Counterpoint: Repent the day before you die

Counterpoint Repent the

By DAVID FORMAN
September 24, 2009 17:36

 
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We have entered the season of soul searching. Rabbi Eliezer tells us that a person must repent the day before he dies. How does one know when that day of reckoning will be? One doesn't. Therefore, repentance should be an everyday practice (Saying of the Fathers 2:15; Talmud Shabbat, 153a). As we approach Yom Kippur, the ultimate day of penitence in the Jewish calendar, there is little question that both secular and religious Jews need to undergo atonement for sins committed over the past year - collectively and individually. However, as I pen these lines, I choose not to universalize the mandate for contrition. Instead, I will primarily address one particular segment of the population, those who claim for themselves the title "true believers" - Orthodox Jews. I do not intend to impugn all Orthodox Jews with crass generalizations. I want to deal in specifics. After all, Orthodoxy is not monolithic. But, since so many Orthodox Jews declare that they are the singular inheritors of the Almighty's word as to how a Jewish state should practice its Judaism, we would expect them to be exemplars of righteous behavior that would reflect well upon the Creator. If this is not the case, then these self-appointed and ardent guardians of the Jewish tradition have much to repent for on these High Holy Days. They need to internalize Rabbi Eliezer's words with the utmost urgency, as if they will indeed die tomorrow. WHERE TO begin? The obvious place to start is the recent violent demonstrations by a considerable segment of the Jerusalem haredi community that opposed the Carta parking lot outside the Old City being open on Shabbat. Their heinous actions have sadly typified much of the haredi world, wrongly implicating those in that community who are not a party to such actions and are embarrassed by them. Whether they are opposed to parking garages being open on Shabbat or archeologists conducting excavations near suspected Jewish graves or gays and lesbians parading through the streets or a haredi woman being arrested for starving her baby, violence as a form of protest is morally unacceptable. And, let's not kid ourselves, refusing to accept Ethiopian Jews into religious schools is also an act of violence. It seems that every one of these vicious protests is accompanied by curses of "Nazis" hurled at the police. How ironic that for so many years throughout Jewish history, Jews were beaten by government authorities - whether by czarist henchmen or Hitler's Gestapo or Stalin's KGB - and now, in a Jewish state, Jews are wildly attacking Jewish police. We were persecuted because of our faith-tradition, and now it is our faith-tradition that is perversely abused to justify attacks on our own kin. Belief in an immutable Halacha has given rise to an ugly and distorted understanding of religious practice by a segment of religious zealots, allegedly acting in God's name, whereby any act of violence carried out against those who would challenge the incontrovertible authority of the Jewish tradition is warranted. We are taught: "If you see someone in your household committing a crime and do nothing to stop that person, you are held accountable for the crimes of the entire household" (Talmud Shabbat 54b). The silence of the religious establishment during the riots in Jerusalem implies complicity on the part of too many of our Orthodox rabbinic leaders. One need not quote Talmud to demonstrate collective responsibility. Almost the entire litany of Jewish liturgy that we pray during these Days of Awe is plural: "We are ashamed, we have transgressed, we have gone astray..." And yet, as it is said: "Better late than never." After weeks of intolerable scenes of violence, the haredi rabbinic leadership finally spoke out against the continuing riotous behavior of its constituents and, lo and behold, calm and civility returned to the streets of the Holy City. Even if the reason for their delayed response was utilitarian, the exertion of their rabbinic authority indicated a semblance of remorse for their misrepresentation of our rich Jewish value heritage. WOULD THAT such a condemnation of the immoral behavior of too many of the religious settler community toward the Palestinian population in the West Bank be exercised in a similar fashion. What does this brand of religious Jew pray on Yom Kippur, as he steals Palestinian lands, chops down their grape vines, uproots their olive groves, poisons their grazing fields, beats and shoots at Palestinians attempting to harvest their produce, enters villages in the middle of the night, fires holes into water tanks, constructs a network of internal fences that imprisons Palestinians more than the security wall? Does he simply skip over admissions of guilt, not enumerating the list of transgressions: "Forgive me for the sins I have committed against You for hurting others, exploiting the weak, running to do evil and for arrogance, insolence and hypocrisy?" In all of the above examples of religious settler excesses, righteous indignation should be expressed by their rabbinic leaders. The National Religious Party of old, even though its platform supported the settlement enterprise, would have seen its representatives - Yosef Burg, Yitzhak Raphael, Zevulun Hammer, Yehuda Ben-Meir and even Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook - denounce the rampant hooliganism that has unfortunately and perhaps unfairly characterized much of the religious settler community. Not only has the inheritor of the NRP tradition, Zevulun Orlev, said nothing in the face of these criminal acts, he justifies them, as have virtually all those supposedly religious Jews in the Knesset who represent the religious settler community, including all the Knesset Shas rabbis who adhere blindly to the bigotry of their spiritual guru, Ovadia Yosef. As for our chief rabbis, their silence speaks volumes. But one should not rely on God's mercy being unlimited. Believing that one can get away with murder, figuratively and sometimes literally, trusting that yesterday's sins will be erased each year, defies the theological guidelines of Yom Kippur. We vow not to repeat past transgressions. To do so would be to exploit God's goodwill. "Who sins and causes the multitude to sin, to him repentance is not vouchsafed" (Talmud Sanhedrin 107b). The traditional Torah reading on Yom Kippur addresses the se'ir la'azazel - scapegoat (Leviticus 16:10). While colloquially a scapegoat refers to someone we blame for our errant ways, the initial concept of the se'ir la'azalel is that it was a sin-offering, bearing a communal public admission of our transgressions. So, while I have singled out our Orthodox brethren, as they proclaim to speak in the name of Divinity, this does not absolve us of our sins by using them as our personal scapegoats. With these 10 days of repentance in mind, our teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, admonishes us: "If we are not all equally guilty, we are all equally responsible."•

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