Tuesday, 10 Mar 2015

Written by Daniela Touati

Who would have thought that France would be the seismograph of anti-Semitism in Europe? But also the symbol of the worst that closed communities can generate in a society?

The horrendous attacks of January 7th, 8th and 9th clearly raise the issue of the capacity of a country like France to bring together multiple cultures and religions in a harmonious manner. The “Blue White Beur” (Beur means Arab) slogan of France which honoured Zinnedine Zidane in 1998, after the victory of the French football team in the World Cup, is over. Could someone called Zinnedine, Mehdi or Mohammed be considered a hero today?  France is wary of its neighbours, even the president of our country made a clumsy distinction between “ethnic French” and what is implied ‘the other’ French (February 21, 2015 at the CRIF dinner which is the equivalent of the British Board of Deputies).

Fear, if not panic, has seized people’s mind, like a cancer. Part of the population, which is not a minority anymore, wishes to try a different political party, that had not yet been tried in France (really?) and which is thriving on this theme: I am referring to the ‘highly respectable’ Marine Le Pen’s far right party which is already catching in its nets too many of our co-religionists…

Curiously, vis à vis that situation, we have never seen so many inter-faith activities being organized at the same time. In Lyon, within weeks, the members of the Jewish community have been invited to the ‘open house day’ of one mosque, to a dinner in honour of the soldiers guarding the premises, to the association “Sons of Abraham” where our rabbi, a priest and an imam will participate in a conference on “Joy” in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

But this remains derisory and France is a pressure cooker ready to explode.

Yet French secularism remains an ingenious idea, which grants freedom of worship and conscience, and legal protection for both the religious and atheists. The public space is secular and religion is confined to the private area. Communities are free to organize worship as they wish, and the State is non-interventionist. That is probably precisely one of the reasons why within these groups, led by radical imams, there flourished the worst, that led to last January’s attacks. However a serious failure of French secularism happened at school. The number of Jewish children who have left public schools for Jewish private schools, due to anti-Semitism, has doubled in the last ten years.

In 2013 Benjamin Stora, a famous French Jewish historian, published with Abdelawahhab Medded a French Muslim philosopher, a multi-vocal book on the subject “The history of the relations between the Jews and Muslims”. He says that French Muslims (sometimes for 2 or 3 generations) have had integration and identification problems in France, because they are under-represented in the public sphere: he means as journalists, actors or politicians.

These examples, in both the Jewish and Muslim communities are reasons that would lead some people to cower in their own community and distance themselves from the national community.

Vayakhel, one of the two weekly portions we read this week, addresses the subject of what a human group that is put at the service of a vision can produce. “And he assembled,” speaks of an almost ideal Biblical time, a community as any rabbi and congregational president could dream of.

The group of men and women described in this Parashah seek to commit themselves either with money, or with talent. They participate, each according to his/her means, with enthusiasm and conscientiousness in a project that goes beyond them and they want to succeed: the construction of the Mishkan- the portable Sanctuary. The members have a leader that inspires them, and a “Steering Committee” consisting of the most talented of them: Bezalel and Oholiab, who share a vision and carefully organize all of these skills. But their gifts are so generous that Moses feels bound to ask them to stop making so many offerings Vayakhel ch36: 5 – 6 “the people are bringing more than is needed for the task entailed in the work that the Eternal has commanded to be done!”(… )”Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary.”

Nehama Leibowitz in her commentary on this Parashah, points out the completely opposite intentions that are at the origin of the construction of the Mishkan as opposed to the construction of the Golden Calf in the previous Parashah. In both those narratives the Israelites create something and show engagement and generosity but the qualities that apply in each case are completely opposite.

People who contribute to the building of the Mishkan are described as wise of heart, demonstrating goodwill, sensitivity, talent. In Ki Tissa ch.32:3 “all the people broke off their earrings of gold… and they brought them to Aaron “.The term “break off” is an indication of their way of acting. They give in such a disorderly way, without thinking and without coordination and especially under the influence of a bad instinct.

The corrupted people is now to stand up and put even more zeal into repairing the idolatrous instinct which pushed it to build the golden calf.

These two episodes of the Torah are a valuable source of teaching that one can put into perspective. We have to choose between continuing to build ‘Golden Calves’ or starting to build the Mishkan both as individuals and as a community group.

One can learn from them both the difficulty and the beauty of living in harmony within different communities: one’s family, one’s spiritual group, one’s national group and beyond as an individual, a part of humanity. When a group of men and women loses the sense of proportion and pushes worship to idolatry, it releases its low and uncontrollable instincts and the worst can happen, while when the talents of each of us are put into good use and have an ethical aim, nothing can stop the community whose members work together in total harmony.

The dramatic events of early January have been followed by a sort of survival reflex, a revival of a deep humanity. This has allowed people to readjust the boundaries between what is acceptable and unacceptable. This has also been an opportunity to put into words what defines us as a national community, composed of a multitude of communities that must develop a project and reclaim the French common denominator.

As progressive Jews, we strive more to find a balance between a secular and a religious life and how to impact the society in which we live to build a more fraternal one. May our current and future sanctuaries be models of living together where the motto “Liberty Equality Fraternity” can be in harmony with Tzedakah and Gemilut Hassadim.

Student rabbi Daniela Touati

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.