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Red hens and red lines – A new essay

One day, a little red hen found some grains of wheat lying on the path. “Wow” she exclaimed “with a bit of effort, I can turn this into a delicious loaf of bread”. She gathered her friends, the cat, the rabbit and the frog, and invited them to help her plant the grains of wheat.  “Not I!” they all said.  “Very well” said the hen “I shall plant them myself”. And she did!  Soon the wheat was ripe for cutting. The little red hen invited her three friends to help her cut the wheat. “Not I” they all declaimed. “Very well” said the hen “I shall cut it myself”. And she did!  Soon the wheat was cut and ready to be taken to the mill to be turned into flour.  “Who will help me take it to the mill?” asked the little red hen of her three friends. “ Not I” they all chanted. So the little red hen carried the wheat to the mill and carried the flour home. She invited her three friends to help her bake the bread.  “Too busy!” they all said.  The little red hen set to work. She mixed and kneaded the dough.  She let the dough rise and she baked it in the oven. The aroma was intoxicating! “We cannot wait to sample this delicious bread!” chorused the cat, the rabbit and the frog.  Said the little red hen: “You wouldn’t help me plant, nor cut, nor grind the wheat into flour, nor knead the dough nor bake the bread. So I shall also excuse you from helping me to eat the bread!”  (Classic folk tale.)

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My wife and I, thank G-D, recently returned safely from a wonderful trip to Israel, our first in four years. The pandemic and my wife’s challenging health issues had for too long barred our path. Our two youngest grandchildren were known to us only from photos and the occasional Skype hook-up. We marvelled at little Estee’s winsome smile and tiny Yaeli’s powerful lungs!  We kvelled at how our older grandchildren had not only grown but had grown up!  Residing as we did in their yechida (annex) next door, we enjoyed quality and quantity time with our daughter, son-in-law and the einiklach, Unlike the cat, the rabbit and the frog in the story above, we were only too happy to pitch in with babysitting, picking up the grandkids from school, bits of shopping, etc. and in turn our children honoured us with royal hospitality including inviting us to a sheva berachot at which they catered for almost thirty people in their spacious Ramat Bet Shemesh home. Yes you could say we were proud!

However that was not my purpose in presenting the Little Red Hen story. (Incidentally, the story beautifully illustrates the miracle of delectable bread emerging, via a painstaking series of stages, from  a little clump of wheat. Which is one reason why, in Judaism, bread is the ‘king’ of foods and HaMotsi the prince of berakhot..)

It is said that grandparents enjoy the nachas (satisfaction) without the achrayus (responsibility). What we certainly believe to be true is: grandparents should give advice only when it is asked for. We do not interfere in the way our daughter and son-in-law bring up their children (not that we feel we have any need to!). But especially in light of the fact that, living as we do 12,000k away, we are not there in situ most of the time to help them, it would be absolutely chutzpadik of us to gratuitously comment on the way they run their own and their children’s lives. We aren’t there most of the time to help them do the hard graft, and we are especially grateful to be able to enjoy the rich fruits of their labour albeit for only three or four weeks a year!

So much for grandparents. How much more of a red line it is when well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) friends or even strangers offer unsolicited advice or, worse, criticisms, on how we run our lives or our homes.

Imagine the following scenario: You are a regular family. You invite Mr. Lookerman, a distant cousin, and his wife and kids to your home for a Sunday barbeque. Their kids are under strict instructions to behave angelically.  Your kids behave like normal kids do.  The Lookermans proffer gratuitous criticism on everything from your children’s conduct to their schooling to the food you serve them to your décor to the lay-out of your sprawling backyard. They turn out to be the guests from hell! You will doubtless not be inviting them again.

But what if the Lookermans haven’t actually been around to your place in five years? Ten years? Or they have never been around to your place! Their connection with you, apart from being third cousins twice removed, is tenuous.  They suddenly start spreading rumours based on hearsay in the wider family about your home, your children, the way you live your life. You’re too frum, you’re politically extreme, your children are out of line. Now you hear that, to your great dismay and consternation, a few of your very own siblings have joined the stinging chorus of criticism! Two of your sons have actually been singled out for excoriation! Would you not feel outraged?  Violated? Possibly to the extent of going to litigation via a din Torah?

