Todd Berman
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Crying with the people of Jesus

It's time to speak out against voices in the Jewish community that promote religious intolerance and racism

An unseasonable gray cloud surrounded my town over Shabbat. As if a meteorological metaphor for my mood enveloped the Judean hills, the clouds reflected the sadness which permeated my mind. Although a young man who stopped to give directions was murdered and another injured, I didn’t really know about the tragic murder of Danny Gonen until Saturday night. What occupied my mind all of Shabbat was the assault on two churches – one in America and the other here in Israel.

I feel a strange sort of connection to both houses of worship which are not my own. I grew up, a white person, in the American South and have made my home as a Jew in Israel. Being Jewish, the perpetrator of the crime in the South Carolina would probably have been just as happy to kill me. Despite my alienation from Southern Christian culture, I still grew up and participated, as much as Jews can, in that world. It goes without saying that here in Israel, I am a member of the dominant culture and a citizen of majority population. So in some way I feel tremendous sadness and perhaps even a tinge of guilt in a way. Did I do anything to help stem the hatred? How can I prevent the violence?

The burning of the ancient church by Jewish fanatics should disturb all who value and respect religion. The killing of worshippers in a historic southern church by a racist hater goes even further and should disturb our sense of humanity.

I cry with the people of Jesus. Although I do not share their faith, I do share their humanity. It is time that we all take responsibility for that shared enterprise.

To do more than jot down a few niceties, I would like to focus on more practical matters.

Some have suggested that classical Jewish law condones attacks on non-Jewish houses of worship. While honesty demands that we acknowledge such ideas do have a place in our historic tradition, we are always given a choice of which commentaries to uphold, and those racist positions must now be rejected.

As students of Jewish law well know, one of the greatest medieval Talmudists, Rabbi Menachem HaMeiri limited the negative precepts as applied to gentiles. In his commentary to Tractate Avodah Zara, HaMeiri famously states, “we have already explained that all these things [anti-gentile laws] were said at the time [i.e. that of the Talmudic sages] when those Gentiles were cleaving to their idolatry, but now idolatry has disappeared from most places…’ (Beit HaBechira A.Z. p. 28 as translated by Jacob Katz in Exclusiveness and Tolerance p. 118)

Referring to Christians and Muslims as ‘nations bound by the ways of religion’ Meiri removed any negative laws from practice saying ‘In our days nobody heeds these things, neither Ga’on, nor Rabbi, Disciple, Hasid, nor would-be Hasid.’” (Katz.)

Meiri’s position seems not to be only descriptive but rather prescriptive. Muslims and Christians, those gentiles Meiri had contact with, are to be seen as fellow travelers bound by religion and law. Some might point out that Meiri’s position is not held universally. Well, perhaps it is time for the halachic community to make it so. Those who suggest otherwise should be considered outside the halachic consensus.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, probably the most influential Orthodox thinker today, goes even further. In his visionary book, The Dignity of Difference, Rabbi Sacks proclaimed, “Religion is the translation of God into particular language and thus into the life of a group, a nation, a community of faith. In the course of history, God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims. Only such a God is truly transcendental – greater not only than the natural universe but also than the spiritual universe articulated in any single faith, any specific language of human sensibility.” (p.55)

By limiting God to our myopic understanding, we are literally putting limitations on his grandeur. Seemingly, from a traditional perspective, Rabbi Sacks’s pluralistic world view represents a radical extension or perhaps even departure from the Meiri’s writings. In fact, it is so radical that he was forced to alter this passage in the second U.K. printing. (Happily, I have the U.S. unedited edition.) Be that as it may, given the dangers inherent in a more conservative approach, I prefer a radical theology to a potentially destructive traditionalism. Building on these perspectives, those who torched the Church of the Loaves and Fishes should be ostracised from the community of Jewish believers. Someone who can destroy a house of worship should find no rest among us. There is simply no room for such hatred.

Moving from the theological to the racist, it is time to create a protective barrier from the terrorism which is racism. In one of the most celebrated statements in Jewish literature, the Rabbis of the Mishna clearly and unequivocally reject racism. Speaking of the danger of capital punishment the rabbis state, “therefore man was created as a single being to … bring peace so that one cannot say to his friend, ‘my father is greater than your father’.” (Sanhedrin 4:5) We are all created equal in the eyes of God claim the rabbis of the Mishna. There is no greater mitzvah, perhaps, than the command to imitate God. (See Rambam Sefer HaMitzvoth Positive #8) If we are all the same in His holy eyes, then shouldn’t we be equal in our own as well?

Although we are all part of one humanity, we live in communities inside communities. I live within the religious and theological boundaries of the Orthodox Jewish tradition. And I believe it is time to speak out. We must stifle those voices which promote religious intolerance and racial superiority. We, the members of this community, must unabashedly speak out against racist and religious supremacist language. Too often have I heard teachers, rabbis, and roshei yeshiva use such language and it must be stopped. It is unacceptable to point to their vast Torah knowledge or their success in helping students in their religious quest. If part of their message is built on the backs of others then their message is tainted and the time has come to put an end to it. Lest someone protest that the perpetrator of the terrorist act in Charleston was a white supremacist, we can point out that the burning of the church near the Sea of Galilee was an act of Jewish supremacy. It is time for it to end. And it is time for us to say loud and clear — enough.

Every time we return the holy Torah back to its resting place within the holy arc, we recite the beautiful words of King Solomon, “For it is a tree of life for those who hold fast to it and its supporters will be happy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and its paths are paths of peace.” His wisdom is a message for eternity. To love the Torah is to love peace and to truly follow the words of the Torah is to create a decent, loving world. The time has come for us to move beyond the cloud created by hatred and intolerance to build a world of joy, loving kindness, and peace. May God grant us the ability to use our tears to build such a world.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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