This week we marked Tisha b’Av (the ninth of Av), a date commemorating a series of horrific events throughout Jewish history. According to rabbinic tradition, these spanned from the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem in 587 BCE to the 1942 liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. While one common thread binding these calamities is persecution by gentiles, the rabbis of old also turned inward for explanations.
They were perceptive and bold in attributing responsibility to the Jewish community. Was their soul searching merely an exercise in history, or should we draw contemporary lessons relating to these very days? Rabbinic introspection left us with the following mind-boggling statement in Tractate Bava Metzia 30b: “Jerusalem was destroyed because the rabbinic courts strictly applied din Torah [Jewish legal judgments] rather than allowances of lifnim meshurat hadin [equity].”
The Talmud acknowledged that the Divine Torah law, strictly applied, may cause destruction! The other classic rabbinic explanation for the second Temple’s destruction is sinat hinam (baseless hatred). The famous story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, oft quoted, demonstrates the extent to which intolerance and hatred can deteriorate into destruction.
The rabbis did not spare their predecessors the lion’s share of responsibility, claiming that such instances of abuse and humiliation took place in the presence of the rabbinic leadership, who held their peace rather than counter the hatred and heal the community.
The first example placed the responsibility upon the overzealousness of the adjudicating rabbinate. In the second example, responsibility was attributed to the rabbinic leadership due to its inaction in the face of social strife.
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin of Volozhin (The Natziv, 1816-1893) critically describes people in second Temple times who deviated from the Divine Will, as they labeled fellow Jews “Sadducees” for pursuing a religious path not identical to their own, and at times did not even refrain from bloodshed “for the sake of Heaven,” bemoaned the Natziv. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Israel faces numerous challenges.
Many come from outside, stemming from anti-Semitism, the refusal of neighboring countries to acknowledge the Jewish people’s right to a national home, the lack of natural resources, security costs, etc. These are well known, and Jews throughout the world support Israel in facing them. However, to do justice to Israel’s existential challenges, especially during these days of Jewish soul searching, we must emulate the rabbis of old, look boldly at our own religious scene, and identify the threat it poses to Israel’s social cohesiveness and Jewish unity.
The hateful rhetoric and theocratic pressures stemming from today’s self-righteous Israeli rabbinic and political leadership, aiming to delegitimize the “other,” is reminiscent of the Talmud’s focus on sinat hinam and the threat of Din Torah as a catalyst in weakening society.
In the past year, deputy minister Meir Porush of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party called for the Women of the Wall to be thrown to the dogs, and his colleague MK Moshe Gafni proclaimed Reform Jews (a catchall phrase for all Jews who are non-Orthodox) a bunch of clowns who stab the holy Torah. MK Yisrael Eichler (also of UTJ) labeled Reform – “mentally ill” and secular Jews – “two legged animals.”
Shas Party leader Aryeh Deri announced, “They will not get any recognition. In Judaism there is only one stream”; and his Shas colleague Minister of Religious Services David Azoulay said that he has difficulty considering them Jewish. Not to be outdone, Rabbi David Yosef, son of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, charged that the Reform movement “is a collaboration with idolatry”; while Rabbi Yig’al Levenstein, cofounder of a renowned, state-funded pre-military academy publicly said that “Reform is a stream of Christianity” and homosexuals are perverts.
These are the modern parallels of the label “Sadducees,” which led to the Netziv’s lament, of sinat hinam.
Today’s “others” include not only the non-Orthodox Jewish streams, but also women, LGBT Jews, modern Orthodox Jews, as well as Orthodox Jews with differing views; shortly after Rabbi Ovadia Yosef approved of conversions done in the IDF, graffiti was seen in Mea She’arim which dropped his rabbinic title and labeled him “Reform!” Hiddush’s polling has shown that 71 percent of Israeli Jews perceive the rabbinical courts’ rigid rulings, as well as the anachronistic Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over kashrut, burial, marriage, divorce, etc., and their refusal to accept the legitimacy of even modern Orthodox conversions and kashrut supervision, as distancing people from Jewish tradition. Clearly, strict application of Din Torah today results in social alienation and strife.
