Sinai Today: Divided we fall

We need to find a better way for the future, a way of talking to each other – especially when we disagree – with kindness and respect.

January 19, 2012 21:37
Torah scroll.

Torah scroll 521. (photo credit: Stockbyte)

The past few weeks have seen old and painful divisions and animosities erupt anew within Israeli society. What is particularly tragic is that the catalyst for reopening these wounds was the actions of a small group of criminals. The fact that they were dressed in religious garb should not deceive us: their acts of verbal abuse and other degrading behavior constitute a gross violation of Torah law and values.

In an ethical will to his children, Rabbi Pinchas, known as the Maggid of Polachak, one of the eminent Torah sages of the past few hundred years and a disciple of the Vilna Gaon, warned about false piety.

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The example that he gives is from the Book of Esther, when King Achashverosh hosted a grand banquet to celebrate the defeat of the Jewish people, the destruction of the First Temple and the fact that it had not been rebuilt.

At the banquet, King Achashverosh used the holy utensils of the First Temple, which he had received from his wife’s grandfather, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon who had destroyed the Temple. He also wore the clothing of the high priest.

The Maggid of Polachak says that a person who appears religious and pious on the outside but does not act so on the inside is like King Achashverosh wearing the clothing of the high priest. King Achashverosh was an enemy of the Jewish people and wearing the garments of the high priest certainly did not make him the high priest.

So, too, says the Maggid of Polachak, a person who presents an outer image of religious faith and commitment yet does not live by those values causes enormous damage. People who dress as religious Jews yet defy the Halacha’s standards of interpersonal, ethical behavior by assaulting, verbally abusing or degrading other people, or causing grievous emotional pain through the disgraceful misuse of Holocaust symbolism, are like Achashverosh dressing up in the clothes of the high priest.

A modern-day analogy: If a band of robbers were to dress up as policemen and rob a bank, would you say that the bank had been robbed by the police? Obviously not; the bank has been robbed by criminals dressed up as policemen. People who violate Halacha, which prohibits any form of verbal abuse or conduct which causes another person pain, are merely dressing the part of being religious. To call such people “religious extremists” would be like calling bank robbers “capitalist extremists” because they are trying to make money through extreme methods. They are not religions extremists; they are criminal vigilantes, because they do not operate under the auspices or instructions of any recognized rabbinic authority.

Torah Judaism is comprised of two categories of mitzvot: bein adam laMakom – our responsibilities toward Hashem – and bein adam lachavero – our responsibilities toward our fellow man. Torah Judaism cannot be compartmentalized.

The Telzer rosh yeshiva, Rav Mordechai Katz, was once asked how he explains a religious person who lies and cheats in business.

He responded, “How do you explain a religious person who eats on Yom Kippur?” The questioner responded that such a person is not religious. Rav Katz said that neither is the one who is dishonest. A person who verbally or emotionally abuses or degrades another person cannot be called religious.

The severity of the sin of publicly humiliating someone can be seen in the Gemara’s (Bava Metzia 58b) likening it to murder.

The perpetrators of these criminal deeds bear responsibility for their actions; the rest of society is responsible for the reaction to these events, which, tragically, have been allowed to poison the atmosphere and the relationships within the Jewish world, sparking a wildfire of dispute, suspicion and hatred in Jewish society, particularly in Israel. The divisive rhetoric following these events has caused enormous damage to the fabric of Israeli society, pitting religious and secular – as well as different religious communities – against each other.

These recent events merely reignited old divisions and animosities. It is these divisions and the accompanying aggressive and hateful words which we need to remedy with kindness, respect and derech eretz. All Jewish communities – however ideologically diverse, religious or secular – need to reach out to each other in friendship.

This is not a utopian dream. It has, as one example, been achieved to a large degree in the South African Jewish community, where, generally, Jews from across the spectrum engage with each other with respect and even friendship, albeit with all the natural human weaknesses and imperfections.

One of the great rabbinic leaders of the 20th century, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, known as the Chafetz Chaim, cried out about dispute and dissension – machloket – in many public letters and in his books.

He writes that machloket, together with its ancillary sins of lashon hara (verbal abuse) and the like, causes death, destruction and disintegration. He cites many Talmudic sources that show that the fire of machloket destroys marriages and families, synagogues and communities, and, ultimately, destroys the whole of society.

The Chafetz Chaim cites the Talmud which says that G-d will forgive the treachery of idol worship more easily than the sin of machloket. The classic example of this is when G-d forgave the Jewish people for the sin of the Golden Calf but did not forgive those who were involved in igniting the fires of machloket in the sin of Korach’s dispute; they were destroyed entirely.

The Jewish people are facing many challenges and threats at this time. It is a time to return to Hashem sincerely, and the first step toward this teshuva is to improve our relationships, to speak to one another with kindness and gentleness and open our hearts to each other.

As the Chafetz Chaim wrote in one of his letters addressed to the public, he was “very distressed that even in our Holy Land the deeds of the evil inclination have been successful and it too has fallen into the trap of machloket.”

He concludes his letter with a heartfelt plea: “and therefore, my brothers and friends, have mercy on yourselves and Klal Yisrael, and let everyone in his place extinguish the fire of machloket so that His great Name should not be desecrated anymore and in this merit we will merit to hear the voice announcing peace in the world.”

The Chafetz Chaim’s metaphor of fire is poignant: When a dispute rages, it consumes everything in its path; its destructive consequences cannot be predicted, as the Chafetz Chaim writes in that letter: “Who knows what can come from this? May G-d have mercy!” At the conclusion of this letter, the Chafetz Chaim signed his name, “who writes with a broken heart.”

How broken hearted would he be were he to see what is going on today? And what of G-d Himself? One great Jewish commonwealth was destroyed, says the Talmud (Yoma 9b), because of the sins of hatred, lashon hara and machloket. We dare not let that happen again.

We cannot allow the fires of machloket, of these long-standing divisions and animosities, to continue burning. We need to find a better way for the future, a way of talking to each other – especially when we disagree – with kindness and respect, with simple derech eretz.

From all sides of the divide we must bring to the public discourse the values presented in the verse (Mishlei 3:17) which describes the quintessential character of the Torah: “her ways are ways of pleasantness and her paths are those of peace.”

The writer is chief rabbi of South Africa.

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