Confession: it’s taking quite a bit of courage on my part to write this post on such a sensitive subject. I welcome debate and dialogue, but talkback commenters these days sometimes have no sense of restraint or kindness — they let the emotion of the moment rip out into cyberspace like a dagger; and I for one don’t enjoy being verbally stabbed.
Yet an inner voice of conscience won’t let me just get on with the pile of work I have on my desk today, because I don’t want to be a Noah. So although I tend to shy away from politics, I will take a deep breath and make the plunge (and if you’re wondering where I hold politically, I have both left- and right-wing tendencies: my agendas — at least, those I strive for, though I fall short — are truth and love, which do not correspond with political stripes, any of which can be fueled by hatred and half-truths).
Last night I attended a Torah lecture given by my friend Naama, who cannot be accused of being bleeding-heart liberal or left-wing. The guiding spiritual figure in her life is so right-wing that if I mentioned his name, some of you would stop reading immediately. She was discussing the figure of Noah, whose name literally means ‘rest’ or ‘comfort’ and explaining why some of our sages give him such a hard time, when ostensibly he is a good fellow, whole-hearted, pure, who walked with G-d.
The reason, she explained in the name of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, is his tremendous mediocrity, in that he would not go beyond his comfort zone, extend himself to the people around him, or grow from the challenges God placed in his path. Noah never tried to help the people in his vicinity to emerge from their wickedness and repent. He probably disliked his peers intensely — they were reprehensible people — and it was extremely comfortable for him to think of them all being wiped away in a flood. God gave him ample opportunity over 120 years of building the ark, but Noah… well, he remained in his “Noah” zone till the end, and would not face up to the darkness in them or in him.
Naama then added by way of illustration that while it would be extremely comfortable for us to wish our Muslim Arab neighbours far far away, this is a Noah-like attitude that we should not adopt. She did not take the next logical step, but I forced myself through my hesitation to speak up, though I did not know most of the people in the room, and to say: “That is why I prefer to pray for the repentance of the enemies of Israel, not for their deaths.”
This was my attempt to be not Noah, but Abraham. And this blog post is another such attempt.
Do you imagine for a moment that Abraham was delighted at the existence of an entire city filled with evil, Sodom? The Abraham who in a midrash is described as cursing the builders of the Tower of Babel, after he witnesses them bemoan bricks falling off the tower but not caring a whit about human laborers that fell to their deaths? Of course he wasn’t. I’m sure there was a part of him that wanted to vomit from the Sodomite’s behaviour. To draw an analogy, imagine a city full of ISIS soldiers. Would you not want, at least in theory, to drop a bomb on the entire city, as a friend of mine (left-wing, by the way) insisted he would? And yet Abraham tries to see if he can salvage it with ten righteous individuals.
What difference would that make? Professor Nehama Leibowitz explains that it is not some numerical bargaining trick, Rather, ten truly righteous people would do the work to try to change their society, as the authentic tzaddik does not sit around “in a fur coat” as the saying goes, but takes responsibility to effect change. Ten would be a critical mass, enough to ensure that some kind of change would have a chance. That is why Abraham’s emphasis was not on saving those ten righteous and letting the rest of the city be damned, but on finding the righteous people “within the city” — working to improve it.
It is extremely uncomfortable to be Abraham, and yet Rashi explains that the blessing G-d gives to Abraham means “A man says to his son, May you be like Abraham.” This is who we must imitate, and this is who we bless our children to be. The full, appalling truth is that it’s becoming more and more comfortable for me to wish that all terrorists be shot on sight, because it is infuriating that they go to prison only to be kill again upon their release, as in the case of the recent stabbings. Frankly, part of me is very satisfied to have them be “eliminated” (that fig-leaf euphemism for “killed”) on the scene, and they can go off to their 72 virgins or whatever other nonsense they think awaits them, as long as they no longer pose a threat to me and my people.
But I don’t want to encourage that comfortable side of me. Instead, I want to ask, what can we do and what is being done to prevent the minds of young Muslims being poisoned? To hold responsible the Machiavellian leaders who propagate ridiculous lies about Al-Aksa being in some kind of danger (seriously? danger from what exactly, from Jews moving their lips in prayer on the Temple Mount?) in order to create ideological foment among the masses and catalyze children to go out with knives and stab citizens? Who twist the love of God, which should be such a high ideal and force for good, into a channel for murder? Who highlight only those aspects of the Islamic religion that are a call to arms and not those that could serve as bridges to peace?
