Aleppo and observant Jews

I attended a Shabbat dinner some two years ago, at a gracious home I had never been to before.  Under the influence of vino veritas, and in order to stimulate provocative conversation, I wondered aloud: did the attendees believe that Observant Jews, particularly Israelis among them, actually care when innocent Palestinians are the mortal victims of collateral damage during violent skirmishes between Israelis and Palestinians, no matter which side had instigated the immediate fighting? The conversation occurred during the 2014 Gaza conflict in which, reportedly, more than a thousand, mostly civilians, were killed.

The reaction was largely unsurprising. A (retired) Observant rabbi and his wife, Americans who had made aliyah, were also guests. They were upset by the very question and denounced it in unison, suggesting that the implicit, underlying premise was offensive – particularly as it related to those in their adopted home. They, clearly in good faith, found it unthinkable that Observant Jews, wherever they lived, could be unconcerned about the death of innocent Palestinian civilians, even if they were relatives of military aggressors against the Israeli/Jewish people.

The rabbi, I should tell you, knew a thing or two about civil rights, having actually marched in the ‘60s in Selma, Alabama. By that very action, he is somewhat unique. Perhaps a “universal” do-gooder – that is, a do-gooder with broader concerns than just the Jewish people.  He potentially put his own safety on the line to help people who were not necessarily allied with the Jewish people.

Another dinner attendee, although not angered by my question, made an almost kneejerk facial gesture, indicating that it was unthinkable to suggest that “true Jews” would not be concerned about non-Jewish suffering, even that of a people roundly viewed as “the enemy.” Still, as I pivoted to collect the other “votes” at the table, I saw out of the corner of my eye that she had made a follow-up gesture questioning her first, as if to say, “I can’t actually say that Observant Jews [my term] in wartime always care.”

I wouldn’t let it go and when I called her on it, she – a woman of consummate grace with unique concern for the underdog poor and underprivileged among Jews  – willingly acknowledged that maybe, just maybe, Observant Jews might not always be concerned during times of combat about what happens to innocent families of enemy combatants, and would have to think on it more.  And while her view might be fully understandable given that she has had close relatives in the Israeli military and had been bunkered in Israel during past wars, what of her response?

My Shabbat dinner poll was surely unscientific – how could it possibly be otherwise? But it brings us to the bigger question – does Observant Judaism always care when there are holocausts (genocides) around the world in which Jews (or Israel) are not at stake? When Jews are (or were) not implicated, do Observant Jews care, really care — meaning a willingness to do something — about the people of Rwanda, Darfur or the former Yugoslavia?

Or Aleppo?  Watching the everyday horror of Aleppo, do we cry out?  Do we write our President, members of congress? Do we ask that the refugees be allowed to enter the United States as asylum candidates?  Does it factor into our calculus that the people of Aleppo are, most assuredly, Muslim?  Or do we put all of that aside and believe it is truly our obligation to engage in tikkun olam – literally, repair the world – only for “our own”?

Let’s face it, truth be told, I suspect it is too rare that Observant Jewish communities “do the right thing” by actually doing something when the suffering of others — non-Jews — is at stake.  Meaning, are there enough “righteous Jews”, to borrow from the phrase “righteous Gentiles” — those honored at Yad Vashem Museum.

Maybe I’m wrong, or maybe the views of Observant Jews are now changing for the better.  Rabbi Yuval Cherlow heads a yeshiva in Kfar Batya, Ra’anana, Israel and is founder of Tzohar, comprised of religious Zionist Orthodox Rabbis.  Two years ago, he did something exceptional; he asked Observant Jews to pray for the Syrian people, before it got as bad as it is now, and even wrote his own prayer.  And Rabbi Shaul Robinson of  the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan has followed Rabbi Cherlow’s lead as, I believe, rabbis of other prominent communities have done .  My unscientific research conducted in the last day or two finds that many yeshiva students, in some quarters, are being encouraged to “march”, when marching is called for, when the United States, in particular, is not doing enough to help the oppressed in hot spots around the world, even when the oppressed are in Muslim communities typically antagonistic to Israel.

But the good news is not only about youngsters who tend to be more liberal in their outlook than might others. That said, Rabbi Robinson sent an email to each of his congregants last week asking them to pray and recite Tehillim (Psalms) for the innocent victims of the barbarity in Syria.  Rabbi Robinson explained that Rabbi Cherlow suggested that people recite Psalms 37 and 120 for the Syrian people because they speak of the “innocent” righteous when evildoers plot against them.   Indeed, he reproduced a prayer written by Rabbi Cherlow specifically for the people of Syria, and announced that this prayer – and the Psalms – would be recited in synagogue on Shabbat and urged his congregants to “please recite these prayers as often as you can, wherever you are”.

When I decided to write this piece last week, it had another ending – an ending that wasn’t very encouraging at all. I would have, more or less, taken the position that Observant Jews – Israelis in particular – are too self-concerned, and that they limit their actions to help support their own, and only their own, in times of crisis.

But then I read Rabbi Robinson’s email, sent by a friend. And I puttered a bit, on-line.  When Rabbi Cherlow was challenged – how could he justify “creating”  his own prayer – he reportedly responded that “we can no longer look upon the atrocity done in Your world and not pray about it.” What I feel now, having looked more fully at the issue, is far more hopeful, although I refuse to believe that prayer alone will suffice. There is no overstating the devastation – people are being slaughtered and children are killed and orphaned every single day.  Yes, of course, we should pray. But we must also take action.  For Americans, your president is waiting; congress is waiting. Make sure they know that the Jewish community will not tolerate another holocaust, on anyone’s door step.

And perhaps we must do more — with better minds than mine finding the means, and inspiring it!

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are Mr. Cohen's and not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers. Dale J. Degenshein assists in preparing the articles on this blog.
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