Friday, 25 April 2008

The Lotus in the Jew

In my main Passover Sermon I looked at the relationship between contemporary Tibet oppression and our ancient persecution.

I was forcibly struck not only by the extraordinarily relevant title of the Dalai Lama’s autobiography, but also by the connection two of the most striking moments in his life and our own Rabbinic heritage.

The violence of oppression of a ‘nation apart’ as the hagada refers to the Jews is mirrored in the oppression of the Tibetans and the tale of the Dalai Lama fleeing his ancestral home and the home of his faith and nation to seek to construct an exile-based identity matched so neatly that of one of our own founding religious fathers, Yochanan Ben Zakkai.

The connection between the Dalai Lama and Yochanan Ben Zakkai was, at least to my knowledge, fist remarked upon in the lovely work The Jew in the Lotus; a tale of a group of Rabbis and Jewish educators who go on a visit to meet the Dalai Lama in 1990.

Some relevant texts are posted below.

We pray for the freedom of all peoples.

From Freedom In Exile: Autobiography of the Dalai Lama

The methods that the Chinese used to intimidate the population [in the Spring of 1957] were so abhorrent that they were almost beyond the capacity of my imagination. It was not until I read the report published in 1959 by the International Commission of Jurists that I fully accepted what I had heard: crucifixion, vivisection, disembowelling and dismemberment of victims was commonplace. So too were beheading, burning, beating to death and burying alive, not to mention dragging people behind galloping horses until they died or handing them upside down or throwing them bound hand and foot into icy water. And in order to prevent them shouting out, “Long live the Dalai Lama” on the way to execution, they tore out their tongues with meathooks.[1]

From Midrash Eleh Ezkerah: Yom Kippur Liturgy

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel begged for his execution to be the first and they shed his blood as if he were an ox and when his head was severed Rabbi Yishmail took it and wailed.

They flailed the skin from his face.

They took out Rabbi Akiva and lacerated his flesh with sharp-toothed combs and burnt Rabbi Chananya ben Teradion.[2]

Freedom In Exile – Fleeing Lhasa for Dharamasala

At a few minutes before ten o’clock, now wearing unfamiliar trousers and a long, black coat, I threw a rifle over my right shoulder and, rolled up, an old thangka that had belonged to the Second Dalai Lama over my left. Then, slipping my glasses into my pocket, I stepped outside. I was very frightened. I was joined by two soldiers, with them I groped my way across the park, hardly able to see a thing. ON reaching the outer wall we joined up with Chikyah Kempo who, I could just make out, was armed with a sword. He spoke to me in a low reassuring voice. I was to keep by him at all costs. Going through the gate, he announce boldly to the people gathered there that he was undertaking a routine tour of inspection. With that, we were allowed to pass through. No further words were spoken.[3]

Talmud Gittin 56a

Abba Sikra the head of the guard in Jerusalem was the son of the sister of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai.

Yachanan sent for him saying, Come to visit me privately. When he came he said to him, How long are you going to carry on in this way and kill all the people with starvation? He replied: What can I do? If I say a word to them, they will kill me. He said: Devise some plan for me to escape. Perhaps I shall be able to save a little. He said to him: Pretend to be ill, and let everyone come to inquire about you. Bring something evil smelling and put it by you so that they will say you are dead. Let then your disciples get under your bed, but no others, so that they shall not notice that you are still light, since they know that a living being is lighter than a corpse. He did so, and Rabbi Eliezer went under the bier from one side and Rabbi Joshua from the other. When they reached the door, some men wanted to put a lance through the bier. He said to them: Shall [the Romans] say. They have pierced their Master? They wanted to give it a push. He said to them: Shall they say that they pushed their Master? They opened a town gate for him and he got out.

The Jew In the Lotus, Rodger Kamenetz[4]

As [Rabbi Yitz Greenberg] told the story of the first-century sages, I felt the power of our being there, as Jews. Dharamasala as much as one can argue by analogy, is surely the Tibetan Yavneh. In this small Indian town, with no more than five thousand souls, lies the main hope for the survival of Tibetan Buddhism. And I could see – with a little squinting – the Dalai Lama and his leading abbots and monks as the Buddhist equivalent of Yochanan ben Zakkai and his sages.

[1] P. 136

[2] From Midrash Eleh Ezkerah Yom Kippur Litrugy

[3] Pp. 151-152

[4] P. 95

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