“A religious Jew is a wicked person, a learned Jew is an ignorant person, a good Jew is a foolish person”.
These astonishing words are purportedly those of the maverick, legendary and reclusive Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, Poland (1787–1859). He was known for his brilliant and sharp insights, his many paradoxical and pithy sayings.
This arresting quote caught my attention, not only because it challenges our assumptions and conventional way of seeing things but also because of its relevance and resonance. We like to assume religious people are pious and good in everything they do; we like to think that wise and intellectual individuals are clever in all their thoughts; we like to believe that good people are virtuous in all their ways. This is, of course, wishful thinking – human beings are never black or white but a complex hue of colours and contradictions. Religious individuals can do dreadful things, wise people can make thoughtless statements, good people can act in bad and silly ways. This is most obviously apparent at times of crisis.
The Corona crisis has brought to the surface so many impious actions, destructive thoughts and wilful ways.
Over the past year, I have watched with grief and astonishment the behaviour of so many of my fellow co-religionists. Good people acting badly, wise people acting foolishly, religious people acting in vile and toxic ways. (And I haven’t been perfect myself sometimes acting impetuously, at other times insensitively).
I am ashamed to call myself religious when I look at the behaviour of large swathes of the religious community, the Haredim, in Israel and across the world. The streets of ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods have been ablaze across Israel this week. In Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Beit Shemesh, Ashdod and Betar Ilit, young Haredi men have clashed with police trying to enforce the coronavirus lockdown.They have burnt buses, they have attacked the drivers, they have acted violently and the with vile words. At the same time large institutions and yeshivot, guided by learned revered rabbis have refused to close their institutions, halt weddings and instead increased the disproportionate number of Haredim dying from Covid every day.
I must admit – I just don’t get it. I have always believed and taught about Pikuach Nefesh, that we place life above almost everything else, that centuries ago we refused to allow ourselves to die on Shabbat (because to fight with arms was contrary to Jewish law) but changed the Halacha to protect Jewish life. After all, we claim, this is what distinguishes us from the religious fanatics who blow themselves and others up for their so-called religious beliefs.It has been pointed out how ironic it is that during the Sefira period (between Pesach and Shavuot) we don’t celebrate weddings because of a terrible plague that killed 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva. And now weddings are held in which we invite the plague to kill our students or at least their elders. The head of Israel’s Haredi emergency rescue group, Zaka pleaded with his family not to hold a party in their ultra-Orthodox community, but even his mother didn’t listen and held the party that led to her infection and death. Meshi Zahav says that rabbis have “blood on their hands”for the death of his mother and their disdain for the COVID-19 rules.
I have tried to understand the motivation of the Haredi community.I recognise that countless members of the community are careful, conscientious and law abiding. I do, however, wonder about it being excused as a radical minority especially when seeing the large numbers…
Much of the Haredi leadership do oppose the violence but as Anshel Pfeffer points out they created the vacuum in which it’s taking place. “For the last 10 months, Haredi rabbis and politicians have been fighting the state to safeguard their autonomy as an extraterritorial zone where the rules of lockdown and social distancing don’t apply. They have only themselves to blame now the rioters have interpreted that as a license to fight the policy on the streets of the autonomy and vandalize public infrastructure.”
The Haredi leadership is so frightened of the secular state and its perceived opposition to its lifestyle they would rather die than accept its authority. I can sympathise with the fear: the lack of moral clarity and loss of a moral compass is a serious challenge for our liberal democratic societies. We are awash in nihilism and meaninglessness, our moral standards are often seriously compromised by a tsunami of porn , alcohol and drugs. Families are fraying and our social structure is under threat. But is this a good enough reason to place your life and your society’s viability at risk? Where is your social conscience, where is that social responsibility which the Torah passionately and constantly reminds us of? If you have problems with the society around you, get off your backside and do something about it… It is what God reminds Moses of in this week’s Torah reading: ”Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the children of Israel and let them journey forwards!” ( Exodus 14,15). Prayer is one thing, practice is the thing.
Martin Luther King Junior spoke of the “inescapable network of mutuality.… Whatever affects one directly affect all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be”.
There is another stirring statement in this weeks Parasha. As the Jewish people stand in wonderment at the parting of the Red Sea they declare:
“This is my God and I will praise Him”. ( Ibid 15:2).
When I look around at the things been done in the name of God, I want to shout out – ‘This is not my God, this is not my Judaism, this is not the Torah that I so ardently embrace!’
During this crisis I have tried to dig deep to discover God’s goodness and the Torah’s inspiration, to discern people’s inherent decency and inspiring actions, to uncover my own soul’s virtuousness. I have drawn enormous strength from our daily prayers and often those prayed in isolation have been the most provocative and illuminating.
Our morning Tefillah begins with the words:” my God, the soul you have placed within me is pure. You created it, You formed it, You breathed it into me and You guard it while it is within me… As long as the soul is within me, I will thank you Lord my God and God of my ancestors“.
The spirit of this prayer was captured beautifully in the words of the poet Amanda Gorman at the inauguration of President Biden last week:
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it
May we find the courage to see it and be it!