Borderline Views: From Rothschild to the Western Wall

Without social welfare, without mutual responsibility and care, the third commonwealth (however it is defined) will not arise.

Tens of thousands gathered in Tel Aviv and other cities on Saturday evening to protest social and economic conditions in the country, demanding change in the social welfare system.
Tens of thousands gathered Monday night at the Western Wall and at synagogues to mourn the destruction of the Temple and commemorate the many tragedies that have visited the Jewish people on this date throughout history.
There was some overlap, but it was minimal. The appearance of Rabbi Benny Lau at the Tel Aviv demonstration became the focus for much of the media precisely because it was the exception rather than the rule.
The fact that the demonstrations took place almost immediately following Shabbat was an obvious factor, but social welfare has not been a major concern within religious circles. No major pressure was exerted on the organizers to move the demonstration to a later time, although given the late termination of the Shabat at this time of year it would have been difficult to do so anyway.
Much has been made of the Kabbalat Shabbat services held at the tent camps, and the attempt to portray the growing social discontent as reaching across society, to include Right and Left, religious and secular, and moving beyond the image of the protest as a middle-class protest action to include the impoverished sectors of society along with the middle class. The organizers are trying to portray the demonstrations as all-encompassing; above and beyond all the classical political and cultural divisions.
TISHA BE’AV is very much about social justice. But in our mourning and recitation of kinnot, we tend to focus on the result rather than the cause. We describe, in horrific detail, the tragedies that have visited the Jewish people, from the destruction of the Temples to the Crusades and the Holocaust, but spend much less time delving into the causes.
Yes, we glibly talk about the abstract notion of baseless hatred that was rampant at the time, at the warnings sent through the prophet Jeremiah, but the balance between the two has become heavily weighted in favor of the outcome rather than the cause.
The basic religious idea behind Tisha Be’Av is that the Temples were destroyed and other tragedies were visited upon the Jewish people as divine retribution for our inability to behave justly toward each other. Concepts of social justice are an integral part of Jewish religious behavior, but are often pushed aside as religion has become a sort of highway code, the minutiae of ritual and practice having overtaken the basic spiritual quest for bettering oneself and one’s society.
Within religious circles, too much of the discussion leading into Tisha Be’Av is about the practicalities of mourning – the clothes to be worn, the specific prayers to be said, the time to finish eating, the work that can or cannot be done – rather than introspection concerning relations and behavior, in a society that is highly sectoral and in which we spend a great deal of time delegitimizing each other and not caring sufficiently for the needs of those who do not belong to ‘our’ group or circle.
Religion is too much about tikkun drachim (patching the highway), and not enough about tikkun olam (repairing the world).
THE JEWISH people is good at giving charity – few peoples in the world devote so much of their private resources to philanthropy, both within the community and beyond. But the past decade has seen an exponential growth of charity organizations as governments have moved ahead with privatization and the dismantlement of protections afforded by the state. Private charities and philanthropic organizations have had to fill the gap, despite the world recession and the impact of the Madoff scandal, which makes it even more difficult to help those in need. An Israeli government that takes pride in defining itself as representative of a Jewish state with Jewish values cannot divest itself of the responsibility of caring for the needy, be they poor or middle-class.
The fact that we mourn on Tisha Be’Av in the same way that we have for 2,000 years, regardless of our immense achievements in the past half-century – sovereignty, independence, a relatively high standard of living, and the physical reconstructionof Jerusalem – so that it is no longer a city of ruins and desolation, would suggest that we have not succeeded in imbuing this day with contemporary meaning. Secular Israel almost entirely ignores Tisha Be’Av; it has little or no meaning for them at all. It doesn’t touch their lives as they go about their regular work or even arrange private parties as the restaurants and places of entertainment are all closed and they seek alternatives.
Few of them would make any link between the tent camps of Rothschild Boulevard and the historical events that took place in Jerusalem. It is our collective failure as a society that we have been unable to inject meaning into this and other days of national significance.
The link between the national and the social, the spiritual and the secular, could not be clearer than in the closing words of the prophet Isaiah, read in all synagogues this past weekend. Zion will be redeemed through justice and those who return through righteousness (tzedaka).
Our government should be listening to the voices bridging the cultural divide between Rothschild Boulevard and the Western Wall. Without social welfare, without mutual responsibility and care, the third commonwealth (however it is defined) will not arise.
The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.