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The Antisemitism We Tolerate

The following is a transcript of Episode 54 of the For Heaven’s Sake Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors. 

Donniel: My name is Donniel Hartman and I’m the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, and this is For Heaven’s Sake, a podcast from the Hartman Institute’s iEngage project. Our theme for today is antisemitism in Israel. 

In each edition of For Heaven’s Sake Yossi Klein Halevi, senior research fellow at the Institute here in Jerusalem, and myself discuss a current issue central to Israel in the Jewish world. And then Elana Stein Hain, director of the Hartman faculty in North America, explores with us how classical Jewish sources can enrich our understanding of the issue. 

Today is a special episode for it is being taped live in front of our RTS and RLI participants. The Hartman, the Hartman Institute’s rabbinic summer enrichment programs, and it is streamed live. 

Let’s begin. Several weeks ago, a Jewish family was attacked by a mob and prevented from fulfilling their right to gather and prayer and celebrate their son’s bar mitzvah. Prayer books were torn and desecrated. The Bar Mitzvah celebration turned into a nightmare. 

Now under normal circumstances, when such events occur, Jews unite and outrage. Jewish organizations across the religious and political spectrum mobilize and Israel, which identifies itself as a defender of the Jewish people worldwide, takes the lead. And also tells you by the way to make Aliyah.

But this time, the antisemitic attack on the bar mitzvah celebration didn’t happen in Poland or Germany and the perpetrators did not originate from Muslim or Christian communities nor were they from the radical left or far right. The attack happened here in Jerusalem at the Western Wall and the perpetrators were young Haredi and nationalist Haredi boys. The victims were American Jews from the Conservative movement, celebrating at the egalitarian section of the wall. 

Though the antisemitic attack was reported extensively in Israel’s English language media, the Hebrew media noted the event, not at the top, somewhere in the middle, and then quickly passed onto the next item on the Israeli news cycle. While prime minister Yair Lapid denounced the attack, there was little outrage and remarkably, even less public conversation. 

Our task today is not to condemn the attack. When Jews get together to condemn antisemitism, it is it’s kind of superfluous. That’s self evident that this is not what we should be doing. I want us to go deeper and understand both the roots of this Jewish inspired antisemitism, and even more importantly, Israelis’ tolerance towards it. 

Because only if we do so, is there a chance for us to combat it. To simply condemn it is not gonna make a difference. Why weren’t Israelis engaged? Why weren’t they outraged? Was it because of the Haredi identity of the perpetrators? Is that what it was? And then why should their Haredi or nationalist Haredi roots make a difference? Or is it because of the identity of the victim? Is it the fact that they were liberal Jews, or even Americans?  What’s going on here? How do we understand it? And by understanding it, is there something that we can do about it? 

Yossi, Elana, it’s as always wonderful to be with the two of you. Um, let’s start Yossi. Let’s start figuring this out because it is an enigma. It is an enigma, um, Jews, tolerating, antisemitism. What, if you had to try to pick, like, what would be the first reason for Israeli, seeming Israeli indifference?

Yossi: Can I have two?

Donniel: After I get one. You go one, one, well, ritch ratch, as they call it.

Yossi: So, uh, okay. I’d say the first would be low expectations, uh, on the part of mainstream Israelis, uh, for Haredi behavior. And what tends to happen in, in the minds of mainstream Israelis is a conflation of the extremes of Haredi behavior with, with, with the, with the normative community, which is, uh, to some extent, unfair to the Haredi community.

And I say to some extent, because it’s true that most Haredi would not act violently against Reform and Conservative Jews praying at the wall, but one can certainly understand how those Haredi kids would feel that they would have the community, their community, behind them given the way in which leading Haredi rabbis over the years have spoken about liberal Judaism.

Uh, we have Israeli rabbis who’ve compared, uh, reform Judaism to Nazism. Prominent Haredi rabbis. So I I’d say two things Donniel. One is that there’s low expectations on the part of mainstream Israelis. Uh, and there’s also a tendency to regard both the Haredi and liberal Judaism as peripheral communities to the Israeli mainstream.

And so, okay Haredi are attacking reform. It’s it’s there’s there’s there’s this sense of mainstream Israelis don’t like it, I’m sure, mainstream Israelis were upset if they, if they heard about this at all. And that’s, that’s a question. Uh, but um, that combination of peripheral communities who are out outside of the radar, the sense of, of us, the Israeli us.

Donniel: So, let’s let’s try to unpack this. And I think it’s really interesting, cause what you’re saying is that there’s a them, them dimension, you’re almost a spectator on something that doesn’t doesn’t know that doesn’t yeah, it doesn’t reflect on you at all. But, but let’s unpack this because you know, Haredi aren’t, we’ll get to whether liberal Jews are a them, um, and why they would be a them in Israeli society.

But Haredi? If we think about it a second, these are the most powerful individuals in, they’re 10% of Israeli’s society growing, going on 30. Um, no, literally that’s the, that’s what we’re talking about. They’re central to every government. This one is an anomaly and the next one will only be able to be formed with Haredim, it’s clear.

So, and this isn’t, it’s not a new phenomenon, so you’re right. There is a separation. It’s like, it’s them, her ah, that’s what you do, you know, that’s your, there’s some sort, but how is it that after so many years Haredi aren’t us and like, and we could just, yeah. You know, you’re crazy. What is it? You’re just, you’re crazy. And therefore you could get away with it. How come? But they’re so significant. How do you continue to allow that craziness into your society without seeming or seeing it as, as affecting who you are as a country?

