Alon Goshen-Gottstein
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No, Ishay Ribo, you can’t say that anymore

The beloved musician's new Passover song says only Israel knows God and all others worship only idols. That's terrible theology
Singer Ishay Ribo performs live in Gush Etzion, on August 24, 2022. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Singer Ishay Ribo performs live in Gush Etzion, on August 24, 2022. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Ishay Ribo is possibly Israel’s most important singer today. A young religious singer, his music cuts across all segments of Israeli society. He is the only singer beloved by religious, ultra-religious and secular people. His music touches the heart. It certainly touches mine and I look forward to every release of his. He has often brought me to tears with the combination of moving lyrics, profound tunes and a delivery that combines simplicity, depth and profound spiritual aspiration.

I just saw Ribo released a new single for Passover. A feast ahead of a feast-day. However, to my dismay, this is not the feast I had hoped for. It is a bomb (pun intended) that can cause huge harm. I imagine the singer is totally unaware of the potential harm his song can cause if it rises in the charts. If I can glimpse his heart through his music, his is a pure heart that seeks to unite and generate love. Yet, the message he delivers in the song has the potential of delivering hate and leading to violence.

The song is a paean to the people of Israel, a special and unique people. It is released on Passover eve when the people of Israel celebrate their coming into being. Though composed long ago, as his Facebook page states, it is released during a time of great disunity within the people, ostensibly in an attempt to profile what we have in common rather than what divides us. So, at least, it was understood in the press, where it is described as being released “in the spirit of these days and under the inspiration of Passover”.

Ribo, regrettably, falls into the trap of letting words, associations and biblical texts deliver a message that I would hope he never intended to deliver, and that his Yeshiva studies ought to have taught him is not the right message to be sounding. Riffing on ma nishtana, Ribo speaks of “our people” rather than “this night” and why it is different. He could have chosen any of a million answers for why this people is different from others. Yet, he makes a move that draws from biblical texts (Ps. 115) of associating Israel the people with Israel’s God. Accordingly, what makes Israel special, in the words of the catchy refrain, made all the catchier because it echoes the tune of ma nishtana: All people’s idols neither see nor hear. In other words, what makes the people of Israel special is that they alone have god, and all nations worship only idols who are lifeless.

This is absolutely terrible theology, about to be popularized by Israel’s most popular singer, at a time when religious extremism is on the rise – a song with the potential of replacing “your village should be burned” in the mouth of religious extremists.

Why is it terrible theology? Because no one – absolutely no halachic or aggadic authority – subscribes to the view that today only Israel knows God, and all others only worship idols. These biblical words have been followed by thousands of years of Jewish reflection and Jewish ruling that have established the legitimacy of at least some other religions, possibly all. For Rambam, some religions, like Islam, worship our God, or rather we and Muslims worship the same God. For others, like Meiri, all present-day religions worship the same God, despite theological differences. To lift up a verse from Psalms, out of context, with no regard for historical evolution, and to make it the catchy refrain that defines Jewish singularity is a sin.

It is a sin not because it ignores the unfolding of Jewish thought and halachic understanding. It is a sin because this leads to religious violence. Remember the arson at the Church of Fish and Loaves? The “prooftext” that justified this action was taken from the liturgy – idols will be wiped away. Consider the hotheads from Huwara, the religious extremists on the right, the increasing polarization not only from within but also in relation to our surroundings. Ribo, do you really wish to empower those who seek to deliver their own set of plagues upon their neighbors, even their enemies, with a theological reasoning to justify their violence?

My dear Ishay Ribo, whose heart has touched mine so often, I plead with you. Issue a clarification, an explanation. Say clearly that this song does not suggest these views. Tell us that you wrote this song when you were a teenager, before you knew better, and that in any event, you recognize that the teaching you offer is not valid contemporary Jewish teaching. Distance yourself from the potential harm this song can bring about and continue to be the beacon of love and unity that by God’s grace you have become. And please ensure this love does not stop only with your own people. Israel’s message is broader and you are a part of all that is good and beautiful in Israel.

Note: The problem that emerges from Ribo’s single is representative of deeper challenges for Jewish thought. A group of Jewish thinkers has tackled these issues in Alon Goshen-Gottstein (ed), Judaism’s Challenge: Election, Divine Love and Human Enmity, Academic Studies Press, Boston, 2020.

About the Author
Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.