destructive and ignorant ideas that make an absolute laughing stock of Judaism.
Take for example the Did you Know column in last weeks paper. It also talks about justice and theological statements connected to killing. It defines the pasuk “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” in a literal sense, as if Jews would interpret this as a measure for measure when it comes to punitive justice. It even cites cutting off noses, ears, and castration to support the interpretation. However, the Rabbinic commentaries interpret this sentance solely in the context of delivering equivalent monetary compensation to victims whose livelihood has been destroyed by an act of willful neglect or negligence. It cannot, under Jewish interpretive law, be the justification of physical violence.
That such a lack of context could be applied to the presentation of a text, and that such a distortion of Judaism could be provided by the central mechanism of communication across the Perth community is a major embarrassement. What we have in the Maccabean article is fairly representative of a Christian interpretation of justice, but ironically the very antithesis of an interpretation Jewish justice.
In his book “A Jew Today” Elie Wiesel writes as follows:
“A criminal who sets fire to the Temple, the most sacred, the most revered edifice in the world, is punishable with only 39 lashes of the whip; let a fanatic kill him and his punishment would be death. For all the Temples and all the sanctuaries are not worth the life of a single human being, be he arsonist, profanator, enemy of God and shame of God”.
This concept aptly shows the strength of Jewish justice and its sanctity for life in the form of a principled stand. Eli Wiesel goes on;
“Painful irony. We were chased from country to country, our houses of study were burned, our sages assinated, our school children massacred, and still we went on tirelessless, fiercely, praising the inviolate santicity of life and proclaiming faith in man. Any man. An extraordinary contradiction? Perhaps. But to be a Jew is precisely to reveal oneself within one’s contradictions by accepting them.”
This extraordinary analysis unmasks the anti Semite. The Jewish mission was never to make the world more Jewish, but to make it more human, something that the anti-Semite either struggles to understand or abhors. About the anti-Semite, Eli Wiesel writes “The less they understood us, the more I understood them”.
The problem we have in Perth is not a lack of Jewish pride. It is a lack of Jewish literacy, and a lack of interpretive ability. We take Jewish texts without the knowledge to apply Rabbinic exegesis. We therefore don’t know how to stand up to the anti-Semites that challenge our own conventions on a literal level. We also don’t know how to isolate our own Jewish debate in a manner that correctly represents all the beauty that sits withinside Judaism.