Sid Schwarz

Is ‘Purification’ Possible?

I just returned from my first, post 10/7 trip to Israel. A widely held view in Israel, that I heard expressed in a variety of different ways is: everything has to be re-thought. Included on that list are: the ability of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to keep Israelis safe; the belief in the Israeli government and its ability to govern competently; whether Israel is the antidote to age-old antisemitism or the cause of new forms of anti-Jewish sentiment around the world; the implications of Israel’s growing diplomatic isolation in the international community; and much more.

It was hard to wrap my brain around some of these profoundly big questions while on the ground in Israel. Spending time with people who I love in a country that I love seemed to more immediately require heart strength, not brain power. Israel is a country in trauma. The atrocities and deaths of 10/7, the knowledge of women, children, the elderly and others, still held hostage in the tunnels of Gaza, the daily casualty counts of IDF soldiers, all weigh heavily on the hearts and minds of Israelis. Nor are Israelis unaware of the humanitarian crisis and rising death toll in Gaza, which affects many civilians who are as much victims of Hamas’s insidious actions as are Israelis. Walking through Hostage Square in the middle of Tel Aviv or on the Nova Music Festival site only miles from Gaza, is akin to a visit to Yad Vashem but it is far more raw because of how recently the events being memorialized took place.

As a rabbi, I try to see if our sacred texts can offer any wisdom about a situation so profoundly destabilizing as all that I witnessed in Israel. I was in Israel for Shabbat Zachor, the shabbat that precedes Purim. I was back in my home congregation in Bethesda, MD for Shabbat Parah, one of the “special” shabbatot that marks the countdown to Pesach. I could not help but read the Biblical passages differently this year, refracted through all that has transpired these past six months.

On Shabbat Zachor we read a section from Deuteronomy ch. 25 from a second scroll for maftir. It recounts how the nation of Amalek, seeing the children of Israel making their way from Egypt to the Land of Israel, attack Israel from behind, targeting those who were most vulnerable. In Jewish tradition, the phrase zachor at Amalek, “remember what Amalek (did to you)” has always been used to remind Jews of those who might seek to do our people harm. It also suggests a party that is utterly lacking in morality or common decency. The positioning of this Biblical reading prior to Purim is intentional because it reminds Jews that, in every generation, there are forces in the world that would like to destroy us (to paraphrase a line from the Passover Haggadah).

This sentiment is an important reminder, but it is also dangerous. We are living in a time when extremists from a wide array of religions declare “holy war” against those whose very existence is characterized as a threat to the realization of their respective religion’s messianic aspirations. Jews are not immune from using religious themes as a way to stir up hate, intolerance and “holy war”. In 1994, Baruch Goldstein, an American Orthodox Jew who made aliyah to Israel, entered the mosque built on the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, shot to death 29 Muslims, and wounded another 130, all of whom were there in order to worship. The massacre took place immediately prior to Purim and Goldstein was reported to have said that these Arabs were the modern-day Amalek.

Goldstein’s grave in Hebron, is visited by many Orthodox Jewish settlers in the West Bank who consider him a hero. Yigal Amir, who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, was among those who were “inspired” by Baruch Goldstein. When current Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, compared Hamas to Amalek in a speech outlining Israel’s military objectives in Gaza in November 2023, he was taking a page from a time-worn religious playbook. Wiping out Hamas was a religious duty. This is a “holy war”.

Today, Israel and Gaza are territories awash in blood and death. Because I walked through the sites of massacres on October 7th, I know many of the names of the victims and even a bit about their lives because of the memorabilia placed on those sites by members of their families. I know far less about some of the Palestinian civilians killed in Gaza as a result of Israel’s military actions against Hamas but I’ve seen enough footage and read enough news accounts that has led me to include them and their families in my prayers for peace in the region.

This too was on my heart and mind as I read the passages for Shabbat Parah this past shabbat. The special Biblical reading comes from Numbers ch. 19, and it tells of the practice of sacrificing an unblemished red heifer, mixing its ashes with water to create a healing potion that would purify individuals from the impurity that results from contact with a dead body. Like many Biblical practices, this one is long obsolete. Many would consider it irrelevant for our time.

It occurred to me that the trauma of October 7th, that has affected every person I met in Israel, is not unlike the “impurity” described in Numbers 19. Death and impending death loom over every person who lives in Israel. It affects the way people talk with one another, make decisions in their everyday life; engage with the world. The same can be said for the Palestinians who live in Gaza who have seen dozens of family members killed, thousands living in the streets without adequate shelter and children starving to death. This is a generation, both Israelis and Arabs, that will be scarred for life. The unfolding tragedy, triggered by the Hamas attacks of October 7th, will shape the future of the region, for better or for worse.

The end of that last sentence might strike the reader as odd. How can the tragedy possibly be “for better”? I have always believed that the power of Torah and of our Jewish tradition is that it helps us take the long view and not become overly myopic in the circumstances of the moment. When a person is experiencing trauma, their ability to make good judgments is impaired. This is even more true for nations in trauma, (e.g. the United States post 9/11). When I re-read the red heifer purification ritual in the context of my experiences of the past few weeks, I realized that the impurity that our ancestors believed resulted from contact with the dead, is not that different from the “impurity” of two nations acting and re-acting out of deep historical trauma.

The world stood in awe when Nelson Mandela emerged from prison, became the president of South Africa, and then, instead of launching a policy of revenge and retribution against the purveyors of apartheid that caused untold suffering on black South Africans, appointed Desmond Tutu to lead a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That process was a process of “purification” from the cycle of violence that poisoned South Africa for generations. Thirty-five countries have engaged in similar reconciliation processes since the mid-1970’s, in each case, to help a country heal from ethnic, religious and political divisions that have been a source of oppression, civil wars and death.

The pairing of Shabbat Zachor and Shabbat Parah offers insight into how we might turn religion from a force that leads to hatred, intolerance and suffering into a force that can lead to reconciliation, compassion and peace. Trauma and death can easily be invoked by political leaders to wage “holy wars” to avenge past events. Indeed, history is replete with examples of this dysfunctional, cycle of violence. But we also have examples of political leaders with a unique visionary ability to look past the trauma of the moment, and to inspire their people with the possibilities of peace. Yitzhak Rabin modeled that kind of leadership, as did Nelson Mandela. Rabin and Mandela give us examples of leaders who convinced their respective people to break the cycle of violence that plagued them and their respective countries. They saw to it that “purification” was possible.

Israel/Palestine sits at the junction of the three great Abrahamic traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. That is at least one reason why the eyes of the world focus so closely on the region even as “holy wars,” persecution and death are ongoing in dozens of other regions around the world. That is also the reason why tens of thousands of people around the world feel like “stakeholders” in the outcome of the current conflict. However, only when we break free of tribal narratives that condemn us to perpetuating the cycle of violence and revenge over and over again, will we be open to the possibility of a peaceful way forward. That would be a true re-imagining of the ritual of purification that can bring a blessing of shalom into the world.

About the Author
Rabbi Sid Schwarz is a senior fellow at Adamah: People, Planet, Purpose (formerly, Hazon) where he directs Kenissa: Communities of Meaning Network as well as the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI), a program that trains rabbis to be visionary spiritual leaders. He is the author of several books, most recently, Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future. He is the founding rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, MD.
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