On a recent trip to Israel I spotted some unusual graffiti: “Am Yisrael Chai,” written in royal blue Hebrew letters on a pillar holding up an overpass. The truth is that I have seen this graffiti many times before. In fact, a friend who saw this writing on a wall years earlier loved it. “What a country!,” she said. “Even the graffiti is meaningful!”
My friend was probably thinking of the song he learned in summer camp sung with gusto from young Jewish hearts around a lake and campfire. He was not thinking of the way statements like these are the stuff of politics, stamping an agenda on the highways and byways of our beloved homeland.
Desecration of public property is still illegal no matter if it is from the Bible, the pope or William Shakespeare. The fact that you like what it says should not vitiate the crime. Besides, what’s meaningful for one person is a mark of offense for another. Graffiti is another way we impose our personal views of politics, religion and sex on those who may not share them. If your views are so important to you that you need an audience, buy a bumper sticker and desecrate your car.
This particular time, however, I was acutely aware of how graffiti like this is a way of marring the collective investment in our country. The graffiti went along with the litter that had gathered at roadsides, the spillage of public dumpsters onto the streets and the not unusual citing of drivers pulling over on a street side to urinate publicly. (Several years ago, I wanted to create a political party in Israel with the motto, “Don’t pish on the kvish”[the road]). This represents more than public informality or neglect. It is an expression of profound disrespect. We shouldn’t clean up nicely for visiting dignitaries but let the place go for family.
There was, of course, an added dimension of frustration this particular week because news broke that the outgoing Israeli chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, was being investigated on charges of alleged money laundering, fraud and bribery, a month before new elections for his post. He suspended himself from his job; it was the least he could do.
The banner headlines were humiliating, another way of littering in Israel, allowing a public office rather than a public space to become tainted and dirty. If the rabbi is convicted, the news will get worse.
This incident suggests a larger question that has been asked for years: What does it mean to have a chief rabbi?
Sadly, scandals like these shock us only for a moment. Then we sigh as if we knew it would happen all along. The controversy over the Chief Rabbinate’s ongoing existence is not helped by Rabbi Metzger’s alleged antics. Those against having such an office at all probably smirked at the news as just another nail in the coffin of rabbinic authority on a senior political level. But we would be remiss to isolate this breach from others, from the larger spiritual detritus and litter of which this is only a small part.
I thought of the words of prophets like Jeremiah and Malachi ringing the corridors of the shuk and the Knesset. In resonant voices, the prophets would bemoan what we have allowed, the filth and shame that abuse of rabbinic office brings to our spiritual heart and center. It is time for a big moral cleanup.
Let’s start with the Chief Rabbinate. It’s time to wipe up the graffiti, pick up the trash and rethink what we are looking for in spiritual exemplars. And please don’t think that if you are not a passport holder or a resident that you have nothing to do with the mess. If it is our shared dream, then its problems are our problems. This is our house. We built it together, and it’s one we must continue to nurture with love, respect and tolerance.
Functional, happy families know that it’s more important to clean house for those you love than for strangers. It is time to clean house. During these weeks when we mark the ancient destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, let’s remind ourselves of the words in the first chapter of Isaiah: “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight. Stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice…”
Erica Brown is the scholar-in-residence for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Her column appears the first week of the month.