Yossi: You know Donniel I’ve I’ve I have found myself excluding unconsciously, excluding Haredim from the Israeli us. When, for example, I speak about this government and I’ll say this, this is a wall to wall national unity government. We even have for the first time an Arab party inside, we, we don’t have the Haredim inside. And somehow we still have, when we perceive of, of the us, they slip away. Now that’s a really important point because they, they, it’s an optical illusion. They’re there. And, and as you know, the next government will be very much shaped by them. 

Donniel: The notion that there is an us, which is, does not take into account Haredi ideology, is to say that it’s a mistake is fine. I think your argument is correct. But I think we could see the consequences of what’s happening. Here it is, a group of people, we don’t even take responsible for and responsibility for anything, you, what do you wanna do? You want, you want this rabbinate, you want this kashrus, you want this Shabbos. 

It just doesn’t matter. No matter how destructive it is, if that’s what you want. You’re just sort of this autonomous group that I have to placate from time to time and they don’t bear on me. I think there’s though another dimension.

And that is that I think a very large part of Israelis love primitive Haredim, 

Yossi: Primitive Haredim. 

Donniel: Yeah. It’s not, they love Haredim cause they remind them of their grandparents. No, no they love primitive Haredim and in so doing infantalize them. They love the fact that this is a group that represents Judaism and they reinforce and re enable their rejection of Judaism every single day.

You act cra, like, what do you want? 

Yossi: There’s Judaism. 

Donniel: So like the Haredim actually play a really important role. This is who you are and, and it’s not who I am. And so when they do this, like, what did you expect? Like, this is exactly what we wanna free ourselves from, but the consequences is you don’t take responsibility for, for changing them. 

It’s almost as if Israelis have a conspiracy to keep Haredim exactly the way they are. That’s, you’re the authentic, it’s great for me. You’re there. And by the way, you know what the reverse is? That’s also why liberal Jews are on the outside, because it also plays this, they play this exact same role because if it’s not us.

Yossi: In reverse. 

Donniel: In reverse. I don’t have to ask myself. 

Yossi: They’re not serious Jews. We don’t have to take them seriously.

Donniel: They’re not serious. Then I don’t have to ask myself what I’m doing with my life. So here you have these two groups, you have Haredim and, and liberal Jews, who enable Israelis, this is the real status quo. It’s a status quo. And, and here it is, I’m allowed to be whoever I wanna be. I don’t have to take seriously

Yossi: That’s, that’s a very, good way to put it. 

Donniel: But now what’s really paradoxical about this. And here, I want to ask you because both you and I know how much, you know, you’ve been following it in the music sector. You know, that always is amazing to me. You know, like, you know, the, you know, actually the names of the singers, you know, like, and you can quote.

There is actually a huge renewal in Israel. So Israeli society is not living a status quo. There’s there’s this strange place. 

Yossi: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. 

Donniel: We’re in this strange place where we’re not living a status quo individually, Israeli Jews, by and large, they have Shabbos meals. They, they innovate in rituals. Some go to synagogues, many, go to liberal synagogues.

Yossi: Turn on the radio and you’ll hear prayer, in, in rock music. 

Donniel: Conservative, Reform synagogues are active, they’re growing. The movements are there, more and more Israelis who do bar mitzvahs. So it’s not as if they’re, they’re stuck in the old I am, I’m Israeli, I’m not Jewish. That’s not the way they live. But at the same time with all of this, there’s this it’s it’s as if we’ve made a change, but we haven’t caught up. 

It’s like we’re having this duality going on that in the national sphere, we have a discussion which still divides the country between datiim and chilonim, religious and secular, and in their own individual lives, we live on a spectrum. And so what we’re seeing here is this strange anomaly of a public status quo. Who breaks it? Liberal Jews at the kotel or Haredim, but we don’t fight it because it serves our purpose, even though it contradicts in many ways who we are. 

Yossi: See, I think if you look at the changes in Israeli culture, you mentioned the music, certainly, uh, and, and other spheres, uh, in the last, um, I’d say the last decade or so, uh, that the old secular religious divide has changed.

What I feel has replaced it is a Haredim, everyone else, divide. And that’s different, you know, the, the old religious secular divide. I mean, the fact that the first prime minister with a Kippa is also a prime minister who excluded the Haredim from his own coalition. I think he would’ve liked at least one Haredi party, but he was perfectly comfortable having what he regarded as a national unity coalition without the Haredim. 

And so there really is a, a dynamic, uh, the only qual qualification here would be something that you, that you mentioned when you were introducing the topic. And that is that it wasn’t only Haredim who were disrupting the bar mitzvah. It was also Hardalim, uh, that part of the national religious camp, the religious Zionist camp, uh, that is closer to the Haredim in, in observance.

And so what, what this, what this incident points to in a very, in a very dramatic way is a growing split within the national religious camp. Uh, you have on one side, Bennett and Matan Kahana, the, the former religious affairs minister, Kippa wearer, who took on the Haredim in the Knesset, in a very dramatic way.

When, when Haredim were challenging his reforms in the religious affairs ministry, he turned the tables on them and said, who are you to tell me about observing Mitzvot. Do you know what it’s like to pray before you go off to battle? He said, don’t preach to me about religion. 

