Daniel Landes

Getting our heads straight: A letter to my students

Israeli soldiers patrol on a road near the Gaza border, October 9, 2023 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Israeli soldiers patrol on a road near the Gaza border, October 9, 2023 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

October 8, 2023 – 23 Tishrei 5784

Dear Talmidim/ot,

How do we get our heads straight? I’m not sure we can, but we must for the sake of our children, families, communities, nation, people, and for Judaism itself. What – I ask myself, as I ask you – what do we know regarding Jewish values on this terrible day?

Comfort – Nechamah

I know that extending comfort to a mourner is a unique and powerfully moral act. I also know that in this moment, comfort is almost impossible to be extended and seemingly cannot be accepted. The Talmud teaches us: “His dead [relative] lies before him” [and you extend comfort?]. To extend, accept, and seek comfort now when our dead lie in heaps and in the streets is morally grotesque. Of course, this is a particular law directed to an onen, which is our status at this moment.

As Rabbi Isaac Landes wrote in a letter to his students, “We have no words of comfort because we are all onenim (the period between the death of the relative and their burial) right now and one does not comfort an onen. In the coming days our dead will be buried, the magnitude of what transpired will sink in and in our pain we will all be able to console one another.

“Although the Onen is forbidden to study torah the Yashrut will continue its shiurim. The Jewish people desperately needs each of us to be as learned as they possibly can. It is incredibly hard to open a Gemara right now, but the needs of the community take precedence.”

Responsibility – Achrayut

I know that our government did not merely fail to protect our citizens. Our leaders, starting with our Prime Minister, shirked their responsibility. They cared only for power and escaping the consequences of political and ethical transgressions. I know that these immoral leaders – the Cabinet is full of them – are also inept buffoons, extremists, third raters, and seekers of demigod stature. From them, our salvation will not arrive. Somehow, they must be thrown out. I used to believe that no matter what, our leadership put the fate of Israel first. I now believe that they put themselves first, second, and down the line. At the least, we need a unity government with some sane professional leaders in decision-making positions. Our own task remains – each of us must find out how we can fulfill our own particular achrayut at this moment.

The Hope – HaTikvah

Is there hope? Absolutely yes, even though we screwed this up. We remain a valiant nation and an eternal people; and we have an old parent (yeh lanu Abba b’Shamayim) in heaven. And the men and women now called up from the reserves are outstanding in every way. Smart (often very smart), focused, and burning with a righteous rage tempered by cool judgment. They will lead us out of this morass that our “leadership” led us into. They will do all that is necessary and more. They are determined to save hostages and end the threat. These young men and women joining their comrades-in-arms mean to deliver us. We should do everything to help them.

Our Torah – Torateinu

My most cherished belief is that our Torah contains the pathway to a resplendent life individually and as a group. I have been a beneficiary and participant in Torah’s resurrection and resurgence post-Holocaust and in the State of Israel. However, I am spiritually crushed by its current manifestation in Haredi and Settler Orthodoxies with their isolationism, primitive fanaticism, sought out irrelevance in the Haredi model, and ethno-fascism in the Settler version. Modern Orthodoxy’s tendency and desire for a religious hedonism is also of little help. In none of these three, are vision or morality paramount. We shall need to build a better way with old-school rigor and a thought-out moral approach, which is Torah at its most holy. That must be our aspiration at Yashrut.

Judgment, Mercy – Din, Rachamim

The next stages in our war against Hamas will incur many challenges but at its heart, they will be moral. There is a need to exercise ‘Din’ – Rigorous Judgment – to counter Hamas and Co. who wish to harm us and our most vulnerable in the very worst ways. Yes, ‘Din’ means that we are judging them to be doing the very worst evil and requires that they must be stopped, even at a very high cost. It is not to be done vengefully or randomly. It must be focused and directed, even if there will certainly be collateral harm that cannot be avoided. But those who rise up to stop the evil ones are not to be blamed. Mercy – ‘Rachamim’ – applies only to those who are truly innocent and in harm’s way. Those who are the “support staff” or direct supporters of the evil fall under the purview of ‘Din’ in the spillover of its execution; but the innocent must be protected.

Peace – Shalom

In all the above there must be forward-minded people who also seek a path towards peace. While I support the defeat and death of Hamas and its ilk, we must finally make an effort to find reconciliation with the Palestinians. If not, we are all doomed. Working for peace and a just society for all may seem to be a dream, but it is the ultimate vision of Judaism.

Blessings of Achrayut, Yashrut, and the balancing of Din and Rachamim,

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Landes is founder and director of Yashrut, building civil discourse through a theology of integrity, justice, and tolerance. Yashrut includes a semikhah initiative as well as programs for rabbinic leaders.
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