Cutting down the idols

The recent arson attack at the Church of the Loaves and Fishes in Tabgha is the latest problematic and troubling case of fundamentalist Judaism meeting the Zionist challenge of taking control of our own destinies, in a way that ignores hundreds of years of Jewish tradition.

Tabgha is the site where, according to Christian legend, Jesus performed a miracle in which a small number of loaves and fish fed thousands. The story appears in all four Gospels, enabling early Christians to see Jesus as a miracle worker like Moses and Elisha.

Today, members of the Benedictine monastic community serve as caretakers of a modern church built at the site of an ancient mosaic depicting symbols of this event. The Benedictines have long lived peacefully amongst their Muslim and Jewish neighbors in the Galilee. They welcome tens of thousands of tourists from all over the world annually, and their monastery even includes the “Beit Noah Meeting Place” for guests with special needs. There is no evangelical mission to the Jewish people coming out of Tabgha.

Yet arsonists chose to set fire to the courtyard of the church two weeks ago, leading to the hospitalization of two people, as well as millions of dollars of damage.

While those responsible for the damage have yet to be apprehended, there is no doubt that they were Jews. Graffiti (in Hebrew) left on the wall read, “The idols will be completely cut down” – a part of the Aleinu prayer recited thrice daily in the Jewish liturgy. The arsonists made it clear that they saw themselves as entitled and perhaps even commanded to destroy a site that they believed was idolatrous.

This act, condemned by Israeli rabbis, community leaders, and government officials including the prime minister, follows scores of “price-tag” incidents in the last few years which have caused destruction and defacement of Christian and Muslim holy places and property. Immediately after the event, Chief Rabbi David Lau said, “The actions taken this morning, apparently by ignorant and violent cowards, are completely at odds with the values of Judaism and humanity.”

However, the claim that these acts are counter to Judaism is not enough to bring them to an end. Indeed, I believe that these crimes come out of a particular interpretation of Jewish values.

Any student of the Hebrew Bible knows that according to the book of Deuteronomy (among other Biblical books), idolatry and idolaters are meant to be destroyed. But beginning as early as the second century Mishnah, Jewish tradition mutes that idea. In the tractate entitled “Idol Worship,” one reads the teachings of rabbis living in the Roman Empire – rabbis who were surrounded by idolatry. They wrote about the challenges of doing business with people that they saw as idol worshippers, but they did not call on Jews actually to destroy the idols or the temples.

Most likely this omission was due to a lack of power, or the fear that such acts might endanger entire Jewish communities. Indeed, it is striking to note that in rabbinic writings in the next centuries, whose ideas were collected in the Gemara (again, tractate “Idol Worship”), the prohibition against doing business with idolaters is muted even more. In these next generations the rabbis wrote about how to live amongst non-Jews generally, understanding that they had no choice but to find ways to live with others around them. There are stories about rabbis forming friendships with non-Jewish authorities, as well as discussions about how to live as a Jew in a society with different calendars.

Medieval rabbis occasionally discussed the question of whether or not Christianity was idolatry, and though Jews prayed for the idols to be “completely cut down,” for thousands of years Jews lived (and sometimes suffered) in Christian lands, tolerating the Christian symbols around them.

Religious Jews now living in the State of Israel have always been challenged by the idea of living in a state that claims to be both Jewish and democratic. This is a place where Jews have the opportunity to live a full Jewish life in both private and public spaces, but at the same time the State promises freedom and protection to all religions and holy places. Few rabbis, schools, or yeshivot have even attempted to work out this balance in practice.

Many Jews who returned to the land of Israel as early Zionists were secular. Though they and their family members may have suffered as Jews in Christian countries, these Jews were more concerned with building the land and protecting their communities than in hunting down idolatry. Indeed, they rejected Jewish traditions they saw as weakening the Jewish spirit, advocating study only “from Tanakh to Palmach” – in other words, the stories of biblical and modern military heroes.

Is it possible that the Tabgha arsonists are a dangerous combination of fundamentalist Judaism and Zionist rejection of Jewish tradition? Jewish tradition taught Jews how to live with Christians and Muslims, and how to translate the sometimes severe commands in the Bible to become a way of life for Jews throughout the world.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence guaranteed freedom of religion and the safeguarding of the holy places of all religions. But it was inevitable that once they were empowered by a State, some people would seek a literal interpretation of the Bible and the Jewish liturgy.

As long as Jews were powerless, there was no danger in dreaming to destroy those who we perceived to be our enemies. After 67 years of Jewish sovereignty in Israel, we can no longer interpret those biblical verses or recite our Jewish liturgies innocently. Whether we choose to change our liturgy or to reinterpret it, serious work needs to be done in our communities and religious schools to take both our texts and our power seriously. If this work is not done soon, more fires, more damage, and more danger to innocent lives is ahead of us.

About the Author
Dr. Marcie Lenk is a Shalom Hartman Institute research fellow, the institute's Director of Christian Leadership Programs and Co-Director of New Paths: Christians Engaging Israel. She received her Ph.D. at Harvard University and, for more than two decades, has taught Early Christianity, Hebrew Bible, and Rabbinic Literature at institutions such as Boston University and City College of NY, as well as at Jewish and Christian seminaries in Israel and the United States.
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