‘I Have An Order’ — Passover Thoughts 5778

The State of Israel has transformed, and continues to change both the Jewish people and Judaism. Returning a few weeks ago from protecting shepherds on the Friday of the week we read the last two Torah portions of Exodus (Vayakehl-Pikudei), I reflected on the fact that four of the last five Torah portions in Exodus, and much of the book of Leviticus we are now reading relate to the sacrificial  cult that has largely disappeared from Judaism. That Judaism  morphed into rabbinic Judaism, I asked myself whether we are going through a similarly dramatic transition, a Judaism of “I have an order.”  (As the Russian officer tells Tevya in the film version of “Fiddler on the Roof.” )

For 2,000 years normative Judaism evolved, split and innovated, but largely within the framework created by the Talmudic sages. The Emancipation initiated a process that allowed significant numbers of Jews to live their lives largely or partially outside that rabbinic framework. The process begun with the Emancipation has taken a mega jump forward in our generation because of secularization and the creation of the Jewish state. Today, it is reasonable to ask whether we still live within the same rabbinic framework.

Change is not necessarily bad. In fact, it is often positive and even necessary. There is no way of stopping the changes that have occurred and are continuing to occur.  However, we ought to be asking ourselves what we are becoming, and whether we are happy with what we see when we look in the mirror.  While I don’t think it can be repeated, what is absolutely amazing about the transition to rabbinic Judaism is that our sages succeeded in carrying  it so thoughtfully, and with such a great deal of self awareness . They invested much thought and wisdom seeking to preserve what they perceived to be the core of Judaism while guiding us through enormous changes.  Sometimes our sages speak as if they are on a clear continuum with the past.  At other times, they make it clear that they know just what they are doing.

Passover is a great example of what our sages were doing.  We can divide Mishna Pesakhim into three parts. The first part deals with khametz (leaven), something that was relevant both at the time of the Temple cult, and afterwards. The second part deals with the Passover sacrifice that no longer existed in normative Judaism when Yehuda NaNasi finalized the Mishna in the year 2000.  The third section contains the outline of the Passover seder.  Most scholars believe that the seder didn’t exist before the destruction of the Second Temple, and is a creation of our sages. It integrates verses from the Torah and rabbinic sayings, including from sages who taught before the destruction.  Many scholars also point out that the seder borrows from the Greek symposium

Again, we should be asking where we are heading today.  Even those who are a part of Diaspora Judaism, or don’t reject Diaspora Judaism, or who reject Zionism and/or Israeli Judaism, cannot deny the enormous influence that the State of Israel has on almost all aspects of the Jewish world.  It is also true that it is impossible to properly run a country without a culture of obedience to the law.  This is all the more true regarding an army.  In other words, the very existence of the State requires a change in the pluralism that has characterized much of rabbinic Judaism.  For all that some decry coercive tendencies in Orthodox Judaism, the fact is that our sages were able to put contradictory interpretations on one page of midrash (commentary), record their disagreements in the Talmud and even tolerate different forms of praxis.

In many ways Israel is also an incredibly pluralistic country.  I know that my view may be somewhat skewed because in my line of work I constantly interact with soldiers and police officer who must obey orders.  However, I often say to soldiers, “Today you are in uniform.  You must obey orders.  However, you are also a citizen with a right to vote.  You don’t owe me an answer, but you owe one to yourself and to God.  Remember what you saw here and what you were commanded to do today.   Every once in a while I see that the words sink in or at least plant a seed.  Many times the commanding officer commands his soldiers/officers not to listen, or at least not to respond.

Without soldiers and police officers saying a word, I can see that the fact that that they have an order that has behind it the authority of the sovereign State justifies just about anything.  There is nothing I can say that is more infuriating and provocative than when I say to soldiers, particularly in the Occupied Territories, where it is very common to talk about the army as the “ribon b’shetakh-the authority in the area” that for us the Palestinians we are trying to protect are the local authority.

