Saturday, 26 March 2016

The Shalom Question, the answer, and Hebron

A few months ago a friend (Shalom) asked me what I started to call “the Shalom question”. We were talking about people drifting away from Judaism and the Jewish people, and what, if anything, could convince them to stay. He suggested, as a religious Jew, that he always ended up having to invoke God in some way, and that that was not convincing to someone who didn’t believe. I very much wanted to believe that a convincing reason could be found, that didn’t require faith.

Well, recently I have been reading a book by Jonathan Sacks that has gone a long way towards answering this question for me. He talks inspiringly about how Judaism brought concepts of justice and valuing human life to the world, which, combined with the undoubted achievements of several famous Jews, seems a reason to keep this group going. After all, if we made such a difference to the world in the past, who knows what other contributions may be just round the next corner?

But then I hear this little voice in the back of my head. Every time I read an inspiring line about some important contribution to social justice or individual morality, this voice said “but is that really how things are now? Are we really that moral?”

And then I saw this video of what happened last Thursday in Hebron

People will say that every group has some bad apples, and that the soldier who murdered the unarmed terrorist was immediately arrested and condemned by our leaders.

But the thing is that you see no one around very concerned. Not concerned to provide medical assistance to the injured terrorist, and not surprised or concerned when a soldier points a gun and kills him in cold blood. Here are about a dozen randomly chosen fellow Israelis, and not one objected.

So how am I supposed to believe that somehow we have this high moral standard? Based on this random sample, I have to conclude that a large number/majority of us have no problem with murder.

In his book Rabbi Sacks says the following[AK1] :
“Sholom Ache once thanked God that his people have not been given the opportunity to commit against others the crimes that had been committed against it. Perhaps every nation, once it has power, abuses it.”
Rabbi Sacks however, goes on later to say that he believes that, in the guise of Israel, Judaism will finally be able to put into practice all its moral principles for a good society that for 2000 years remained just theoretical.

I am sorry to say that is not what I am seeing. It seems like we have headed much more down the path warned of by Ache, and by Yeshayahu Liebovitz:
“[Control of the Arab population] will undermine the social structure that we have created in the state and cause corruption of individuals”.

I see no immediate solution, even if I have some ideas.

But for now, whenever I read inspiring lines of text such as Rabbi Sacks’, there will remain a quiet voice of doubt in the back of my mind that we are not such a moral light to the world.



  1. Even if I agree that the reactions of the civilian and military bystanders to the shooting indicates some deep seated moral failings, evaluating Judaism based on these actions isn't fair. The IDF's ethical codes and rules of engagement were not codified by halakhik authorities. They are set entirely by secular ones who consult Jewish sources not because their authority is binding but out of some sense of historic obligation to consult them, even if the conclusions should ultimately be discarded in favor of other purely secular considerations.

    But even if I accept that indeed the moral failure here is a reflection of Jews and Judaism more broadly, to paraphrase Yeshayahu Leibovitz, so what? Judaism isnt here to make us feel good or allow us to validate the feelings we already have. It is concerned with doing God's will in the world. Unlike Leibovitz (and more like Sachs) I dont believe that God's will is indifferent to morality. But it is hubris to think our feelings, even our moral ones, are infallible.

    On that point, I just read a chapter in Paul Johson's history of the Jews discussing the Jews' role in despotic communist revolutions all over eastern europe. Those Jews were intellectuals of the highest order with burning moral passion no less righteous then your own. In the end, these Jews helped erect some of the most destructive engines of mass murder ever conceived. Passions, especially Jewish ones, easily lead us astray.

    Im realizing everything I just wrote may have been tangential to your point. But to bring it home- the most immoral thing to do (and in this you are as guilty as the craziest of right wing settler politicians) is to draw any kind of conclusion from this video, let along sweeping generalizations about the state of Judaism. We have courts and a justice system staffed with people who professionally evaluate these kinds of situations in ways that we as laymen cannot really begin to casually duplicate while scanning through our newsfeeds on facebook.

    I have faith in the system. To doubt it, is hubris.

  2. I take your point that there is a problem judging a system from individual anecdotal events. On the other hand, I would put more weight on measuring a system by its empirical outcomes.

    It almost doesn't matter how lofty the ideals expressed by a system are, if it fails to result in a better society at the end of it all. And of course Israel is not ruled by Halacha, and perhaps it would be a far more moral society if it were, but I would point out that probably all the bystanders in the video were religious Jews who bound themselves personally to Halachic principles. That argument would work much better if we witnessed a lynching in Tel Aviv rather than Hebron.

    We both agree that Judaism is supposed to bring greater morality (the Sacks rather than Leibovitz approach as you put it), in which case we both should have a way to judge whether it succeeds in that aim. Where it doesn't, we absolutely have to question the system.

    I am not yet at the stage where I would give up altogether on it. Rav Cook wrote that if your Halachic practice conflicts with morality, then you haven't understood Halacha. Hopefully we can make a concerted effort to re-understand Halacha and start to see a society enriched by it. But if we try and fail, then there are some major questions to be answered about the entire system.

    Is that hubris? I am not sure. But I don't see that we have a choice.