A Talmud page told this rabbi to speak up against what’s happening in Israel

A Talmud page told me to speak up against what’s happening in Israel

Studying a passage from this week’s designated Talmud readings, RABBI STEPHEN BORODA found disturbing similarities between current leaders and the Jews held responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem.

As an Orthodox Rabbi, as a caring Jew, as an Israeli citizen, it’s time to speak up.

On Tuesday, I began my day, as always, with Daf Yomi, the designated daily Talmud page. The page (Gitin 56) discusses the phrase, “One who has a hardened heart will come to harm”, citing the story of Bar Kamtza.

A wealthy man threw a party and his servant mistakenly sent an invitation to his enemy Bar Kamtza instead of his friend Kamtza. The host embarrassed Bar Kamtza by trying to have him thrown out of the party. Bar Kamtza was incensed – not only at the behaviour of his host but that the many important rabbis present did not speak out in his defence. He took revenge on the community, going to the Roman authorities which ultimately led to the destruction of Jerusalem.

This Talmudic story teaches us that acting without considering the consequences can lead to tragic results. But it also reminds us that inaction can be just as damaging. The rabbis who failed to protest at the inappropriate behaviour of their host were a key catalyst for Bar Kamtza’s action.

Here is a parallel with Israel in 2023. How many rabbis have you heard speak out against the attempt by the current Israeli government to destroy Israel’s democratic system?

How many rabbis have you heard speak out against politicians who made life so unpleasant for long-serving Tel Aviv police chief Ami Eshed  by trying to insist that the officers under his command take a position of no tolerance towards legitimate protest, that he felt forced to take early retirement?

Unfortunately, very few. Instead, our gedolim (great rabbis) are concerned with one of two mistaken agendas.

Itamar Ben-Gvir and his followers are the Sicarii of 2023. They want to provoke violence between Arab and Jew, and between Jew and Jew.

The Haredi rabbis are focused almost entirely inward. Their two main concerns are to preserve the funding of their Torah institutions (they received a huge increase in support in the recent Israeli budget) and to ensure that no one in their community ever wears the uniform of the IDF. As long as they achieve these goals, they keep quiet about what is happening around them.

These rabbis need to abandon the idea that Israel can continue to support every young man who wishes to learn in Kollel, when they in turn do nothing to give back to the State.

“Hold on, Rabbi Boroda”, I can hear some of you thinking. “Doesn’t the Gemara teach that continual study of Torah protects Israel, far more than soldiers?”

Yes. However, this can be achieved by enabling, say, 1000 of the most gifted students to serve their country through full-time, in-depth, Torah study. It doesn’t take 94,000.

Many rabbis in the national religious community are staying quiet for a different reason: they share this government’s extreme messianism.

Again, I believe that they are entirely misguided. I, too, believe that Hashem (God) promised us the entire Land of Israel, including areas on both sides of the Green Line and areas that are currently a part of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. When Mashiach (the Messiah) comes (speedily in our day), I believe Hashem will fulfil that promise to us. Hashem will not have any trouble doing this, regardless of in whose hands the various sections of Eretz Yisrael reside the day before Mashiach’s arrival.

Instead of worrying about holding on to land, we should be focused on treating our neighbours as the Torah demands. The Palestinian Arabs, extremists and terrorists aside, should be considered in the category of a Ger Toshav (resident alien) whom the Torah requires we treat exactly as a Jew is treated – “One law for you and for the stranger that lives amongst you.”

Instead, Arab Israelis are being murdered under the watch of the authorities and few Israelis have the appetite to negotiate a fair settlement with the Palestinians.

True, the Palestinians have done little to suggest that they can be trusted in any peace negotiations. Their insistence on a Palestinian equivalent of Israel’s Law of Return even under a two-state solution is a key obstacle.

However, today’s rabbis are equally uncompromising. Many teach that the very idea of giving up even one centimetre of the Holy Land is against halacha. Almost every leader of the previous two generations – both secular and rabbinic – held that giving up land in exchange for true peace was permitted.

The one key exception was the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. I wonder if the Rebbe today, seeing what is transpiring, would still hold that view. How long can we continue to rule over people who do not want to be ruled by us?

There is little doubt that the moral impact of the occupation has made many Israeli youngsters extreme in their approach to the “other”. First, it was acceptable to treat Arab Israelis in an undemocratic manner. Then, it became acceptable to treat Jews with whom we disagree in a similar way.

The Talmudic page with the story of Bar Kamtza also describes the actions of the Sicarii, a radical group of Jews who were so determined to provoke conflict with Rome that they set fire to Jerusalem’s own storehouses.

Itamar Ben-Gvir and his followers are the Sicarii of 2023. They want to provoke violence between Arab and Jew, and between Jew and Jew. Their ideology must be opposed and opposed loudly.

The late Rabbi David Hartman explained in the introduction to his book, The Living Covenant, his chief reason for making aliyah. The Jewish people had for almost 2000 years been forced to stand outside history looking in – critiquing others but having no true power of their own. Now that they had been given the opportunity to put Torah into practice in their own State, he felt he had to be part of it.

I fear that we are failing in our mission to bring true Torah values to the State of Israel – not through extreme messianism or religious indoctrination but through loving kindness, education and free-minded discussion.

Those of us who live outside of Israel cannot sit idly by and watch as the Israel that has achieved so much over the past 75 years is, God forbid, destroyed before our eyes.

As we approach Tisha B’Av, which marks the destruction of Jerusalem, we need to pray that the Almighty will bring wisdom to our leadership – both secular and rabbinic – to ensure that modern Israel, our Third Commonwealth, will once again prosper and will lead to the Final Redemption, speedily in our day.

And as Hashem’s partners in the work of redemption, we must do our part.

Image: Rembrandt’s Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem (detail)