It is that time of year again, the so-called “Three Weeks” preceding Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temples in ancient Jerusalem. The observant Jewish community is in an unusually somber mood. There are no weddings, no major parties, and a variety of other quasi-mourning practices are followed.
One of the more enduring lessons that the ancient rabbis very much wanted us to learn from the loss of the second Temple was that it was destroyed because of the sin of sin’at hinam; senseless hatred. In the years leading up to the sacking of the Temple by the Romans, the Jewish community was tragically and irredeemably fractionalized. Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, priests and rabbis, leaders and followers … They simply could not get along, and far too often suffered from an acute ability to relate to each other with even a modicum of respect.
Every year, at this time of year, you will see articles and hear sermons about the extent to which sin’at hinam continues to plague an already seriously challenged Jewish community. Every year, there are calls from all quarters to tamp down the rhetoric and see the larger picture. We must be mindful of the great dangers confronting the Jewish people, particularly in Israel, and remember that we have known catastrophe before, including a loss of Jewish sovereignty that lasted almost two thousand years, because we just couldn’t treat each other with respect.
I’m not quite sure how to write this piece without crossing over that line that I, particularly as a Jewish leader, am obliged to be mindful of. But perhaps if I say, in utter truth, that I write these words more in sadness than in anger, that might relieve me of some of my guilt.
How can it be, particularly during the Three Weeks, that the Minister of Religious Services of the State of Israel, David Azoulay, said in an interview on Israel’s Galei Tzahal radio station that “… as soon as a Reform Jew stops following the religion of Israel … I can’t allow myself to say that such a person in a Jew.”
In a speech to the Knesset a few days later, Azoulay stepped back a bit, admitting that “all Jews, even though they sin, are Jews.” But he did not apologize, saying instead that “At the same time, it is with great pain that we view the damage caused by Reform Judaism, which has brought the greatest danger to the Jewish people, the danger of assimilation.” As if his brand of Judaism has brought Israelis closer to tradition.
Such is the state of the Government of Israel right now that Prime Minister Netanyahu could not fire the minister (assuming he was inclined to do so … who knows where his sympathies really lie), because his government would surely fall. Instead, he criticized the remarks by Azoulay as hurtful, and “not representing the position of the government.”
That they were hurtful, I don’t need the Prime Minister to tell me. That they don’t represent the official position of the government of Israel, the same government that moved backwards this week on reforming conversion practices, and the same country where a woman was turned away from the Kotel recently because she was wearing a kippah: I’m hardly reassured.
But setting aside for the moment the sin’at hinam dimension of Azoulay’s ill-advised rant, I can’t help but wonder how it could be that davka this week, when the fate of the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran hangs in the balance and all of Diaspora Judaism is being urged by the government of Israel, Bibi most of all, to mobilize against a deal that constitutes a real threat to Israel, how can it be that a minister of the government can make such an intemperate and hateful statement that can only (further) alienate Diaspora Judaism, and not be asked to step down?
Abba Eban once famously said that the Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Of Israel, it can sadly be said that these days, her leaders never miss an opportunity to push the great majority of Diaspora Judaism, already estranged from her, even further away. We here are hardly sinless in this regard, but they have become impossible. And the worst part is that they don’t even understand that they’re doing it.
And last of all, speaking of being sinless, the only people who are hurt by our recidivist sin’at hinam are those of us in the Jewish community, both here and abroad. I get not one iota of satisfaction from calling out the Diaspora Affairs Minister of the State of Israel, even though he didn’t directly insult me this time around. But expecting the non-Orthodox world to sit silently and not respond to such insult is simply not fair, and not called for, even in the weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.