And so you have one part of the religious Zionist community, which I would, I would think is a majority, feels closer to the Israeli mainstream than they do to the Haredim community. But you have a growing part of the religious Zionist community that is becoming more and more hard line on not only political issues, but also religious issues.

Donniel:  I, I want to take this a little bit out of the Haredi story, come back to in a moment, caue I don’t, I think there’s also a dimension to this that has nothing to do with the Haredim. I think Israel has got into a mode where whenever something bad happens, we say, it’s this, you know, it goes back to Yigal Amir, it’s Asabim Shotim. It’s the minority. It’s not us. 

It’s like, we’re we don’t, there is a remarkable absence of a teshuva attitude in Israeli’s society, cheshbon nefesh, reflection. Like, do we ever do anything wrong? No, we don’t do anything wrong. You know, in order to do something wrong, you have to have, in our tradition, teshuvah begins with charata. Repentance begins with remorse. Remorse says like what the, but I said, we don’t have, we don’t, we don’t do there’s. It’s just remarkable. We don’t do remorse. 

Yossi: You know, it’s even, it’s an amazing thing because if you think about what happened and where it happened, it happened at the heart of our national identity, the kotel’s a national space, and it happened in effect in the name of the state of Israel. This was a desecration in a place that is under the jurisdiction of the state. 

And yet Israelis didn’t take responsibility for it. 

Donniel: See cause we don’t, I think

Yossi: How did we create this dynamic? How did we allow this dynamic to get to the point?

Donniel: This is just that, you, it’s the same thing.

You could see it happening over and over again. It’s it’s it’s not just a stam. No. It’s, it’s just an exception. 

There was this article in the Times of Israel, by the spokesperson of Agudat Yisrael. 

Yossi: Avi Shafran. 

Donniel: Right. Oh, this is he, he did the same thing that the, oh, it’s not us. Every one of our children is taught. Really? I’d like to see the curriculum. Every one of our children is taught pluralism to other denominations. We would never do. No. We only teach love of Israel. And I’m sure he, now, now, again, I don’t wanna speak lashon harah about it. He maybe he himself, that’s what he does. 

Yossi: No. What he said in that piece, which was really, really to be remarkable. And on the one hand he said, no, of course there’s only one. This is not real Judaism. But we don’t believe in acting that way toward our fellow Jews. We would never do that. 

Donniel: We would never do that. So like, but so this, there is just this spirit and I think, you know, cause I wanna learn from this, I’m not interested in saying, okay, one more reason to Haredim, you know? Okay. One more thing that the Haredim did wrong. Like that’s there’s we ourselves could slip into that. 

Um, I think there is we, we have to learn from this. This, how easy it is to not engage in public reflection about what you are doing when you say this is just an exception to the rule. And I think there’s one other thing I wanna put on the table.

I remember my father alav hashalom used to say that one of the great gifts of Israel is that it will make all of our Jewish problems rise to the surface. Like something else. 

Yossi: The good news it has. 

Donniel: It has. And part of what we, you know, what did the students quote? They quoted a Tosefta, which speaks about the fact that you’re supposed to burn the books of heretics, that sifrei minin have to be burned, have to be destroyed.

This is what the stu, see the kids at the Kotel were quoting scripture, were quoting our tradition and here too, part of the challenge is that what we could learn from here is, what are aspects of our tradition are, are surfacing that, you know, what’s oh, Judaism, every time someone said, Judaism never says A B or C, I say, well, we have a party which actually that’s its ideology that, that like, it’s, it’s literally here. 

Part of what we have, what we have to realize. And this is it’s, it’s a remarkable challenge of Israel is, precisely in our homeland, where we have most power, we are not confronting our difficult texts and sources. And we could just reject. The process of reinterpreting these texts is still relatively marginal. So the Haredim aren’t reinterpreting. Cause how does the Haredi community deal with problematic texts?

Most Haredim, don’t, they’re not going around burning down reform or conservative or liberals. They’re not, how do they do it? You have a notion called da’at Torah. You have the rabbi. If the rabbi’s job is to tell you what to do and you see, cause if you had to change it, then you have to deal with the fact that modernity is here and that you have to deal with problematic texts.

Here I don’t have to deal with it because the rabbi says don’t act on that way. But what you have is a breakdown of that authority and these sources that, there is no such authority in the religious Zionists communities. And these sources are surfacing, not just about reform or conservative or liberal Judaism. They’re surfacing about non-Jews. 

What we have here, and I think one of the most critical questions and issues that we’re gonna have to face over the next decade, as groups are much, they’re becoming more powerful. They’re sensing their power. They don’t feel they have to hide. Is that the sources that we liked or preferred to ignore are here, Yossi. They’re right here. They’re being quoted. You see it, people going up on the Temple Mount. 

Like again, like all these things that we’ve, you know, here with rabbis, we’ve been talking about them, sources that in America aren’t dangerous because everybody knows they’re not realistic. Like everybody knows by definition, okay. You know, I could pray for the rebuilding of the temple, but I’m not really calling for the destruction of the mosque, you know, like I know, so I could say, you know, this notion, it’s just words. Something’s happening here. 

Yossi: It’s so interesting to hear. Yes, it is. And I’m thinking back to, to what your father said.

It’s so in some sense, uh, spiritually right that the arena, the physical, the geographical place, that where the worst of our tradition is surfacing is at the wall and at the Temple Mount in the most dangerous, in the most dangerous way, at the wall, threatening the most minimal sense of peoplehood and, and solidarity, uh, and on the Temple Mount, uh, threatening, literally, the stability of the Middle East.

