Seeds of division, discord and hate – A Talmudic warning

In one of the most famous tales in the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metzia 59a-b), the power of words leads to death and near destruction of the rabbinic project. Not only that, the sages of the Babylonian Talmud are able to take God’s words and decontextualise them to mean almost the opposite of their ‘obvious’ meaning. (See Prof Jeffrey Rubenstein’s chapter on this tale for more information).

This all stems from a mishnah that concludes with the words of Exodus 22:20 commanding us that:

“You shall not wrong or oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”.

The seeds of division, discord and hate are sown with words. It is easy to open the ‘gates of wounded feelings‘ (as the Soncino translation puts it in a rather English understated way) it is pretty much impossible to close them.

It is this Talmudic tale, full of deep awareness of human psychology and the destructive power of words, that makes me full of worry for the current discourse with regards to those categories of people that fall effortlessly off the lips of some of our leaders and public voices: asylum seekers, refugees, scroungers, welfare recipients, indigenous populations, p*k** (a racist term for traveller), Muslims and Jews.

Sorry you may ask, did you say p*k**s, indigenous population, Muslims and Jews? Surely any discussion about immigration is always prefaced by a lengthy apologetic style commentary that boils down to the point that it doesn’t make you a racist to talk about immigration? Are we living in the 21st century or the middle of the 20th century?

In the last few months I’ve complained about the racist term P*K** being used in a local freely distributed trades magazine – who to their credit apologised straight away and removed the term:

Screenshot 2014-02-03 18.56.13

I’ve written to my local paper to complain about the way the ‘Indigenous population’ is played against immigrants by the Chair of Hertsmere UKIP in a case that had nothing to do with immigration:

Letter in Borehamwood Times

And I’ve been shocked by what I consider to be antisemitism on facebook – that facebook won’t remove:

Screenshot 2014-02-03 17.29.26

And I’ve also been disturbed by hate filled emails that one MP has passed on to me that preach hate of Muslims, Gypsies and anyone not of the faith, race or nationality that presumably the pure indigenous English author considers to be superior. Apparently ‘we’re’ in need of salvation from the marauding strangers.

So here’s the thing. I think there is a link between discourse that reduces groups, communities and faiths, often speaking of them in a derogatory way, and a growing obsession with those groups that spills into hate. I don’t know how to make a change in the quality of discourse around the issues – I’m not even convinced they’re the actual issues we should even be worrying about – but I do recognise it’s not simple or easy but we must try.

It does not make you a racist to talk about immigration. You’re right. But when you think you talk with nuance it is not always what is heard and there are plenty of racists who are riding on your coat tails. When you speak of groups of people, the disabled, the malingerer, the benefit recipient (and benefits cheat) that you think can be easily bundled together claiming they are cheating hard-working families out of work and ruining our economy, your words can be used to fuel hate and suspicion. When you easily slip into a mocking tone, making fun of cultural and religious practices that you do not share or casting them in a light of suspicion and danger, followers taking over Britain by stealth, be very careful. This rhetoric is at the edge of discourse in which the seeds of division, discord and hate are sown. Do not be surprised when they come back to bite you and have been taken out of context, like God’s word in the Talmudic story above, and used in a way you never intended.

We must never ignore the racist, bigoted and vile poison that spews out of the mouths of the small minority of the population – it must be challenged and we must protest against it. And at the same time, for everyone else who is not in extremist politics we must remember that wronging another person, a stranger, someone who is not you, can be done as easily as the simple act of speech and the gates of wronging another are easily opened and never closed.


The Big Questions television programme – 12 January 2014

As the Big Questions show airs today I have prepared a few sources and resources about the various issues which were touched upon – some of which reflect my position as a rabbi working within Liberal Judaism and others which simply present a more nuanced and, in my opinion, coherent comment on the issues that were discussed.

I should add that the debate as it progressed placed me curiously at the end of the panel containing the ‘against’ voices (ie advocating that Human Rights should not always override Religious Rights). I actually don’t think my position is so clear, though the false dichotomy of the question is really the problem in that regard.

The truth is that whilst all of us were forced to defend our religious communities we should remember it is easy to mock behaviours and customs which seem strange to us and the people exhibiting them (is there a cultural superiority at work here? I’m reminded of the commentary on Modernity and Jewish practice in Prof Arnold Eisen’s book ‘Rethinking Modern Judaism’ – chapter 1). We should be careful because I suspect behind the debate lie the seeds of division and hatred in humanity.

I want to add one other thing to the question of the t-shirt wearing students. I personally have no issue with the wearing of the t-shirts and would not seek to ban the freedom of expression that allows them to be worn. We all, as followers of religion, need to reinforce our sense of humour and remain impervious to provocation and thick skinned to anyone who would like to cause offense. But, I do have an anxiety about the way in which public discourse and the t-shirts themselves seek to provoke conflict. I wonder what is actually at the heart of this debate in which the two sides back off into their corners? I am not convinced that it is really about secularism or freedom of speech or in fact religious doctrine. And in fact, the debate about the veil and the t-shirts have a number of similarities – they’re about clothing, about belief, identity and are at the nexus between one’s self and the outside world (and making statements about that world).

Anyway, I digress. Here are some resources and I also commend to readers that they follow the UK Human Rights Blog and the Law and Religion UK Blog. There is also useful information on the EHRC website. I’m also grateful to the tweeters whom I follow, who comment on these issues, frequently as professionals and often in the field of law and philosophy.

A brief summary to the Human Rights Act and religion is here:

Some posts by me about Human Rights

Is Christianity in the UK under attack?

I’m not the person to answer this, but I followed closely the former Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments on this subject last summer (that is aside from the threat to Christians in some parts of the world at the moment). Personally, I think religious communities on the whole in the UK have it pretty good at the moment. There is a tolerance, respect and constructive involvement of religious communities in public debates. We even have, though it bothers me slightly, a minister for faith and communities. The reality is that religious groups need to come to terms with the fact that they no longer carry the authority as they used to, which means they have a role to play in the conversations in the ‘public square’ but do not get to veto our elected politicians when it comes to law making. I’m certain that there is a difference between Christianity and Islam (both of which were dominant religions of whole geopolitical regions) and Judaism and other minority religions in the UK which have negotiated the way in which their religion plays a role in public and private. It is no surprise that an established church feels threatened as its traditional role changes and authority wanes:

B+B judgement:

Homosexuality, Equal Marriage and Liberal Judaism:

Refusal to serve pork products:


This was the issue on which I was taken to task most in the programme. I recently gave comment to the Ham & High Newspaper on the subject, but my comments were not printed very extensively. However the conversation with the reporter was considerably more civilised! The ignorant assertion of the student (as I understood it), in the programme, that the Talmud’s description of infant mortality post-circumcision is like a mandate to kill Jewish babies was in my opinion a gross misreading of the sources. The Talmud is not written in a time of modern medicine and actually reinforces, through a limited understanding of medical conditions, the view that circumcision is not permitted in Jewish law in cases where the child’s life will be at risk.

Liberal Judaism publication on the subject:

A general document about some myths.

One of the mohelim from the Association of Reform and Liberal Mohelim has his own  website.

Segregated seating at Universities:

Professor Mary Beard wrote her own response to the furore itself –

Guidance on Sikh articles of faith

Obsessions of the faith and traditional values:

A blog post from me in which I bemoan the fact that we (politicians and religious leaders) seem obsessed by sex and reproduction.

I wrote a post here about why I hate it when (particularly Christian leaders and politicians) talk of ‘traditional’ values.

French Secularism: