Tales from the Tomb

On the afternoon of Yom Kippur last week, we read the Book of Jonah, which tells the tale of the titular prophet who was commanded to bring a prophecy of doom against the city of Nineveh in ancient Assyria, modern day Iraq. Rabbis have puzzled over Jonah’s inclusion in the Yom Kippur service, but one idea is that it is a model for teshuvah, repentance. We might find it difficult to change our ways, but in the book, the entire foreign city, from its elites to even its animals, decides to turn to God. If they can do it, so can we.

But there is an interesting postscript to the story of Nineveh. The later prophet Nahum also delivers a pronouncement against the city. According to the medieval commentator Rashi, quoting from Targum Jonathan, an ancient Aramaic translation of the Bible, “In early times, Jonah son of Amittai prophesied concerning it, and they repented of their sins, and when they continued to sin, Nahum of the house of Elkosh prophesied further concerning them.” So perhaps the city listened to Jonah, but quickly forgot his words, which is essentially what Jonah complains about to God. He was worried that God would forgive Nineveh without justification.

One of the rabbis’ favorite tricks in our liturgy is selective quotation. They pull out passages from the Bible that often give the words new meaning without their context. They might end a line in the siddur so that it reads that God cancels all punishment, when the phrase in the Torah actually informs us that God doesn’t cancel all punishment. With the Yom Kippur afternoon Haftarah, the rabbis imply that story of Nineveh had a happy ending, that the people there found God, but that is not the end of the story. In fact, they backslid, like many of us do after the High Holy Days. We make promises to do better, and we mean them, but we also often go back to our disappointing behavior.

The prophet Nahum, we are told in the Bible, is from Elkosh, and according to an ancient tradition his tomb is in the town of Alqosh Iraq, near the city of Mosul, built on the ruins of Nineveh. The tomb was maintained by the now non-existent Kurdish Jewish community. After the Jews of Iraq emigrated to Israel, the synagogue and tomb fell into disrepair, but it has recently been renovated. One pay a virtual visit to it on the website of the organization that managed the restoration.

American Jews are less familiar with pilgrimage sites since our community is relatively young by historical standards. We do have the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s ohel (tomb) in Queens, visited by Hasidim, his followers. There are other graves of rabbis that are visited as well, including here in New Jersey. But liberal Jews are not used to the power of these places, perhaps best expressed in a story from the Forward related about Nahum’s tomb:

One elderly rabbi recalled how his mother once even tried to blackmail the prophet.

“His brother, who was six or so years old, had not spoken yet. The family went to the tomb trying to seek the prophets to help,” Benard said. “Their mother told the prophets that they were going to stay in the shrine. They were moving in, and they were going to stay there until their child spoke.”

According to the rabbi, her plan worked: his brother spoke and later became a successful dentist.

Ancient stones have power, not just in dusty tombs. This week, the US is returning tablets from the epic of Gilgamesh that were stolen from Iraq during the first Gulf War. They are finally returning to the place that created them, to rest in the cradle of civilization together with Nahum, Nineveh and the beautiful multifaceted culture created in that important but troubled land.

Between the Fast and the Feast

The time between Yom Kippur and Sukkot is a bit odd. Virtually the entire Hebrew month of Tishrei is filled with holidays, fasts, observances, and special days which include added prayers or unusual Torah readings. But for the five days from the end of the Day of Atonement until the beginning of the Festival of Booths, the Jewish calendar gives us … regular days. From a liturgical standpoint we continue to recite Psalm 27 and don’t say the Tachanun prayers of supplication, but otherwise our services are fairly normal.

These five days give a blessed reprieve from the deep introspection of the Ten Days of Repentance which open the month, and the upcoming eight days of celebration during Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret/Simhat Torah. For rabbis and cantors, it is a chance to breathe after the non-stop preparation we have been doing since at least the previous month, Elul, began.

The main Jewish activity during these post-Kippur, pre-Sukkot days is preparing for the coming festival. Sukkot requires a lot of work, from acquiring a lulav and etrog to building and decorating a sukkah, to cooking the holiday meals. There are, however, specific traditions that do happen right after Yom Kippur. It is customary to begin building the sukkah immediately after the fast ends. Even if it’s just bringing down some sukkah supplies from the attic or putting together one corner of the structure, the goal is to do something tangible. My teacher Rabbi Miles Cohen writes in his Luah Hashanah: A Guide to Prayers, Readings, Laws, and Customs for the Synagogue and for the Home, “this concrete act symbolizes our firm commitment, expressed throughout Yom Kippur, to build mitsvot into our everyday lives.”

Another tradition that comes right after Yom Kippur is Kiddush Levana, the blessing of the moon. Each month we go outside and offer a blessing for seeing the recurrence of our close celestial neighbor. The blessing is made when the moon is waxing, from the 4th to the 14th day of the Hebrew month, but during Tishrei, it is recited only after Yom Kippur (the 10th day of the month) because the Ten Days of Repentance are not considered appropriate for the blessing. This means that there is a very short window to say Kiddush Levana, especially this year when there is a Shabbat (when the blessing is not said) in between the two holidays.

Kiddush Levana is a simple and lovely service, when we connect ourselves to the cosmos and the community. Just as we look up to the heavens at the beginning of the ritual, at the end we greet each other with the words shalom aleichem and sing siman tov umazal tov (“may [the moon] be a good and lucky omen for us and all of Israel, amen”).

One interesting aspect of the service is the custom of hopping three times while saying, “Just as I dance opposite you [the moon] and cannot touch you, so may my enemies be unable to touch me for harm.” This line raises the question of whether we should say it now that human beings have reached the moon. In a discussion of the problem, one person cheekily wrote, “If a Jewish astronaut went to the Moon and happened to be there at the right time for kiddush levana, it’d probably be a good idea for him to alter the words. And also to take half-hearted jumps, so he won’t end up too far away.”

This week, Louis Keene in the Forward, wrote about the problem with Kiddush Levana in Tishrei – it keeps you from getting to your break-fast. In traditional synagogues, the ritual is performed right after the evening service, and so it delays people from eating. Keene describes the groans from the congregation when someone shouts “Kiddush Levana!”, reminding everyone that there is one more ritual keeping them from their bagel and lox. But there was some relief for the hungry this year, at least here in New Jersey. You can’t say the blessing without actually seeing the moon in the sky, so a cloudy and rainy night here meant a delay in the ceremony and a quicker access to the buffet.

Finding the Right Words

When I was a kid, learning the rules of English grammar, it was drilled into me that when writing about a generic person one should always use the phrase “he or she” even though no one actually talks that way. In speech, if I was scolding a mixed gendered class, I would say “Whoever left gum under the desk is in big trouble. They need to see me after class.” Rarely did anyone use the clunky “he or she” in conversation, but you would have lost points for substitution “they” in a paper you turned in to your teacher.

Languages, however, evolve and two factors have led to the introduction of what is known as the “singular they”. We are a more informal culture and writing “he or she”, let alone saying it, sounds too stuffy. In addition, the search for gender inclusive language has made “they” a more attractive option. “He or she” is somewhat inclusive, but it assumes there are only two genders, while “they” is neutral enough to comprise anyone, including those who identify as non-binary.

This grammatical change has gained ground and was codified two years ago by the style guide of the American Psychological Association for scholarly publications. In an age when preferred pronouns accompany email signatures, Twitter bios and conference name tags, it makes sense to make academic language as inclusive as possible.

English has the benefit of neutral words like “they” and “it”. Other languages are not so lucky. In Hebrew, every word is either masculine or feminine. This makes learning the language for English speakers particularly challenging because the gender of verbs and adjectives must match the gender of nouns. For Israelis the difficulty comes not from having to remember if a window is masculine or feminine, but from the fact that the language erases women and non-binary people.

As many Hebrew school graduates might now, a room full of 100 women would be addressed as nashim (women) whereas if only one man joined the group it would suddenly be addressed as anashim (men). Hebrew reinforces the idea that the male gender is dominant and that it alone carries the power to make change. Women are relegated to their own corner, and there is no room whatsoever for those who don’t fit into either category.

