Remembering the Mitzvah of “Ahavat Yisrael”
As I return from Israel, I have much to share with you about my family’s experiences in our Holy Land—people we met, places we visited, and moments we will look back upon with fondness. I will be sharing some of these experiences this Shabbat as we celebrate the bat mitzvah of Zahavah Preil. In short, it was a very special trip for Shoshana and me as we watched our children, especially Ari, fall in love with Israel and all things Israeli.
However, today I feel obliged to follow up on a previous blog post about Israel’s very slow progress towards religious equality and share some very sad news with you that transpired while I was away.
Last week, following the state’s decision to recognize rabbis of conservative and reform communities as official rabbis and give them some funding, the Sephardic chief Rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Amar, published a letter on official State stationary slandering non-Orthodox rabbis calling them “destroyers of religion” and terrorists. You can read the full letter in Hebrew or English, but here are the salient paragraphs:
“We hereby make known our distress and deep pain about the desecration of Heaven’s honor, about the trampling of the Torah, and about the aid and comfort given to those who uproot and destroy Judaism, people who have already brought horrendous destruction on the Jewish people in the Diaspora, by causing terrible assimilation and an uprooting of all of the fundamental principles of the Torah. These people now seek recognition in the Land of Israel as well, so that uprooters of the faith will be recognized as religious leaders. Woe to us that this is happening in our time – that heads are held high by enemies of God, wicked people who are like the turbulent sea that cannot be quieted, their entire aim being to do harm to the sanctity and purity of Torah in our holy land. So we declare before one and all: ‘This will not stand!’We are therefore calling on one and all to assemble for a deliberative rally, to cry out bitterly on behalf of the Torah, and to entreat the Almighty to void this evil decree, to preserve our holy Torah as it was given, to keep it untouched by alien hands, and to stop those who would sabotage [modern Hebrew: commit terrorism] and destroy the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts.”
The Jewish Federations of North America, who usually remains silent on these kinds of intra-religious kerfuffles issued the following statement in response:
“The Jewish Federations of North America condemns in the strongest terms the statement reportedly made by Israel’s chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar. It is a fundamental Jewish virtue to ‘love your fellow as yourself.’ We condemn comments that disparage fellow Jews and, in particular, well-established branches of Judaism that represent 80 percent of North American Jewry. Federations believe in a pluralistic, inclusive Jewish people and work hard to bring members of our people closer to their heritage. We know that the Chief Rabbi’s comments and language are completely rejected by the millions of Jewish people whom we represent from all streams, including our Orthodox brethren. Statements such as those made by Rabbi Amar only serve to alienate our fellow Jews from our religion, our people and the Jewish State.”
The Conservative movement responded with protests in Israel as Masorti rabbis filed charges against Amar for incitement, and a powerful statement was drafted by Rabbis Gerry Skolnik and Julie Schonfeld, the president and executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly:
The Rabbinical Assembly is outraged by a letter issued on official Israeli government stationery by Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel Shlomo Amar calling for a rally at his office this coming Tuesday. The language used in the statement is inflammatory and inciting, referring to our members as “terrorists” whose “sole intention is to do harm to the holiness of Torah.” The State of Israel and the Jewish people have learned the most bitter lesson in the murder of our beloved Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin (z”l) that incendiary language can result in devastating consequences. We speak as a worldwide Conservative community in demanding that this threat to Masorti rabbis’ physical safety, not only their personal integrity, be defended. The Talmud (Arakhin 15b) teaches that hateful speech has the potential to kill. Rabbi Amar’s language places all Jewish people at risk of violence, all because Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein directed that non-Orthodox rabbis in agricultural communities could be paid salaries from non-religious budgets. The vast majority of the world’s Jews do not conform to the unfathomably hateful language of one of the two chief religious leaders funded by the Government of Israel. We ask that the resources of the Jewish state be devoted to teaching and propagating a love of Judaism and the Jewish people. As the Talmud concludes (Arakhin 15b), “What is the remedy for slanderers? If he be a scholar, let him engage in the Torah, as it is said: The healing for the tongue is the tree of life.”
As Rabbi Skolnik states in a very good op-ed that I highly recommend, all of this provides conclusive evidence for the dissolution of a state-sponsored rabbinate in Israel, as well as the positions of chief rabbi. A country that stands up for religious pluralism cannot allow a religious leader to spout such dangerous propaganda, slander, and misinformation as a mouthpiece of the state, regardless of the fact that more than 60% of Israelis and millions of Jews living outside of Israel vehemently disagree with Amar’s distorted views of Judaism and Torah.
More importantly, Amar’s vituperous language shows how far many Jews have strayed from the essential Jewish mitzvah of “ahavat Yisrael”, the mitzvah of embracing all Jews and recognizing the shared community and destiny among all Jews, regardless of affiliation, denomination, or geographical location. Ironically, Jewish communities in the Diaspora, and particularly those in the US, tend to do far better with this mitzvah. In our own community rabbis of various streams of Judaism work, study, collaborate, and speak with one another about how we can collectively reach out and engage lost Jewish souls. For the most part, here in Silicon Valley there is a sense among clergy that we are all working towards a common mission out of love for all Jews. Pluralism helps us in that mission by providing more pathways for Jews to engage in Jewish life and observance. Israeli Jews, both religious and secular, deserve the same.
May we see the day when all Jews embrace the inherent authenticity of one another with respect, shared purpose, and love as an acknowledgment that our survival as a people depends upon us acting as one.