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And The Rabbis Who Said Nothing

Police use a water cannon on anti-overhaul activists blocking Begin Road in Jerusalem, as they protest against the government's judicial overhaul, near the Knesset in Jerusalem, on July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

I never thought I would live to see the day in which 56% of Israelis fear a full-scale civil war, Israel’s nuclear scientists threaten to resign, 28% of Israelis would consider leaving the country, and 37% of Israelis do not even believe their own prime minister is calling the shots in his government. Regardless of your politics, it is a bleak day in Jewish history. A very bleak day. 

Once again, the Jewish people will be observing Tisha B’Av, our national day of mourning, with yet another reason to sit on the floor lamenting. There are no winners among us, only a very divided nation that is rapidly losing its common ground. It is at this point of deep crisis that it is worth evaluating and asking: where are our rabbis?

On Tisha B’Av, many Jews read and study the episode of Bar Kamtza, the tale of a man whose burning shame has led him to burn it all down. The man who was humiliated by a society in which too much has gone wrong and which no longer had the means to correct itself. The Talmud (Gittin 56a) famously shares:

“After having been cast out from the feast, bar Kamtza said to himself: Since the Sages were sitting there and did not protest the actions of the host, although they saw how he humiliated me, learn from it that they were content with what he did. I will therefore go and inform against them to the king. He went and said to the emperor: The Jews have rebelled against you….”

Of all the people Bar Kamtza could have blamed for actively partaking in his humiliation, it was the rabbis’ silence that bothered him most. They saw it all happen, and they said nothing. While it is hard to point fingers at the rabbis of that generation for their mere silence, it is tragic to note the number of rabbis who actively took part in bringing the people of Israel to where they are now. 

The vote, which was scheduled by a mostly religious coalition, took place just two days before Tisha B’Av. Three of the parties involved in the vote claim to have rabbis that they obey. Did no rabbi realize that inciting the most divisive vote Israel has seen in more than a decade on the eve of Tisha B’Av might be problematic? 

True, of all the rabbis, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef did call for more dialogue over judicial reform “to avoid civil war,” but Shas, the party who claims to follow his lead, plowed forward with the legislation on that given date. The same is true for UTJ, who pushed forward with this legislation. Other rabbis, including Rabbis Shmuel Eliyahu, Menachem Burstein, Eliakim Levanon, Yigal Levinstein, Dov Lior, and others, signed a letter urging their students to attend protests for judicial reform. 

On the right side of history were the rabbis of Yeshivat Har Etzion, who were fierce in their opposition to the reform, the division, and the bulldozing with what we see as shattering Israel’s social contract. It is worth noting that after Baruch Goldstein committed his heinous massacre in Hebron, Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein spoke out very strongly against the massacre and was met with scorn and denigration by religious nationalists. It would not be surprising to find out that Rabbi Lichtenstein’s successors, who have condemned this judicial reform, are met with the same kind of dismissiveness. 

In the coming days and weeks, we will hear from many rabbis and spiritual leaders about the crucial need for unity, about how the Jewish people cannot exist divided, and how we must come together. We will hear about how we are all brethren and what a true danger it is when we are so deeply divided. There will be initiatives, meetings, and roundtable discussions. Each and every one of those rabbis was fully aware of what was going on before the vote was held. Each and every one of them could have asked that the vote not be held two days before Tisha B’Av, and each and every one of them could have done more to make sure we do not come to this point. 

It will take a lot to bring our people back together. In some cases, the damage that was done is irreparable. As a rabbi, I can say I always benefit from getting feedback from fellow Jews. Ask your local rabbi what they are doing to prevent the next destruction and what we can do to make sure we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. Call on your rabbi to be part of the solution so that Tisha B’Av, next year, does not have added reasons to sit on the floor and mourn.

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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