On the minds of many of us today will be the events of last week in Israel. It is always tempting for a rabbi to shy away from difficult and controversial issues but my community is entitled to hear my religious perspective on this difficult subject, for what is worth, so I will not shy away from it. It is relevant to reflect on these matters not just because they are topical but because we accept Torah on Shavuot and should consider its fundamental values and scope.
Last Monday was described by Prime Minster Netanyahu (in fairness, perhaps before he was fully aware of the events taking place on the Gaza Border) as “a glorious day” because of the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem. I also heard some in the religious community, including people whom I greatly respect, refer to last week as “a good week for the Jewish people”. I don’t agree with either assessment.
This is not because I believe that Israel acted wrongly. As the week went on, it became increasingly clear how little choice Israel had in the way it defended our Gaza border. It is frustrating that, as is often the case, Israel’s hasbara or “public relations” was not more effective and that Hamas was initially allowed to paint a picture of a supposed massacre of unarmed protesters, but the truth came out subsequently from Hamas itself that the great majority of those killed were its own terrorist members or Islamic Jihad members intent on breaking through the border and killing Israelis. Colonel Richard Kemp, who commanded British Forces in Afghanistan, visited the Gaza Border and did the job that perhaps Israel itself should have done earlier in explaining clearly why the IDF’s strategy was necessary and justified.
But last week was still a bad week for the Jewish people for obvious reasons. First, deaths on the Palestinian side of the conflict that are brought about even through legitimate self-defence deepen hatred and enmity and move the goal of peace which we desperately need to attain for our own people further away.
Second, while like many of us I do not care what anti-Semites or anti-Zionists think, it does matter what decent non-Jews think of Israel, and there are very many of them in the UK and around the world. Rav Yehuda Amital zt’l never tired of reminding us that the centrality of the concepts of Kiddush HaShem and Chilul HaShem in our faith means that we must strive for the Jewish people and the Jewish State to be seen by decent non-Jewish people as exemplars of morality. So if Israel acts in legitimate self-defence but is made to look as if it isn’t, that is a bad week.
Thirdly and most importantly: when Jews have to kill even enemies and even in self-defence, that is a bad week, not a glorious or a good one. Had Lord Jakobovits zt’l been alive, he would doubtless have reminded us, as he often did in his lifetime, that we derive the notes of the Rosh HaShanah Shofar itself from the sobbing of the mother of our sworn biblical enemy Sisera over the loss of her son. That is the level of ethical sensitivity that is demanded of us as Jews. In an earlier biblical episode, when Esau is approaching Jacob with his army of four hundred men, the Torah tells us vayira Yaakov me’od vayeitzer lo, Jacob was very afraid and distressed. Why both “afraid” and “distressed”? Rashi, citing the Midrash, famously answers: vayira shema yeihareg, vayeitzer lo im yaharog hu et acheirim – Jacob was afraid for his own physical safety, lest he be killed, and also distressed lest he come to kill others. Yet the term vayeitzer lo, “he was distressed”, is stronger than “vayira” – “he was afraid”. The great medieval Jewish philosopher Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag) suggests that Yaakov was more concerned that he might have to kill others than that he may be killed himself – in what would have been a battle of legitimate self-defence. Because the sanctity of all human life is a supreme value of the Torah.
There is a wider point here that is very relevant to Shavuot, zeman matan torateinu, the season of our acceptance of the Torah. We face many dangers in the Jewish world. One of them is the deeply disturbing bifurcation between a religious “right” focused on the details of ritual observance and a religious “left” interested in ethics. But it should go without saying that ethics is central to the Torah. Concern for the sanctity of human life should not always have to be expressed only by organisations such as Liberal Judaism and Yachad. That is a perverse situation. The more Orthodox a synagogue grouping, the more it should express broad ethical concerns, not the less.
It is a disaster for the Torah if we restrict it to ritual observance without ethics. It is also a disaster to restrict the Torah to a generalised ethics without the distinctive ritual observances that give Jewish life its unique texture and which are central to Jewish survival. So on Shavuot, let us aim to accept the Torah in its glorious totality. We can and must have it all. Let us embrace Torah’s whole range: ritual and ethics, punctilious Shabbat observance and compassion, strict kashrut observance and honesty in business and interpersonal dealings, love for the State of Israel and deep concern for all human life.