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Tolerance and Respect

06/24/2013 04:52:14 PM


I want to use my drasha for the next few weeks to talk about the specter of religious violence and intolerance that is rapidly bubbling to the surface in Israel and indeed here in the orthodox community.

But first a joke, albeit not a funny one

I’m actually going to tell the joke the way it was written and it was written by a writer called Emo Phillips, it is apparently the 45th funniest joke of all time, according to GQ magazine.

Here it is:

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump.

I said, “Don’t do it!”

He said, “Nobody loves me.”

 I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?”

He said, “A Christian.”

I said, “Me too! Protestant or Catholic?”

He said, “Protestant.”

I said, “Me too! What denomination?”

He said, “Baptist.”

I said, “Me too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Baptist.”

I said, “Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.”

I said, “Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.”

 I said, “Me too!”

“Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” 

I said, “Die heretic!” And I pushed him over.

Now let me tell you how the Rosh yeshiva of the great Volozhin yeshiva, the renowned Netziv, treats the same topic in a comment on this week’s parsha of Balak

Almost very last utterance that the prophet Bilaam utters before accepting defeat and returning home, is to say 

 אוי מי יחיה משמו אל

The phrase Misumo eil is rather opaque – it is usually translated as ‘who can live unless G-d ordains it’, from the word, sim – to put.

But here is how Netziv translates it – not who can survive when G-d does this, but who can survive people who do things in the name of G-d.

 כג) אוי מי יהיה משמו אל. הן כמה אוה"ע כבשו מלכיות תחתם כדי להרחיב ממלכתם. ולא בקשו להשחית אלא מלכים ושרים ולא ההמון. לא כן הלוחם בשביל אמונה המה לוחמים ומאבדים כל מי שאינו מאמין באלוה כמותו. וזהו שראה בלעם ברוה"ק וצעק אוי מי יהיה משמו אל. ממי שמשים דבר אלקות בעולם:

There are many nations who conquer other countries to expand their empires.  And they only wish to kill the king and leaders of the conquered people, not the masses. But this is not so when they wage war for religious reasons – then they fight and wish to destroy all those who don’t believe in G-d in the way that they do. And this is what Bilaam saw with divine inspiration, and cried out in warning – mi yichei misumo keil – who can survive the danger of those who believe they act in the name of G-d.

What I have to say this morning, is not directed at the religious right, or the religious left.  There are good people I firmly believe the vast majority on both sides are good people. It’s about what has happened to all of us. The joke I said a few minutes ago refers to that which is known as the narcissism of small differences.

Generally Orthodox Jews don’t wage wars of ideology, polemics, with members of other religions, there are no angry editorials in The Jewish Week or the Jewish Press against the theology of this or that archbishop  - its people that we are most similar to that we tend to fight with and feel most threatened by.

I have lost count of the number of religious arguments, disputes, controversies, debates – entirely within the orthodox world, in recent months alone, that I have watched descend into bitter, malevolent ugly debates. You name it: army conscription, the chief rabbinate, Maharat, Women of the Wall, – whatever – and all too frequently on both sides of the issue there is name calling, bitter vitriolic, insults, aspersions, hateful comments far more than any substantive, certainly any respectful discussion of the issue.

And here is the thing – we are arguing with people and about people, with whom, in the vast scheme of thing we are almost completely in agreement with – Shabbat, Kashrut, Mitzvot Tefilot, Torah, Eretz Yisrael, Tzedakah, Brachot, Mikvah, Yom Tov, 613 commandments - and yet for all our similarities – boy, we sometimes really really detest each other.

A case in point – and here I will show my bias, but not because I think that the other side doesn’t have a valid point of view.

There are to be elections for the Chief Rabbinate in Israel. When you think about the Chief Rabbinate, you can either think of the glory days, towing figures such as Rav Kook, Rav Herzog, world leaders of the Jewish people, giants that overshadowed everybody they met with their spiritual stature and humanity.

Or you can think of the tarnished, corrupt, patronage driven, mean spirited organization that the Rabbinut has become. One of the incumbent chief rabbis is currently under house arrest under investigation for money laundering and other crimes. These allegations were well known before he was appointed – but he was appointed, nonetheless, elected I should say, with all of the horse trading and political manipulations that that implies – backed by certain parties and sects for the position, although he didn’t approach the stature of learning of the other candidates, but was expected to be more accommodating to their demands.

And now it’s time for a new Chief Rabbi. There is an organization in Israel called Zohar – many of my friends belong to it. It’s a network of modern orthodox, Zionistic rabbis – they serve in the army, they are part of Israeli society. They seek to cut across the gulf between religious and secular. They believe that religious and secular should be partners in shaping the state of Israel. And they believe that the bureaucratic nightmare that is the Israeli rabbinate – particularly when it comes to things like weddings is a huge turn off to any secular person. They provide for free an orthodox Rabbi who will work with the couple, prepare them for their wedding and build a connection with them – and never charge a shekel to do so.

And one of the founders of that organization Rabbi David Stav, a Rabbi, Dayan, Rosh Yeshiva, scholar, is a candidate for the chief rabbinate of Israel.

