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Scott Kahn
Director of JewishCoffeeHouse.com
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Dangerous misinterpretations of Torah, no matter how black the hat

Not only have there been times when God did not protect the Jews, but the Bible promised that there would be
Firefighters work to extinguish a fire, after a Russian attack on apartment buildings in the town of Uman, Ukraine, April 28, 2023. (National Police of Ukraine via AP)
Firefighters work to extinguish a fire, after a Russian attack on apartment buildings in the town of Uman, Ukraine, April 28, 2023. (National Police of Ukraine via AP)

Nobody told me there’d be days like these…
Strange days, indeed.
Most peculiar, Mama!
— John Lennon

In his classic play, The Trial of God, Elie Wiesel argues that the defense of God may at times be the work of Satan. A clear example of this erupted in the past 24 hours, when God’s self-proclaimed defenders asserted, in the service of a physically dangerous and theologically dubious philosophy, that the Bible’s own words are heresy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Israeli pilgrims to stay away from Uman this year because of the continuing war in Ukraine. Echoing Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky, Netanyahu explained that there are not enough shelters in Uman for the local population, and certainly not for the tens of thousands of Jews who travel there annually for Rosh Hashanah. But most “damning” was his assertion that “God has not always protected us, not on European soil and not on Ukrainian  soil.”

This is not an opinion; it is a fact. Six million Jews died in Europe during the Shoah, and countless others in pogroms in Ukraine and elsewhere in earlier centuries. Whether or not this fits neatly into theological boxes is irrelevant; it is historical reality and cannot be denied. Sadly, those were times when God did not protect us.

As it happens, synagogues around the world read about this exact possibility just two days ago in the weekly Torah portion: “I will display anger against them on that day, and abandon them, and hide My face from them, and they will be devoured, and many evils and troubles will come upon them…” (Deut. 31:17)

It is impossible to fully understand when and why God hides His face; while the Bible explains that it is often a punishment for idolatry, the Talmud elaborates that the reality is more complex. Nevertheless, the fact that God is often hidden — and sometimes frightfully hidden — is a historical certainty anticipated by the Torah itself.

Like the Devil in Wiesel’s play, certain public religious figures and politicians immediately rushed to God’s defense, declaring Netanyahu’s words heretical, and claiming, against the words of the Bible, that God has always protected the Jewish people. The editor of the Hebrew magazine Mishpacha tweeted, “When the ‘head of the camp of the faithful’ opens his mouth with words of serious heresy — and all in an official statement from the Prime Minister’s Office — the entire theory of sweet Israel collapses like a tower of cards. In a place where there is desecration of the Divine Name and rude and impudent speech toward God — we don’t give Bibi any respect.” United Torah Judaism MK Yisrael Eichler went further, asserting that the Holocaust was caused by the “Zionists,” not by God’s hiddenness, and saying that Netanyahu was ignorant. Sadly, these are not lone voices; many other supposedly religious individuals made similar claims.

Let’s not forget that Netanyahu was not discussing abstract theology, but warning people from going to a country that is currently at war with an unpredictable Russia. The United States State Department issued a travel advisory that begins, simply and in bold letters, Do not travel to Ukraine due to Russia’s war against Ukraine. In echoing this warning, the prime minister was following the strict Torah requirement to do whatever is necessary to save lives. I do not approve of much of Netanyahu’s program, but in this particular instance, he was right, and advocated an approach in line with Torah Judaism.

When a secular prime minister who does not observe Shabbat or keep kosher supports following the Torah requirement of “You shall live by them” (Lev. 18:5) and repeats the theology of divine hiddenness that we publicly read two days ago, while those who claim to represent a religious worldview argue that words of Torah are absolute heresy… When religious journalists and politicians state that the book of Deuteronomy and history’s clear verdict are not authoritative, and instead advocate a shallow theology that violates Torah norms and thought and puts people’s lives in danger… We have begun to learn that merely claiming allegiance to the Torah has little or nothing to do with actually following God’s word. It has little or nothing to do with representing an authentically religious viewpoint. It has little or nothing to do with being a true servant of God. Superficial theology and dangerous interpretations of the Torah remain the work of Elie Wiesel’s Devil, no matter how large the kippah or black the hat worn by those who advocate them.

Strange days, indeed.

About the Author
Rabbi Scott Kahn is the CEO of Jewish Coffee House (www.jewishcoffeehouse.com) and the host of the Orthodox Conundrum Podcast and co-host of Intimate Judaism. You can see more of his writing at https://scottkahn.substack.com/.
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