Formative influences – the microcosmic dimension…writes Rabbi Chaim Ingram

December 22, 2013 by Rabbi Chaim Ingram
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News buffs would have been intrigued and perhaps surprised to read last week that Pope Francis has been named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year.

Rabbi Chaim Ingram

Rabbi Chaim Ingram

However lest one imagine that the award was primarily in appreciation of his more populist, grassroots approach demonstrated in his exemplary embracing of the poor, the down-and-out and the disabled, Time managing editor Nancy Gibbs evidently saw it differently. “In his nine months of office” she says “he has placed himself at the very centre of the central conversations of our time: about wealth and poverty, fairness and justice, transparency, modernity, globalisation, the role of women, the nature of marriage (guess what that means), the temptations of power”.  In one fell swoop she has turned noble deeds into fashionable creeds and has reduced the Catholic leader’s presumably religiously-motivated actions into politically-correct secular social doctrines..

Rather if one takes Francis’ actions at face value one might almost (and I stress “almost”) call him a “Jewish” pope!  It is Judaism, not Christianity after all, that emphasises deed over creed

The first sidra in Sefer Shemot provides a fascinating insight into the relative pull of formative influences involving deed vis-a-vis those principally confined to creed.

Young Moses is brought up in an Egyptian palace without any contact with his people. However his adoptive mother, the righteous Bitya, Pharaoh’s daughter, raises him to be aware of his origins as a son of Israel. (He would also have had vague recollections of the vitally-formative first two years of his life spent with his natural parents.) Unquestionably the impressionable Moses would also have imbibed the native Egyptian ideology with its polytheistic worship, reliance upon magic and necromancy and obsession with the preservation and mummification of the dead. But he would have been sheltered from the sights, sounds and smells of barbaric cruelty suffered by his people. The Egyptian aristocracy like their Nazi counterparts 3,000 years later, would have shown only their most cultured and decorous side around the palace. (In particular they would no doubt have showered the greatest love and affection on their pet dogs.)

Meanwhile back in the slave-labour camps, the Bnei Yisrael were bound by a shared fate of cruel oppression. The Egyptians had little interest in religious coercion and so the Bnei Yisrael would not have been subjected to much idolatrous ideological influence. However the brutality to which they were subjected would have seeped into their bones.

Now let us pinpoint a moment when the two narratives depicted above converge. Moses makes his first sorties among his oppressed people. He sees an Egyptian murderously beating “a Hebrew among his brothers” (Ex. 2:11). Not just any Hebrew but an appointed foreman (in his case one could call him a kapo) over his fellow Hebrews. That there had been a much-too-close relationship between the foreman’s family (particularly his wife) and that of his psycopathic Egyptian boss is evident (see Midrash Raba on Lev. 32:4). Moses could have been excused if his first thought would have been to utilise his knowledge of magical incantations from the royal court in order to render the savage Egyptian immobile and thus save his victim. But no.  Instead – again according to the Midrash Rabba (I, 29) – Moses kills the Egyptian in an utterly “kosher” way by uttering one of the secret ineffable Names of G-D!

Next, Moses goes out and sees “two Hebrews fighting” (2:13). The two were Aviram and his older brother Datan, the very individual Moses had saved from the barbarous Egyptian. Moses asks Datan the aggressor, “why are you striking your brother”  Datan viperously turns on Moses and snarls “who made you leader and judge over us?  Perhaps you intend to use your tongue to kill me (halehorgeini ata omeir) like you killed the Egyptian!” (2:14). Evidently the brutal behaviours and actions of Datan’s oppressors have left their mark on him. (How many perpetrators of domestic abuse were victims or voyeurs of such abuse themselves as children!) Learned behaviours, positive or negative, are not easily unlearned – and as we know from later episodes in the Torah Datan never unlearns the uncouth native conduct that he has close quarters

We see something fascinating here.  Moses who, in childhood and adolescence, was isolated from his brothers and exposed to a false belief system emerged morally unscathed. Datan who was brought up amid the ethical monotheism of Bnei Yisrael but was exposed in his impressionable years to cruelty and barbarity emerged indelibly scarred. It would appear that we are more influenced in our formative years by deeds than by ideology. (Similarly we read historical accounts of Jewish children abducted and incarcerated for years in monasteries or convents who, when released, find their rekindled babyhood memories of Shabbat candles or a Pesach Seder sufficient to cancel out all the insidious christological indoctrination and restore them to Judaism.)

