Reflections: A Jewish response to hatred and violence

"In order for our society to be able to plead innocence, we must do everything possible so that these despicable acts will not be repeated."

The Dawabsha family home in Duma, July 2015 (photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
The Dawabsha family home in Duma, July 2015
(photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
We all know what should be done concerning the violent acts that recently shocked us and took innocent lives.
They were all the more shocking because they were committed by people who see themselves as following the commands of Judaism. They seem to have forgotten that the shedding of blood is the one sin that can never be tolerated.
When the Torah says, “Hark! Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the earth!” (Gen. 4:10), it expresses in the most heartfelt way the seriousness of these acts.
The Torah decrees that if a body is found and the identity of the slayer is not known, a special ceremony must be held and the elders of the nearest town must declare, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done…. Do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among your people Israel” (Deut. 21:7-8).
In order for our society to be able to plead innocence, we must do everything possible so that these despicable acts will not be repeated.
What should be done is obvious. There must be much more serious work on the part of our security forces to detect and punish those who perform these hideous acts. Zero tolerance is the way.
Those rabbis and teachers who are taking these extreme positions and thereby promoting violence must be stopped. If they are official rabbis, they must be removed from their positions. Yeshivot and schools that teach doctrines of hate and intolerance and incite to violence against Arabs, Christians or gays must at the very least be denied any financial support by the government.
If staff members break the laws against incitement, they must be imprisoned.
Knesset members who promote hatred and encourage violence must be brought before the ethics committee and censured. They must be removed from any positions of special power.
But all of this is not sufficient. The existence of youngsters who have been instilled with prejudice reveals a fault in our society and in our educational system that can no longer be ignored.
We must look carefully at what is being taught in our schools – religious, haredi and secular – and remove any negative elements, including teachers who instill intolerance.
But we must go beyond that and promote the positive values as well. It is not enough to teach the love of the Land of Israel and of Jewish tradition. We must also teach the love of all human beings and the need to treat the other with kindness and with equity.
Our tradition is filled with positive teachings that unfortunately are unknown to most of our schoolchildren.
Here are just a few examples of material from our rich rabbinic tradition that should become part and parcel of every Israeli child’s understanding from early childhood on.
BUILDING ON the Torah’s story of the creation of Adam, the Sages taught, “Only one human being was created in the world, in order to teach that if one destroys one life, it is considered as though one had destroyed an entire world, and if one sustains one life, it is as though one had sustained an entire world; and in order to create harmony among human beings so that one cannot say to another, ‘My father is greater than your father’.… “See how great is the Holy One – that He creates each individual in the image of Adam, and yet no two people are exactly alike. Therefore, each person should say, ‘For my sake was the world created!’” (Sanhedrin 4:5.).
The basic equality of all human beings, Jews and non-Jews, was one of the foundations of rabbinic belief.
This was also expressed in Ben Azzai’s assertion that “this is the record of Adam’s line – When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God” (Gen.
5:1) is the most important general rule of the Torah (Sifra, Kedoshim 4, 89b, ed. Weiss), and in Hillel’s teaching that we must “love all human beings,” not only Jews (Avot 1:12).
Rabbinic Judaism described the relationship of God to Jews and non-Jews in a statement attributed to Rabbi Akiva found in Avot 3:18: “Beloved is the human being in that he was created in the image.
Even greater love was shown to them in that it was made known to them that humans were created in the image, as it is said, ‘In the image of God was the human made’ (Gen. 9:6).”
In the words of Pinhas ben Elazar: “I call heaven and earth to witness: The spirit of holiness rests upon each person according to the deed that each does, whether that person is a non-Jew or a Jew, a man or woman, a manservant or a maidservant” (Seder Eliyahu Raba 9).
The Babylonian Amora Abaye said, “One should always strive to be on good terms with his brethren, his relatives and all human beings, even the heathen in the street….” It was said of Yohanan ben Zakkai (an earlier sage) that no one ever preceded him when exchanging greetings with him, not even a heathen in the street” (Brachot 17a). Regarding the precept “You shall rise before the aged” (Lev. 19:32), the Talmud records that Rabbi Yohanan would rise before non-Jewish aged, saying, “How many troubles have passed over these!” Raba, on the other hand, would not, “but he showed them respect” (Kiddushin 33a).
