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The Stone the Builders Rejected…

The dilemma between the religious desire to spread God’s light and public opinion on the Israel-Hamas war

In this harrowing time for the Jewish people, I find myself facing a complexity regarding how we as the Jewish people best uphold some of our strongest ideals. Specifically, I am referring to the value of spreading God’s light to the world in relation to how the world views the Jews given the current conflict, our connection with the land of Israel, and how we respond to Hamas or any other entity that threatens the lives of Jews in Israel or elsewhere. In fact, it is not just a value to spread God’s light, it is a commandment from the Torah.[1][2]In a similar vein, we have another commandment to create a Kiddush Hashem,[3][4]  generally understood to mean acting in ways which reflect well upon God and the Torah, actions that evoke respect, appreciation, and even admiration from those who observe us serving God. But what happens when our people are working hard to take what we have concluded to be the halachic and ethical path in this conflict, yet rallies in Australia respond by chanting, “gas the Jews,” and presidents of Ivy League universities in the US blatantly refuse to condemn the calls for genocide of the Jewish people on their campus as violating their codes of conduct, or where civilians feel not only comfortable, but righteous in tearing down posters of our kidnapped family being held hostage in Gaza? What happens when doing the right thing does not evoke a positive response from those who watch our actions? What do we do when the light we had intended to spread seems to manifest as a maelstrom of darkness instead?

Despite the minuscule proportion of the global population that is the Jewish people, the world spotlight disproportionately shines upon us, for the better or the worse; certainly now, many may feel that it falls in the latter category. If our current actions under the spotlight are perpetuating hatred against us and resulting in the demonization of Judaism as a whole, one might come to the conclusion that we should tend to our value and commandment of creating a good eye upon us from the nations, and perhaps that would mean we as the Jewish people should be acquiescing to the some of the public’s appeals and subverting as much of the negative attention as possible. Maybe this would necessitate initiatives such as ceasing all military efforts against Hamas or even going so far as giving up the land of Israel for the time being for the sake of lifting the hatred, appeasing the nations, and regaining, or perhaps just gaining for the first time, a good name.

However, there are a few approaches that may settle this conundrum before jumping to those extremes. The first two that I offer attempt to minimize the supposed problem of not doing everything in our power to maximize positive public opinion of the Jews, and the last two argue that there is actually no problem in the first place. Whether one is taken individually or several in combination, I think they create a clear and formidable argument that the abundant backlash and disapproval of the world should not be what prevents the Jewish people from resolutely continuing on their path of reestablishing an environment of relative security and self-determination in the land of Israel.

        1. Many values to balance, not just one:

The Jewish people have many values at stake here, not just the one value of the nations appreciating us. Some of those values include the safety of our people, standing strongly with our one and only homeland, and not allowing the world to knock the Jews around and spill our blood with impunity as they have done throughout history, just to name a few. To give into the general world consensus and some of their appeals as to what the Jews and Israel should be doing right now would be to give up on all of these values and arguably many others. For example, while potentially raising some favor in the general worldview, complying with their petitions would very likely result in grievously life threatening situations for our people. And to lose precious lives for the sake of world favor is not a deal we give into. So even if one considers the path Israel is taking to be abandoning the value of spreading God’s light, we can say that it isn’t our supreme value right now, and to tend to it would be to undermine values that are more important and necessary for the Jewish people to uphold at this time. 

       2. History shows us that “appeasing the nations” doesn’t truly work:

Virtually never in history have attempts to mitigate the scrutiny and appease the nations of the world truly succeeded in ultimately giving the Jews a permanent good name or protecting us from their eventual resentment. At many points in time and places, Jews have attempted to assimilate essentially entirely into secular society to the point of maintaining nearly zero Jewish identifiers. This may have earned them some favor and acceptance for a fleeting period, yet at the end of the day, they were still singled out as the Jew and became the victims of societal scorn, violence, and expulsion. Moreover, the Jewish people have proposed compromises many times, giving up things that we desire in order to meet the satisfaction of other nations, as we can see today with the modern day State of Israel. Yet to the eye of the world, Israel and the Jews can do no right; our willingness to give in to some appeals are utterly ignored and the focus always remains on everything we are still not doing “right.” So to think that any attempts we might make today will finally make a difference in our nearly 4,000 years of nationhood is foolish in the face of history. This surely does not mean that any and all attempts to create a positive outlook upon us are futile and not worth pursuing; however, when taking such measures risks placing our people in perilous scenarios, we learn from history that the reward we can expect as a result of the measures is not worth the potential detriments to our people’s safety as well as other values we hold, as has been previously discussed.