Rav Stav believes that you don’t have to be Charedi to be orthodox. He deals with real life issues and doesn’t envision a society that to be religious means to be cut off from the society in which you live. He authored a sefer called Ben Hazmanim, for example, where he discusses the concept of leisure, entertainment and engagement with secular culture, from a Jewish point of view. He permits reading secular literature like Shakespeare. In that he follows the great tradition of Torah Im Derech Eretz and Torah u’Mada.

And for that he has been vilified. Now I am not suggesting for a moment that the other candidates for the post would not make fine chief rabbis. Perhaps they would.

But here is my concern. Do we still live in a Jewish world where it is even possible that a Rabbi who thinks like we do, who reflects the classic views of what until recently were utterly mainstream Orthodoxy, the Orthodoxy of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch and Rav Soloveitchik, is it even possible that such a person could be at least potentially a chief rabbi?

Is it still even remotely possible that a Religious Zionist could be Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel?

Or is the sole criterion to be who you are related to, what your last name is, which political party backs you, and the holding of only extreme views?

And last Motzei Shabbat, in words that – and we must be careful always in discussing the leading rabbis of the generation, a Rav who is truly in that category, denounced Rav Stav  in words that – well, when I heard them, they broke my heart.

This Rabbi pronounced that Rav Stav was “a wicked man,” someone “dangerous to Judaism” who had “no fear of God at all.” Electing Stav would be like “bringing idolatry into the temple,” the Rabbi said “He is not worthy… this man is dangerous to Judaism, dangerous to the rabbinate and dangerous to the Torah.”

He went on to attack Economics Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) and Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), saying that their support for Stav was indicative of their “hatred of Torah”.

And that, well, that cannot be right. And, no surprise, days later Rav Stav was physically attacked and verbally assaulted at a wedding.

And my point here is not for a moment that the right are evil and the modern orthodox are saints – my point is that we are simply ripping each other apart by our failure to understand how similar we are, how much we have in common, what our shared goals and values are – and that – be it competition for funds or jobs, or a failure of perspective and proportion have blown our people far apart.

This is not a new phenomenon.

When I sent out an email and Facebook message yesterday announcing my topics for the coming weeks I got a number of replies along the lines of – Jews have always been terrible at arguing – we have always been shrill, loud, aggressive debaters – what’s the big deal?

Well, friends – those people are wrong – it is a big deal.

I quoted earlier the words of the great Rosh Yeshiva, the Netziv. Listen to how he introduces the commentary to the book of Genesis.

He asks a simple question – why did G-d destroy the Temple? After all the people alive then were very religious and many of them were very learned…what went wrong?

And in words that we must all take to heart, and all those who have said how dare you criticize a great Rabbi for attacking the “lowly” Rav Stav, The Netziv explains precisely why Hashem decided to throw us out of our land:

“It is explained that the people of that generation of the Second Temple were “righteous”, “pious”, and intensely involved in Torah study.  However, they were not upright in their relationships with others, either in their actions, thoughts, or speech.  Therefore, because of the unwarranted hatred (Sinat Chinam) each had for the other, one would falsely accuse another of heresy, simply because the other’s religious expression, and way of respecting and showing reverence to G-d, was not in accordance with one’s own way.  The one whose way was different was thereby labeled a non-believer and considered cut off from authentic Judaism, even though that person fulfilled The Torah’s Commandments. This lack of tolerance and limited acceptance of individual religious expression eventually led to murder in the first degree and to all the evils in the world.  Eventually, G-d felt that punishment — the destruction of the Holy Temple — was necessary.”

Friends, when you look at your fellow human being, fellow Jew, fellow Shomer Torah U’Mitzvot, fellow Torah scholar, fellow lover of the land of Israel, and you look at them and you say – “Heretic!”, “Rasha!”, “Wicked!” instead of “Achi”, “Brother!” , that is a sign that there is something terribly, terribly wrong with us. That is, to use the Netziv’s words, they were not Yashar – upright. And that’s bringing destruction to our doors.

I see it here as well, in diaspora communities as well. In London there are shuls where you will not receive an Aliyah if you use the Eruv that was built by some of the most respected Rabbis in the world. You are considered a Shabbat desecrator. There is no room for another point of view, for a sense of proportion.  I see it in our failure as a community, to talk respectfully on issues. I see people who are convinced that G-d doesn’t want them to associate with such and such a person or Daven in this or that Shul – and, to be honest it breaks my heart.

Because, like it or not, we are a tiny people, and the ranks of Torah observant Jews – from Modern to Satmar cannot  be much more than a million and a half orthodox Jews in the world. A tiny number weighed against the billions of people in this world, many hundreds of millions of whom wish to see us weakened to the point of destruction.

I can’t help wondering why we are so eager to help them.

As we enter the Three weeks of mourning for the Temple and Jerusalem, let us strengthen ourselves in our Ahavat Yisrael, love of our fellow Jew. Let us learn to talk respectfully and treat each other, and all people with respect and dignity.

Wed, June 3 2020 11 Sivan 5780