In the first century CE when rabbinic law was in formation, there was a great deal of interaction between Jews and non-Jews, since many non-Jews lived in the province of Judea. Often they would come to a rabbinic court to settle a financial dispute.
Sifre Deuteronomy 16 records that Rabbi Ishmael used the verse “Hear the causes between your brethren and judge righteously” (Deut. 1:16) to rule that this applies only to your fellow Jew – i.e., “your brethren.”
Therefore, in the case of a Jew and non-Jew, he would always rule in favor of the Jew, regardless of whether they asked to be judged according to the rules of Israel or those of the nations.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, on the other hand, said that you must rule according to whichever system they agree upon and follow that law regardless of who will win the case, the Jew or the non-Jew.
Rabbi Akiva objected to R. Ishmael’s method. “We do not act in a devious fashion, because of kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s Name” (Bava Kama 113a).
Furthermore, Akiva taught that robbing a non- Jew is forbidden, as demonstrated in Lev. 25:48. The Tosefta (Bava Kama 10:15) is quite severe in this matter: One who steals from a non-Jew is required to return it to the non-Jew. Stealing from a non-Jew is worse than stealing from a Jew… because of desecration of God’s Name.
The story is told of Shimon ben Shetah, whose disciples went to buy him an ass. They bought one from an Arab, and they rejoiced when they found that there was a precious jewel attached to the animal. Shimon asked them, “Does the owner know of it?” When they said no, he told them to give it back to the Arab. They argued with him that there was a law that “if you find something belonging to a non-Jew, you may keep it.”
Shimon said, “Do you think I am a barbarian? I purchased an ass. I did not purchase a precious jewel. I would rather hear the Arab say, ‘Blessed is the God of the Jews’ than to possess all the riches of the world.’” They returned to the Arab who proclaimed, ‘Blessed is the Lord, the God of Shimon ben Shetah!’” (Yerushalmi Bava Metzia 2:5; Deut. Raba, Ekev 3:3).
Rabbinic law requires Jews to support non-Jewish poor along with the poor of Israel, and visit the non-Jewish sick along with the sick of Israel, and bury the non-Jewish dead along with the dead of Israel, because of the ways of peace (Gittin 61a).
According to R. Yosef, “the ways of peace” is not merely a rabbinic injunction. It derives from the verse “Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace” (Prov. 3:17), which is taken to refer to the Torah. “The whole Torah is for the purpose of maintaining peace” (Gittin 59b). In addition the Sages cited Psalm 145:9 – “The Lord is good to all and His mercy is upon all His works” – as a basis for this.
God is concerned with “all” and not only with Israel, and the Torah’s ways must always be interpreted in such a way as to bring peace and love, not hatred and enmity, into the world.
Seder Eliyahu Raba 26, in commenting on the verse “And you shall love the Lord your God,” states: Make the Name of Heaven beloved by human beings. Do this by the way in which you conduct your business in the marketplace with others so that they will say, ‘Fortunate is so-and-so who has studied Torah! See how pleasant are his deeds, how lovely his ways! Let us, too, study Torah and teach it to our children….
“Thus it has been said, ‘One should distance himself from stealing from Jews and non-Jews, from anyone in the market. For if one begins by stealing from non- Jews, he will eventually steal from Jews as well… if he spills the blood of a non-Jew, eventually he will shed that of a Jew as well. The Torah was not given for that but in order to sanctify His great Name…. ‘And you shall proclaim My greatness among the nations’ (Isaiah 66:19).”
These teachings and so many more similar ones must become the basis for the education of all our youngsters. In that way, at the very least, we will be able to say that Judaism is the source of our morality and not the cause of our disgrace.
The writer is a past president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, a member of its Committee on Jewish Law and a prominent lecturer and author. His most recent book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights) and his forthcoming work is Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (Jewish Publication Society) scheduled for October 1 publication.