        3. Kiddush Hashem is not about doing what the world wants of us:

There are limitations to what we can do to create a positive outlook from the nations upon us. Kiddush Hashem is not asking us to do everything in our power to satisfy the desires of those who watch us. In fact, the Torah is quite clear that the Jewish responsibility towards Kiddush Hashem is accomplished through observing the Mitzvos, God’s commandments. In Parshas Va’eschanan 4:6, Moshe tells the Jewish people in the name of Hashem, “You shall keep and perform them [the Mitzvos] because they are your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations, who shall hear all these decrees and will say, ‘What a wise and understanding people is this great nation.’” The verse seems to set up the concept of spreading God’s light as one that necessitates actions on two sides in order to be fully realized. On the one side is the explicit Jewish responsibility to uphold God’s commandments, and on the other side is the nations’ response of admiration to our commandments. This understanding that maintaining God’s commandments will fulfill the Jewish responsibility towards achieving the desired response from the world is echoed on a rabbinic level as well from sources such as the Ramban,[5]  Sefer Hachinuch,[6]  and the Malbim.[7] 

When it comes to Jewish responsibility in this process, however, we are only capable of fulfilling our end of the equation. Once we have done our part, the ability to complete the equation is no longer in our hands; we obviously cannot force a proper response, and it is up to the nations to respond in the fitting way. I am not claiming that the nations have a commandment or even a responsibility towards fulfilling Kiddush Hashem or spreading God’s light, but at the very least, their affirmation of our nation and our commandments is a necessary component to the completion of the process as delineated in the verse. This does not mean that when the nations’ response to our actions is not what we are hoping for, it is necessarily an indicator that we are failing on our end, but it does mean that we have a constant obligation to uphold our end of the bargain which is our best hope for spreading God’s light and creating a Kiddush Hashem, regardless of the response we are facing. Arguably, though without going into details here, deviating from our current path would be neglecting halachic obligations we have right now to protect our people and are currently addressing in the way we are responding. Therefore, making changes according to outside appeals would stray from the halachic path, consequently impeding the achievement of Kiddush Hashem, while continuing our decided response is, in fact, the best possible pursuit of it.

Although it is true that Kiddush Hashem is primarily achieved through commitment to the commandments, its sole role cannot merely be to tell us to keep the commandments; a commandment instructing us to keep the commandments would be redundant and unnecessary. Here is a good opportunity to gain some clarity on what Kiddush Hashem is attempting to bring about through the lens of rabbinic understanding of the commandment, which will hopefully further solidify this approach to the dilemma. The Gemara in tractate Yoma when discussing Kiddush Hashem and Chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name), appears to frame the application of these commandments as placing an emphasis on interactions between man and man being vehicles to, as Rashi understands it, bring about more Mitzvos in the world,[8][9][10]  as opposed to interactions between man and God. Abaye makes a statement in the same passage that if someone studies Torah and serves Torah scholars but doesn’t practice honest business or speak pleasantly with others, it will provoke unfavorable remarks and outlooks from others on the Torah, while upholding those basic human interactions in addition to honoring Torah will induce favorable remarks on the Torah.[11]  Further examples are given of going the extra mile in interpersonal interactions to the point of acting beyond what would otherwise be acknowledged as the letter of the law so that involved parties or onlookers won’t think negatively about a Jew based on his conduct with people, whether that be in business, conversation, or overall reputation.[12]  Rabbi Akiva affirms this idea by a case in tractate Bava Kamma, where he states that an otherwise permissible act of dishonesty in the given case should not be done because of consideration for Kiddush Hashem, and the Gemara concludes that even according to Rabbi Akiva, if there would be no consideration for Kiddush Hashem, the action would be allowed.[13]  Interestingly, there appears to be a specific focus on monetary related interactions within the realm of man to man interactions as demonstrated in the case examples provided by the Gemara for the derivation of the concepts of Kiddush and Chilul Hashem. This approach from the Gemara on Kiddush Hashem appears to express that we must be particularly conscientious in the way our interpersonal actions are perceived by others, and even within that consideration, that we be especially sensitive regarding financial matters due to their impact on negative or positive perceptions of the Torah; and further, that we should at times go beyond the letter of the law to affect positive outlooks from others onto the Torah.

Rabbeinu Yonah, in his book Sha’arei Teshuva, provides an alternative insight, describing the act of Kiddush Hashem as teaching people about God’s power and the glory of His Kingship.[14]  Several sources including the Rambam,[4]  Rashi,[15]  and the Bartenura,[16]  take Kiddush Hashem to be referring to the obligation of martyrdom in order to avoid transgressing a cardinal sin. This would seemingly symbolize to our own nation and the nations of the world that there are some lines in our relationship with God that we don’t cross even at the cost of our lives; the concept of “dying Al Kiddush Hashem” appears to stem from this line of thought. 