Now let us take another scenario as shocking as the one above, but on a macro, not a micro, scale. The one difference is that this scenario is being played out now before our very eyes.

Israel has just been through their fifth national election in four years. At last a decisive result has been achieved.  Israel is an open democracy, and the citizenry of Israel have spoken. Hopefully, a stable government is on the brink of being formed which stands an excellent chance of going to its full four-year term.

But wait!  Israel’s distant cousins, mostly those who have never set foot in the country, are not happy.  Not in the least.  I refer here to the bulk of American Jewry affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements. They have spread innuendo and falsehood as well as engaged in blistering ad hominem attacks upon individuals within the coalition-elect, one of whom was likened by a Reform leader to the head of the Ku Klux Klan.  They would like nothing better than for their diluted brand of “Judaism-lite” to be imported into the country on a mass scale. Except of course they have no intention of leaving the comfort of their colonial-style homes to make aliya. Their younger members are assimilated to the extent of 60% out-married. Before too long they will become a separate demographic, irrevocably split from Torah Jewry.

But sadly there is more.  Our own Australian roof bodies – with the notable exception of AJA – who, until twenty maybe ten years ago, aligned with traditional Orthodoxy and stood shoulder to shoulder with Israel and her government unconditionally as loyal brothers, have undermined Israel and her ultra-democratic proportional-representation system by dogmatically proclaiming the conditions under which they will accept the newly-elected Israeli government and those under which they won’t.  Sections of the Australian Jewish press have done likewise. Segments of the mainstream UK Jewish community too have weighed in.   Since when is it for them to accept or not accept?  Are they Israeli citizens?  Did they vote? Have they been victims, directly or indirectly, of murderous, sustained Palestinian Arab terrorism including shootings, stabbings, car-ramming attacks, the lynching of Jews, the torching of synagogues and (only last week) the fatal planting of nail-packed bombs at Jerusalem bus stops?

UK Jewry and Australian Jewry, unlike American Jewry, are predominantly Orthodox or staunchly traditional. The raucous noise coming from UK and Australian “Jewish officialdom” does not represent the consensus among these communities.  More importantly, they do not represent the consensus in Israel. And absent their becoming burden-carrying, tax-paying citizens, they have absolutely no right to spread negative and destructive talk about the happenings in the State of Israel, land of their brothers and sisters.  Have they no conception what damage this breaking of ranks can have in the wider community?  If Diaspora Jews do not defend the integrity of Israeli decision-making, how can we ever expect the support of our diaspora governments?

(On a pragmatic note: it might also rightfully be acknowledged by these destructive critics that the act of bringing ultra-right hawks into government and facilitating their “mainstreaming”  is actually a very perspicacious psychological strategy.)

These nay-sayers purport to be our friends. But they don’t behave as friends, any more than do the nay-saying cat, rabbit and frog to the little red hen.  They are not willing to share the burden of living in Israel yet they feel an entitlement to be not only “fellow-consumers” at the table of debate but to presume to dictate to the host how he should be distributing his bread!

In doing so they are crossing a deep red line.

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PS Every trip to Israel must yield a “taxi-driver story”.  In Netanya, we hailed a taxi from the hotel, where Judith and I had celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary with an overnight stay, to the train station. I sat in the back and had an excellent view of the middle-aged  driver’s glabrous bare head.. But this ostensibly secular Jew had the soul of a chasid. He related to us sayings of Gedolim and “name-dropped” the Baba Sali, his grandson Baba El’azar hyd,  Rav Aharon Yehuda Leib Steinman zl and Rav Chaim Kanievsky zl  like we might mention our uncle, life coach or driving instructor. Not for the first time I was made to reflect on the fact that in Israel there is really no such phenomenon as a secular Jew as the very air s/he constantly breathes is redolent of kedusha.

Diaspora Jewry really does need to learn how to swallow humble pie!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of five books on Judaism. He is a senior tutor for the Sydney Beth Din and the non-resident rabbi of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation. He can be reached at judaim@bigpond.net.au