There’s no more dangerous ground today in the Middle East than the Temple Mount. And, uh, we have a party, as you mentioned, whose goal is to disrupt the status quo and essentially set the Middle East on fire. And, you know, we have president Biden here now, and he is going to be trying to be taking the Abraham Accords the next step.

And we’re, we’re seeing a new Middle East, the new Middle East is a challenge. It’s a theological challenge to exactly the mindset that you’re talking about. It’s a theological challenge to those who would, whose whose, who would jeopardize our peace with the Arab world for the sake of the Temple Mount and nothing jeopardizes our future relations with the Arab world, more than the Temple Mount, just as nothing jeopardizes our relationship with American Jewry more than what happens at the wall.

Donniel:  So it’s like this, you call it the new Middle East is being challenged by the old Judaism. 

Yossi: Absolutely. Absolutely. 

Donniel: It’s being, and I think what we are seeing is how critical it is in Israel to engage in this extensive reinterpretive process and Israeli society, even though Israelis have have reengaged in Judaism, they haven’t reengaged in reinterpreting the text. They pick, they choose, but the text stays. 

This, this re, this process of reinterpreting what the words mean, reinterpreting and creating a Judaism, which we wanna live in, that, we are still in the old secular religious divide. I’m gonna do Judaism the way I wanna do it, and I’m gonna act and I’m gonna innovate, but I’m not, I, I, somehow I don’t make a claim on authentic Judaism, the way Modern Orthodox, Conservtive, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal Judaism in North America does. 

It says, yes, it, it makes a textual claim. It makes a Halakhic. It does what Matan Kahana did. So the, actually the, the one group that’s beginning to do it is this Modern Orthodox segment or this liberal religious Zionist segment who are beginning to do it on issues of kashrut and rabbinate. But they’re also doing it on issues of gender and attitude towards gays and lesbians. And so they’re, it’s, they’re starting it, but the rest of Israeli society are still looking at it as that’s not my game. 

Last comment, Yossi. And then we’ll take a break and Elana will join us. 

Yossi: That uh, this terrible incident at the wall points out in, in the most extreme way and know most, most Haredim would not behave that way. And I think it’s important to say that on the one hand, while saying on the other hand, that pay attention to what some of your prominent rabbis are saying about liberal Judaism. 

But I think that what we see playing out with this growing Haredi Hardal alliance, is a divide within religious Israel and also within Israeli society generally. And that is in our relationship to the rest of the world. And are we part, do we want to be part of the region? Do we want to be part of the world?

One of the great sins for this Haredi Hardal alliance of liberal Judaism is that it actively engages with the non-Jewish world. And so this is the divide, that you have betrayed the Jewish people by your intimacy with the non-Jewish world. And yet Zionism, classical Zionism, is about integrating reintegrating, the Jewish people into the community of nations. 

And again, this is something that hopefully we’re going to be seeing playing out in the coming weeks in the Middle East. So this is, what’s more important to you? How do we engage with the non-Jewish world? How do we engage with the Middle East? How we engage with our fellow Jews who are intimate with, with the non Jewish people?

Donniel: I still, you know, it’s, you know, we agree all the time or some of the, most of the time, but the, you know, and that’s why the silence of Israelis is so upsetting because they have to understand that, what’s at stake here. The cultural war that we are engaged in right now is much bigger than the Kotel. It’s a much bigger cultural war. And you are allowing, so Israelis say, oh, how could Haredim not study math and English? Or, you know, what do you need to get into, the modern world is, how do you get into the workforce?

There is a cultural engagement, and you’re not gonna be able to tell somebody else what texts do. And there’s a tremendous, by the way, duplicity or duplicitsness or something like that. 

Yossi: Duplicity’s good. 

Donniel: Duplicity works?

Yossi: Yeah. 

Donniel: Yeah, it’s a good word. Um, in which you say, oh, we would never do it or we, we condemn it, you know and, show me your textbooks, show me your curriculum on pluralism or tolerance or how show me how you’re engaging. And Israelis, there’s a whole sphere that we’re not taking responsibility for. And I think it’s gonna end. It’s not, it’s not only gonna end it already is posing a serious challenge. You, let’s take a short break and then we come back, Elana will join us.  

Hi, Elana, how are you? 

Elana: I, I, I am, I am lost. 

Donniel: Before you say you’re lost. I know that you’re we know each other, right. 

Elana: We’ve met.

Donniel: We met. Um, and, and I know that it’s not gonna be even remotely interesting to you, either religiously, psychologically to start engaging in a let’s dump on the Haredim conversation. That’s just not, that’s just

Elana: No, that’s not really my way. 

Donniel: That’s just, that’s not the way you chew. That’s not what you do. And it’s not part, you know, I must 

Elana: Because I need them. 

Donniel: You need, I must confess, you know, it is part of my yetzer harah, you know, I do enjoy it a little bit, but then I condemn it. 

Elana: But as long as you know it’s your yetzer harah, then you’re good. 

Donniel: I know, I know. I admit it. I know it. And so you represent the better me. So Yossi and I, we did that a little bit, but then we got out and we tried to elevate it, but I know you’re not gonna want to come in and say, oh, you know, what are we gonna do? We have Haredim, so how, when you see this, when you hear it, like, where does it take you? How do, how do you elevate us even more? 