Common among all the elucidations of what Kiddush Hashem is coming to accomplish beyond just upholding Jewish law is that our actions are supposed to impart a message to those who observe us, whether that be for practical, educational, or symbolic purposes. Despite the variety of interpretations and explanations, however, none of them – save for the case of obligatory transgression of non-cardinal sins when threatened with death, as discussed in the Rambam – suggest that giving up commitment to the commandments is a valid method of fulfilling Kiddush Hashem; on the contrary, as stated in several of the interpretations and explicit in the Gemara, actions that go beyond what would otherwise be considered to be the general requirements of the commandments – which of course include the commandments themselves – are what work towards the achievement of Kiddush Hashem.

       4. The light will come, but in hindsight:

An obvious question arises from that verse in Parshas Va’eschanan brought at the beginning of the previous approach: how can we understand the stated outcomes of the nations’ reactions to our keeping and performing God’s commandments when we can empirically attest to those outcomes not occurring right now? I’m not convinced that the mechanism of Kiddush Hashem acts like a gumball machine, meaning to say, we do an action and instantaneously receive a positive response from onlookers. Many things in life take time to evolve, reach their desired state, and be fully appreciated with a certain clarity on past events and maybe even gratitude for them; while the journey might not have been pretty, that doesn’t necessarily contradict the fact that it was ultimately the correct path. So too with Kiddush Hashem, the fact that we are not seeing the intended fruits of the commandment throughout the world at this moment is not a true indicator that we are not fulfilling our obligation. If this is the case, then achieving a Kiddush Hashem and receiving negative responses from outside observers are not necessarily mutually exclusive. I’m no prophet, so I cannot say for certain this is or will be the case, but I very much hope that eventually, with God’s help, by sticking to our values, ethics, and the Torah, the light we had intended to spread will ultimately shine through to the world, and when that time arrives, the actions we take now will reflect positively on God and His Torah in the way that He described in Va’eschanan

The Jewish people and Israel are experiencing rejection on a global scale, with every action we take viewed as depraved and in opposition to humanity’s interests. On the surface, this is difficult to harmonize with our ideal of spreading a positive outlook on serving God. However, we can see that reconciling this dilemma might be possible through different approaches. It is important to be aware that if reconciliation is reached, another challenge emerges. When the vast majority of the world is condemning our response to Hamas as evil, it is a challenge to feel like we are doing good and to remain confident in our moral compass. Therefore, the demanding task at hand is to persist and persevere in what we need to do and to maintain a stable recognition that we are doing the right thing despite being overwhelmingly outnumbered and surrounded by the world telling us we are wrong. That is not to say we should never question ourselves and reflect upon our motives or course of actions, nor is this an argument for unyielding blind faith in every decision the State of Israel makes. It is critical to acknowledge when circumstances shift and perhaps necessitate corresponding changes in our approaches, as will inevitably occur at some point in the future. But at this time, when the lives of our people are threatened and we are forced to take strong measures in order to reestablish safety and security, we must be able to stand by our decisions with conviction and without wavering at every denunciation and disapproval. We say in the Hallel prayer, “The stone the builders rejected has become the main cornerstone.”[17]  With God’s help, we will continue to work towards our ideal of spreading His light, and that ideal will not be deterred by the rejection we are facing at this time.

 

Sources:

  1. Devarim 4:6
  2. Shemos 19:6
  3. Vayikra 22:32
  4. Rambam – Mishnah Torah 5:1
  5. Ramban – Vayikra 22:32 – “ונקדשתי בתוך בני ישראל”
  6. Sefer Hachinuch – Parshas Emor – Mitzvah מצות קידוש השם – רצו
  7. Malbim – Yeshayahu 60:3 – “והלכו גוים”
  8. Rashi – Yoma 86a – “חילול השם”
  9. Rashi – Yoma 86a – “ולא יהיבנא דמי לאלתר”
  10. Rashi – Yoma 86a – “’כגון אנא דמסגינא וכו”
  11. Yoma 86a – “אביי אמר… ומארצו יצאו”      
  12. Yoma 86a – “היכי דמי חילול השם… מריה לפלניא”    
  13. Bava Kamma 113a – “רב אשי אמר… באין”
  14. Sha’arei Teshuvah 4:5
  15. Rashi – Vayikra 22:32 – “ונקדשתי בתוך בני ישראל”
  16. Bartenura – Vayikra 22:32 – “ונקדשתי בתוך בני ישראל”
  17. Tehillim 118:22
About the Author
Reuven Dersovitz is a second-year student at Reichman University in Herzliya, Israel. He previously spent a year studying at Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem. Having graduated from Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in New Jersey where he is originally from, Reuven was involved as president of the AIPAC advocacy committee, a Model UN delegate, writer for the school newspaper, and member of the chess team. He also appreciates Torah study and visual arts.
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