Choosing the right path
D'var Torah for Parashat Re'eh: Thou shalt fight racism!
Rabbi Uri Regev writes about the weekly torah portion in relation to recent events that endanger both Judaism and democracy in Israel
Rabbi Uri Regev debates Benzi Gopstein on the Knesset TV Channel
I am writing in light of the public storm that rose in Israel upon the publication of the wedding of Moral and Mahmud, a Jew and an Arab. I could not help but think about the surge of racism and violence, such a surge that the new president of the state, Rueven Rivlin, published an unusual and sharp communication in which he said: “incitement, racism and violence do not belong in Israeli society…these expressions undermine the elements of our common life here in the State of Israel, the Jewish democracy, the democratic and Jewish.¨
This might not be the direct subject of this complicated and rich parasha, but it does offer a model of national-religious defense for a young nation, just before entering the Promised Land in which it was supposed to fulfill its consolidation as an independent people.
Its national identity is directly related to religious faith in the god with which it is identified (in a reality in which faith in gods was the foundation of reality, and the separation between tribes and peoples depended on it). Throughout the generations, much has been written and investigated about this chapter in the establishment of the people of Israel. Researchers nowadays- including religious ones like Prof. Israel Knohel- haven’t left much standing from the simplistic reading of the text or the fundamentalist description of the commonplace myth. But many people do not want to let facts confuse them. For them, the simplistic reading is the main reading, and the research, a dangerous heresy (there’s nothing new about this, of course, Maimonides’ books themselves were burned by Jews).
This kind of defense mechanism, when entering a country that inhabited a variety of religious faiths, naturally brought to a strict system of prohibitions and limitations that tried to deal with the threat of “betrayal.” That is what is expressed in the beginning of the parasha: “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse… the curse if you disobey the commands of the Lord your God… turn from the way….by following other gods.”
The Threat of Assimilation
The fight against foreign labor, that threatened the continuity and cohesion of the people, is violent and extreme, as was acceptable in the world of those times (and as television shows us nowadays, reporting extreme religious sects that annihilate religious symbols and buildings of other “heretic religions”, when these extreme groups succeed in reaching power and domination in different areas): “Destroy completely all the places …where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places.” (Does this not remind you of a phenomenon, that goes by the terrible name Price Tag, riding the waves of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but finding its way first and foremost in sabotaging religious symbols and mosques?).
Similarly we find extreme sanctions against those who attempt to preach and win hearts towards other gods: “You must certainly put them to death… Stone them to death, because they tried to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 13:6). And if it is about a city where a successful and widespread activity to turn to other gods is taking place: “you must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town…. You are to gather all the plunder of the town into the middle of the public square and completely burn the town and all its plunder as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 13:16).
This is the context in which the Torah focuses in prohibiting mixed marriages, as we could read two weeks ago in Parashat Vaethanan, which our Parasha directly follows: “Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire, for you are a holy people…” (Deuteronomy 7:3)
I started by saying that while reading the parasha, I couldn’t help but think of the storm that is taking place in our country these days (yes, we have other important challenges; the fighting with Hamas that tries to destroy us, which are have not yet been settled), that brought the new president of the state to give a special part of his inauguration speech to his commitment to the fight in racism and violence that have risen their ugly head, and that responded recently to the fear and intimidation campaign against the marriage of Moral and Mahmud, led by the Lehava organization and its CEO Gopstein.
I had a television debate with Gopstein, and it was clear that for him the biblical commandment about the debts of “the holy people” are as valid now as they were when they were written, and that he uses the democratic rule to advance his doctrine and activity (like his legal struggle to allow the demonstration in the entrance to the wedding hall in the name of freedom of expression and protest).
As for Judaism, it will flourish and handle well the challenge of assimilation not by yelling “death to Arabs” and burning churches and mosques, but by strengthening the inspiration of “its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace”
Yet democracy is the last thing Gopstein believes in. As far as he or his organization are concerned, the model to aspire to is a halachic (Jewish legal) state. As a response to a religious journalist that opposed his violent attitude and displayed an entirely different approach, he answered in an interview: “I was taught that when there is Chilul HaShem (desecration of God’s name) there is no honor, and when there is such a thing and a Jew doesn’t protest then he is collaborating with assimilation. Whoever cares about the people of Israel has to act in the right way. If they don’t- the Torah obliges us to protest.” “When Nehemia saw this was happening, he arose and protested and beat, and he’s our teacher in these matters, not Mendy Gruzman”
Here, another “teacher” is mentioned, whose way was indicated as religious guidance to extreme violence (the murderer of the deceased Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin explained his action as inspired by Pinchas the Priest). Gopstein’s words should be understood in the context of the quotation brings from Nehemia 13: “I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair.”
The Path of Aaron or the Path of Pinchas and Nehemia?
The world has changed since biblical times. The threat of assimilation is significant and existential, and many try to deal with it. It does not derive from the existence of religions that are different from Judaism, but from a reality of a secular and free world and the dismantling of religious and traditional frameworks. The way to handle this challenge is not by sticks and stones, nor explosives or fires, but by emphasizing moral, advanced, and relevant messages to an alienated society, like ours, that looks for meaning. Many of these messages are found in our parasha, but you wouldn’t know it by listening to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, religious parties and organizations like Lehava.
In this parasha it also says:
“If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need…Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you…” (Deuteronomy 15:7-10).
Biblical and rabbinical tradition have plenty of different attitudes and descriptions that are partly inspired from the main line of Jewish heritage, that is inspired by the prophet Aaron who was a “peace lover and peace chaser”. Other traditions express completely different attitudes, as the prophet Pinchas and Nehemia. Those who aspire for a halachic state, which would implement the laws of the Bible such as stoning those who violate Shabbat, are a danger to Judaism in the modern era and a threat to democracy.
Gladly, the State of Israel chose a different path, and the violent inspiration of Nehemia (about mixed marriage) and of the prophet Pinchas is forbidden and acting according to them is considered a felony. It is time that the law enforcement authorities will act as is expected of them, seeing that in this stage we need a strong and healthy democracy to protect its own basic values.
As for Judaism, it will flourish and handle well the challenge of assimilation not by yelling “death to Arabs” and burning churches and mosques, but by strengthening the inspiration of “its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:17), calling for social and economic justice, and commitment to justice in the spirit of “Zion will be delivered with justice, her penitent ones with righteousness” (Isaiah 1:27).
This article was originally posted on the website of Rabbis for Human Rights