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Which Torah Shall Emanate Out of Zion?

Mr. Prime Minister, because of your actions, it is no longer clear whether yours will be a Torah of hatred and injustice or a Torah of kindness and gentleness
Photo: Alex Harris/Courtesy of SHI
Photo: Alex Harris/Courtesy of SHI
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and holds the Kaufman Family Chair in Jewish Philosophy. He is author of the highly regarded 2016 book, Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself, and is the host of the award-winning For Heaven’s Sake, one of the most popular Jewish podcasts in North America. Donniel is the founder of some of the most extensive education, training and enrichment programs for scholars,

Which Torah Shall Emanate Out of Zion?

Originally posted on Times of Israel

Israel is a different type of country. On the one hand, like all others, its core responsibility is to its self-preservation, the protection of its citizens, and the enhancement of their well-being. In this sense, Israel is and must be, a normal country.

At the same time, Israel is not merely the sovereign state of its citizens but the carrier of three millennia of Jewish values, moral responsibilities, and aspirations. Isaiah the Prophet said it best: “It is not sufficient for me that you (Israel) merely be My servant, and that I redeem the Tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel (to their land). But rather, I will also make you a Light of Nations so that My salvation shall reach the ends of the earth.”

It is not easy to be at the same time both a real country and a light to the world. As Ze’ev Jabotinsky argued, the second is clearly primary, but can only be addressed after the first is established and ensured. In the end, however, Israel is only Israel when it strives to exemplify both.

Jews are challenged to embody the same duality. On the one hand our tradition obligates us to fulfill the moral responsibility of self-preservation: “Your life takes precedence.” At the same time, one is forbidden from taking an innocent life in order to save one’s own, for “who said that your blood is more valuable?” On the one hand, life takes precedence, and at the same time, there are certain conditions when we must be willing to sacrifice our lives and well-being, for to survive under any circumstances is to live a life not worth living. As Maimonides codifies into Jewish law: “Every member of the House of Israel is commanded to sanctify God’s name, as it is said, ‘I shall be sanctified amongst the Children of Israel. And are warned to not desecrate it,’ as it is said, ‘Do not desecrate My holy Name.’”

There are those in our midst who live by a different Torah. Even though they stringently practice Jewish ritual and ostensibly believe and pray to our God, they essentially adhere to a different religion than the one in which I was raised. While their Judaism has chapters and verses on which it stands, we know that, to reference Shakespeare, “The Devil quotes Scripture.”

I have no interest in engaging in a debate with racist and fascist Jewish ideologies, for as our tradition has taught us, “Just as it is a mitzvah to say that which will be heard, so too is it a mitzvah not to say that which will not be heard.” That the rebirth of Israel has enabled the fostering of these abominations, is a source of great pain, embarrassment, and ultimately a responsibility. As a teacher, my whole life’s work is to ensure its continued marginalization.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – you know better. To paraphrase Elie Wiesel’s famous rebuke to President Ronald Reagan, “That place Mr. Prime Minister, is not your place.”

Lovers of Israel, both within Israel and around the world, have been watching you, our Prime Minister, with increased anxiety and unease as you have forged alliances with various fascist and anti-Semitic regimes. By and large, however, we have excused these moves under the necessitude of realpolitik. The real Israel requires political alliances, even though they may at times be deplorable. If we were to only have relationships with liberal democracies, our world would be too small. We can reach out to Hungary without becoming Hungary.

But now you are reshaping Israel itself and have chosen to abide in a place that should not be your place. You have singlehandedly enabled the mainstreaming of a fascist Jewish party into the heart of Israeli politics, and even more troubling, into your aspired-after coalition. The issue is no longer the despicability of Otzma and its policies alone, but the moral principles of those who are willing to become their bedfellows. One cannot be in power because of Otzma, give them a presence in the Knesset, and a seat in the government, and at the same time claim that your hands remain clean and are not stained by your association with them.

Your decision regarding Otzma was not the result of your service to the country, but rather the service of yourself and your hold on power. If you argue that they are the same, then Mr. Prime Minister, we have an even greater problem.

Mr. Prime Minister, you pride yourself as being the leader of the Jewish people. This is a title, however, that you do not inherit by virtue of your political position but one you must earn. The Jewish people, our people, never define themselves principally in terms of their military, economic, or scientific prowess but rather, as Maimonides rules, “If a person is insolent, cruel, and is filled with hatred toward others, and never treats them with kindness, one should strongly suspect that he is not of Israel, for the distinctive characteristics of the holy nation Israel are modesty, mercy, and lovingkindness.”

Mr. Prime Minister, the place to which you are currently pulling our political life and with it the State of Israel, is not our place, not a Jewish place. No amount of standing ovations at the upcoming AIPAC conference can coronate you as the leader of the Jewish people. You have forfeited your claim.

Israel, as the homeland of the Jewish people, needs a leader whose soul and mind are opened and attuned to the following fundamental lesson of our tradition:

Abbaye taught, how does one fulfill the commandment of loving the Lord your God? The answer is to make the name of God beloved because of you. When a committed Jew is honest in business and speaks pleasantly to people, what do people say concerning him? This man has studied the Torah and look how fine are his ways and how righteous are his deeds. But if someone is a committed Jew, but is dishonest in business and is discourteous in his relations with people, what do people say about him? This man studied the Torah, look how corrupt are his deeds, how ugly his ways.

Mr. Prime Minister, the test of a true Jewish leader, the leader of Israel, is whether they make Israel, the Jewish people, and Judaism beloved upon others. For Israel to be strong and important in Jewish life, a Torah must come forth from Zion. Because of your actions, it is no longer clear whether it will be a Torah of hatred and injustice or a Torah of kindness and gentleness, a Torah of darkness or of light. Israel and the Jewish people need a leader for whom the answer is clear.

First posted on Times of Israel

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