In Israel, the response to this dilemma is often to use the equivalent of the “he or she” approach. People will use the slash mark in writing or give both genders in speech (for example, saying “mishehoo oh mishehee”, both of which mean “someone”). Sometimes this can be a beautiful way to draw attention to difference. Lyrics can be changed to be more inclusive, such as the song Kanfei Ruach, where words like ben adam (human, m.) can be changed to bat adam (human, f.).

Now comes a new approach by a graphic artist who has created 12 new Hebrew letters designed to make Hebrew a multi-gendered language. She ingeniously combines pairs of familiar letters so that they can be read either masculine, feminine, or neutral. For example, one of her new letters combines the nun and the taf so that the word for human can be written in a way that is gender inclusive. It’s hard to represent the result in English so you should check out her website to see how it is done.

There are limits to this multi-gendered Hebrew. It is a purely written form of the language. The artist did not create new pronunciations to go with her new letters. Its best use is in signage, which can now be both inclusive and elegant. This, in fact, is how it has been used by a number of intuitions that have downloaded the font, which has generated a strong negative reaction from conservatives.

As a new Jewish year dawns, we continue the challenge of reviving the Hebrew language. Just like the people who speak it, Hebrew will continue to evolve to meet the needs of a modern, diverse, culture. Whether he, she or they, ben adam, bat adam, or something yet to be, we are all just looking for a way to best express our inner being.

Free Exercise

As the country waited for word this week from the Supreme Court on its decision regarding a law in Texas that bans abortions performed before 6 weeks of pregnancy, a woman wrote on Twitter that the new law violated her rights as a Jewish woman. Some non-Jews replied with curious questions. How could she make such a statement? Others answered that Judaism allows abortion because the tradition does not consider the fetus to be part of the mother and not a living being.

In fact, the Torah itself plainly supports this perspective. Exodus 21:22-23 states:

When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life.

The verses do not deal with abortion but a case where a woman is pushed and miscarries by accident. According to the Torah, the man who pushed her and caused the miscarriage does not receive the death penalty for murder but rather a fine for damages.

From this text, Judaism derives the principle that a fetus is not a full person, which doesn’t mean that all sources and rabbis throughout the centuries have permitted abortion. Some have opposed it, but virtually no rabbinic authority subscribes to the Christian belief that life begins at conception. In fact, many important decisors have permitted abortion when the life of the mother is in danger and even in cases when her physical or mental health is at risk.

The abortion issue is often presented as conflict of religious and secular values. People of faith are pro-life while the unreligious are pro-choice. But what if we reframed the debate as one of religious freedom? Jewish women, faithful to their tradition, should have the right to an abortion if their tradition allows it.

Of course, abortion opponents would respond that just because a religion permits a practice does not necessarily mean that the law should allow it. An example might be American Indian religious traditions that use psychotropic drugs as part of their rituals. In the past, these drugs were banned, but Congress and the courts have now recognized that these drugs are a central part of a religious tradition and are now legal if taken as part of the Native American Church.

Again, anti-abortion groups would argue that there is a difference between drug use and what they consider murder. For them, it is inconceivable that the government could sanction what they call the killing of children no matter the reason. On the other hand, under the ban recently imposed by Texas, Jewish women feel that they are not able to freely exercise their religion. Would they win in a court case? I am not enough of a legal expert to say, but as a supporter of abortion rights and a rabbi, I would like someone to try. If anti-abortion groups can get creative with the law, why can’t pro-choice groups do the same?

The new Texas law not only ensures that it is virtually impossible for women to have an abortion, it deputizes citizens to enforce the law by encouraging $10,000 bounties if they win their court cases. No matter what position one takes on abortion, the idea that the government would outsource its enforcement power to ordinary citizens is not only insane, but cruel as well. What kind of society does that create, where people are given an incentive to take their neighbors to court over an issue where they themselves are not the injured party? No matter our beliefs, a truly thriving society is not one where we see each stranger as a potential litigant but as a potential friend.

