Random Musing Before Shabbat–Noaḥ 5777–Tzur Yisrael and Standing Rock

In the haftarah for parashat Noaḥ, from Isaiah chapters 54 and 55, we read these words:

 הַרְחִיבִי ׀ מְקוֹם אָהֳלֵךְ וִֽירִיעוֹת מִשְׁכְּנוֹתַיִךְ יַטּוּ אַל־תַּחְשׂכִי הַֽאֲרִיכִי מֵֽיתָרַיִךְ וִיתֵֽדֹתַיִךְ חַזֵּֽקִי:  כִּי־יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאול תִּפְרֹצִי וְזַרְעֵךְ גּוֹיִם יִירָשׁ וְעָרִים נְשַׁמּוֹת יוֹשִֽׁיבוּ:

Enlarge the size of your tent, extend the size of your dwelling, do not stint! Lengthen the ropes and drive the pegs firm. For you shall spread out to the right and the left; your offspring shall dispossess nations and shall people the desolate towns.

This text from Isaiah parallels many words in the Torah, carrying on a long tradition of the manifest destiny of the descendants of Noah and Abraham. The manifest destiny of the inheritors of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. The manifest destiny of the monotheists. (Yes, it can be easily and fairly argued that early Judaism was monolatrous, allowing for the existence of multiple gods while favoring One G”d above all others. For academic purposes, a significant distinction. For the purposes of the argument I am about to make, less so.)

Starting next week, and for a few weeks thereafter, we will read in Torah many manifestations of the doctrine of manifest destiny, of G”d’s promise (though as much of an instruction as a promise) to Abraham and his descendants.

Boy, did we ever take that and run with it. For a short while, the Israelites were successful in carrying out this mandate, in insuring this promise was kept.

We fought our way in Canaan and it became ours. After all, G”d said it was ours. It was our destiny to have this land. We even had a contract. The concept of property rights (and, also, apparently, eminent domain and other devices for taking over land that belongs to someone else) are ancient and well recognized (well, in some cultures and traditions they are. In others, property rights and borders are less clear and more ambiguous – even amorphous.)

We should note that in this parasha there is an etiology that exists to primarily justify the future occupation of the land of Canaan by the Israelites. The Torah indirectly implicates Ham’s son Canaan in Ham’s disrespect upon discovering the naked, passed-out-drunk Noaḥ.

וַיֹּאמֶר אָרוּר כְּנָעַן עֶבֶד עֲבָדִים יִהְיֶה לְאֶחָֽיו: כו וַיֹּאמֶר בָּרוּךְ יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵי שֵׁם וִיהִי כְנַעַן עֶבֶד לָֽמוֹ:

And he said: “cursed be Canaan; the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers. And he said: “Blessed be the L”rd, the G”d of Shem; Let Canaan be a slave to them.

Thus is was fine when, year’s later, we occupied the land bearing Canaan’s name and legacy.

Our belief in our covenant of manifest destiny was so strong, that we invented rationalizations to explain when things didn’t go according to plan, assuming that we had displeased G”d in some fashion and had only reaped what we had sown. (Our belief was rather strongly reinforced by G”d’s own reported words and actions in the Torah and from the prophets and other writings – warning us that we would most definitely fail to live up to our end of the covenant, and would suffer the consequences, including direct impairment, and even outright reversal of our fortunes and our manifest destiny. But no matter, G”d would always take us back. To quote an old comedy routine – apropos to this parasha, though from a now disreputable source – “riiiiiiiiiiiight.”) (Don’t you like how I still managed to work that in there? Winking smile)

When our own foibles caught up with us, and the Israelites were finally reduced to a people in diaspora, successors quickly arose to assume the mandate of this manifest destiny. For almost two thousand years, the inheritors of the original Israelite manifest destiny, the Christians and Muslims have followed the commandment to enlarge their tents by whatever means necessary (and usually that involved conquering and ruling over lands inhabited by others.)

For a while, our two successors fought over land. They each developed rationalizations and justifications for their efforts. Islam expanded rapidly through Arabia, the Levant, northern Africa, and into parts of Europe. Christendom mounted the Crusades. 