When I first started to write these Passover thoughts, I debated whether or not bring up the case of the Kfar Kassem massacre in 1956.  At the outbreak of the Sinai War a curfew was imposed on all Israeli Arabs, and orders were given to shoot to kill any who violated the order.  On the first day of the curfew, many farmers were returning from their fields, and didn’t know there was a curfew.  Most officers refused to carry out the order, but some did in Kfar Kassem.  A military court convicted them.  Although today we bristle at any comparison with the Holocaust, the Court at that time intentionally wrote that “just following orders” is not an excuse.  The Court ruled that a soldier has an obligation to disobey a clearly illegal order that has a “black flag flying over it.”

My original thought was to ask the question how many soldiers would refuse to carry out that order today, and what the Court would do. On the one hand, the soldiers who refused the order acted in the tradition of the Hebrew midwives who disobeyed Pharaoh.  The midwives are an essential part of the Exodus story and I mention the every year in my “Haggadah Inserts.”  On the other hand, I thought that it is not feasible for an army to be based on every soldier judging every order, and not fair to compare even some of the orders that I see as immoral with intentionally shooting and killing those who are not posing a danger to anybody.

However, things have changed since last Friday.  (Not that there have been other somewhat comparable situations during the ensuing years.) I don’t pretend to know what actually happened on the Gaza border.  As a long time human rights activist, I know that we too must be very careful about running to draw conclusions, and the proper thing to do at this point is to demand a transparent independent Israeli investigation.  I hope that such an investigation will not only look at what happened last Friday, but also ask whether alternatives such as ending the Gaza closure might have prevented last Friday from taking place at all.   I do know that our Defense Minister seems to be saying that the army’s live fire orders include shooting to kill an unarmed person approaching the security fence, and will not change.  Our fellow human rights organization “B’Tselem is publicly reminding soldiers that they must disobey illegal orders, while Defense Minister Lieberman is calling B’Tselem’s action “sedition.”

We might be better off looking at what happens on a daily basis, and not at such an extreme and extraordinary case.  Those of you who follow me on facebook know that for the past several weeks (actually much longer) we (Torat Tzedek and Ta’ayush) have been intensively dealing with how the power of the Jewish State manifests itself in control over the lives of Palestinian shepherds in the Jordan Valley.  These aren’t the worst human rights violation we deal with.  It isn’t shoot to kill orders.  This isn’t villages with an immediate threat of being wiped out, such as Susya, Umm Al Hiran or Al Araqib. Arguably there is a  greater threat to Israelis living in poverty, and in need of a roof over their heads.  However what is awful in the case of the Jordan Valley is the banal, thoughtless normality and regularity of settlers instructing the army to issue non-security related closure orders for the sole purpose of keeping Palestinians out of what they have decided is their territory. A gun and an order allows soldiers to unquestioningly embitter the lives of Palestinian shepherds, and make it harder for them to earn a living.

Sometimes the settlers take the law into their own hands. Sometimes the army restrains them, and sometimes the army looks the other way.  Recently near the Mevuot Yerikho outpost I had to physically stand in front of a settler vehicle that was trying to drive into, or at least close to a flock of sheep while honking, in order to drive them away.  On several occasions we tried to form a human chain around one settler “jogging” among the sheep and shouting, and another banging pot lids together.  The army officer present in the first instance said he saw nothing wrong, other than the fact that I stood in front of a vehicle.  A police officer in a unit dealing with settler violence told me that he would have to see for himself whether driving through a flock was illegal.  The driver might be just exercising his write to get to the other side.

However, in many cases the problem is the orders being carried out by the army itself.  This week an officer actually said to me, “I don’t need an order.  You are bothering me, and your presence is a provocation.”  After threatening and blustering, and almost arresting a shepherd, he eventually waited for an order to arrive.  He then ordered the shepherds out of an area much broader than the order actually mandated.  (We were only able to determine that later, and the shepherds had been willing to leave because it was almost the time to leave in any case.)

