Muswell Hill Synagogue
Metzora + HaGadol 19/20 April 7.49pm 8.56pm

Compassion and Violence – Sermon, Miketz

We are experiencing a wide array of conflicts in our world at the present, and as a result our tendency often is to simplify how we relate to these conflicts. People and groups either stack up on the side of good or evil. We call people terrorists without any other finesse of understanding. We generalise, stereotype. It makes things a whole lot easier for us. But of course life is a lot more complicated. Often what is difficult to grasp is that people who are capable of acts of terror, can also be capable of acts of decency. In my MA I have studies organisations such as Hamas, or Hizbullah, who on the one hand commit often to acts of violence against others. But on the other hand are able to create networks of welfare and education that support their own people.
This dichotomy was explored by Chris Browning in his work in the early 1990’s, ‘Ordinary Men’ where he looked at a specific German battalion carrying our killing work against Jews of Polish ghettos. He concludes that there was no inherent, essential desire on the part of these men to kill Jews. Unlike in the work of Daniel Goldhagen who wrote ‘Hitlers Willing Executioners’ there was not inherent, German anti-Semitism. Rather, these soldiers were carried along by the definite need to obey authority. So they could kill in the day, and go back to their Hamburg home and be ordinary and even decent people.
We see this seeming contradiction in this week’s parasha. When the brothers are forced by the famine in the land of Canaan to go to Egypt to find food, they are taken to the disguised Yosef who is Pharaoh’s prime minister. They are suspected of being spies. To probe and check their truthfulness, Yosef asks that one of the brothers is kept in Egypt in prison and that they should go and bring the youngest brother (Benjamin) from Canaan. The brothers are being asked to give up on their responsibility over one brother, something that now irks them greatly. Not even 15 years earlier of course, they plotted to kill Yosef and allow his sale. But now they seem to understand what they have done. Listen to their words:
‘ The one brother said to the other, ‘We are guilty over our brother as his anguish when he pleaded to us, but we did not listen’ (Genesis, 42, 21)
The brothers feel that they are getting what they deserved. But not for plotting to kill Yosef. In fact many commentators understand the brothers as having good reasons for wanting Yosef dead as a result of the dreams he explained. Not for having him sold. They believe that the wrong they did was to not show compassion to him when he pleaded for his life. And so the same brothers who had that moment of aggression and violence, here show the need for compassion. We might look at different reasons for this phenomena in our world. It could be a psychological understanding, a political one, a social one. But whichever way we look at the problem, it clearly exists. People, and organisations can do what looks compassionate and continue to utilise violence against the other.
And it is the term ‘other’ which is key here. I wrote an essay last year on ‘othering’ undertaken by religious organisations as a prelude to genocidal outbursts. In the 1980’s the Serbian Orthodox Church was deepening its anti Moslem rhetoric, had come out with a nationalist and religious ‘Serbian Manifesto’ which relegated the level of the Moslem in society. This paved the way for the acceptable killings of the mid 1990’s in Bosnia. Much has been written on how Christian anti-Semitism over centuries paved the way for the possibility of the Holocaust. Maybe. But when we define others as lower in category than us because of their outlook, we allow extremes to utilise violence against those others.
As a religious Jew I feel passionately about this point. I disagree with Reform Judaism. I have for a long time and consider it highly likely that I will for a long time. But I am not willing to treat those who attend Reform or other progressive Synagogues as lesser human beings. The same goes for those of other religions, and I do feel that there are deep problems being faced by the vast swathes of mainstream Moslems, in dealing with the extremes. The same by the way goes for those who have other approaches to sexuality. Someone who thinks differently to sexuality is still human, is still Jewish, and needs all the respect appropriate for him or her as a fellow human being. Yes disagree on the theology, politics or belief. But treat the other as equal. In that way, we may prevent those who look at the world in an overly simplified manner, having any reason at all to target violence against others.