Law and Love

Judaism is often described as a religion of law while Christianity is a religion of love. This simplistic comparison is often not helpful when trying to understand two great religious traditions filled with whole libraries of material and scholars who often disagree. Indeed, Judaism cherishes love while Christianity also values the law. Take for example the Hasidic tradition that emphasizes the love of God through music, dance, and joy. On the other hand, the strictures of Catholic canon law create dilemmas for its contemporary adherents as the church has yet to allow women to become priests in an increasingly egalitarian world. 

The subject of law and love is a touchy one in Jewish-Christian relations. We cherish the Torah and the commandments even if we don’t always follow them. Over the millennia our devotion to the law has been criticized and demeaned by Christian authorities. Talmuds were banned and burned, and the Church taught that Jesus superseded the law. The belief that Jews, therefore, were stubborn in their foolish devotion to an obsolete Torah was one of the roots of anti-Semitism. 

Today the Catholic Church has mostly rid itself of these kinds of anti-Jewish doctrines, but the sensitivity remains, which is why the Chief Rabbinate in Israel sent a letter criticizing a sermon delivered recently by Pope Francis. In his speech, he writes “The Law, however, does not give life, it does not offer the fulfillment of the promise because it is not capable of being able to fulfill it.” Out of context this seems like a criticism of Judaism with its focus on the commandments, and perhaps there is some residual anti-Jewish sentiment at play. However, when one looks at the pope’s homily in full, his message about the law is actually more nuanced. 

First, it is interesting that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel would even be aware of the pope’s words. Do they monitor Vatican pronouncements on a regular basis? Did someone happen to read this speech and send it to them for a response? Also, something might be lost in the translation. The pope is a bit vague in the sentence. What does he mean when he says that the “Law … does not give life”? Does he mean in this world or in the world to come? It’s not entirely clear. 

The main point of Pope Francis’s homily is to explain a debate in early Christian thought about the new faith’s relationship to Judaism. Should Christians observe the commandments of the Torah or not? This was an important debate because while the first adherents of Jesus were Jews, later converts were not. While “Jewish” Christians might want to continue to observe their ancestral traditions, should newly converted pagans do the same? After all, what the Christians call the “Old Testament” was still holy scripture and God’s word. Should it not be fulfilled? 

The pope explains that the apostle Paul believed that the Law, what we would call the Torah, was important, but it had already been fulfilled by the coming of Jesus. The Torah was necessary in an ancient world dominated by idolatry. Pope Francis emphasizes that the Torah was the way that the Jewish people fulfilled the covenant with God that had been established by Abraham, but that the Law and the covenant are not one and the same. God had chosen Abraham, but the Torah was not given until hundreds of years later.  

Paul and the pope are correct in their analysis, but we Jews part ways in the implications. Indeed, God’s covenant with Abraham is separate from the Torah, but there is no reason to claim that there is only one possible covenant with God. In the Jewish tradition there are two: the Abrahamic/Davidic promise which is that God will always care for and protect Israel and the covenant at Sinai which teaches that God will provide for Israel as long as it fulfills the commandments of the Torah. These two expressions of God’s covenant seem paradoxical but are expressed throughout Jewish history. Over millennia we have experienced exile and destruction, which we have traditionally understood to be punishment for our sins, but God inevitably takes us back in love. 

Christianity does not reject law; instead, it sees law as a necessity for life in a troubled world. Unlike in the Jewish tradition, law for the pope and his followers is not the path to fulfillment and meaning. It is a means to end. Is such a sentiment anti-Jewish? Perhaps in the sense that it reflects a fundamental difference of approach and outlook. When two religions revere the same text but take two different messages from it there will inevitably be theological conflict. As long as these differences of opinion do not encourage hatred there is room enough in the world for us to agree to disagree. 