Elana: Okay. Here’s the problem. This is where you’re catching me. You’re catching me where we are about to read in Israel, the, to portion of Pinchas. And last week in Balak, he took a spear and speared two people, because that’s kanaut, that’s zealousness, and its religious zealousness, and God gave him a brit shalom, a covenant of peace.

And then on Sunday.

Donniel: Could you, could you expand on that just a little bit for our audience, which wasn’t in shul last week? 

Elana: Sure. Well, well. 

Donniel: I don’t mean our audience here. I mean our audience in the Jewish, there might,

Elana: I just assume everyone, I just assume. Well outside of Israel, maybe, they’re reading it this week. So you still have a chance, if you’re listening, if you’re listening. 

Donniel: There might be a few people who aren’t going to shul this Shabbos. So tell us a little bit more about it. 

Elana: Look, what we’re talking about here is we’re talking about a case where the Israelites were in a moment of essentially, rebellion, in a way. And they were finding themselves kind of integrating into a pagan Moabite, uh, environment through sex, through worship.

And then you have like the head of a tribe getting up there and performing a sexual act with a Moabite woman in this pagan environment. And Pinchas says, what, why are y’all standing around? And he goes, and he spears them and kills them. And he’s given, either to help him recover from that, or as a reward from that, 

Donniel: Is he a hero, is he a hero or is he, 

Elana: He’s told, he’s given a brit shalom. He’s given a covenant of peace from God and he gets Kehunat olam, priesthood. Okay. Now, that’s what I read last week. And that’s what I’m gonna read this week. And then Sunday, I’m gonna fast because it’s the 17th of Tamuz when the walls of Jerusalem were broken through. Why were they broken through? Because Jews had baseless hatred for each other and were violent towards each other. 

So you tell me, which is the right religious mode, like you said, I’m lost. I, yeah, I can give you, I can give you, you can look at Chris Hayes I think did a public series for us last year on kind of kanaut, on zealousness and showed us how you can look, anybody who wants these things, go look at the Jerusalem Talmud in Sanhedrin, chapter nine, section seven, where it’s gonna tell you that Pinchas actually did what he did against what the rabbis of the time, which there weren’t no rabbis at the time, but it’s trying to say the sagacious people of the time, against what he wanted them to do. 

Or go look at the Babylonian Talmud in Sanhedrin 82a where they’re gonna say, you know, what had he asked permission, he would’ve been told no. And not only that, had one of the people he was spearing gotten up and killed him. There wouldn’t have been any,

Donniel: And these are all the sources we don’t wanna talk about.

Elana: These are the sources they don’t wanna talk about. Can I tell you why I don’t wanna talk about the sources? Cause I wanna talk about something that’s a bigger issue. 

Donniel: Great.

Elana: Okay. And it’s three issues. The first is we always frame this as being about liberalism. Like pluralism is about liberalism. And I really go with Avishai Margalit in his book The Decent Society where he says it is not, it is about decency, a decent society. Even if it’s not liberal, a decent society is a society in which institutions do not humiliate people. And a civilized society is a society in which individuals do not humiliate each other with total immunity. 

And what I see here is a lack of decency. You don’t have to be a liberal in your understanding of Judaism.

Donniel: Not that there’s anything wrong with that. 

Elana: No, I’m not saying, but you don’t have to be a liberal to see that there’s a lack of decency here. 

Donniel: Decency. I love it. Love it. 

Elana: And that. It pains me deeply. 

Donniel: You wanna move it away from the ideology. 

Elana:  I, I need to move it away from the ideology to core decency.

And I have to tell you as somebody who really tries to learn Jewish texts every day, I really try to, I encounter things and I say, I can’t just talk about a slave whose teeth get knocked out and not pause and say, hey, we’re talking about a person who’s being held as a slave and their teeth get knocked out.

And when that attack, if you remember however many years ago it was that, I don’t know who it was, who fire bombed that woman’s car and, a mother of nine children, you remember that situation? Religious Jews who did that. And Rav Yaaqov Medan, who is one of the heads of one of the biggest religious Zionist yeshivot, he got up and he said from now on, when you see in a text something that is not decent, even if it’s in our text, you have to pause and say, this is not decent. And he gave the example of slavery in our text. That a blase example. And he said, don’t just read it, pause and say, this is not decent. I think that’s very powerful.

Second thing I wanna say, religious tolerace in the West is actually pretty new. It’s a 16th, 17th century phenomenon, if we’re really gonna talk about it. And essentially people say it’s because there were just wars between different sects of Christianity in Europe. And they realized not just we’re gonna fall apart, but what they realized. 

And this is what I found fascinating when I started to look into religious tolerance, cause I said to myself, why can’t we make this switch? Why can’t we make this switch? The most, uh, powerful, the most powerful arguments for religious tolerance that actually worked were not the pragmatic arguments. They were not the statecraft arguments. They were religious arguments that said, this is bad for religion.

So by the way, I can say to you with a straight face, I can say, you know what? It could be that Pinchas in the wilderness killing those two people, could be that that was good for religion in that moment. And I’m saying to myself, the problem of Judaism as an interpretive tradition is when you forget that, what used to be good for religion isn’t good for religion anymore, because you refuse to see things in a historical frame.

And that is deeply problematic to me, deeply problematic. Even as I know that once you introduce the historical frame, then all of orthodoxy, we’re all gonna go. And I, and I put myself in a we. We’re all gonna say, well, okay, where does this end? How do I, how do I know which part of the historical frame? 