Do we respect our Arab friends and neighbours enough to expect from them to be responsible, constructive adults and to build with us, rather than rampantly destroy like children and make terrible choice after terrible choice? Life is far from perfect in Israel for the minorities, much remains to be improved, but let’s encourage them to find solutions — not reactionary inflammations that won’t, history has taught many times, lead to anything good. Let’s not bow out of that conversation in despair.
And what is being done with prisoners sitting in Israeli jails in order to expose them to other ways of thinking? Are religious leaders who see other, more peaceful sides of Islam being brought in to give lectures and present another option? What about bringing in Arab journalists and politicians who can see the destructive results of these terrible choices the extremists are making, such as the mayor of Nazareth who shouted at an Arab MK the other day for utterly destroying his city’s economic base with the latest short-sighted round of violence, or those who have renounced violence and are seeking other ways? Are cognitive-behavioural techniques used in prison to empower healthier sides to prisoners’ personalities? How about meditation, which has been shown to cause lowered recidivism in prisoners? What about lectures on win-win philosophies and positive psychology, or even activities designed to bring home those messages?
Or is prison simply yet another place to experience and enhance brutality and enmity, sending perpetrators back out into the world even more embittered and motivated to harm? (And yes, I’m willing to pay the price in terms of invading a prisoner’s privacy and “brainwashing” him into better choice-making — as long as it is a controlled mechanism and doesn’t descend into mind control. I am not aiming for a Clockwork Orange.)
Call me naïve if you wish, rant against my approach if you like — but do read the book, Son of Hamas, the true story of the renouncing by one Hamas founder’s son of all violence, after his reading of the New Testament. Do discover the story of Ali Abu Awad, a former Fatah activist with powerful personal grievances against Israel, who nevertheless renounced violence in favour of building towards co-existence.
The gates of repentance are open to all. It is not the Jewish way to wish all our enemies dead. We wish for evil to be eliminated but not the evil-doers themselves, who are created in the image of G-d. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, who absolutely did not believe in land for peace and valued protection of Jewish life above all else, wrote:
Yes, there are violent people and terrorists in the world. But there is nothing that says the only way to deal with this is through taking their lives. Even when we speak of ‘the enemy and the avenger,’ our actions must be ‘to stop the enemy and the avenger.’ Meaning, to stop and to annul this that he is an enemy and avenger. In the language of the Talmud, ‘the sins should cease — not the sinners themselves.’ To the point that they will become friends of the Jews and assist us.
(While it would be wonderful for everyone to become friends of the Jews and assist us, my desire for an enemy’s teshuvah is for his or her own sake, as a tzelem Elokim and for the sake of the evolution of society, as in the case of Nineveh — and not simply so we can have more friends…)
The darkness and discomfort, insisted my friend Naama, are there precisely in order for us to elevate it and act with faith and trust. I would add also — to remain staunch in our moral compass and love for humankind, specifically in those dark places, however uncomfortable that is. We are Jews and I am proud to be politically incorrect and say, I demand more of us, I hold us to the highest moral standards! I am but one small individual facing a very complex conflict taking place in large letters on the world’s stage, but I refuse to let my beloved religion and Jewishness be transformed into a base, inhuman nationalism infused with mob psychology and hatred. I refuse to succumb to my temptation to wish the deaths of people instead of their repentance, however disgusting and vile their actions are to me. Noah was likely in direct mortal danger from the people around him — they were people who filled the earth with “hamas,” violence, the Torah tells us — but he was still expected to care about their lives and try to save them.
So let me be very clear in my sum up: our lives and ability to live a normal existence must be protected; and immediate threats must be removed as necessary — “one who rises up to kill you, kill him first” (Talmud, Berachot 58a). On my way to this same Torah lesson last night, I passed through the Central Bus Station where two hours earlier an assailant had stabbed a 70-year-old woman and was fired at (“neutralised”, whatever that means). My personal safety is assured by people willing to actually take human life to protect all of us, and I am so grateful for that — but no, not joyful about it. Let us not succumb to an un-Jewish bloodlust and indifference towards human life, a comfort with the idea that everyone else can die as long as me and mine are safe.
We must never be just Noah, but rather pray for, and take whatever steps we can towards the emergence of all those around us — including ourselves — into a new level of consciousness, better choices, and an orientation towards religion that makes use of its powerful potential for good and life, instead of the distorted religion of death. A religion that is closer to God’s will (I very much hope — personally I don’t have direct access to it, do you?).
Okay talkbackers, I now don my metaphorical bulletproof vest. Stab away.
N.B. Those interested in approaches similar to those described in this article can find more resources at www.vayigash.org — I do not agree with everything written there but it’s definitely a move in the direction I support.