Torah from around the world #28

by Rabbi Rich Kirschen, Director, The Anita Saltz International Education Center of  the World Union for Progressive Judaism

Last week I wrote about my concern that Chelsea Clinton’s wedding represented (if you will) the danger for Jews when we live in a society that loves us too much. However in the end of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tizeh, we are left with instructions of what to do when people hate us too much.

In Deuteronomy 25:17-19 we read “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt; how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers …you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven. Do not forget!”

If the United States is a great place to explore what it means for the Jewish people when other people love us a little too much, unfortunately Israel is a great place to discuss what it means for the Jewish people when other people hate us a little too much. It is clear to every Jewish Israeli that we have no shortage of enemies.

However, gone are the days (for the most part) when we had Arab armies in uniform who wanted to throw us into the sea. Although just to be safe I wouldn’t suggest we let our guard down even for a minute. So let’s just say that even when we don’t have enemies we still have potential enemies.

However these days in Israel it not always clear who is the enemy, especially off the battlefield. It is pretty obvious that countries like Iran and groups like Hezbolla are our enemies. When a group calls for your demise – that is usually a telltale sign that they are your enemy. On one level Hamas certainly feels like an enemy but what about the Palestinians living under Hamas? And do we believe that all Palestinians are our enemies? What about the Palestinians that I see at my work in Beit Shmuel and interact with on a day to day basis? For some of us the word “enemy” is uncomfortable because we would prefer to assume that in the end we all want the same thing and in fact there are no real “enemies”, there are just misunderstandings. In the best all of worlds this is true but we do not always live in the best of all worlds.

One thing I have learned in Israel that has given me an extra insight into the Torah and has helped me understand how we define “enemy” is the importance and centrality of the tribe. We were tribal back in the days of the TANACH (Hebrew Bible) and we who live in Israel are tribal now. I have learned from my friend and teacher Paul Liptz to never underestimate how here in Israel and the wider Mideast your tribe is everything and critical to how one navigates the complexity of this region. Even my children’s group in the


(the Israeli Scouts) is called their


(the Hebrew word for tribe). And once you know your tribe, that is when you can figure out who are your friends and, maybe more important, who are your enemies. This has never been easy for me as an Anglo Saxon (read: English speaker, as I am neither Anglo nor Saxon) Reform rabbi but I assume I belong to the tribe of Kol Haneshama that dwells in the territory of South Jerusalem.

I have been thinking a lot about tribes over the past week after spending some amazing quality time with another tribe who lives in Israel, specifically in

Beit Jan

in the North of the country, with my old college friend Shakib Ali, his wife Hediya and their four children. Shakib Ali is one of the most remarkable people I have ever met in my life. He is an incredibly successful lawyer, a marathon runner, an oud player, and an all around renaissance guy. Shakieb and I have known each other for over twenty five years when we first met at the Hebrew University where he was studying English literature and law.

Shakieb is also a Druze, which means he belongs to a small minority group that lives in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel. The story of the Druze is a complicated one. This small group broke away from Islam in the tenth century in Egypt and as a result of being terribly persecuted they ran away to live in the high protected mountains of Northern Israel and Lebanon over eight hundred years ago. Because the Druze were an oppressed minority they learned to build their houses on stilts in case of enemies attacking and developed a warrior culture to defend themselves. Their religion is a secret one and only if you are a Druze can you gain access to religious instruction. Finally one of the most distinctive characteristics about the Druze is that they are a tribe that has been closed since the tenth century. This means no one can ever convert to become a Druze, marry a Druze or marry to become a Druze, the only way you can become a Druze is be born into the tribe. What do you think about that Chelsea Clinton? I have always tried to sell the idea to my friends in Beit Jan that maybe I can be a Reform Druze, but no one was buying this. So the bottom line is: you don’t get any more tribal than being a Druze.

If you think being Jewish is complicated, try being a Druze. The Druze are a small minority, maybe a million in the world (by the way

Casey Kasem

, the famous hit radio announcer in the US is a Druze). And because of this minority status they have developed of a philosophy of Taqiya which means being able to blend in with the dominant culture while retaining their identity at the same time. Here in Israel the Druze sided with the Israeli forces in 1948 because as an oppressed minority in the Mideast they saw siding with Israel as advantageous and all Druze men serve in the Israeli army to this day.

So there I am one morning, sitting and drinking coffee (actually drinking enough coffee that will keep me awake until to February) with Shakieb, and his cousin Nayef (also a lawyer who studied with us at Hebrew University) at Shakieb’s beautiful home overlooking Beit Jan. And the three of us are talking about old times, our families, careers, and bemoaning our middle age (apparently this phenomenon does not discriminate according to tribe). At some point we arrived at the subject of real estate and I complained that Jerusalem was too expensive and suggested in jest that I should buy real estate in Beit Jan. Almost as a matter of fact I was told, of course I could not buy real estate in Beit Jan because I was a Jew and not a Druze. And then I thought about how my neighbors would react to Shakieb or Nayef buying real estate in my neighborhood. It was one of those moments of connection and disconnection at the same time.

Shakieb and I have always felt like brothers. To watch our children play in Hebrew with Arabic and English is just an amazing. But here in Israel we are definitely from different tribes. They are Druze and we are Jews and on one level it means nothing to me and on another level you cannot ignore this. Not to mention, even if we wanted to, we cannot ignore how the broader culture reacts to us in different ways. My daughters will serve in the army and his will not; but interestingly enough our sons will both serve in the army together. When I am in Beit Jan I remember how much I love the Arabic language and culture. When I am in Beit Jan the Arabic language is warm and intriguing. Yet I am also hyper conscious of the fact that when I am in Jerusalem, the same Arabic coming from the Mu’ezzin’s call to prayer at 4am does not give me a warm fuzzy feeling but makes me tense and suspicious. Druze, Arab, Reform Jewish, Anglo Saxon, American, Israeli: there were a lot of identities over coffee that morning.

If you look at the Mideast and you ignore the concept of tribe, then you do not understand the Mideast. This week’s Torah portion ends with some severe instructions of how we are to deal with another tribe: Amalek. Not one of the nicer memories and not one of the nicer tribes. For those of us living in the Mideast today, our task is not an easy one; it is one that demands of us to find the balance between the pull of our tribe but also to recognize the importance of reaching out and going beyond our tribe and figuring out how to connect with “the other.” And in the end it is these connections that might allow us to blot out the need to remember- Amalek.

Recent Issues

More About: