As Israel is engaged in yet another military operation, Rabbi Yuter examines to what extent Torah treats all lives as equals.
In his 100th podcast Rabbi Yuter discusses the controversial group “Women of the Wall” and its implications for Halakhah and Israeli society.
While reviewing the laws of Purim I noticed in the back of a popular vocalized edition of the Mishna Berurah an appendix titled Kuntres Hahanhagot Ve’Inyanei Mitzvot Hateluyot Ba’aretz, which ostensibly covers contemporary practices and laws exclusive to Israel. The title page gives no source or attribution for these rulings, though I’m sure one of my more inquisitive loyal readers will track down the author. But knowing who wrote these decisions is irrelevant for this post, only the content of the argument. In particular, it is a wonderful example of intellectual dishonesty from the selective citation of sources.
In light of the recent religious violence in Israel, Rabbi Yuter begins his new Current Jewish Questions series with a discussion of religious coercion in Jewish law.
The past two weeks have renewed global interest in the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. Between President Obama’s original reference to the 1967 borders, a modification of sorts to the AIPAC convention, and a response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Jewish and political communities have been arguing over how to make sense of the policies.
One recurring theme has been the repeated call of defensible borders. Under the assumption that peace in Israel must consist of land swap with a forthcoming Palestinian state, parties on all sides have repeated that the border between the two states be “defensible,” without further clarification as to what that would mean in terms of specific borders.
However, a more significant question regarding the “defensible border” requirement is why would it be necessary. The “land for peace” mantra assumes that the Palestinian people are really interested in peace, but are oppressed by their Israeli occupiers. Logically then, if the Palestinians were to form their own nation, then it would be as Mahmoud Abbas stated, “a peace-loving nation, committed to human rights, democracy, the rule of law and the principles of the United Nations Charter.”
But if we were to take Abbas at his word, then why would Israel’s borders need to be defensible. From whom would Israel need defending if not the “peace-loving” nation? For comparison’s sake, the US / Canadian Border is 5,525miles, and yet despite this extremely long border, US is more concerned with illegal border crossings than military attacks. The reason is obvious; the United States is not concerned with having “defensible” borders with Canada because there is no risk of military attack and there is no risk of military attack because the United States is actually at peace with Canada.
The fact that “defensible borders” is still employed in Israeli / Palestinian rhetoric demonstrates that even proponents of a Palestinian state are not fully convinced by the “peace-loving” intentions. Any call for “land for peace” based on “defensible borders” is thus paradoxical to the point of dishonest for it assumes that Israel would still face a military threat despite acquiescing territory.
While I do not have a solution to the conflict, the process would probably be helped if people were more honest about their positions, intentions, and true motivations.
In a special class in honor of Yom Haatzmaut, Rabbi Yuter explores Rabbinic perspectives regarding the land of Israel, including those from Babylonian sources.
Yom Haatzmaut has always been a controversial holiday given the religious and political significance of the State. For some, the State of Israel is a harbinger of a messianic age, while others are theologically opposed to a Jewish presence in Israel. Then of course there are secularists who minimize the religious aspect of Israel and emphasize the importance of Israel purely as a political entity.
But regardless of how one views the State of Israel, most will acknowledge (and often complain) about how Israel functions. Religiously, Israel is be too oppressive for some and too accommodating for others. Israel’s public policy has also been debated at length, with similar dissatisfaction from leftists and rightists.
I have not conducted a formal study on the qualitative strength of Zionism today, but I would suspect that as the government and rabbinate continue to make controversial decisions that it would erode some of the Zionistic passion and support. On the other hand, Aliyah continues to grow at a steady pace and most Jews across denominations still support Israel in some way. I suggest that this is because the relationship with Israel does not follow usual patterns of logic but rather the commitment of emotion.
One of my favorite verses in Tanach is the insightful Mishlei 10:12 “sin’ah t’oreir m’danim, v’al kol p’sha’im t’chase ahava” – hatred awakens strife, but love covers all offenses. This astute observation is repeatedly validated in most interpersonal relationships. Someone who hates another will consistently focus on negative characteristics (real or imagined). This can range from denying positive aspects to actively stirring up trouble and picking fights. In contrast, even the most obviously explicit shortcomings are blissfully overlooked when love is involved.
In this past week’s Torah reading of Tazria/Metzora we find an example of this principle demonstrated in the halakha. Vayikra 14:33-57 describes the process by which a kohein declares a house to be infected with tzara’at and the method of repurification. The first step in the process is one of exposure; before the kohein conducts his examination, he removes the entire contents of the house (14:36). Presumably this would be a practical instruction to facilitate a more thorough examination. Considering that the consequence of a diagnosis of infection is the house must be dismantled (14:45), we should expect the kohein’s examination to be as comprehensive as possible.
However despite the literal airing of one’s laundry in public, the kohein’s inspection also literally leaves a stone unturned. Specifically, when the kohein enters the house, he needs to open the door. While the door is open the kohein obviously cannot check the obstructed area behind the door. Yet according to B. Hullin 10b the kohein only closes the door when he leaves, bypassing that hidden area. In other words, despite the practical and potentially spiritual consequences, the Torah instructs that there be some area left unchecked.
I suggest that this detail is crucial for the understanding of tzara’at. B. Arachin 16a lists some of the sins which tzara’at of the house, which include stinginess and lashon hara – bad speech. Perhaps the public removal of ones property and the meticulous examination of the violator’s house parallels the personal judgments he imposed on others. However, by leaving part of the house coved (kisuyi) and outside of scope his examination, the kohein is also demonstrating to the offender that this examination is not done of hatred or revenge, but rather out of ahava – love.
I heard a speaker this past Shabbat who in extolling the greatness of Israel emphasized the triad of Eretz Yisrael – the land of Israel, Am Yisrael – the nation of Israel, and Torat Yisrael. Recent events have shown that this model is not only insufficient, but also wildly inaccurate. The “nation” of Israel is fractured both politically and religiously that the unity implied by “Am” is tenuous at best. Torat Yisrael is repeatedly abused due to rampant (and illiterate) fundamentalism on the left and right. Even the Land itself is unstable given the unsettling policies of the Israeli government.
The problems with the State of Israel are beyond the scope of this essay. What is relevant is that despite all the valid criticisms and difficulties of Israel, people are still making aliyah and strengthening their connection with Eretz Yisrael. Such a commitment would not be possible with a purely rational perspective, but would require some degree of cognitive dissonance – the ability to intentionally overlook the adversities out of the love for Israel and her people.
In other words, Eretz Yisrael, Am Yisrael, and Torat Yisrael can only survive and succeed if they are first predicated and dependent on Ahavat Yisrael.
I know I owe a post on Pesach and that will be coming along soon. In the meantime, being Yom Haatzmaut and all and having recently returned from Israel, I figure it’s time for some random thoughts on Zionism or at least some general attitudes towards it.
While most Jews I’ve met would claim to “support Israel” ideologically but as expected, this support is highly subjective and how it is conveyed is equally varied. Some support Israel financialy through donations, Israel bonds, trips, or purchasing Israeli products where possible. Others take part in ceremonies, programs, or parades demosntrating their solidarity with the Jewish state.
And of course, others actually move there.
I’ve spoken to olim about the Zionism of Americans and quite are cynical, some to the point of outright disdain. If you believe that Israel is that important to the Jewish people as a nation or as a religion, then why not move? As one person expressed to me, the real meaning of an America going to the Israeli Day Parade is like saying that Israel is a great country – for someone else.
Others have toned down the pro-aliyah rhetoric for pragmatic reasons; people don’t always respond well to sanctimonious rantings. Still there is some resentment at the pharisaical Zionistic propoganda from those who haven’t actually made aliyah.
The question I have been dealing with recently is if American Zionism inherently hypocritical. Can one honestly claim to be Zionistic without actively planning and/or preparing for aliyah or is this just another example of vicarious Judaism?
My current thinking is to distinguish between who and how Zionistic messages are being propogated. For example, I’m sure you’ve heard the hocker in shul pontificating as to what Israel ought to do to solve their security or economic crises. Or perhaps you’ve heard the Rabbis extoling the superior spirituality of God’s chosen land.
In these types of rantings, the lack of aliyah mitigates the intended message. Unless the hocker is an expert in history, political theory, or has some other expertise, then his right to an argument is likely based on a perceived connection with the State of Israel. However, were his connection to be serious, then aliyah should be in his short-term plans. Similarly, if the Rabbi truly believes in the ultimate kiddusha of Eretz Yisrael then why not move?
Where I think these discussions disintegrate is in the motivations of the participants. For example, people could be taking extreme positions to overcompensate for their own Zionistic shortcomings.1 Or like many conversations, people could just be motivated from simple ideological arrogance.2
What are the alternatives? Frankly I’m trying to figure those out myself. Humility would be a good first step, but we could use that all over. On the other hand, Israel is one of the few things about which Jews feel strongly. Perhaps muting such passion would have even more averse consequences.
I’m still working this out, but I’m open to suggestions.
1. At least Rabbis have the capacity to create their own religious justifications for not making aliyah such as they can do more and better work the Jewish people in America or elsewhere. Even so, the premise of this noble sacrifice is rooted in sheer arrogance that their work is that crucial to the Jewish people. Some Rabbis might be able to get away with this, say R. Avi Weiss perhaps, but these would be the exceptions.
2. Not to say you don’t find this among Israelis, but at lest they live there.
As some of you may know I’m going to be in Israel for Pesach. It’s my first vacation in just about ever, since for several years I have either had the time or money to travel, but not both. So I figure since I might not have the time or access to post over Pesach, I can address something for which I have recently been getting a lot of flack.
Despite my staying in Israel for roughly two weeks, I will be keeping one day of Yom Tov this Pesach.
Newsweek has an online interview with the always insightful Jonathan Sarna regarding Sharon, Israel, and their relationship with American Judaism. Sarna, as expected, is insightful and makes some excellent points but the inherent limitations of such an interview prohibit fully sophisticated answers.
For some examples, on describing the relationship between Sharon and the American Jewish population:
- Here, a man [Sharon] who had so strongly advocated settling every inch of land, and was more responsible than anyone else for the settlements, was pulling Jews out of those settlements in an effort to create a viable Palestinian state and Israeli state. I think even those who disagreed had enormous respect for his ability to really change his position.
This this is a very nice thought, but I think it’s overly optimistic. Yes, it is noteworthy when people change their minds and in many cases it is commendable. However, when dealing with such incendiary issues such reversals are more often then not seen as betrayals, especially when someone is elected under those pretexts. (Think Bush nominating to the Supreme Court a judge from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals). How such reversals are perceived is completely dependant on which side you happen to find yourself.
On the question “Is there a feeling among Jews in the United States that if you criticize the government of Israel, you’re criticizing Israel itself?” Sarna describes an evolution in popular thought:
- But I think as time has gone on, it has become clear that the question is how one dissents. Certainly the Jewish community was not unanimously in support of the removal from Gaza. But I think it’s now well understood that American Jewry, where church and state are separated, [are] really unable to give unwavering support to a religious situation in Israel where religion is deeply enmeshed within the state.
This is a fascinating response as Sarna attributes political dissension to different ideologies of religion and politics. It is nearly impossible to discuss Israel without at some point addressing the religious impact,1 but in the more secularized American society it is significantly easier to overlook or minimize religion’s real significance.
On the effect of Sharon’s absence on American Jews:
- American Jews, in some ways, are going to feel lost with whoever succeeds Sharon. They don’t know the next generation of Israeli politicians, with the exception of [former prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. But he seems very unlikely at this point to take on the center. I think it’s going to take time before the American Jews get to know these people, and I think the same is true on the national scene.
Jewish Americans are probably familiar with only a handful of Israeli politicians. This is probably due to the fact that the same people keep running Israeli politics. Most of those old timers have long and well documented histories such that even the uninitiated can more easily catch up on their background and ideologies. But once you get to even the party leadership, things get a little murkier.
On the change of American Jewry’s opinion of Sharon:
- Sharon was a man of very great personal charisma, and I think that many American Jews, even if they weren’t in love with his policy, came to believe that even though it may be difficult to watch settlements uprooted, this seemed like the most sensible policy.
Here Sarna is guilty of something many writers do – the ambiguous qualifier of “many.”2 Still I think Sarna is correct considering the politically liberal political tendencies certainly among the religiously liberal Jewish communities. I will also suggest that the Rabin Factor probably discourages militant rhetoric from the right.
I’d recommend reading the whole article if nothing else to inspire some intelligent conversation.
1. On this point I highly recommend reading Arther Hertzberg’s The Fate of Zionism.
2. Yeah, I know.