Parashat Yitro – פרשת יתרו – Exodus 18:1-20:23   –   שמות יח:א – כ:כג

We were all at Sinai. We were all there, young, and old, every Jew throughout time. So hints the Midrash, based on verses from Deuteronomy[1], that every Jew – including anyone who has yet to become Jewish – stood at Sinai to experience the revelation. The expression has now come into common Jewish parlance. When we see someone who looks familiar, but we can’t quite place them, we then say, “Ah, I must have stood next to you at Sinai.”

We often look back romantically at that moment of receiving Torah at Sinai. It was a time when we were not only physically present but unified as one body with one heart. But how long did it take for that moment to splinter, factionalize, and for people to take advantage of the opportunity to advance their own agenda? Were there some who immediately began interpreting the Torah according to their own outlook and ideology? Were there some who assumed mantles of leadership and began excluding others? (Here’s a hint: We already know that soon after the revelatory euphoria wore off, Aaron and his ilk built a Golden Calf as an alternative).

This past Shabbat afternoon and evening the entire Jewish community around the world waited with bated breath to hear the fate of four Jews taken hostage at gunpoint in a synagogue in Colleyville, TX. This should have been, and for the most part was, a moment of solidarity, of collective prayer, and of coming together at a time of deep crisis.

But even before we knew that the hostages had escaped and were alive and well (Thank God), there were some who took advantage of the crisis to advance their own agenda. We heard I-told-you-so scoffs about the importance of having gun-carrying synagogue-goers (with whom I strongly disagree), or those who said “See, we told you about Islamic terrorists,” and “We should never have let those people in the country” (the terrorist was a British citizen of Pakistani descent). And we will hear people say that Rabbi Cytron-Walker was naïve, that he let his bleeding heart leave his congregation open for potential bloodshed.

But, one agenda that needs addressing here is that certain ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) and ultra-Nationalist Orthodox (“Hardal”) Jewish groups took advantage of this moment to note that this was happening at a Reform congregation, and to use this moment to remind the world that “Reform Jews are not really Jews, so who cares…”

Jews were under siege for being Jews and some felt the need to offer messages and social media posts such as: “This is the punishment for Reform Jews being heretics, this doesn’t deserve media coverage,” and “the Rabbi should have been more thankful to God for saving them.”  Even during Beth Israel’s live stream services when the terrorist abruptly interrupted the Amidah prayer, one could read Hebrew comments disparaging Reform Jews.

This is not only disgusting it is also dangerous. From such words come violence.

It is yet another part of an ongoing campaign to delegitimize Reform Judaism and Reform Jewish institutions from leaders and organizations in the Haredi world.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie recently described the vitriol taking place in the Knesset in recent weeks:

“Who is to blame for this incipient rebellion against rabbinic authority and the Haredi religious monopoly?

For Rabbi Litzman and so many in the Haredi establishment, the answer is simple: The Reformim.

Blame them, they say. Far better to do that than to reconsider our own ways, and to offer a Judaism of education and persuasion in place of a Judaism of coercion. Far better to present Reform rabbis as priests and devils than to rethink the rigidly hierarchical Jewish model that we insist on and that so many Israelis resent and reject.”

In 2019, the organization Eretz HaKodesh joined the American Zionist Movement with a singular focused propaganda campaign against Reform Judaism. They used the threat of a Reform takeover to fuel the fury and scare their people into taking part in a Zionist institution to which they previously had no affiliation.

Rabbi Seth Farber, an Orthodox rabbi, and the head of ITIM (an organization committed to making Israel’s religious establishment respectful of and responsive to the diverse Jewish needs of the Jewish people) pointed out that the Chief Rabbis of Israel could not bring themselves to issue a statement of condemnation for a terrorist who had taken Jews hostage:

“I tried to find some statement from the chief rabbis of Israel condemning the hostage-taking or showing support for the Jewish community in Colleyville. Nothing.”

As the group Eretz HaKodesh continues its vitriolic attacks against us and tries to rally its base through fearmongering and hatred, let us hold true to the values that we received at Sinai. While it is their zealotry, their unwillingness to compromise, and their intolerance that makes them a danger to Judaism, to Israel, and to the Jewish people, we must use those threats to grow, to claim ownership of our own tradition, and to prevent power from aggregating to those who try to destroy that sense of unity.

This does not mean that we somehow must all agree.

Let us not mistake unity for uniformity, or confuse cohesion for conformity.

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, an Orthodox Rabbi in South Florida, shared the following in a recent post:

“Please don’t send me or post what the rabbi from Texas believes about Israel or gun laws… It won’t change the concern I had for him when he was being held hostage or my feeling connected to him as a fellow Jew now. I am shocked and offended that you would suggest it should.

To state the obvious – My concern and prayers for him don’t mean I agree, condone, or support everything about him, but that is not how ahavat yisrael works. If your biological brother or sister were held hostage, would you not pray for them or care about them because you have a list of things you disagree vociferously about, because they aren’t observant or they don’t match your politics? There is a time for important and principled disagreement and there is a time to love a fellow Jew.”

This week we will all be at Sinai again together, re-reading the account of this formative moment. It is a moment to take heed of all that is good and of the solidarity, strength, and safety that we have when we’re together. In the words of Rabbi Farber:

“It would behoove all Jews to stop trying to delegitimize each other. We have enough challenges from without. If our enemies seek to destroy us from without, let us not make their work easier by destroying each other from within.”

[1] Parashat Nitzavim – Deuteronomy 29: 13-14

13 “וְלֹ֥א אִתְּכֶ֖ם לְבַדְּכֶ֑ם אָנֹכִ֗י כֹּרֵת֙ אֶת־הַבְּרִ֣ית הַזֹּ֔את וְאֶת־הָאָלָ֖ה הַזֹּֽאת׃ 14כִּי֩ אֶת־אֲשֶׁ֨ר יֶשְׁנ֜וֹ פֹּ֗ה עִמָּ֙נוּ֙ עֹמֵ֣ד הַיּ֔וֹם לִפְנֵ֖י יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ וְאֵ֨ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵינֶ֛נּוּ פֹּ֖ה עִמָּ֥נוּ הַיּֽוֹם׃”

“I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before Adonai our God, and with those who are not with us here this day.”