One more thing. You know, we talk about cognitive dissonance, right? So I get mad at you because I can’t handle the fact that I have a little bit of you and me and a little bit. What about cognitive consonance? Not my idea. Guy Stroumsa, Sources, spring 2021. I read it. You all should as well. Okay. 

Cognitive consonance is where you feel like everything is right. There’s no dissonance. Everything’s right. And guess what, when you are at the Kotel, which is your, not your national site, it’s your holiest site. It’s your most religious site. You’re there and you have a lot of power over it. That is a moment where you say we’re here, we’ve arrived. We’re not supposed to have any dissonance. Get out of here. People who are giving us dissonance.

Consonance actually pushes people to zealotry. Consonance pushes people to zealotry. And to me, that’s the difference between America and Israel. In Israel, you have cognitive consonance. We’ve achieved it. Here we are. I know people are gonna fast and they’re gonna say we don’t have the temple yet, but we’ve got a lot and it makes you go, well, I gotta stamp this out. Cause this is supposed to be perfect. Cause this is where it is. So that, that’s where I’m sitting.

Donniel: I love the idea of the corrective of decency. And Rav Medan says pause and say it’s not decent,

But at the end, do you get up and say, it’s wrong? Do you get up and say, you take it out of Halakha? I’m asking this because in this case, these are people very much committed to, there’s different options available to different Jews, in their ability to adapt Halakhically and to use the category of decency as a corrective. Is decency a corrective, if you don’t formally change the Halakha? Question one. And question number two, if you don’t do it, how do you activate it as a force? 

Elana: Okay. So. These are very hard questions. I think that in a case by case basis, the question of where decency puts you in terms of what you change and what you don’t change, I really do think that it’s case by case. This one to me is open shut. I don’t, because I don’t think there was anything Halakhically appropriate going on. So I don’t think I’m changing anything. I think I’m just saying, oops, you looked in the wrong section. You should be looking at this section of Shilchun Aruch instead of that section. 

Donniel: But it’s clear to you that there has to be some cases where you get, if decency is to have any teeth, it has to have Halakhic weight. It has to, I’m not saying in every case. 

Elana: Yes. 

Donniel: But there it has, there has to be a time where if I raise the decency card, yes, it has to, it has to. 

Elana: Yes. 

Donniel: So how do you then in the, how do you, how do you educate towards that? You know, cause the Rav Medan is trying to trace, says, okay, let’s create a new ritual and you know what his ritual is like, it reminds me of Ben Sorer U’Moreh.

You know, when, when, when asked, why is it written. It’s written drosh vkabel sachar. You’re supposed to read it and say, it’s not applicable, but like you just. But you don’t think,

Elana: Right, right. 

Donniel: But how do you, how do you train towards this principle of decency? 

Elana: I’m gonna give two answers. My first answer is I can’t train someone who’s not part of my community in this. 

Donniel: Okay. So here, stop there before you get to the second, cause I think this is also of critical importance and we have learnt in Israel that if the community itself doesn’t wanna change, anything that you do, it actually stops forces within that community from coming forward because they have to defend themselves against the, so that notion it’s almost as if we’re stuck, unless Haredi Judaism wants to change itself. 

All we can maybe do is try to marginalize, or I don’t know if you saw this evening that Mordecai Gafni from a Agudat Yisrael said, I don’t wanna sit with, uh, um, with Ben Gvir. He says in the next coalition, he has a bunch of people who he doesn’t, cognitive, 

Elana: Consonance.

Donniel: Yeah. But he’s in the cognitive dissonance,

Elana: Dissonance. 

Donniel: Big time. So like, he has a lot of dissonance in there, like a lot of nos. So he has a whole list. Do you know, he added to his list, not just Lieberman and not just Lapid and not just Meretz. He added to his list Ben Gvir. And he said, because they’re doing things of, uh, combining, you know, that’s the, the, of combining religion and national

And as he says, he’s like, it was almost like they have no decency. He’s like, he’s like, we know this is not what you do. Um, but unless he makes that change inside, it’s not gonna happen from the outside. So, okay. But no, number two.

Elana: What that means, going back to the question of talking about Haredim in this moment, what that means is that the first phone call is to your friend in the Haredi community, saying, who are the forces who are against this and how can I prop them up?

That is a very counterintuitive move for people who are hurt and for people who have been attacked. I don’t see any other way. 

Donniel: So here too, you know what? I wanna take this personally. And with that, I wanna then turn to Yossi for one, who is the name of the country, Agudat Yisrael spokesperson. 

Yossi: Avi Shafran. In America. 

Donniel: In America.

Elana: By the way, in America, we just call him Avi Shafran cause we’re not so fancy. Shafran. Avi Shafran. 

Donniel: Avi Shafran. Avi Shafran. So Rabbi Shafran. So even, so what I really should have said was. Kol hakavod, I’m not, are you telling me the truth? Is it really, are you doing full teshuva? It doesn’t matter. You got up and said, this is not my way. That’s a dayenu. So instead of seeing, cause I was reading him and I know that there isn’t a tolerance curriculum in Agudat Yisrael schools, like give me a break.

Elana: Correct. 

Donniel: I know. And nobody’s talking about how you’re supposed to. They just don’t. So, but what he is saying, what he’s saying, he’s taking a first step instead of critiquing. 

Elana: And I don’t mean that personally. No, obviously this is For Heaven’s Sake. We’re supposed to argue.

