Sunday, August 3, 2008

Taking Care Across Cultures: Pinchas, Reading I

Jews couple with Moabites. God sends a plague upon them. Pinchas, the grandson of the high priest, kills a particularly flagrant Moabite-lover. The plague stops, and God makes a special covenant with Pinchas. We could read this story as endorsing all kinds of attitudes that would make us moderns shudder.

As I suggested in the previous post, however, we don't have to read it that way. My first alternative reading owes a great deal to the teachings of my friend Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who sees the story of Pinchas as a story of first contact between two alien cultures.

The moment when strangers meet is fraught with pleasure and danger. After the initial response of fight or flight, some people thrill at being the first in their community to explore the ways of a different culture. We can think of the Europeans who looked at African art in the early twentieth century and made a fad of "primitivism." As their example shows, appreciating another culture rides dangerously close to making it a fetish and treating the people in that culture as exotic and exciting, but somehow less than people "like us."

In the Torah, the Israelites meet up with "fight or flight" in their encounters with Sihon, the king of the Amorites, and Og, the king of Bashan. Both refuse to let the Jews march through their territory on the way to Canaan. Attacking the caravan, they get slaughtered.

The Moabites take a softer approach. They welcome the Israelites in a seductive way--literally--and the men respond. They appreciate the Moabite women, but they also objectify them. Even in the midst of a plague, when the community is weeping over thousands of people dying, Zimri son of Salu from the tribe of Simeon thinks it's cool to parade by with Cozbi daughter of Zur, the daughter of a Midianite tribal chief.

Unusually, the Torah gives the woman's name (as it does not do with the wife of Noah, or any number of other women in the story). Is it trying to restore some of her personhood, even after her death? Is it a silent rebuke to the Jew who treated her only as a stranger for kinky sex?

And what about that plague? Arthur Waskow asks:

Is this just uncanny, a miracle? In a much more recent story, just 500 years ago, we hear of a canny, scientifically explicable, disaster that bears marks of similarity: When the age-old barriers of Ocean were torn apart in the 16th century, two cultures came together that had never met. One result: measles decimated the Native Americans; syphilis, the Europeans.

Was this because their intimate connection was in itself a "sin"? Or was it because the rush of new connection outran the care necessary to make the connection holy?

Perhaps for us, today, the story told in the chapters that mention Pinchas is not really about Pinchas. For us, today, the story is about taking care at the boundaries of difference. At the worst (the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan), we create a clash of civilizations that didn't have to happen. At best, we respect one another and learn from one another, as Rona does with the Daughters of Abraham interfaith book discussions. We find our selves in the Pinchas situation again and again, but that doesn't mean we have to act as Pinchas did. More on that in the next three blog entries.

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