The Moral Price of A Justified War: A clarification of my position

Yesterday, I decided to post a facebook status, meaning it to be the last word on my thoughts on the current conflagaration in Israel. As evidenced by my writing of this blog post, it was not. But whatever. Man plans, God laughs. Anyway, here’s what I wrote:

I hereby completely give up on talking about what’s going in Israel, as I can’t stomach arguing against both sides. It’s clear to me that Israel’s actions in Gaza have justification, and that merely counting bodies to indicate who is in the moral high ground is not only inane, it plays right into the hands of Hamas PR, which is very clearly attempting to use its own civilian casualties as a pawn towards that end. Furthermore, there seems to be a vocal minority who believe the problem can only be solved by Israel ceasing to exist or else ceasing to attempt to protect its citizens, which is, at the very least, untenable, if not outright unfair. Such people seem to believe that all criticism of Israel is fair, there is no such thing as anti-semitism, and we would be better off if we were still persecuted in Europe, for at least there our body count would be sufficiently high to grant us the eternal moral high ground. Adopting such positions seems to me to be, in some respects, heretical, showing a lack of concern, even contempt, for the Jewish community. Whether you like it or not, the global Jewish community, with the exception of Satmar Chassidism, have pinned their hopes to a greater or lesser extent with the Zionist enterprise. Denying that enterprise legitimacy, seems to me to be tantamount to abandoning the Jewish people, particularly in a time of need. 
On the other hand, civilian deaths are not okay, and while I have no idea what Israel can or can’t do to prevent them, they should not be just waved away like David waves away the death of Uriah HaChiti, כָזֹה וְכָזֶה, תֹּאכַל הֶחָרֶב, and its something that should concern us, and something we should be asking questions about. Are we really so certain that every measure has been taken to prevent civilian deaths, or are we accepting that merely because we are told so? The answer may very well be that every measure has been taken; that does not preclude us from asking. Yes, we need to defend our homeland, but what kind of people do we wish to become in the process? We should be taking an honest look at our Israel’s policies and decisions, and questioning what type of country we want the first flowering of our redemption to become. Furthermore, the racism towards Arabs, the self-righteous triumphalism, the ignorance of geopolitical realities, and persecution complex shown by members of our community, despite the fact I find myself on their side, makes me extremely uncomfortable. We point to Palestinian rejection of two states, their preaching of violence and hatred of the other side, their ideological unwillingness to compromise, as proof of their unsuitability for negotiations, but how many of those criticisms can be lodged just as easily against our own community? Yes, there is anti-semitism, and yes, it sometimes is responsible for criticism of Israel, but no, its not responsible for every criticism, because Israel has its problems, that manifest itself in such things like the murder of an innocent Arab teenager. True, we have to defend ourselves, but we are not immune to mistakes and should not be closed off to criticism, and there is no way to defend what happened to Muhammad Abu Khdeir. This is true regardless of how much worse the other side is, or how imbalanced the criticism is. We should be moral because we should be moral, and act in a way that allows us to look in the mirror and like what we see, not out of some futile attempt to look good. 
I have compared the Jewish state to adulthood in the past, the independence and autonomy that come with newfound responsibilities and obligations, and we need to put our big boy pants on and be able to accept criticism, to take an honest accounting of our positives and negatives and morally refine ourselves without expectation of a shiny medal for our efforts. 
So I stand with Israel, I stand with my homeland and my people, and I will not budge in that regard. I just hope to God we deserve it.

The status hit a nerve, to say the least. On the plus side, it got a lot of likes and shares and wall posts and all the other nice things that I use as surrogates for self-esteem. On the negative side, I was condemned pretty harshly, including by a number of people I have a high level of respect for. I was accused of not supporting Israel, despite my explicit statements to the contrary. I was accused of aiding the enemy by implying that Israel might be at fault for something, and I was accused of being insensitive to the plight of Israeli citizens by focusing on moral reflection instead of unequivocal support. 

