A strange silence fell across Israel’s media for one day this week. The anger, polarization and finger-pointing which plagues this country’s religious and secular divide went on hold – at least temporarily. In its place, voices of moderation, reconciliation and self-reflection arose as the country marked Tisha b’Av – a day of national mourning. But today our challenge is to make this temporary respite a long-term reality before the tides of division once again sweep us back into deep internal conflict.
Tisha b’Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar (9th of Av), began as the anniversary of Jerusalem’s destruction some two millennia ago and has since incorporated the sorrow of every Jewish tragedy our people have suffered throughout the generations. But our sages attached a message of wisdom to the day, explaining Jerusalem’s downfall, massacre and mass-dispersion as a result of Jew vs. Jew hatred – “baseless hatred” as they called it – as opposed to a spiritual failing in our service of God. The result? Every Tisha b’Av Jews reflect on their behavior towards one another instead of blaming each other for our imperfect world. And this year that health-check was needed more than ever.
This year, the tension between religious and secular Israelis has reached an electrifying level. Israel’s mainstream parties are working to remove the ultra-Orthodox control of religious institutions, funds for yeshiva study, and mass-pardons from military or national service. And the ultra-Orthodox aren’t taking it lightly. They see a sinister agenda. An attack on their impoverished and pious community and the people who serve as the anchor for traditional Jewish values and ideals. Many have preached that these moves are not about budgets or national security, but simply baseless hatred of ultra-Orthodox Jews and even an attempt to sanitize them of religion. But yesterday something significant happened and it struck me most when listening to an ultra-Orthodox radio panel.
Broadcast on a channel that has recently used language so strong that I feared the next step would be inciting violence, a group of rabbis grappled with the commandment to love our fellow Jew while also required to shut one out who demonizes our faith. “How can we love the world beyond our community when they are actively seeking our demise?” went the question. This time, the tone was different. One rabbi suggested kindness and love, “which transcends stigmas and will ultimately serve the ultra-Orthodox community best.” Another stressed “we only have one commandment here – to love our fellow Jew – because those who challenge us are not against our religion. They simply don’t understand us.” And so the conversation continued. Even when the moderator tried to stir in nasty politics there was simply no room for the grating tone. The panelists cut him down as if he was on a different planet.
So how do we carry this refreshing reconciliation beyond Tisha b’Av and heal the fractured homeland we call Israel? I believe our sages offered another piece of wisdom through the Jewish calendar. The customary mourning of Tisha b’Av does not end immediately that day. We carry the sadness into the 10th of Av, easing out of the mourning and hopefully making the lessons a permanent part of us. The message applies to virtually every element of life, and is particularly pertinent when it comes to our internal Jewish struggle.
So looking forward, Israel faces many challenges in the months ahead. From Chief Rabbinate elections to budget reform, municipal elections to a universal draft, Israelis will battle with each other for the future of this country and that challenging balance of our Jewish and democratic values. But we must not let the heat of these issues distort our respect for one another. Because we learned some 2,000 years ago that hatred, anger and finger-pointing ultimately leads to violence and destruction that is so powerful, even the stone foundations of Jerusalem crumble beneath it.