Donniel: No, but I take things, but these ideas I’m constantly, we’ve had this conversation for years. Every one of us, we actually wanna become better people. We wanna find out where we could grow and what we could. I’m not just here telling everybody else how they do teshuva. I wouldn’t mind getting a little better from time to time myself and I take, I’d like that idea. And I think it’s, it’s, it’s another expression of where my yetzer harah is surfacing. And I really thank you for that. 

Yossi, you wanna come in, how do you, how are you feeling on this?

Yossi: I really appreciate what you’re saying, Elana and, and you’ve, you’ve kind of given me a different way of thinking about this, which is that the culture wars is, uh, is unavoidable here. Uh, we have two fundamentally different worldviews about what this state is and what our relationship should be with the world, with each other, with tradition.

But I, I have two expectations of how this culture war should be conducted. One expectation for the Haredim, and there my expectation is minimal because it’s not my camp. I feel I have a right to, to have higher expectations for my own camp. 

From the Haredi camp. I, all that I expect is as you would put it, Elana, derech eretz, decency, I expect the Haredi camp to fight this culture war with minimal decency and respect for their fellow Jews. And that means that your rabbis and Knesset members don’t speak about Reform Jews as being worse than Nazis. Because if that’s the atmosphere it’s going to lead to the kinds of scenes that we see at the Wall. 

My expectation for my camp is, um, is that we not lose our ahavat Yisrael, our love for the Jewish people. And that means love and gratitude for the Haredi world for the extraordinary renaissance of Jewish life that the Haredi world represents. And for the way in which they’ve reinvigorated the Jewish people. And that if I have that in mind, when I fight this culture war, then at least I’ll know that on my side, I won’t cross red lines. 

Donniel: Red lines. I would add to it that we just simply, no matter who does it, don’t allow indecency to become tolerable. And when it becomes tolerable over one thing, it just changes our whole society. 

Yossi, Elana, it’s a pleasure. Um, really, truly a pleasure. And thank you for helping all of us, just to frame, to think, um, and maybe to grow because every time a painful event happens, we also could say, we could blame, maybe if we switch gears, we might be able to learn and grow from it. 

Um, we have a live audience, and it’s a pleasure to be with all of you. Any questions or comments please?

Audience Member #1:  Hi. Thank you all. Um, I’m Dana Sarokin from Baltimore and, um, whenever things like this happen, I always feel really torn as a congregational rabbi. Like on one hand, I feel like our community should know, and they should also care and have some outrage about that situation. And if we keep it from them, we’re missing out on, on having a communal response. 

But on the other hand, I, you know, of course, as you know where I’m going with this, like, you know, I hate that this is when we speak about Israel and that this is what gets people interested and engaged in the relationship with Israel.

So I just, I, I, I say all of this, just sort of looking for, for, for your thoughts, because I feel like we’ve dealt with a lot this week and, um, we’re going home soon and the bima is, uh, is, is waiting for us. So, thoughts?

Donniel: Do any of you want to take that? 

Yossi: Yeah, I, I very much appreciate the anguish of the question, uh, especially these days when it’s so difficult to speak about Israel and so many, uh, synagogues, and, uh, and there’s so little space to speak about Israel, and this is what we’re, we’re talking about.

Uh, on the other hand, of course, you can’t not speak about this, but how do you contextualize it? And, um, you know, I I’ll give you one example of something that, that, where, where I think that some of the rhetoric in the liberal denominations goes too far. 

It’s become a normative way to speak about Israel, that this is the only place in the world where liberal Jews can practice their Judaism. Now that’s not true. Now I understand the emotion behind that. But it isn’t, it certainly isn’t true. You mentioned, Donniel, the thriving liberal, uh, synagogues in Israel. Uh, it isn’t true, even  officially in the educational system, you have liberal streams represented and are funded by the government.

So I, I think that we need some contextualization without making excuses for the status quo, but also to, to try to avoid some of the more exaggerated rhetoric. 

Donniel: Elana?

Elana: Look, I actually think that there’s nothing wrong with having an honest conversation that says this really awful thing happened at the Kotel this week. And I wanna tell you as a rabbi, how I’m thinking about it and how I’m grappling with it and how it makes me feel. And then what my principled approach to it is. Right? 

Because there’s the outrage part, right? Whatever those five stages of grief are, right? There’s the outrage part of it. But what we were trying to do here is, as Donniel started, he said, of course we’re outraged, but now where do we go, now that we’re outraged. 

So if people wanna make it in us versus them, is that where we’re gonna allow? We’re gonna say, now it’s liberal Jews versus Haredim. This is like the Jets and the Sharks? That’s what we’re doing now? That’s not what we’re doing. Don’t get forced into that. 

And then I think the question is, so what is your equivalent of that move that I was talking about of crossing the aisle and saying, Hey, we gotta fix this, right? Not that you’re gonna fix what happened at the kotel, but actually saying it’s not us and them, us versus them. And we’re not gonna let it be us versus them. Because as I was preparing for this, one of our colleagues who made Aliyah here, his Satmer mother-in-law was sitting in the courtyard here glowing and beaming about how wonderful her son-in-law is.

So what would I rather? That. And we can do that in different ways, and we don’t know what effect that has. 

Donniel: I think there’s one other side, in addition to what my colleagues are mentioning, and I think it’s getting a little better, but the reality is is that the pluralistic kotel, Ezrat Yisrael, is empty most of the time.