All this helps us understand why, centuries earlier, Abraham adjured Eliezer not to search for a wife for Isaac among his native Canaanites but to return to the land and the extended family he had left. (Gen. 24:3-4).  As Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch succinctly explains: idolatry is an intellectual perversion which can be remedied whereas moral degeneracy and ethical corruption affects a person’s entire nature.

The rider to this is, of course, that all negative environments, whether ideologically damaging or morally corruptive, must be eschewed. Abraham is commanded to leave his idolatrous family and home far behind.  Moses cannot assume his mission until he has left for good the royal palace with all its foreign cultural temptations.

Fortunately Moses’ world-view was already formulated (despite his young age) by the time he went out among his people and saw the barbarity and corruption of their oppressors. It could no longer influence him. Moses already knew that deed – or what Judaism calls mitsva – is paramount.  And the Talmud (Berachot 32b) can testify that “there was no-one greater in ma’asim tovim (good deeds) than Moses!”

There can be no doubt that Time Magazine would vote the late Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (1918-2013) as Person of the Generation. No doubt too its managing editor would cite his ideological embracing of “freedom” movements (such as the PLO) and his attitude to “imperialist” Zionism as among the most important planks of his legacy.  For the Jew his most enduring legacy will be his readiness to forgive his political adversaries and his determination to work for reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa without bitterness or thirst for revenge thus preventing a potential bloodbath in that country.  That he failed to achieve any semblance of economic equity or social stability, his failed marriages and his readiness to embrace terrorist organisations while excoriating the only democracy in the Middle East demonstrates that, like most powerful leaders of our time, he had feet of clay. But the determinant of whether he achieves a semblance of immortality in this world will be: which of his set of legacies, deed-based or ideology-based, will be emulated by those who follow him. .


3 Responses to “Formative influences – the microcosmic dimension…writes Rabbi Chaim Ingram”
  1. Rabbi Chaim says:

    In response to Larry Stillman: I do not attack Mandela for anything. I merely point out that, like most contemporary leaders, he had his flaws. No of course divorce is not “illegal” or even remotely sinful in Judaism (unlike in Christianity)but it is an indication that, again like with many great figures in the contemporary world and even in the ancient world, success in human relations on the macrocosmic dimension was not matched in the microcsomic sphere.

    Perhaps Stillman would like to read what I have written in one of my essays about Moses’ relative failures when it comes to bringing up his sons. Would Stillman suspect me, a rabbi, of attacking Moses? His allegation is plainly risible and his language reprehensibly emotive.

    I highlighted Mandela’s positive deeds and strengths of character and suggested that if they are emulated he will have achieved “a semblance of immortality in this world”. Does Stillman seriously believe that this constitutes an “attack”?

    It is Stillman who should apologise for misrepresenting my views.

