Ta’aruf and Ta’ayush – A Jewish Perspective
CMRM Post –Tarawih Talk – Saturday Evening 4 July 2015
It is an honour and privilege for me to be invited here tonight to your masjid, such an auspicious and important mosque in the history of this city, renowned even outside of Muslim circles for its unyielding promotion of Islamic and humanist values. I wish to offer my gratitude to Imam Rashid Omar and Jaamia Galant for granting me this opportunity to share my thoughts tonight on the topic of interfaith solidarity from the perspective of two new Jewish initiatives in South Africa for Peace and Justice.
Last week, Imam Omar and Jaamia Galant met with me to prepare for tonight’s talk. The Imam spoke about the important distinction between, Ta’aruf (getting to know each other) and Ta’ayush (co-existence) and suggested that in order to really live together, there is a need to get to know each other.
I will come back to this later, but first, a little personal background. I grew up in Johannesburg, my paternal grandparents were refugees from Nazi Germany. Their families were murdered in the concentration camps so my father never knew his grandparents or extended family. My maternal grandparents were refugees from the anti-Jewish pogroms in Eastern Europe. In South Africa, they could hide their Jewishness through having been being classified white. That produced a strange double consciousness in me, my family and, I believe, in many Jewish families in SA during apartheid. And I’m not sure if this strange schizophrenia has been adequately dealt with in the Jewish community after apartheid.
In high school I was privileged to be educated at the girl’s campus of Yeshiva College, an Orthodox Jewish day school in Johannesburg. From my family and school I learned about the centrality of compassion and humility in expressing one’s humanity. To be a mensch, a Yiddish word for human being, meant behaving in ways that dignified the term human-ness, menschlichkeid. I was exposed to ideas, disagreements and debates from ancient and diverse traditions of practice and faith to which I belonged. I also learned through daily engagement with rabbinic, written and oral texts that the tradition of Jewish ethics stresses a collective obligation to care for the orphan, the widow and the stranger, or outsider; in other words, an obligation to care for the most downtrodden and vulnerable in society. I learned that this should not be a paternalistic, arrogant or self-edifying expression of care, but that the injunction requires me to be responsive to the other whose humanity I may not even understand or recognise fully. This obligation extends to recommitting ourselves to the social and economic solidarity required for Tikkun Olam, or repair of the world. In this understanding, the world is not an abstract idea, but the society of living human beings with whom we interact in our everyday lives, but also those who, far away and unseen, may be suffering or starving. Tikkun Olam means that my obligation is to them no less than to those people I encounter in my immediate context. Social justice, I learned, is an obligation that has to be lived and expressed every day and unconditionally in my relationships with my family, but also in relationships with those I do not and may not ever know.
Rabbi Brian Walt, a rabbi who grew up in Sea Point and left South Africa into exile during apartheid, has written that the Jewish prophetic tradition is an important inspiration for the obligation on every Jewish person to fight against racism, Islamophobia, ethnic chauvinism, material greed and other injustices. In the Torah commandment, “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof”, “‘Justice, Justice, shall you pursue!’ the command to pursue justice is repeated twice. It is doubled and echoed. The word for justice in Hebrew, Tzedek, shares the same root with the word for righteousness/righteous or goodness, and the word charity Tzdakah. The composite meanings that are in the ancient Hebrew word for justice open out further when Rabbi Walt connects this commandment to pursue justice/righteousness/charity to the words of the prophet Michah, “You know what God has commanded you: to act justly, love kindness and walk humbly.”
Still, it was a big jump to translate this small example of learning about social justice as an everyday obligation into a more political and politicised understanding. So for me, as a young South African in the late 80s who deplored Apartheid but was afraid to speak out or become politically active, I saw Israel as a way to exit the moral contradictions and dilemmas, that being White meant in apartheid SA. I went to Israel with the idea of immigrating there. And though I returned to SA a year later it took me well into the late 1990s until I began to question the Israel-dominated narratives of history, identity and belonging that had become so entwined with my Jewish identity. It is a long story as to how I and other progressive Jewish people have come to understand and unlearn the indoctrinated story that helps to maintain Israel’s policies of displacement and dispossession. I won’t go into it here. But over the past fifteen years of my involvement with Palestine solidarity activism in Cape Town and in working with Mark Kaplan to make the film, The Village Under the Forest, it has become increasingly clear to me and many other South African Jews that a more engaged pedagogical intervention is necessary in order for Jewish ethics and traditions of justice to be reclaimed, embraced and expressed in their specificities and difference, as well as in their universal and shared aspects.
