/ Notes for the Field

Notes for the Field

Five Jewish Commitments to Live By in Response to Evil and Hate

Rabbi Dr. Joshua Ladon is the Director of Education for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, where he guides the content and curriculum of national and regional programs to help to ensure our cutting-edge offerings speak to the realities of the Jewish community and the challenges of the Jewish people. An award-winning educator, Joshua previously oversaw programming for Hartman in the San Francisco Bay Area. Prior to Hartman he served as the Dean of Student

“Middle schoolers and other big kids are not allowed to talk about what is happening in Israel when they are on the school bus,” my sixth grader tells me. “We are not supposed to talk about it around the little kids.”

In my house this week, conversations with my eldest are punctuated by long silent pauses and hushed whispers whenever her five-year-old sister is nearby. I don’t want her to hear something inappropriate; I want to shield her from the atrocities of Hamas’s terror attacks. I know that Jewish parents around the world are doing the same. Some of us adults—whether or not we have children in our lives—are shielding ourselves from the worst by avoiding news, photos, and videos of what is unfolding in Israel and Gaza.

And yet, I am concerned that in our zeal to ensure that our kids don’t hear the wrong thing, we are failing to tell them the right things. I am concerned that in our zeal to denounce Hamas with our children who are old enough to understand, we are failing to teach them that Judaism is the opposite of the cynicism, pessimism, and evil of Hamas. We are also failing ourselves. Even in the face of adversaries and even when we are in pain, we must also embrace, affirm, and live Judaism: its values, its practices, and its people.

  1. In times of peace and in times of war, Judaism is rooted in Torah, Israel, and the Jewish People.

Torah reflects the moral aspirations and the collective creativity that the Jewish people have brought forth to this world in partnership with the Divine.

The Jewish people are the family that I have inherited, the people with whom I get to make the Torah great.

Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, where the Jews have an awesome responsibility to create a public square that enacts Torah’s moral aspirations.

These are my three loves, and I want to be clear that in this case, love is not the same as like. There is Torah that punches me in the gut. There are Jews I find disgraceful. The State of Israel and in particular the military sometimes act in ways I consider immoral. Torah, the Jewish people, and Israel do not always get along, and in fact, they often disagree. But even in their disagreement, they represent what it means to bring the Divine into this world and manifest a thick Jewish existence.

  1. Love of Torah, Israel, and the Jewish People is an activity.

We demonstrate love through our actions. We show up with meals when people are sick; we gladden the hearts of brides and grooms; we give blood when our people are bleeding. We create networks of care and support all the time so that when we need them, our muscles are limber and ready to go. When we support one another, our love overflows to all humanity, and we make manifest the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves.

  1. The world can be made better.

In the Talmud (bShabbat 31a), the rabbis list six questions they imagine we will be asked upon reaching heaven. One will be, “Did you anticipate redemption?” We must assume the world can change for the better, and we must act as though we can aid in that transformation. We inherit a world that requires us to work for the possibility of that renewal. For too many years, the Israeli-Palestinian reality has been a product of human inertia. We Jews must believe that our dignity is tied up with the dignity of our Palestinian neighbors, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, and we must act on that belief. In working to make the world better, we make manifest what our liturgy describes as God’s daily renewal of creation.

  1. Jews are simultaneously powerful and vulnerable, and so we must act with responsibility.

As I write this, Israel continues to be hit by a barrage of rockets sent by terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip. At the same time, the President of the United States has expressed full backing of Israel’s efforts to defend itself. Jews can be hurt even when Israel possesses one of the strongest armies in the world, even when the Jewish state has nuclear capabilities. There is real evil in the world and some of it targets Jews. We should be able to lock our doors at night and keep intruders out.  Sovereignty requires making difficult decisions that affect the lives of others and make it impossible to be morally pure. Nevertheless, we cannot not let our vulnerability drive the use of our power.

  1. We must refuse to equate Hamas with all Palestinians.

I lived in Israel from 2003, when I was 22 years old, until 2011, when I was 30. For much of that time, I volunteered with an organization bringing Jews to the West Bank to learn from Palestinians about their experience. This was not a popular project during the Second Intifada or after it ended in 2005. I learned that the only way to break down division is to reject monolithic thinking about the “other.” There are too many Jews I disagree with for me to believe that all Palestinians could possibly all think the same thing.

These five commitments are imperfect, even contradictory at times. Alone, they are each somewhat blasé, and together they can sound cacophonous. But this is our world. It requires context, nuance, and also commitment. We need these and our children need them too. They are our shared Jewish moral compass.

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