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When an earthquake is not just an earthquake

People who speak in the name of God, with great certainty as to how God acts in history, are expressing a vulgarity of arrogance, of presuming to understand how God acts in history - an understanding all of us know we clearly lack


A week ago, Israel was struck by a relatively mild earthquake that caused little damage and no loss of life, but was felt all across the country. As Israel shook, some did not understand what they were feeling, while others looked on with mild interest.
Shas Party Knesset Member Shlomo Benizri was thinking something different. As the earthquake struck, he was seeing it as the hand of God, as a message/punishment from God in response to the recent ruling of the Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, to grant gay and lesbian couples the right to adopt children.
Israeli Knesset Member Shlomo Benizri (Shas Party)
  Shlomo Benizri
In Benizri’s world, not only was the earthquake a warning from God to a people who have become corrupt, but he, Benizri is privy to the secret plans of God and views himself as the appointed interpreter of these plans to the rest of us.
I do not intend to debate here the legitimacy or lack thereof, of the Attorney General’s ruling. (I do know that regardless of one’s position vis-à-vis gay and lesbian relations, the issue of adoption is not a halakhic one.) Rather, it is about the tragedy of the nature of public discourse of religious figures in the State of Israel, an approach that is having a lasting negative impact on the role Judaism plays in the lives of Israelis.
Hillul Hashem
The Jewish tradition offers some direction for consideration before one talks or acts. It requires that all of one’s behavior, especially that of rabbinic or public religious figures, be subjected to the corrective review of the prohibition against desecrating God’s name, Hillul Hashem.
The key feature of this commandment is that the desecration of God’s name is determined not by the self-perception or judgment of the person who speaks, but by the people who hear. In doing so, the Jewish tradition gives a significant amount of authority to the uninitiated, whom even rabbinic figures must take into account before they act or talk.
The commandment of Hillul Hashem requires not only that we act in a way that we believe is meritorious, but also in a way people around us see as an expression of the beauty and positive nature of Judaism. As the rabbis in tractate Yoma state, "You shall love your God” – act in such a way that God’s name will become beloved because of you and through you."
One’s commitment to Judaism cannot merely be assessed by one’s personal dedication to fulfill the law to its fullest extent. As social beings who live in the midst of others, we are also obligated to ensure that each of us serves as an exemplar to the decency and goodness that ought to envelop a person committed to these laws.
One of the great tragedies of Israeli religious discourse – in which Benizri is but the latest in a longstanding tradition – is that people who speak in the name of Judaism rarely have any concern for the commandment of Hillul Hashem, and rarely seem concerned about the effect their words will have on others.
For too long in Israel, people who know Judaism and who speak in its name have expressed almost no sensitivity to the way their words are heard by others. As a result, a large part of Israeli society chooses not to speak in the name of religion, even though it can, and relinquishes its discourse to a small segment of society.
Vulgarity of arrogance
One of the great challenges in Israel is how to make Judaism an inheritance for Jews of all backgrounds and ideologies – Orthodox and non-Orthodox, religious, traditional, and secular.
Statements such as Benizri’s undermine our ability to meet this challenge. When people speak in the name of God, with great certainty as to how God acts in history, they are expressing a vulgarity of arrogance, a vulgarity of presuming to understand how God acts in history – an understanding all of us know we clearly lack.
A life lived in the presence of God must first and foremost bring forth humility and an awareness of our limitations. By expressing an almost idolatrous arrogance, statements such as Benizri’s further alienate Israelis from any possibility of looking at Judaism as a religion of compassion and care that they would want to take seriously.
It is possible Benizri had good intentions, and was truly concerned about the State of Israel. If that was his concern, it is time for him to ask himself whether his statement serve in any way to bring Jews closer to Judaism. It is time for him to be less concerned about the parents of the few who are adopted and be more concerned about the way Judaism is adopted and understood within Israeli society.

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