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Rabbis and Fires


A group of nationalist rabbis in Israel, including the chief rabbis of Ramat Hasharon, Ashdod, Kiryat Gat, Rishon Letzion, and Carmiel, issued a statement declaring that Jews are forbidden to sell or rent homes in the Holy Land to non-Jews. “Wise men, be careful what you say lest people misuse them to lie” (Mishna Avot 1:11). Their declaration has been picked up by the non-Jewish press and gone round the world several times, as proof that Israelis are intransigent and that Orthodox Jews are racist. Nice one, boys.

One of the outstanding ultra-Orthodox rabbanim, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, refused an audience this week with the chief rabbi of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu, when Rabbi Eliyah attempted to convince the Bnei Brak spiritual leader to sign the letter instructing Jews not to rent or sell property to Arabs or other non-Jews.

Rav Shteinman condemned the letter and pointed out that had such a letter been written in Berlin about Jews, the whole of the Jewish world would have been up in arms.

Some more overtly Zionist rabbis also refused to sign up. Ramat Gan Chief Rabbi, Yaakov Ariel said, “The former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, long ago decided that … in a democratic state you cannot discriminate between citizens. What’s more, it will cause discrimination against Jews in other countries.”

Maale Gilboa Yeshiva head Rabbi Yehuda Gilad said in response to the rabbis’ letter, “This is a serious distortion of the Torah, and contradicts basic human morality.”

Sadly and predictably, these responses have largely been ignored by the rest of the world, who are only too eager to find pretexts to excoriate Israeli failings.

The previous week, the distinguished Rav Ovadia Yosef said that the disastrous fires in the Carmel were the result of Israelis ignoring Jewish Law. Whereas the Hamas leader Meshal was equally sure it was because of Israel’s Gaza campaign. Poor God, life must be tough out there, listening to all those people on earth who claim to know His mind. For years now I have heard it said in certain quarters that holocaust was punishment for religious backsliding in Europe. Now, given that the vast majority of Jews who perished were religious, it sounds to me a very Christian idea, that God makes his “child” or “the good” suffer for or atone for the sins of the wicked. Perhaps those rabbis really belong in another religion.

What is it, I wonder, that makes people who should know better say these ill-considered and morally equivocal things? It seems to me that rabbis (as well as other politicians) speak the language of their audiences. If the audience is superstitious, credulous, insecure, nationalist, or absolutist, and requires certainties in life, even if there are very few, then they gravitate towards or find they resonate with like-minded or wonder rabbis who rely on the perception that they can mediate between God and man because they know God better than anyone else. And the rabbis to preserve their position say what they think their followers want to hear. This explains the different ways Sephardi, Chasidic, and Lithuanian rabbis speak to their audiences.

In Antwerp, for example, Charedi rabbis love to talk about all goyim as drunken anti-Semites, whereas in Israel they like to talk about all Muslims as murdering fanatics. Just as they both like to refer to non Orthodox Jews as non-Jewish. When leaders live and work within a closed and protected environment, with no interaction with the outside world, they will tend to speak only in the terms and mindset of their closed little worlds. Thank goodness it is only a “tendency” and there are exceptions like Rav Shteinman (although I wonder how much his response sprung from his disdain for the “moderately religious” nationalist rabbis).

This of course does not only apply to Jews. Both the Muslim and the Christian worlds are divided between those who care not a whit for the world outside theirs and those who are sensitive enough to the feelings of others to moderate their jingoism. Between those who want dialogue and those who do not. Even in the Vatican you have competing wings so that when one side says something pro-Jewish, for example, there is another side that will pull in the other direction.

Israel is in a unique position precisely because it is so small, surrounded by enemies, and disdained by much of the world. The trouble is that the more beleaguered you are, whether Jew, Muslim or Christian, the more desperate you become, the less you trust the outside world, and slowly you turn more fanatical. And this has its own consequences. Because it means you are incapable of listening to the other. Then you become like the other.

I do not want to become like the narrow-minded fanatics full of hatred and anger. But on the other hand, if I do not defend my own position and that of my people, who will? But by retreating into my own world I may be doing the one thing that guarantees my ultimate defeat. If my only response is that God loves me and will not let me down, how come He has allowed us to destroy ourselves previously? And what guarantees it won’t happen again?

Pathetic declarations in the name of religion harm everyone–Judaism, rabbis and the State of Israel–and do not help solve the challenge of peaceful coexistence. Similarly, telling a secular person that his actions in rejecting religion cause disasters is only likely to have the effect of driving him or her further away. Now that Chanukah has passed, perhaps we all need a dose of “peace and good tidings”?

6 thoughts on “Rabbis and Fires

  1. I wish I could stay as calm as you seem to. When religious men say "these ill-considered and morally equivocal things" it may well be what their particular audiences want to hear but in my book it is the ignorant speaking to the ignorant. Closed lives make closed minds.

  2. Leila:
    The one thing I have learnt is that being religious has no necessary effect on moral or ethical behavior or thought. It is a way of life that should indeed impact on these, but too often it stops at being a way of life and nothing more. Therefore I have come to expect no more from religious people than I do from human beings in general. Sometimes–rarely–I am pleasantly surprised. Still I remain an optimist. A few thousand years in the long line of human evolution is, as they say, no more than a flicker!

  3. Isn't expecting that a religiously observant life will lead to a morally righteous one, like finding an appreciation of 'the arts' analogous to a humane sensitivity to others? Turandot or Torah, still stay the same, regardless.

  4. ספר מצוות גדול לאוין סימן מח

    שלא ליתן לגוי חנייה בקרקע [ב]ארץ ישראל שנאמר (דברים ז, ב) לא תחנם, ומטעם זה שנינו בפרק קמא דע"ז (כא, א) אין מוכרים להם בתים ושדות בארץ ישראל אבל בחוצה לארץ מותר:
    עי' ע"ז פ"י הל' ד, יו"ד קנא סעי' ח.

  5. Rafi wrote:

    Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, Negative Commands 48: Not to give non-Jews possession of land in Isral as the Torah says in Deutereonomy 7:2, "You shall not be kind to them. Because of this one must not sell them houses and fields in the Land of Israel", etc.

    My reply:

    That's just what anti-Semites do; they take halachic sources often out of context and superficially without comment to show how we Jews can have sex with underage children, marry off young girls, support slavery, and cheat non-Jews. There is a great deal of debate on the Biblical law of "Lo Techaneym", "do not be kind to them". Most authorities disagreeing with Semag and Rambam and refusing to compare ancient Israel and Idol Worshippers with modern conditions.
    And are you really telling me that Rav Steinman, Rav Eliashiv, Rav Lichtenstein, and all those rabbis who opposed the declaration are ignoramuses who do not know these texts? Halacha is far more complex than you imply. Thank goodness.

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