Ah, and then enlightenment. (Or more properly, the remembering, rediscovery, and co-opting of ancient ideas as new ones.) We thought we were becoming a superior people, with new ideas, concepts, and ethics that raised us above our primitive ancestors. What did we do with this (besides raising our standards of living while raping our planet?) We took manifest destiny to new heights. We explored and then exploited larges swaths of places we deemed exotic – places that were outside the sphere of influence of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic world. Places where peoples had existed quite happily and successfully without the influences of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. Africa. The Americas. Australia.

The age of exploration needed some authority. Beginning with Pope Nicholas V in 1452, rulers of Christian lands were given the authority to conquer non-Christian lands and declare their sovereignty over them. These became the foundations of what became known as the “doctrine of discovery.”  This concept is what allowed Columbus and others to “take possession” of “discovered” new lands. It didn’t matter if they were occupied, if the occupants weren’t Christian. The indigenous people (a much politer term we use today to take the place of words like savages, etc. ) would be converted to Christianity, and their lands possessed by the sovereign that the “discoverer” was representing.

This “doctrine of discovery” is still with us today. It is being played out in countless places around the world. Here in the USA, it is now being played out at Standing Rock with the DAPL. This doctrine is, sadly, embedded into our founding documents and our legal system.

The Declaration of Independence includes, among its charges against the King, these words:

He has excited domestic Insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured (sic) to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.

Then there is the Supreme Court decision in Johnson v McIntosh, a foundational case in property law. In it, Justice John Marshall effectively endorses the concept of  the “doctrine of discovery” that a European power gains sovereignty to land it discovers. That power alone has the right to determine the occupancy rights of any indigenous parties. The government of the United States, being the legitimate inheritor of the rights of discovery, is the only entity to which tribal lands can be sold or which can accept transfer of title of land ownership.

Wow. Our religious texts and history lie at the core of the exploitation and treatment of indigenous people around the world, and right here in the USA. Jefferson at least tried to remove slavery as part of our founding documents (he failed, in a compromise as ill-fated as Ben-Gurion’s compromise on the status of religion in the modern state of Israel, but at least he tried.) Nobody tried to protect the inalienable rights of the indigenous Americans.

Native American/American Indian beliefs didn’t fit the mold of Judeo-Christian-Islamic religion. Therefore, it was inferior, and could be ignored. It was fine to impose Christianity on the natives. That attitude hasn’t changed much. Yes, finally in 1978, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. But they gave it no enforcement mechanism. Sadly, too, the courts have interpreted the act in the very narrowest and strictest of terms.

Native American/American Indian beliefs run the full gamut. Monotheistic, polytheistic, animist, henotheistic/monolatrous. Popular belief tends to lump them all together, but they are many and very different from one another. There are movements that have consolidated beliefs, and some that are syncretic, combining Christian belief with native practice and ritual (for example, the Native American Church.) We can’t point to sacred texts, as, for the most part, these religions were transmitted orally. (From a western viewpoint, that made them inferior. We dismissed them as inferior for lack of written language, too, even though some did use glyphs and other symbolic systems to keep records. Perhaps they were technologically inferior, but in terms of thought, ethics, philosophy, etc. there were hardly inferior.)

I’m a rational person. I’m also a gadfly, who likes to insure the people look at all sides of an issue. I lived for a decade in North Dakota. I know people who live on reservations, and I know people who are now dependent on the oil in the Bakken for a living. I’ve read the arguments from ND officials and articles and editorials in the Bismarck Tribune and other ND papers, who sincerely believe that every effort was made to address the concerns of the native tribes vis a vis the route of the DAPL, and they chose to not engage until now. I believe I’ve done my due diligence.

That being said, any person of faith should be troubled by the concept of the doctrine of discovery, of our nation’s horrible history in dealing with Native Americans/American Indians. That, alone, should be a reason to stand with those at Standing Rock. Our Judeo-Christian-Islamic faith has been used to trample on their rights. If, as some in government claim, representatives of the tribes chose to not fully participate in the review process, and didn’t raise some of the current objections earlier, it shouldn’t matter. A little affirmative action type protections aren’t entirely unwarranted here. This was their land. We took it from them.  Their relationship to the land is different from ours, and is even, perhaps, a part and parcel of their religions.

