Dealing with the violent aspects of our Jewish tradition

by Yakir Englander, Kids4Peace Vice President

(This article was originally posted in the Times of Israel. To see the original, click here.)

Yakir ThumbnailAs the story goes, in the thirties, a rabbi came to visit Prof. Leibowitz, a prominent philosopher and theologian, and criticized European-Christian culture for continuously harming Jews. The rabbi said: It is clear that Jewish ethics are the most humanistic; these actions would never happen in the Jewish community. Leibowitz, in his sharp Litvak way, replied: these actions cannot be performed by Jews because we don’t ,have power. One day, maybe we will have power, and then we will see how humanistic our Jewish ethics are compared to those of other cultures.

Last week, Israeli-Jewish society learned that we too, the Jewish people, can kill innocent people, if they are gay or Palestinian. For the Palestinian community the last murder of baby Ali and his father Saed Dawabsheh is nothing new. In their narrative, they are still grieving for the hundred innocent citizens who were killed last summer in Gaza. But for many in the Jewish society, in Israel and the U.S., it is new; this time they have run out of excuses.

The warning sign was on the wall for at least a year. The murder of Muhammed Abu Khdeir last summer, the burning of the bilingual school:Hand in Hand, and growing numbers of attacks on Palestinian Christian holy places — they are all warnings for us to wake up, act, and change.

The Israeli President and Prime Minister, together with some major rabbis claimed that these violent acts contradict Jewish values. For example, Rabbi Lau mentioned that God wrote in the Ten Commandments “You shall not murder”. Ironically, these two acts of violence happened only days after Tisha B’Av, the day that commemorates the destruction of the Jewish Temple and Jerusalem. This juxtaposition itself teaches us two, seemingly contradictory, lessons about Jewish ethics.

According to the Jewish narrative, the real reason for this destruction was not the Romans, but Sinat Hinam — baseless hatred of Jews by Jews. But the Talmud tells us another reason: “Rav Yochanan said: ‘Jerusalem was destroyed only because the judges ruled in accordance with the Law of the Torah’”. The rabbis understood that inside the Torah, rooted in the essence of Judaism that God gave us and that we love so much, there are elements of violence. Also, that if we follow only the law of the Torah, as it is, we will destroy ourselves.

As Israeli Jews, we must stop avoiding the fact that on the most holy day for the Jewish people, Yom Kippur, Israeli Jews keep reading the verses from Leviticus, where God commands us to kill men who have sex with each other. We must face the fact that many Israeli Jews begin their day by blessing God for not making them Gentiles (and women). We can’t keep claiming that the actions of the settlers in the West Bank are not Jewish, when the Bible, particularly the book of Joshua, is full of violence towards non-Jews who live in the Land of Israel.

I don’t claim that verses, prayers, and traditions are the reason that people behave violently, just as I don’t believe that religious sources that focus on being sensitive and behaving with dignity, by definition, are the reason people behave ethically. However, these religious elements exist in our Jewish cultural DNA, in our collective narrative. As Jews we can ignore them, focusing only on the positive values, but by ignoring them we don’t deal with these aspects of violence, and we certainly cannot claim that people who behave according to them are simply not “good” Jews.

One of the powerful elements in the Jewish tradition is its process of hermeneutics. Throughout history, rabbis have been confronted by violent elements in our tradition, have named them, and then, by using tools of interpretation, they have created Jewish laws that forbid Jews from using these verses in order to act violently. In some cases, their interpretation was so far from the literal meaning of the verses that they were challenged by their colleagues, who claimed that their way of reading was not in the realm of interpretation anymore, but rather a castration of the ancient divine law. Even then, the rabbis didn’t stop reshaping their tradition with love and care, not by casting out the violence as irrelevant or non-Jewish, but by entangling themselves in the art of hermeneutics. They kept the original text in order to remind us of the potential for violence inside our tradition and ourselves.

This hermeneutic technique in these cases is not effective for American Jews because in order to be successful it must be done by those in power, and in the case of the Palestinians the power is in the hands of the Israeli Jews. Yet as long as American Jews wish to see the State of Israel as part of their identity — a Jewish State and not only an IsraeliJewish State, then American Jews must demand a dialogue with Israeli Jews and when this doesn’t work, they must push Israelis to take action to understand the meaning of the Jewish State from American Jewish perspective.

Unfortunately, this dialogue doesn’t really exist, certainly not in the eyes of Israeli Jews. As Israelis we demand that American Jewish society support us, defend us, sometimes even against the interests of America. The only serious influence American Jews have on the State of Israel comes from the extreme Orthodox American Jews who immigrate to Israel and lead the settlement project, fancying themselves pioneers in a Wild West version of the Jewish holy land. It is time for American Jews to stop being the “rich uncle” and start demanding to be part of the conversation in the Jewish State.

In the Torah, there is a Jewish law that when we find a dead body on the field and we don’t know who killed the person, the closest town has to bury the body and make sure that they have done all what they can in order to make sure that people who walk on the road outside of their town are safe. Like in the Torah, as long as things remain as they are and American Jews keep seeing the State of Israel as an inclusive Jewish State for all Jews, they cannot claim: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see [this crime]” (Deuteronomy 21:7).

After 2,000 years, today, Jews have power. It is our responsibility to decide how to use it. Will we use our power to act in the world, bringing balm to soothe the pain, or will we create suffering? History teaches us that nations with power find reasons to hurt people who are weaker than they are. If the Jewish society in Israel wants to behave differently, it is our responsibility to face these violent parts of our tradition and create a theology that will face the problems and then re-interpret them with love.