Jewish Ghosts

What does Judaism mean in a country without Jews? As a people, we have been all over the earth in our wanderings, but we don’t always stay. Whether we have been kicked out or moved on for our own reasons, there are many places around the world with Jewish cemeteries and Jewish buildings, but no living Jews. One more country is soon to be added to that list as US and international forces leave Afghanistan.

There is only one native Jew left in Afghanistan and reports are that he is currently safe. There may be other Jewish expatriates and soldiers still in the country as foreigners coordinate their exit. At some point in the future, in a nation ruled by the Taliban, there will be no Jews left.

But there are Jewish heritage sites in Afghanistan, a country that once had upwards of 40,000 Jews. What will become of the synagogues and cemeteries left behind? It’s hard to imagine that they will fare better than similar sites in Europe where Jews have similarly disappeared. As anyone who has run a cemetery knows, it is quite difficult to keep such a location in good condition. Imagine doing so when there are no families of those buried there to visit or contribute to its upkeep.

Some places in Europe have seen a renewed in interest in Jewish life even without a robust native population, but the response is often to build a museum to the past, such as Polin: Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. As they celebrate their Jewish heritage, these countries are not necessarily looking to encourage Jewish immigration and reestablish themselves as centers of Jewish life.

Instead, these places look at their Jewish history as a draw for tourism and a symbolic message to their current population. “Look at the commitment to pluralism and diversity we are making by building these museums and restoring these heritage sites,” they seem to say. One notes that it is much easier to commit to the value of tolerance by erecting an expensive structure than actually living with people who are different.

For a while, Afghanistan seemed to be on the course of European countries in celebrating its Jewish past. With foreign money, synagogues and cemeteries were restored in the hopes that current Afghans would understand the diversity of the people who have lived there over the centuries. Perhaps the history lessons would help them build a current pluralistic society.

Such dreams have been dashed by the Taliban take over, but for one of the rabbis who was involved in the Jewish revival the main concern is not that the new rulers will destroy these religious sites the way their predecessors did the Buddhist statues that were dynamited decades ago. The primary fear is of neglect. If there are no Jews left to take care of these places, no tourists visiting, and no government support, what will happen to them? Most likely they will fade into just more Jewish ghosts haunting another corner of the globe.

We are the Champions

The Olympics recently concluded after two weeks of athletic excellence, heartbreak, and triumph. Missing this year were the crowds cheering on the athletes as they competed. I found that watching on TV, I didn’t feel that the competitions were diminished because of the empty gymnasiums, arenas, and stadiums. Maybe we have gotten used to this new reality, even as crowds have returned to sports here in America.

I am often a bit cynical about the Olympics. I can be turned off by a lot of what surrounds the games: the corruption of the International Olympic Committee; the thick sentimentality in the presentation of the games on TV; the heavy handed nationalism of countries trying to one up one another. This year, however, very little of that mattered. It has been a tough 18 months and I enjoyed diving into two weeks celebrating the joy of sport.

This year I was not put off by the sappy human-interest stories about the athletes; I was craving more. It was a balm seeing the exhilaration on the face of an American pole vaulter as she fell to the ground, knowing her jump put her in position to win gold. Or seeing the Italian and Qatari high jumpers embrace as they decided to share gold rather than continue their jump off. Or watching the American shot putter describe how a year ago she was struggling just to get by and make ends meet and now she was a silver medalist.

In a year and half when we have failed to be able to do the most basic tasks in life, it is inspiring to watch others achieve amazing feats of athletic skill. Israel rejoiced in its most successful games ever, winning 2 bronze and 2 golds (the country only had one total gold in its entire history before this year). As with many Israeli accomplishments, this one was not without controversy.

Artem Dolgopyat, the first Israeli to ever win a medal in artistic gymnastics, took home the gold, but we later learned that he could not marry his girlfriend in Israel. Dolgopyat is not considered Jewish by the Israeli chief rabbinate because his mother is not Jewish. Politicians used the moment to call for civil marriage, which exists in virtually every western democracy, but not Israel.