Yes, our tradition says “You shall have no other gods before me.” Yet we often refer to G”d as the plural “Elohim.” As monotheists, we can choose to interpret this to mean that other G”ds or things that are worshipped are simply manifestations of G”d. As monolatrists, we can choose to say “we follow our G”d, but others are free to follow their G”d or gods.”  The commandment that we shall worship no other G”d is a commandment to the Jewish people, and the inheritors and daughter religions of our tradition. We Jews, Christians, Muslims – we are the ones who insisted that this must apply to every human being. The Torah doesn’t insist on that. It told us to spread out. It didn’t say that we must forcefully make others believe as we do. (The injunctions in Torah against the practices of others are meant for the Jews – not for the others. We seemed to have missed that point. Yes, when we occupied Canaan, we were told to tear down altars and eliminate any of the religious trappings of the indigenous Canaanites. That’s troubling, but it doesn’t extrapolate into a command to go conquer other nations and replace their gods with our G”d (even if some chose to see it that way.)

Shall we stand idly by while the rights of Native Americans/American Indians are trampled? Shall we stand idly by while our planet is recklessly raped to provide us with physical comforts, and at the same time line the pockets of the wealthy with even more wealth? Shall we stand idly by when peaceful protestors, many of them engaging in religious ceremonies, are attacked and mistreated by an over-militarized public and private police force?

Do I pray that someday the Torah shall go forth from Zion, the words of Ad”nai from Jerusalem? Yes. Frankly, not all the words, because some of them are troubling. Some of them might be, dare I say, irredeemable. I do not pray for the warrior G”d, the vengeful G”d, the bad-parent G”d, the petulant G”d. I pray for G”d, the maker of peace.

Judaism has been forced to diminish the size of its tent – sometimes by actions of its own choosing, sometimes by the hateful and horrible actions of others. Do I pray that we Jews continue to work to enlarge our tent? Surely. However, when we enlarge our tent at the expense of others, that’s problematic (and yes, that is as much as reference to Israel and the Palestinians as it is to the western world’s outrageous use of manifest destiny.) It’s a big planet, but it does have a finite amount of space, and a finite amount of resources.  We ignore both of those realities at our own peril. When our religious faiths are in conflict with those realities, it’s the religion that has to give, because the realties won’t. There is plenty in the world’s many and varied religious traditions that teaches us how to live, respect each other, and take care of our planet. There is, unfortunately, plenty in the world’s many and varied religious traditions that place us in direct conflict with what we now know. Plenty that has caused us to act in perverse and horrible ways to each other. We must acknowledge that. However, unlike those who hold that religion is, perforce, an overall negative for humanity, I believe it can and should be an overall positive. Yes, I accept that righteous actions can and do happen in the complete absence of religion – but so do horrible and awful actions. It’s not religion that’s the problem. It’s not atheism that’s the problem. It’s humanity that’s the problem, as Elie Wiesel, z”l so often reminded us.

In the DAPL controversy, in the upcoming presidential election, we have the opportunity to demonstrate the best of what our religions (or our humanistic ethics) teach us. I pray that we do. May this be our will.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian
©2016 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Noakh 5776 – Two Short Thoughts on Noah
Noakh 5775 – To Make a Name For Ourselves (Revisited)
Noakh 5774 – Let’s Rebuild That Tower
Noakh 5773 – Nothing New
Noakh 5772 – The Long Haul
Noakh 5771 – Redux 5765 – A P’shat in the Dark
Noakh 5770 – Don’t Ham It Up
Noah 5768 – Redux 5761 – Getting Noticed
Noakh 5766-What A Nimrod! (Revised)
Noakh 5765-A Pshat In The Dark
Noach 5764-Finding My Rainbow
Noach 5763-Striving to be Human
Noach 5762-To Make a Name for Ourselves
Noach 5761-Getting Noticed
Noach 5760-What a Nimrod!

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About migdalorguy

Jewish Educator & Musician, Technology Nerd and all around nice Renaissance guy
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