Echoes from the Past: Prophetic Insights into Israeli Controversy
The more people you listen to, the more you realize that things are not as clear as they seem. Everyone seems a bit confused, and that might be why we have such a multitude of different opinions and ideas in the world. You could call it diversity, but it’s not necessarily the ideal state of things. Wouldn’t it be peaceful if we all thought the same? Sure, it might be boring, but it seems to be the goal we are striving for. Why else would we put effort into reaching a common understanding? We yearn for unity, not division. This applies to everyone, but within Judaism, the confusion can sometimes seem to hit new heights.
Take the Talmud, part of our vast ‘Oral Torah’, which ironically, we now primarily encounter in a written format. This text, originally intended to be passed down orally from generation to generation, was eventually recorded out of necessity, as history’s tumultuous waves threatened to wash away our heritage. In preserving these oral teachings in written form, we inevitably introduced a new facet of our religious practice: debate and varied interpretations. Now, the Talmud serves as our compass, guiding us through the maze of Jewish law. Yet, it also stands as a stirring reminder of a past era – a time when these laws, unwritten, were woven seamlessly into the very fabric of daily life, known intimately through constant review and discussion. Look at the wide array of opinions within Judaism or the ongoing political disagreements within Israeli society. These disputes are not just about politics, but about values and worldviews. Debates get heated, with people screaming and storming out. The continuous protests and demonstrations in Israel are not merely signs of a vibrant democracy but markers of a deeply divided society. Even the formation of modern Israel wasn’t without controversy. Some argue that the Messiah, not people, should restore Israel. There might be some truth in that, just like every opinion holds a grain of truth. What we can all agree on is that we are far from living in messianic times. Insisting otherwise can be both disheartening and dangerous.
So, what is our goal? What do we, as humans, as Jews, and as a state, aspire to? If we can’t answer this, we need to stop and reflect. Should our ultimate goal be to live forever with diverging opinions? Is the pinnacle of our aspirations “just” democracy and compromise? If you believe in a single eternal G-d, then democracy cannot be the final goal. With one G-d, there should be one truth and one path. If G-d doesn’t exist in your worldview, then it’s unlikely that one single idea will ever satisfy everyone. These two types of thinkers exist within Israeli society, and it’s this fundamental difference – belief in G-d or no belief – that lies at the heart of our divisions. A wise person once told me, if you want to walk life’s journey with someone, you both need to have the same destination in mind. Otherwise, you’ll end up going separate ways. It seems this is what’s happening among Jews in Israel – we’re losing each other because we’re chasing different goals.
Fortunately, those who wish to restore peace can take solace in the fact that this is not the first time we’ve been here. History is full of instances where we lost our way, focused on our individual understanding, and ended up fighting each other. Just last Shabbat (Devarim), we read a passage from the prophets about these recurring divisions. The passage resonated with me, reminding me of Rabbi Hirsch’s words from the nineteenth century, suggesting that perhaps all synagogues should close for a century to allow us to rebuild G-d’s temple in our lives.
Hear the word of the Lord… What purpose is your multitude of sacrifices to Me? says the Lord. I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of beasts; and I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of he-goats. When you come to appear before Me, who has required this at your hand, to trample My courts? … Your new moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates; they have become a burden to Me, I am weary of bearing them. When you spread forth your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; though you make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes, cease to do evil. Learn to do good, seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow…Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; everyone loves bribes, and follows after rewards; they do not defend the fatherless, neither does the cause of the widow come to them. (Isaiah 1:10-17, 23)
The passage contains a biting critique that is particularly relevant to religious Jews, but its meaning goes beyond that and extends into our contemporary context. Indeed, we are all fallible, and the act of self-reflection is not only an essential part of our lives, but also a commandment for those who walk the religious path – we are instructed to reflect and improve. There is a tendency to perceive ourselves as superior, backed up by the belief that we have G-d in our lives, which leads to an unjustified arrogance toward those who do not share this divine connection. True devotion to G-d, however, does not produce arrogance. If we truly embraced G-d, we would not nurture a sense of superiority, for G-d’s presence encourages humility and respect for all.
If G-d can criticize us for making vain offerings, if esteemed rabbis like Samson Raphael Hirsch can advocate for closing synagogues to refocus our faith, then we must constantly reassess our thoughts and actions. If we identify as G-d’s servants, we need to ask ourselves if we’re promoting good, if we’re acting justly, if we’re helping the marginalized. But if we’re more concerned with protecting our institutions and values than living them out, if we’re more concerned with restoring the holy temple than embodying the values it stands for, we’re doing something wrong.
Our leaders, too, must reflect upon themselves. Yet they often deny the truth. Just last week, Netanyahu blatantly denied the fact that not everyone likes him during an interview with Lex Friedman. Similarly, Bennett, one of the few reasoned voices among politicians, lost support from religious Jews. I remember a Chareidi soldier in my basic training labeled him a ‘goy’ for traveling to Russia on Shabbat. Unfortunately, this is just one of many misguided and hurtful comments made by religious Jews.
Our nation is divided. In times of crisis, religious Jews often interpret these as signs of the Messiah’s impending arrival. You can make your own conclusions, but in my opinion, this is just an easy way out. The harder, yet more rewarding path, is to strive for peace ourselves, not wait for a mystical savior. We can create peace without chaos, but it requires introspection. We must question ourselves. Are we, as G-d’s servants, doing everything right? Or are the godless ones causing chaos? It would be convenient to blame them because it would mean we don’t have to change ourselves. But such arrogance is not just a rejection of G-d but also raises questions about our own behavior. The secular population of Israel is no worse than the religious population. Every society has its bad apples. As long as there is even a hint of injustice within us, we have no grounds to judge others, regardless of how godless they may be. And even if we were perfect, we would not have the right to do so. Yet we do – we look down on others, judge them, and sometimes even harm them. How can we dream of going to the Temple Mount in such a state, treading on it with our dirty soles?
Reflection and renewal are more critical than ever, as G-d, through His prophet, has asked for. We must heed this call.