Dolgopyat’s story is a reminder that there is a difference between nationality, religious identity, and personal status. He is Israeli and can compete for his country, and might consider himself Jewish, but in Israel only the rabbinate gets to decide your eligibility for official Jewish marriage. In short, he is a human being, an athlete, and a champion. Yes, he represents his country, but he competes for himself. Like Simon Biles and her decision to pull out of competition, he doesn’t owe anyone anything.

This year more than any other, the Olympics were about people, and how they face challenges and overcome them. We may not be able to run 100 meters in less than 10 seconds or do amazing twists and turns 10 meters above the water, but we all can do amazing things. And when we do, we should bask in the glory like the champions we are.

Extraordinary Claims

One of the important mitzvot in the Jewish tradition is that of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests. We are encouraged to invite people into our homes and give them shelter and food, just as our ancestor Abraham did with the three mysterious guests who visited his tent in the desert. Those three men turned out to be more than they appeared. They were angels sent to announce the birth of a son to Abraham and his wife Sarah.

A few years ago, our solar system was visited by a mysterious guest which may also have been more that it appeared. In 2017 astronomers discovered a small object zipping through our neighborhood at lightning speeds. Scientists realized that because of its velocity and trajectory, this body, dubbed ‘Oumuamua (“scout” in Hawaiian), could only be a visitor from another solar system.

As extraordinary as the mere existence of ‘Oumuamua was, it presented other enigmas. Astronomers could not account for its amazing speed. There seemed to be no easy explanation for what they observed. One scientist, however, was convinced that there was a theory which could account for the mystery; ‘Oumuamua was an alien spacecraft.

Avi Loeb, an Israeli astrophysicist born on a kibbutz, made the argument that the simplest way of understanding this interstellar visitor was as a solar sail using photons as a means of acceleration. The Harvard professor speculated that the craft was either a probe sent to collect information on our solar system or a piece of technological debris that happened to reach our corner of space.

Loeb, who sometimes works on a goat farm in Israel, was ridiculed by many of his peers in the scientific community despite his bona fides. His colleagues were simply not prepared to accept such an explanation. Many invoked the scientist and author Carl Sagan who wrote that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Loeb, having heard the retort one too many times, disputes that it holds any logical meaning and argues the opposite. “Extraordinary conservatism keeps us extraordinarily ignorant,” he says.

Unfortunately, we will not have the opportunity to collect any more evidence, extraordinary or otherwise, from ‘Oumuamua. It is moving so fast that it quickly passed out of observable range before we could launch a mission to study it further. Like Abraham, we are left to wonder about our strange heavenly visitor only from the few moments we had with it.

‘Oumuamua visit raises all kinds of questions about our place in the universe. If it is an alien probe, what conclusions did it draw from its brief encounter with us? Will there be a follow up visit? Are we prepared to welcome the next guests who wander through our neighborhood? Will they come to give us world peace and end hunger or signal our civilization’s annihilation like a in Hollywood movie? Let us hope that a future ‘Oumuamua does not follow in the footsteps of the Abraham’s three visitors. Afterall, their next task was to announce the destruction of two famously decadent cities: Sodom and Gomorrah.

How to Make Amazing Moments

As we began to emerge from the isolation of COVID this spring, one of the aspects of life many families were looking forward to was summer camp. What better way to return to sense of normal life than kids getting a chance to be away from their parents, who they had been cooped up with for 16 months, and be together with their friends, who they hadn’t seem in 22 months. But as we have learned this summer, the best laid post-COVID plans often go awry.

Some of the challenges facing summer camps have been disruptions in the supply chain that prevent them from getting food and other essentials; a shortage of staff as young people find they can command better salaries in other summer jobs; new COVID outbreaks; and low staff moral as bubble environments necessitated by the pandemic have counselors feeling cooped up and overworked. One camp in New Hampshire was forced to close down after just six days.

I have mostly observed this phenomenon from afar through news reports because my kids are having an amazing time at Camp Ramah in New England. This year I have a unique perspective as the father of both campers and staff, and I have seen how the expert leadership of the camp has navigated the challenges of a COVID summer. Everyone is well fed with options I would never have dreamed of in my time at camp decades ago.