Over the past few years South African Jews have increasingly taken an outspoken position on Israel’s actions against Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and inside of Israel itself. Two groupings have formed. The one, Jewish Voice for a Just Peace grew in response to the most recent brutal war on Gaza and has adopted a human rights position on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. And it has taken a view that Jewish intellectual and spiritual traditions of justice and responsibility towards our fellow humans must guide South African Jews to find a new collective and communal direction, to embrace narratives and experiences that have been excluded from our self-understanding as South African Jews.
The other group, South African Jews for a Free Palestine, has taken on the concept of joint struggle, or co-resistance, in the name of our Jewishness and not the Israeli state’s definition of our Jewish identity, in order to participate in the international solidarity movement that has called for boycott, divestment and sanctions in support of the return of Palestinian refugees from 1948, the end of the occupation of the West Bank and the siege on Gaza and the extension of full civil rights to Palestinians with Israeli citizenship in Israel.
Both JVJP and SAJFP have committed, in different ways, to expressing and embodying the values, ethics and traditions for justice I learned as a high school student at Yeshiva. Both groups have committed to embodying the existence of more than one narrative about Jewish history and refuting the actions of Israel which acts in our name and in the name of Jewish people across the world.
Recently, a group of South African Jews from both organisations travelled to Palestine Israel to participate in a ceremony at Lubya, the destroyed Palestinian village whose remains are scattered beneath the forest planted above it called, South Africa Forest. We were hosted by ADRID, the Palestinian committee for the internally displaced, by Palestinians from Lubya, and by Zochrot, an Israeli NGO who brings the Nakba and the right of return into Israeli social consciousness. At the ceremony we were invited to hand over a pledge to Palestinians from Lubya signed by 200 South African Jews to acknowledge the forced displacement of Palestinians and the destruction of their villages during the Nakba and to commit to ensuring the return of refugees to their land. One of the members of our delegation read out a prayer for justice written by a rabbi in Johannesburg in acknowledgement of the role that South African Jews have played in erasing the Nakba by sponsoring trees in the South Africa Forest.
The ongoing work of both groups is also to acknowledge that we all have multiple identities and social locations as South Africans. We acknowledge the need to deal with racialized, ethnic, gendered and class prejudices in our communities of “origin”, to interrupt and subvert the prejudices, stereotypes and ignorance about other groups. If we acknowledge the indivisibility of justice, freedom and humanity of all people, then racism, Islamophobia and antisemitism cannot be entertained or given the tiniest grain of credibility or truth. And if we acknowledge that when religion and faith is wielded to promote hate, division, militarism and war we are also obliged to speak against what is done in our name and in solidarity with those against whom religion is wielded as a weapon of dehumanisation. This is why both JVJP and SAJFP acknowledge the danger of advancing any one narrative that makes claims about identity, history and faith. Along with recognising that there is no single path of truth or of being Jewish, we also acknowledge that religion and ethnicity are too often collapsed into nationalist and ethnic chauvinism, intolerance and politics of oppression and dispossession.
In April, Jewish Voices for a Just Peace in Cape Town, hosted a Maimouna celebration which many of you here tonight attended. The Maimouna is a practice of Jewish communities from the North African and Islamic world when Arab and African Jews end the Passover which is marked with a celebration to which Muslim and Christian friends, neighbours and political comrades would come to feast together. Held at the District Six Museum, the recent Maimouna was the first communal and public celebration of the ritual in Cape Town. JVJP hosted the celebration for two reasons. The first was to honour the fact that, until recently, co-existence, comradeship and friendship characterised Muslim, Jewish and Christian relations in North Africa and the wider Islamic world. As was noted that night, the centuries-long practice of Maimouna gives lie to the dangerous dominant narrative that Jews and Muslims are mortal enemies facing one another in an apocalyptic conflict. The second reason for hosting the Maimouna was because the characteristics of this Judeo-Arabic practice represent important but unrecognised aspects of Cape Town’s history of social relations and political comradeship between Muslims, Jews and Christians. Even despite the divisions wrought by South Africa’s history.
In such communally shared gestures of Ta’aruf, of getting to know each other, we also actively give expression to Ta’ayush, or living together, as a way of sharing difference and not erasing it. And this is how I understand interfaith solidarity more generally: If there is no homogenous, singular practice of Judaism, of expressing Jewishness, then the term, “interfaith” must also be a complex and non-homogenous concept. And perhaps in finding a way that embraces and honours difference, that affirms Ta’aruf and Ta’ayush as dynamic processes and that shares a commitment to a conception of justice that always remains out of reach yet which we move towards, we can honour all that we share in common and in difference.
I wish you and your loved ones a Ramadan Kareem. May Allah continue to grant you a month of steadfastness, compassion and renewal. Thank you.