The Jewish people’s challenges today are profound. The threat posed to Jewish unity by our religious leadership steadily gains momentum, unrestrained by a government reliant upon the ultra-Orthodox parties’ political support. On Tisha Be’av, even as we mourn the many historic calamities that befell us, we must also draw brave lessons from our sages of old and reject theocratic fundamentalist pressures and sinat hinam, especially when it’s spewed “for the sake of Heaven”! We need equity, tolerance and compassion.
Only the deepest soul searching and bold action will stave off today’s threat of growing erosion from within.
Since last week’s bulletin, there have been a number of developments in the ultra-Orthodox political and rabbinical leadership’s battle against the implementation of the Kotel agreement, as well as their battle against the Supreme Court’s ruling to make Israel’s public mikva’ot available for non-Orthodox conversion ceremonies.
These developments reflect, in essence, an escalation in anti-Reform rhetoric and the pressure faced by Haredi politicians to withdraw their unspoken consent to the framework of the Kotel agreement. Thus, due to these increasing tensions, Israel’s political system is being pulled in opposite directions – torn between the demands of the ultra-Orthodox politicians and the consequences of reneging on the Government’s agreement with the non-Orthodox streams and Women of the Wall, not to mention reversing the Supreme Court’s ruling by legislative action.
RRFEI aims to deepen our members’ understandings of current events, and answer all of your questions and requests for additional background materials. In the meantime, we note the following developments since last week’s bulletin:
THE MIKVAH BILL
THE KOTEL AGREEMENT
Minister Rabbi Litzman: “Netanyahu either loves the Reform Jews of the Diaspora, or the Haredim of Israel; it’s either-or. There are no two ways about it… The Supreme Court is destroying everything good related to religion & state, and… the only way to stand against it is by passing legislation.” [Hebrew link]
Last week, I emphasized that the battle over the Kotel agreement and Supreme Court ruling to allow non-Orthodox converts access to Israel’s public mikva’ot is not really over the Women of the Wall’s prayer services or the non-Orthodox movements and their converts. Rather, it is over contrasting visions for the State of Israel on matters of religion and state.
The recent Pew report, as I wrote at length, indicates that the population represented by Gafni, Litzman, Azoulay, Deri and their colleagues, strongly desires to turn Israel into a theocracy, or as close to one as possible. In such cases when religious edicts clash with the rule of law and democratic principles, they believe themselves to be obligated to follow their interpretations of halakha, rather than civil law. Their political clout allows them to “dance between the raindrops,” and bend the law to suit them, even if this flies in the face of democracy, religious freedom, equality, etc. They aim to fashion Israel into a state not unlike those run by sharia law. Minister Azoulay’s declaration that he would not sign the regulations passed by the Government in the Kotel agreement “because his rabbi told him not to sign” is only one more recent example of this intolerable situation.
PM Netanyahu finds himself a rock and a hard place, for he does not support the vision for a theocracy, and would like to make good on his promise to Diaspora Jewry that “all Jews should feel at home in Israel.” However, the threat to the integrity of his coalition government is rising due to forces that aim to unravel Israel’s democracy; forces for whom Israel-Diaspora relations and the rule of law are meaningless; forces whose only considerations are utilitarian. The clearest expression of this is that the battles against the non-Orthodox movements and against the supreme court are the same battle. This was made utterly clear in a radio interview with Minister Rabbi Litzman (quoted above) about the upcoming vote to reverse the Supreme Court’s ruling on the mikva’ot (you may read about the details of the vote and its outcome here (in Hebrew), including responses from Hiddush, the non-Orthodox streams, and representatives of the Jewish Home and Kulanu parties).
These issues are again rising to the fore, which is why we believe it is so urgent for RRFEI members and friends of Israel in the Diaspora to mobilize in this existential battle. This is not simply a struggle for the rights of the non-Orthodox streams. It is a battle for the future of Israel’s soul, and the extent to which the Jewish state will be able to sustain its partnership with the Diaspora.