The Thundering Silence of Religious Leadership

Monday may have been a watershed point in Israel’s history. This day may be remembered as the day when the Zionist movement, or the Israeli legislature, broke away with a tradition of over one hundred years of ensuring proper moral conduct in the process of building the land of Israel. Jews returned to Israel informed by a deep sense of belonging, and a return to their proper land after close to two thousand years of exile. The sense of divine promise and fulfillment was heightened half a century ago, when many parts of biblical Israel, including the holy sites in the city of Jerusalem, came under Israeli control. Yet, no matter how deep the sense of attachment, belonging and fulfillment of divine promises, the collective enterprise of returning home was carried out under the rules of universal morality. Land was bought, not confiscated. Rav Kook, the ideological figurehead of the contemporary settler movement, highlighted the fact that even though there are biblical foundations to our relationship with the land, we take care to also follow common moral conventions, in ensuring we purchase the land.

A Biblical Reminder – Buy, do not confiscate!

That land must be willingly sold is the message of the biblical story involving the Prophet Elijah and King Ahab.

Some time later there was an incident involving a vineyard belonging to Naboth the Jezreelite. The vineyard was in Jezreel, close to the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. 2. Ahab said to Naboth, “Let me have your vineyard to use for a vegetable garden, since it is close to my palace. In exchange I will give you a better vineyard or, if you prefer, I will pay you whatever it is worth.”
3. But Naboth replied, “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my ancestors.”
4. So Ahab went home, sullen and angry because Naboth the Jezreelite had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my ancestors.” He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat.
5. His wife Jezebel came in and asked him, “Why are you so sullen? Why won’t you eat?”
6. He answered her, “Because I said to Naboth the Jezreelite, ‘Sell me your vineyard; or if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard in its place.’ But he said, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.’”
7. Jezebel his wife said, “Is this how you act as king over Israel? Get up and eat! Cheer up. I’ll get you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”

The story leads to mispractice of justice and to a confrontation with the Prophet Elijah, where Elijah proclaims Ahab has done evil in the eyes of the Lord. (1 kings 21).

Rabbinic Voices on “Regulation” Bill

There is a price we pay for over half a century of continued friction – military, civil, legal, international – relating to our presence in Judea and Samaria, and of over a century of friction relating to our presence in the Land of Israel. Recent events at Amona, painful as they were, illustrate all too well how the continuing battle for survival pushes us to decisions that would have been morally unthinkable decades ago.

One can understand the process. One can understand why politicians would push for certain legal solutions. One can understand how certain decisions have arisen. But one cannot understand how it has come to pass that Jewish religious leadership is next to silent on this issue.

The vote on the regulation bill was passed with the support of all religious Knesset members. What does this tell us about religious perspectives on this law? Deeply troubled by what I perceive as moral failure and failure in leadership of religious leaders, I set out to identify religious voices on the recent law, as these are readily available on the internet. Here is what I’ve learned:

Rabbi Steinman

* The leader of Lithuanian Ultra-Orthodoxy, Rabbi Steinman, opposed the bill. Accordingly, two Knesset members voted against it in preliminary stages (MKs Gafni and Makles). Rabbi Steinman is presently in hospital, and prayers are offered for his long life, at the age of 104. The Knesset members who previously voted against the law, voted for it Monday.
* The only voices that are readily visible are those of right wing rabbis, who support the law. The primary reasoning harks back to biblical foundations and a sense of ownership of the land, beyond any personal claims, made by individual Arab owners. In other words, everyday morality and the need to translate Zionism into conventional political and moral standards has given way to biblical promises and a sense of entitlement that places us beyond the pale of ordinary morality. (One interesting exception is Rabbi Israel Rosen, who relies on halakhic principles of restitution in cases of error, seen in retrospect, rather than on foundational rights we might possess).
* The Chief Rabbinate is silent.
* The Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox world are caught up in battles against the reform movement (the “reform” Kotel), women’s religious leadership, petty politics, and of course the ongoing battle against the “damages of the internet”, in other words, smartphone and open access to the internet. It would seem an issue as weighty as the moral face of Israel, let alone public ramifications in the international arena, are not religious concerns.
* Jewish rabbinic voices abroad seem to have little to say about the matter.
* The only recent rabbinic voice who was willing to acknowledge that the present law is problematic is Rabbi Eliyahu Zini (click here to read the article in Hebrew). Even though Rabbi Zini is affiliated with the right wing, and is willing to deliver a biblically based rights theory, he recognizes the law is problematic and regrets rabbis were not consulted.

“Regulation” Bill as a Moment of Self-Reflection

What does all this tell me?

First and foremost – the process is erosive. Voices that spoke against the bill no longer resound. Voices that continue to speak about it are not heard. Above all, the rabbinic landscape on this issue is characterized by silence.

Second, political realities seem to have a power that is so strong, that it paralyzes rabbinic discourse and renders any prophetic voice or voice of moral criticism silent.

Third, rabbis operate as public voices on a very selective basis. Some issues, regardless of their moral stake, international and political significance and implications for our own moral stature, seem to be irrelevant to rabbinic discourse. Either the plate is too full with other battles or politics weigh too heavily.

Amona

Fourth, we seem to be experiencing collective post-traumatic stress. Amona was a point of stress, that followed earlier uprooting of Jews from their homes in territories conquered in 1967. We seem to be in a post-traumatic period and one manifestation of such post-traumatic syndrome seems to be increasing oblivion to the world around us as well as to our deeper moral voices. Balancing an existential war with moral guidelines and fidelity to over one hundred years of Zionism as well as to core mandates of the Jewish tradition, seems to be beyond our capacity.

Fifth, our own sense of victimhood makes us blind not only to the victimhood of the other, but even to the other’s most fundamental rights, that our tradition recognizes. How deep does our victimhood run? Deeper than the events of the past decades. It is telling that the bill passed days after World and Israeli Jewry were horrified by the omission of Jews from a holocaust-day message by President Trump. We hold on to our sense of victimization as it forms our collective memory, identity and future vision. It is sad that one of the consequences of this sense of victimization is that we are willing to do unto others as we have all too often had done unto us. Confiscation of property is part of our collective trauma for centuries. Now we are willing to apply it to others.

This blog appeared on The Times of Israel on February 7, 2017.

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