  2. Otto Waldmann says:

    It is regretable in some cases when limited, narrow ideologies take posession of minds otherwise capable to produce useful intellectual outcomes, obviously in the case of Larry Stillman in rdically distinct fields.
    Rabbi Ingrams’s incursion into the complexity of Mandela’s ostensive political interests is perhaps the wisest, most temperate analyssis to come out at the conclusion of a life which had attracted wide interest.
    Stillman seems enslaved to a partisan vernacular and dogmatic points of refference, most of which are artificially implanted upon a human profile manufactured in the trenches of rigid programmatic extreme quarters.
    Mandela has been elevated quite farcically to the heights of idolatry.
    The ecstatic adulation of one single individual to the almost sinful, most definitely absurd of a superman in an otherwise almost unfathonable world of conflicting interests, a world which functions at levels of power manouvering well beyond the comprejention of an ordinary mind, brings to mind the glory of a long defunct age of human evolution when super-heroes and various gods were roaming not the the tangible world, as they were pure fantasies, but the primitive, ignorance subjugated minds of an ignorant world.
    Progress in the intellectual spheres has not reached, aparently, all cerebral spheres of some contemporary folk.
    I want historian Stillman to explain in convincing terms why would Mandela deserve the status of a statesman who, seemingly, by his own volition and strength, has attain the hero status, CONSIDERING that the world he was suposed to inspire, the world of the oppressed in his own Continent, Africa, has emerged as a place of social, economic, political and even cultural SUCCESS in the year of G-d’s grace 2013.
    I want historian Stillman to demonstrate that Mandela has inspired a better Africa, that his own country has achieved ANY degree of stability in terms of EXISTENTIAL confidence. I want someone, anyone to deny that Sth. Africa is NOT the World’s epicentre of urban fear, endemic AIDS, institutionalised terror we casually call corruption, that the current President of Sth. Africa is acountable to ANYONE to his last two million dollars of money ripped off from his own children’s starving mouths.
    On a post hoc basis, Mandela could be held responsible for , at lest, indifference to the plight of his own people, while making absurd incursions into the “welfare” of some other geopolitical quarters incredibly distant in miles and actual concerns.
    I want Stillman to address with a wider lens of consideration if the palestinians he adores are worth the unqualified passion he displays while the are promoting hatred of a singular entity, Jews !! I want Stillman to draw analogies not between a counterfit people, the same palestinians and the vile culture almost identical to a cuneiform sign to an ideology we thought extint by now, the National Socialist. How does a palestinian anxious to inflict pain onto a Jew differ from a nazi !!!??
    “Millions denied democratic right by the Jewish State”. I feel wasted any effort to attract the slightest consideration Stillman may consider for the Jews constantly in fear that the Mandela legacy of tenacious struggle may blow yet another bus in Tel Aviv with the clear purpose to continue what was started thousands of miles away in Sth Africa, this time and locum to rid Israel of the “oppressive colonialists”, the dreaded Zionists.
    A proud legacy, indeed !!!

    Rabbi Ingram is trying through the most generous, just and wise means to bring home souls lost, minds abducted by hatred, back to the kehilat of reason and humanity.

  3. Larry Stillman says:

    Rabbi Ingram attacks Mandela for all sorts of things including his marriage record –three marriages–( but divorce is not illegal in the Jewish community either). Ingram’s comments are really and truly below the belt given that sexual proclivities or divorces have not prevented prevented honoring various Jewish leaders in this country or elsewhere.

    Ingram also seems to conveniently forget that if it was not for Mandela as well as others in the ANC, as well as white Afrikaner leaders, no compromise would have been reached at all and the country would have become a real bloodbath. The relative political stability and electoral system which South Africa has, despite dreadful social and economic inequalities (part of the continuing bargain with the white, including Jewish community, to not rock the boat), is the envy of Africa.

    Thus its robust democracy–which gives all people the vote– can be viewed as more authentic than that in Israel which denies the vote to millions it rules or relegates to second class status. Thus I ask, would Rabbi Ingram prefer that apartheid have just continued? Or would he prefer, like COSATU and the Mineworkers Union the nationalization of the means of production?

    And despite Mandela’s strong words, he never said he was against the state of Israel. He was against the occupation and inequality and justifications for it and was particularly offended by the close relations between Israel and the apartheid regime. Read what Alon Liel, ambassador to South Africa from 1992-1994 had to say about Madeba “

    Furthermore Mandela’s association with various unscrupulous regimes has to be understood in the context of the complete dependency of the ANC upon the Eastern bloc for decades. His ideological faults and attachments are those of a man who came to being in terrible circumstances of the 40s and 50s,and Ingram forgets that in Israel too, there was considering sympathy for a socialist road amongst a substantial bloc (remember the kibbutzim?). And it is not as if the West has had any scruples in supporting its vicious dictators and surrogate thugs (such as the Shah of Iran, various South American regimes, Saudi Arabia and so on. It is a very long list). It is very easy to for the pot to call the kettle black, so to speak.

    Mandela did not have feet of clay. He was a nifty politician until old age and illness (exacerbated by decades of imprisonment) overtook him.

    Rabbi Ingram’s weasel words are in complete contrast to the statements from a full range of Jewish community organisations in South Africa who at least have the sense to understand the critical role that the man played in the transition.

    Ingram should apologize for both going below the belt on Mandela’s personal life, his cold war alliances, and misstating Mandela’s critique of Israeli politics.

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