A few weeks ago there was a sort of Khad Gadya.  First came the settlers, who claimed that they had an agreement with a local sheikh that the fields next to Mevuot Yerikho were for settler sheep only.  When the shepherds said that this sheikh had no authority to speak for them, the settlers called the army, and showed him a 1994 closure order.  The officer first said that he wasn’t sure that the 1994 was in effect. Once his superiors assured that it was, he was willing to carry it out. ” Wait”, I asked, “Where are we in relation to the map with the order?  Maybe we are outside the map?”  He didn’t know, but wanted to expel us anyway. When we weren’t so ready to comply, a police officer arrived.  He made it clear that the order the army had was “Kharta,” a joke.  However, he also made it clear that once there was a proper order, he would carry it out.  He told the army officer, “We need the Civil Administration.”  The Civil Administration arrived.  They didn’t know either, and asked for two days to figure it out.  One army officer dared to ask, “If we say the shepherds can’t graze their flocks, here, there, or there, where can they graze them?”  He didn’t receive an answer.  Since then the Civil Administration has been on strike, so there is still no answer. The army has solved the problem, as indicated above, by both issuing temporary orders and by looking the other way when settlers expel the shepherds from areas the army says that the shepherds are permitted to use.

The point is that nobody — not the settlers, nor the harsh officers, nor the more decent officers, knew how to ask whether Israel has the right to be issuing orders. They all agreed that a “proper” order could be carried out by force. They pointedly said to me, “Once there is a proper order of the sovereign State of Israel, you will of course accept it, correct?” I asked, “How many of these shepherds can vote for the Knesset?  How many Palestinian judges are there on the courts where they can appeal our laws and military dictates?  We neither include Palestinians in our democracy, nor accord them the protections that  international law mandates for just such situations.   The purpose of the laws regulating occupation is to trump state sovereignty in order to protect an occupied and disenfranchised population.”  Some of them rolled their eyes in exasperation or stared blankly, or looked at me as if I had just come from another planet.  For others, it was clear that they saw me as a disgusting radical leftist piece of dirt.

Those who bothered to answer on this and other occasions, simply said, “But I have an order.”

The Zionist movement aimed to create a new/old Jew, very different than the Diaspora Jew.  Zionism has succeeded, but not in the thought out way of our Talmudic sages.  There have been many initiatives in recent years attempting to chart a course, but it is probably impossible.  The Jewish world is too broad, diverse and divided.  However, we at least need more self awareness.  With all the blessings that the State of Israel has brought about, we can’t ignore the rapid changes in Israel’s national  character that impact on the entire Jewish world. Some would say that I am deluding myself and idealizing the past.  However, I believe that the vast majority of Israelis are the good and decent people living an illusion.  Were even the most right wing Israelis to put aside their defenses and look in the mirror, would we like what they see?

I admit that I would like to see many more of us following the path of the Hebrew midwives and the airplane pilots, engaging in civil disobedience.  As we recall on the seventh day of Passover Nakhshon Ben Amidav leading all of the Israelites into the sea before the sea parted, I would like to see more of us taking bold and decisive action.

I am prepared for the fact that others who think very differently than me may also chose to engage in civil disobedience.  My first week at my former organization, Rabbis For Human Rights, I argued that we couldn’t argue against religious soldiers obeying their rabbis, but must try to convince those soldiers through religious and other arguments when we felt that their rabbis were wrong.

Recognizing that maintaining a state and an army would be impossible if we were all midwives and Nakhshons, I would at least like to see more of us following the seder tradition of asking questions.  One of my favorite buttons that I wore as a college student was “Question Authority,” and every year in our freedom seders with asylum seekers we sing Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery.  None but ourselves can free our minds.” We also need to emancipate the goodness and decency that I know is deep inside my fellow Israelis, even if sometimes it is hidden.

For us to truly free our minds and navigate the changes we must go through with self awareness, we ought to remember that our sages never intended the four questions to be the only questions we ask on seder night.  They were merely examples.  We must certainly ask “Ma Nishtana – What has changed.”  We should also be asking “Maduah histanah-Why have we changed,” “Ha’Im ha’shinuim tovim-Have the changes been good,” “Eikh anakhnu rotzim lhishtanot-How do we wish to change,” and “Eikh ani torem/et l’shinui sh’anakhnu rotzim?-How do I contribute to the change we desire.”  Seder night has passed, but on the seventh day of Passover we jump into the water.

Khag Sameakh,


About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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