Monthly Archives: April 2018

Apr 20

19 April 2018

By Editor | Blogs

Today is Yom haAtzma’ut, the day on which, seventy years ago, Israel became a sovereign state for the first time in 1,878 years. Rabbis have debated exactly how we should relate to this event in our own time– is it a modern miracle? Is it simply the result of luck and/or politics, or can we discern divine intervention in this remarkable event? It’s hard to know. Partially, it’s hard to know because, although 70 is a very worthy birthday to celebrate, it is truly still the very beginning of Israel’s renewed national consciousness. For the sake of comparison, 70 years into America’s history it still had nationally sanctioned and funded slavery of African men women and children, politically engineered genocide of Native Americans, and on its 70th birthday, began an absurd war of aggression with Mexico.

For many of us, we likely struggle with how to relate to the State of Israel. Obviously it is the fulfillment of so many of our peoples’ hopes and dreams across millennia. Yet, it is also a real country made of up flawed people, subject to the same political intrigues and social debates as any other country. In some way, because Israel does have such spiritual significance for us, we tend to hold it to a higher standard, and we should. Yet, on today, we should think about the lessons we’ve learned over the last 70 years and commit ourselves to building a sustainable, secure, and peaceful future for Israel for the next 70 years and beyond.

To do so, I want to offer the advice of Pirkei Avot. We read Chapter 2 this week and there you’ll find the following:

“Hillel says: Do not separate yourself from the community. Do not believe in yourself until the day of your death. Do not judge your fellow until you come to his place.”

I think each of these three bits of advice can help us relate to the Israel of today.

Do not separate yourself from the community. No matter what issues we have with the policies and politics of Israel, we have to stay engaged with this nation which contains half our people and a great deal of its intellectual and spiritual creativity. We cannot simply check out of the ‘Israel conversation.’ We may have diverse views on the thorny issues involved in governing the world’s only Jewish state, but we have to ensure that all of those views stay inside the conversation rather than absent themselves altogether.

Do not believe in yourself until the day of your death. Israel is new. The blessings and the problems that arise from it are new. None of us should be so foolish as to think that we have the right answers about the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Secular-Religious tensions or any other issue. These are huge issues and this is the first time we’ve had to grapple with many of them (for some, the first time in two thousand years.) We all need to apply a bit of skepticism and a bit of wonder. Israel is an ongoing, living, breathing, dynamic project. As long as it lives, we should be open to all the many ways it could develop and not assume that we have all the answers.

Do not judge your fellow until you come to his place. Aside from being just good advice for life, this is particularly good advice for thinking about how we connect with Israel. For those of us who do not live (or have not), do not have friends or family in Israel or Palestine– we have a very different take from those that do. Each of us has experiences and viewpoints which aren’t to be judged. If we’re to grow and develop, and perhaps most important, model peace-building for others, we need to be able to recognise that sometimes we have different perspectives because we’re standing in different places.

As we celebrate 70 years of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, it is worth taking a moment to remind ourselves of Hillel’s words: be careful, be skeptical, be non-judgmental. We must continue to have the Israel conversation, and we must do so with a healthy regard for other people and other views, recognising that this young nation is just beginning its life in the contemporary world. Happy Birthday, Israel!


Apr 17

12 April 2018

By Editor | Blogs

One refrain I hear very often is that the Holocaust marks the biggest challenge to (or sometimes even hyperbolically-stated as the ‘end of’) Jewish theology. The idea that the horror of the Sho’ah is an irrevocable condemnation of God seems to me both misguided and far over-simplistic.

Whenever I teach about what academics call ‘theodicy’ (basically, the discipline of trying to explain why bad things happen to good people within theology) the inevitable first question asked is: “Yes, but what about the Holocaust? How could God let that happen?”

I think we need to reframe that question, and I think the sources are with me on this. We should be asking instead, “How could humanity let that happen?” The Sho’ah should shatter our faith in the goodness of us not in the goodness of God. Displacing our righteous indignation at the ease with which “normal” people became ravenous murderers beholden to genocidal ideology unto God instead is easy— it is far easier to cry out to God, to condemn God. Yet it is humanity whose verdict is confirmed by the trial of the Sho’ah.

There isn’t a great deal of reason why we should turn to castigate God first. You may respond: ‘Fine, but then why didn’t God intervene? Why didn’t God smite Auschwitz or send a stroke upon Hitler?’ Perhaps once again instead of asking, ‘Why didn’t…’ we should look at what we know about the ways in which God does intervene in the events of history.

Consider the Exodus: God allows the Israelites to be enslaved and subjugated for over 400 years before considering intervention. An entire generation of infants were drowned before our story even starts. When God does ‘intervene’ it is as passively as possible— speaking to and through righteous human beings, Moses, Aaron, Miriam. God acts through them. Perhaps we can ask why God did not simply kill Pharaoh with a heart attack? Why did God not simply pull the Israelites out after 4 years, or even 40, waiting instead until more than 400 had passed?!

The answer, for better or worse, is simple: that just isn’t the way it works— and that’s okay. God has given humanity free will, and the cost of that extraordinary gift is accountability and responsibility. We may feel God’s presence in the system of Providence set up from above, but that is an indirect interaction with Divinity at a distance. God is not “personally” responsible for our failures or our successes, our kindnesses or our violences— we are.

The uncomfortable truth we erase by condemning God for the atrocities of the Holocaust is that the blame lies instead in the human heart. “Normal” men, women and children joined the blood-lust fueled murder of their neighbours. “Average” people went to work each day at Auschwitz and came home each evening to their family, kissing their own children goodnight after having spent the day supervising the slaughter of someone else’s children.

During these weeks between Pesach and Shavu’ot our tradition obligates us to learn the ethical principles contained in the the tractate of the Mishnah called Avot (“Fundamentals”). From the first chapter, and on today– Yom haSho’ah– we must reflect on the teaching of Hillel (1:14):

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי:
“He (Hillel) used to say: If I am not for me, who is for me? When I am only for myself, what am I? And, if not now, then when?”

It is upon us to choose life, to choose goodness, to choose kindness. The responsibility falls upon us to ask, ‘If not now, then when?’ God does not exist as a cosmic helicopter parent, waiting to swoop in and save us from ourselves. Humans committed the crimes of the Holocaust and it is humans who must be held responsible. We musn’t distract ourselves from the critical project of changing the human heart to ensure ‘never again,’ by misdirecting our anger at a Divinity who did exactly what God has always done: given humanity freedom and choice, between life and death, good and evil, salvation and slaughter.

Lastly, I leave you with the words of Rabbi Solomon David Sassoon, a 20th century British rabbi who wrote the following in response to the Annihilation which he witnessed in his own lifetime:

“God does not want to always have to make things right. God has given humanity room to do it- and if they choose not to, then evil prevails, and humanity is responsible for it. God wants for us to be responsible.”

May this Yom haSho’ah, as it draws to a close, remind us of the terrible responsibility we bear toward each other and the dangerous consequences if we do not step in to make things right.