Ultimately, our rabbis have taught us, Jewish ethics are fairly straightforward — straightforward to summarize, that is, if not always to honor.
For Hillel, the principles of our faith came down to, “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others.”
For Rabbi Akiva, the similar biblical imperative to “love thy neighbor as thyself” constituted Judaism’s most fundamental obligation.
The prophet Micah was only slightly more elaborate, condensing the essence of ethical behavior as “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Not hard to grasp, these requirements. And yet, as the bleak date of Tisha B’Av arrives this year, evidently easy to forget.
In a way, it’s the silence that is the most dismaying.
Many groups are afflicted by their violent fools. Thuggish extremists stain most leadership hierarchies. The mark of a community, though, is how it faces up to those who would disgrace its morality.
It seems staggering that Jews could emerge from full-time Torah study to speak and act in ways so brutally remote from the grace of God
Several times in recent days, God-fearing Jews who saw fit to help protect the Jewish state by serving in the Israel Defense Forces have been set upon by members of their own community, beaten and spat upon and told — by boors with the arrogance to believe they know the divine will — that they will burn in hell.
An entire campaign of posters and flyers — aimed at denigrating those who rightly see no contradiction between enhancing Jewish knowledge and protecting Jewish lives — has drawn unthinkable parallels between the IDF and the Nazis, foully subverting history.
And several times too, in recent days and weeks, rabbis and other self-styled leaders, so disconnected from those fundamental imperatives of humility and justice and respect for their fellow humans, have outrageously branded as enemies those who put their lives on the line to defend the Jewish state.
Nowhere else in the world — nowhere, that is, where Jews are in the minority — would Jewish leaders or the rank-and-file descend to such lows of intra-Jewish intolerance. Only here, only in the land where their safety is guaranteed by the very army they so despicably delegitimize, do they dare give vent to their Jewish anti-Semitism.
It seems staggering that Jews could emerge from full-time Torah study to speak and act in ways so brutally remote from the grace of God. Their words and deeds exacerbate the concern that at least part of the so-called “Torah world” has strayed far from the moral precepts of true Torah study.
But the greatest concern relates to the silence with which their unconscionable behavior has been greeted by their colleagues. Where is the outrage from within the ultra-Orthodox community at these blatant, terrible departures from the precepts of Jewish loving-kindness? Where is the denunciation at the staining of the good name of true religious fealty? Where are the mass prayer gatherings, the collective effort to heal the damage, chart the proper moral course, signpost the true path to those who have become lost? Where are the rabbinical declarations, the learned, earnest, passionate explanations from the most respected spiritual leaders — the wielding of centuries of insistent, divinely inspired morality to counter the incitement of these miscreants?
Horror at the utterances and activities of the misguided members of the ultra-Orthodox community cannot and must not prompt a parallel harsh, intolerant and blinkered attempt at rehabilitation
Tragically, the silence will be heard by many as acquiescence. It will be interpreted by some within the ultra-Orthodox community as endorsement for extremism. And it will be considered by some outside that community as evidence of how deeply the moral rot has spread.
But horror at the utterances and activities of the misguided members of the ultra-Orthodox community cannot and must not prompt a parallel harsh, intolerant and blinkered attempt at rehabilitation.
The modern state of Israel has allowed an untenable Jewish religious anomaly to expand and plainly, in some cases, to become perverted. Modern Israel — whether initially to help repopulate the ranks of Torah scholars destroyed by the Holocaust, or out of some strange sense of secular Jewish guilt — has enabled the skewing of the glorious tradition in which the best and the brightest are funded by the rest of the community to maintain vibrant Jewish scholarship. We have long since reached the point where, in utter contrast to ultra-Orthodox communities all over the world, an entire sector of society, the brightest and the dullest alike, has plunged itself into mass, isolated study by rote — at odds with the rest of Israel, even as it is supported and protected by the rest of Israel.
Rabbinical Judaism all through the centuries has required God-fearing parents to ensure that their children are properly educated in order to be able to earn a respectable living and provide for their families. That requirement has been forgotten in much of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox ghetto.
What’s needed is a gradual process of revived intra-Jewish tolerance
Religious Judaism seeks a balance between the spiritual and the material world. Our religion is the road map to the principled utilization of the God-given gift of life, not a substitute for living a full, engaged, self-respecting life. The Jewish code is the means to an end — to the best use of life — not an end in itself. This, too, has become lost.
The solution, today, is plainly not to brutally force Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews into conformity with the norms of modern, democratic Israel. It is not to halt all welfare payments, to jail the 18-year-olds who won’t join the armed forces.
What’s needed is a gradual process of revived intra-Jewish tolerance and equitably shared rights and responsibilities. What’s needed is a gradual adjustment of skewed practices, under which the ultra-Orthodox community is henceforth required to educate its youngsters with the range of tools to lead a fulfilled, self-sufficient life. What’s needed is to gradually introduce the ultra-Orthodox community — like all other sectors of Israeli society – to the requirements of national service, whether in the IDF or in other frameworks, where it should be absorbed with sensitivity and respect. What’s needed is the gradual return of the ultra-Orthodox community to the workforce, in a resumption of the norms of traditional Judaism. What’s needed is that only the best and the brightest minds — from the ultra-Orthodox world and from other streams of Judaism — be supported by the rest of the community to maintain the vibrancy of scholarship.
This has to be done in a partnership with the ultra-Orthodox community — via compromise, not coercion. Tolerance needs to cut both ways.
Many of modern Israel’s problems cannot be solved by us alone. Conspiracy theories and exaggerated assessments of Jewish influence notwithstanding, actually we can’t, single-handedly, bring stability to Egypt, peace to Syria, and the flourishing of tolerance in Iran.
We can, however, take steps to heal our internal Israeli-Jewish wounds, so gravely exposed in these days and weeks ahead of Tisha B’av. Our history ought long since to have taught us to strive to avoid the internal hatreds that are tragically flourishing anew. The imperative to tackle those hatreds is unmistakable.
This is a moment for spiritual leaders to issue a call for intra-Jewish tolerance. It is a moment for political leaders to work in harmony toward the frameworks for a Jewishly integrated Israel. This is the time, as it is always the time, to return to those moral basics: to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Before, riven by our vicious divides, we all burn in hell.