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Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Seeing Ourselves from the 'Outside'

Last week, while reading the section of the Torah we have arrived at in our annual cycle of weekly readings - sedrah Balak, Numbers 22-24 – I was struck once again by the wondrous ingenuity of the storytelling. Anyone watching the BBC’s current productions of Shakespeare’s History plays will know what it means to be in the hands of a writer who can make language reveal both the subtlest details of personal motivation as well as the grandest of national visions (and the inter-relationship between them). In the text of the Torah we find ourselves in the presence not of a single literary genius (but who really knows? ) but a collective, collaborative act of narrative art that weaves a similar complex pattern of personal ambitions and fears that intersect with a ‘national’ story.

The story of Balak, king of Moab, and Bilaam the oracle-sayer, is told in one long, unbroken paragraph. It appears as part of the desert wanderings of Israel, who are approaching their Promised Land having defeated the Amorites in battle, and arrive at Jericho on the West Bank, the land of Moab. The sedrah begins with a description of Balak’s fear about these new arrivals in his land, these immigrants waiting, in his eyes, to take over his kingdom. He sets out to hire a famous figure, Bilaam, a practitioner of the dark arts, whom he hopes will conjure up a curse, put the hex on Israel. Basically, he’s outsourcing the job to another foreigner, from the East. (It’s like when you phone your bank and the bad news is delivered from India).

But Bilaam is reluctant to take on the job, until – and this is one of the extraordinary things about this text – ‘God’ intervenes, making known to Bilaam first, that these people are blessed and he shouldn’t take the contract offered, and then, as the story goes on, it is made known to Bilaam that he can go, but must only speak the divine words that will come to him when he opens his mouth. The Torah recognises that Bilaam does have the capacity for, the gift of, prophecy. Our story, so often focused ethnocentrically on God speaking to ‘us’, to the Israelites, here recognises that sometimes divine truth can come out of the mouths of non-Israelites, the so-called ‘goyim’ .

The story includes the Disneyesque fantasy sequence of the famous talking ass who is able to see more clearly than Bilaam what’s in front of his eyes - but eventually Bilaam finds a good spot to look down at Israel camped in the valley and he opens his mouth, and proceeds to bless them. This, as one might expect, makes Balak very angry (it’d be like hiring George Galloway to speak at a Palestine Solidarity rally and he launches into a speech about the miracle of Israel’s birth), so Balak suggests to Bilaam that there might be a better spot from which to do the cursing; but it happens again and Bilaam speaks a second blessing and not a curse. And then it happens again and Bilaam speaks the words that now open all our prayer services: ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkanotecha Yisrael – ‘how good are your homes, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!’ (Numbers 24:5).

One of the remarkable things about this narrative sequence is the way in which the Torah forces us to switch perspective. We are used to being immersed in our own story – Numbers is all about the Israelite desert narrative, the 40 years in the wilderness - but suddenly we find in ‘our’ story, a picture of how we are seen from the outside. The two characters are non-Hebrews. They don’t belong to ‘us’. But we are given the perspective of Balak, who fears and hates us; and then the perspective of Bilaam, who starts off with no fixed view but ends up admiring and praising us. And we are shown an aerial view of Israel, as it were, as Bilaam climbs up above the camped masses of Israel and looks down from above them and sees a foreign people that send him into raptures of poetry.

How are we seen by others? On the one hand there is fear and the wish to curse us, for us to be damned from the face of the earth. This is the external view of the anti-Semite, the Jew-hater. And then there is Bilaam, the poet, the wordsmith, the conjurer with language and the slippery arts of the soothsayer, who is inspired to praise what he sees from this great height. This is the philo-Semite, the lover of Jews. Our storytellers, Hebrew storytellers, in the middle of their narrative, superimpose on to ‘our’ story - it’s like a Cubist picture – the view from the 'outside', two views in fact, the view of those who are antagonistic to us, and those who admire us. 

Let me move these thoughts in a contemporary direction. Many Jews believe that the Balak-perspective is all around us – or rather, we fear that it is all around us. And there are those in Anglo-Jewry who are working hard to ensure that we never for one moment relax, never for one moment forget that the ‘goyim’ hate us. The Jewish Chronicle is constantly beating the war drums supposedly on our behalf, always vigilant for anything that they can find that might be construed as anti-Jewish.

We had a classic example recently with the artificially created furore over a simple GCSE exam question: ‘Explain , briefly, why some people are prejudiced against Jews’. It was in a Religious Studies paper, and pupils answering the question had studied a syllabus where they had explored the reasons – historically, sociologically, culturally, psychologically - ‘why some people are prejudiced against Jews’.

But then someone got hold of this question, surely a legitimate area of intellectual inquiry and examination, and suddenly the community is off again, on a witch-hunt: find the anti-semite. So first we have the spokesperson of the Board of Deputies - they are supposed to represent us – taking up the quite unintelligible position that a question about the origins and causes of anti-semitic prejudice, “has nothing to do with Jews or Judaism”. Go figure. Try writing that on your exam paper and you’d get 0/10. (Or maybe 1/10 – at least he didn’t write on both sides of the paper at once). You have to laugh at this stuff – otherwise you’d tear your hair out in despair.

But that wasn’t the end of it of course; because then the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is  commandeered, and finds himself having to take up a position. He has a lot on his plate, but amongst all his onerous responsibilities he was prompted to express the following view: “to suggest that antisemitism can ever be explained, rather than condemned, is insensitive and...bizarre”. From an Education Secretary you could hardly get a more anti-educational view. How silly of us to imagine that education is anything to do with the investigation and explanation of phenomena. If anti-semitism can never be explained, perhaps the many hundreds of volumes on this subject are now redundant. Think of the shelf space that could be freed up in school libraries if you got rid of all those histories and investigations of anti-semitism. You could fill them with Harry Potter.

And I can hardly bear to repeat the other view that the Jewish Chronicle offered us from the Headmaster of an Orthodox Jewish High School who was quoted as saying that education “is supposed to remove prejudices and not to justify them”. There’s a disturbing confusion here between trying to think clearly about a topic and justifying the subject matter under discussion. And the suggestion too that education is a form of covert indoctrination.

Yes, Jews know that there are people who fear us and hate us: always have been, always will be, the Balaks of the world. But we keep seeing Balaks when they are not there. They are figments of our own distorted imaginations, projections of our own aggressions. They may just be Bilaams, people with no innate prejudice, who if we invite them to come and look at us, to see who we are, how we live together, assemble together, may end up inspired to admire us, bless us, recognise our special qualities.

Bilaam looks at us from outside, yes, from up above, from the very top of where he climbs to. Sometimes, it is true, if you are at the top and you look down – if you are a Mr Murdoch or Mr Diamond, - you look: and you see nothing. (Like Manuel in Fawlty Towers: “I know nothing”). But Bilaam, at the top, looks and he sees and he speaks: words that are so wondrous that we repeat them still, in every service.

What an inspired choice by the rabbis who assembled over generations the liturgy we use, how inspired to begin the service with this Torah view from the ‘outside’, of us as a community. It is an encouragement to us, prompting to us to see ourselves as we have been, and often are, seen from the outside – as having goodness grafted into us – and not to imagine, over and over, that the world is always against us.

[freely adapted from an introduction to the Torah, and a sermon, given at the Finchley Reform Synagogue, July 7th 2012]