While there are fewer staff, the camp has communicated to us parents what this will mean for the kids’ and our experience. There are no outside sports or arts experts who will visit this summer and you know what? That’s OK. Bunk counselors can run the basketball or arts and crafts activities just fine. We can’t send packages because there is no staff to sort them, but our kids will survive without the tchotchkes we would have sent (no food was allowed even in years past). There is no staff photographer, but I actually don’t mind not having to sift through thousands of pictures to find the partially obscured half shoulder of my kid.

What Camp Ramah does have is a dedicated, caring, and well-trained group of staff excited to make this a summer to remember for their kids. And the camp is looking out for their workers’ wellbeing too. Even though they can’t leave for evenings or days off, they get special meals each night when the kids go to bed and a free coffee/tea bar that will make them any beverage they want. The camp even rented out a theater for staff to watch a movie on a day off and created a Staff Life Committee to make sure there was good communication throughout the summer.

The horror stories of summer camping this season have reinforced the age-old truism that good preparation leads to good results. Creating a successful summer is not in any way a given; it requires careful planning and execution. Camp Ramah in New England has given a tremendous gift to our children – the chance once again to just be kids and live in a joyous Jewish community. Every time I see a picture or video of smiling faces, I try and appreciate all the hard work and effort that went into that amazing moment.

Hate for Hate’s Sake

Tisha B’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, commemorates the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. According to tradition, the First Temple, built by King Solomon, was destroyed because the Israelites had violated the most important laws of the Torah: they worshiped idols, shed blood, and engaged in sexual indiscretions. During Second Temple times, the Jews no longer committed these grave sins. Instead, their Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred, because they were unkind to each other.

During the Shabbat study session last week before the beginning of the Tisha B’Av commemoration, we asked the question, what is “baseless hatred”? One way of looking at is as arguing over the little things. The Jews were no longer fighting over the big questions of idolatry and accepting the Torah. Instead, their divisions were about small slights and disagreements.

The classic example of this conflict is the story of Kamza and Bar Kamza, where a case of mistaken identity led to someone being misinvited to a party and then ultimately being thrown out. The anger over his mistreatment led the man to inform the Roman authorities that the Jews were going to rebel, which led to a crackdown that resulted in the Great Revolt.

The story teaches that even small quarrels over insignificant issues can have world-historic consequences. A little kindness and understanding, a little menschlichkeit, would have prevented the incident from ever happening. Sometimes there is a need to fight over big issues. Sometimes our differences are insurmountable. Of course, even in these situations there no reason not to show kindness; all the more so when the conflict is over a mistakenly invited guest.

This Tisha B’Av the Jewish world was given another lesson in baseless hatred when a group of extremist Orthodox-nationalists disrupted egalitarian prayer services at the Ezrat Israel section of the Western Wall. This is an area that has been designated for non-Orthodox prayer since the Conservative and Reform movements cannot conduct services in the main section.

Unfortunately, because of the intransigence of the ultra-Orthodox parties, the status of Ezrat Israel has never been definitively established by the government. Additionally, the liberal streams have hoped to keep it open to all who want to worship there, even Orthodox. They do not want to create discrimination in Ezrat Israel after having experienced discrimination in the main Western Wall Plaza.

The extremist group was able to take advantage of the ambiguity of Ezrat Israel to set up a mehitza, or barrier between male and female worshipers and prevent members of the Conservative movement from entering the area. It seems that during COVID, when fewer non-Orthodox Jews were willing or able to pray at the wall, some Orthodox have attempted to take over the space so that they can in the future claim it as an Orthodox synagogue, giving it the same status as the main plaza.

I’m not sure if the extremist group intentionally chose Tisha B’Av for their disturbing stunt, but certainly they made it plain that they are interested in promoting baseless hatred on a day when we mourn its consequences. They certainly do not need to give their approval of or lend legitimacy to liberal Judaism, but do they need to try and evict their fellow Jews from a space that the Orthodox have never been interested in before? That is nothing more than hate for hate’s sake.