And I think one of the responses is not to speak about what’s missing, but to ask ourselves who do we, you know, when something like this happens, in a normal response, which you, like when someone is attacked, when there’s an antisemitic attack, you know, everybody comes and you show up. I think part of what we need to do is this, Ezrat Yisrael, has to be packed. It has to be packed, not just by more and more bar mitzvahs. The response should be okay, I want 10 bar mitzvahs from my shul. Who’s coming? Who’s coming? 

But I think it also has to be, and this is explicitly to you, you have, you have real partners in Israel. You do, you have friends, you have partners, you’re not alone. In your denominations and outside of them, you have partners.

And to at a moment like this to say, are you with me? I’m bringing 10 bar mitzvahs. You give me 10, and now you have 20. And if every day there’s five bar mitzvahs there? That’s the, the constructive response. But to do that, to say, unacceptable, we’re gonna fight for the Israel we want. To turn it there. And then it’s not that blaming the Haredim becomes the end of the conversation. It just becomes saying, you know, we’re taking this for granted.

And if we want to have the Israel that we wanna have, we got to, as Conservative, Reform, Liberal Jews, get up and say, no, I’m there. So, and I think if you move it to a positive dimension and now imagine how many people are in your congregation, 1700 families. Hi. 1700 families. How many bar mitzvahs a year? 60 bar mitzvahs.

How about if you reached out, another synagogue said, why can’t we, from our community, have 10 bar mitzvahs, 20 bar mitzvahs out of 60, here it is, two, those are things, which now, more, and what happens? You come, more people are gonna come. It’s gonna be more protected. More people get to experience it. It comes alive.

And from this, the real victory is you’re building the Israel that you wanna live in and you are a partner in it. You know so often we say what could be my role? How could I? Just come. Get on the plane, you know, go to the Jewish Agency and say to them, I don’t want you to fund police. I want you to fund bar mitzvah missions. 

And I think your Federation already does by the way, every Federation does. Any trip. So it’s there. Subsidize. You’re gonna save a fortune by the way, cause it’s much cheaper, a bar mitzvah, you know, a destination, more destination, but there’s, you see, that’s the way we turn the way we turn it around. We turn it around. And instead of it being a source of mourning, it becomes a catalyst. Um, that’s that, that would be something I would love to see.

Yossi: I wanna, I wanna just amplify, uh, your point here, which is that the way Israeli society works is by creating what the settlement movement used to call facts on the ground.

This is a quasi anarchic society. It’s very, well, I was going to say it’s very different from America. I don’t know anymore. 

Donniel: Anymore. 

Elana: Right. Because we’re not quasi. We’re just anarchic.

Yossi: Yeah. But change here, change here tends to happen from the bottom up. And, and this is a very different kind of mindset and I so much appreciate what you’re saying, Donniel, because you’re really presenting a model for, uh, for how to move this forward. And it’s not necessarily going to come through the Supreme Court. It doesn’t even need to be at the wall. 

Donniel: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you. Um, next question. Yes. In the back, please.

Donniel: Jack Chomsky, um, Jack Chomsky, formerly Columbus, Ohio. Now the holy city of Tel Aviv. Um, and I felt, um, I don’t know if you intentionally did not, uh, cross into a different section in the neighborhood of the Women of the Wall. Um, you talk about facts on the ground. These are people who have been doing this for over 25 years. So maybe you’ll talk about that. But the other thing that kind of comes to me is the inability of the police to deal with this situation. 

And I, and I think especially, uh, Elana, you, you raise such great issues. I would love some guidance in maybe a future conversation about how our safety and security forces deal with situations like this and the terrible things that happen in the, in the occupied territories. Find like, like we have this wonderful description of what the IDF code is and what can we learn from our tradition about the code of how to deal with all kinds of people?

Elana: What I would just say, here’s what I would say. I think there’s always a question I’m not Israeli, which is why I, I didn’t wanna take the question. I’m not taking the question the way you asked it. I’m taking it in a, in a slightly different direction, which is, I think you have to ask yourself anytime, and we’re asking this about the police force in the United States as well, right? 

Anytime you have a group that has power over other people, whether that’s power for those people’s safety or power against those people, for somebody else’s safety, I think you have to ask yourself, what are you telling them they’re doing? What is their role in society? And if their role is law and order law and order is not the moral category that I think we want. I think the moral category that we want is you are making sure that the society is decent in one respect. 

There are lots of other respects, the discourse that we’re gonna have, the general laws that we’re gonna have. But one of the things you’re supposed to be doing is actually ensuring that people don’t get humiliated and hurt. That’s very different from law and order, right? So I think that’s part of the question. 

Donniel: I think it also connects to a larger meta issue and that is an Israeli society since its formation, we have always given primacy to issues of national security on our borders and not national security within our borders.

And that’s why we have one of the most powerful armies in the world and a completely undermanned, understaffed, and underfunded police.

Yossi: And incompetent. 

Donniel: And in, it is, I didn’t wanna say that, I don’t like to say that because anybody in the police is Holy of Holies right now to me. And, uh, so I don’t, um, so it’s, uh, I think it’s just indicative of, of what we’re fighting for and, uh, to recognize that some of the existential threats are inside of who we’re becoming and, and having a police force that in fact could ensure that it was part of the next stage of maturation.

For Heaven’s Sake is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by M. Louis Gordon. Transcripts of our show are now available on our website, typically a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, visit us online at

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Goodnight, goodbye everybody, see you in two weeks. Thank you all very very much.

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