I’d first like to say that, before anything else, I don’t mean to offend people, and I don’t want people to be hurt by me. And I’d like to further say that, as I tried to highlight, my support for Israel, its right to defend itself, its right to exist, and the right to do what it is currently doing in Gaza remains steadfast and unwavering. And I’d like to additionally state that I do not necessarily have any specific criticisms of the IDF’s actions in Gaza. 

So, to clarify my position, I want to turn to a theoretical discussion of a halachic matter. This is all theoretical because, as you’ll see, R. Ovadia Yosef paskens against my understanding, which means its practically inoperable, but I think we can still gain much from a discussion of some of the conceptual underpinnings, and that theory would not invalidate practice or vice versa. At the very least, I will have given over a work of pure derash, the chosen medium of Jewish thinkers throughout the ages. 

The gemara in Brachos 32b states:

אמר רבי יוחנן: כל כהן שהרג את הנפש לא ישא את כפיו, שנאמר ידיכם דמים מלאו. 

R. Yochanan says, any kohen that kills someone, cannot lift his hands [to say birchas kohanim], as it says ” [And When you spread forth your hands I will hide my eyes from you, even when you pray I will not listen, for] Your hands are full of blood”

We have here a Gemara that states that a kohen who kills someone cannot say birchas kohanim. Well, at a very surface level, this may seem obvious. Why would you want a murderer to bless the people? But what if he’s not a murderer? What if it was an accident? What if he was defending himself? Does that count? What if he repented?  Probably not, if all we’re concerned about is an unsavory character blessing the people. But that’s not what we’re concerned about. In fact, the Rambam (Hilchot Tefilla 15-16), based on a Yerushalmi, goes and makes sure we know that’s not the reason:


כהן שלא היה לו דבר מכל אלו הדברים המונעין נשיאת כפים אף ע”פ שאינו חכם ואינו מדקדק ה במצות או שהיו הבריות מרננים אחריו או שלא היה משאו ומתנו בצדק הרי זה נושא את כפיו ואין מונעין אותו, לפי שזו מצות עשה על כל כהן וכהן שראוי לנשיאת כפים ואין אומרים לאדם רשע הוסף רשע והמנע מן המצות.
ואל תתמה ותאמר ומה תועיל ברכת הדיוט זה, שאין קבול הברכה תלוי בכהנים אלא בהקדוש ברוך הוא שנאמר ושמו את שמי על בני ישראל ואני אברכם, הכהנים עושים מצותן שנצטוו בה והקב”ה ברחמיו מברך את ישראל כחפצו.


A kohen… even if he is not wise and not strict regarding the performance of mitzvot, or the people gossip about him, or he behaves dishonestly in business transactions, he should still raise his hands… One should not tell an evil person  “Refrain from fulfilling mitzvot.”  Do not be puzzled and ask: how will the blessing of this common person help?  The blessing is not dependent upon the kohanim, but rather on Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu…  Kohanim should perform their mitzva as they are instructed, and Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu, in His mercy, will willingly bless Israel.


In other words, the moral quality of the kohen in question is not a determining factor in his suitability to say birchas kohanim. If so, what are the parameters of this law? Returning to the Rambam (Hilchot Tefillah 15:3)


כהן שהרג  את הנפש אע”פ שעשה תשובה לא ישא את כפיו שנאמר ידיכם דמים מלאו וכתיב…

…ובפרשכם כפיכם וגו

…A Kohen who kills someone, even if he does teshuva, cannot lift his hands, as it says “Your hands are full of blood” and says “When you spread your hands,…

The Rambam holds that regardless of his moral culpability for this killing, regardless of whether he has the guilt of this murder on his record or not, he is still disqualified for the priestly blessing. Though he says nothing here about an accidental murder, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 128:35) does in fact rule that even an accidental murder would disqualify a kohen from reciting birchas kohanim. The Rema there differs only in regards to someone who repented, and only for the purpose of not closing a door in the face of the repentant. So we have a law here that murder, even accidental, even repented for, regardless of the moral culpability of the perpetrator, nevertheless disqualifies a Kohen from reciting birchas kohanim. What concept underlies this law? Rav Soloveitchik, in a footnote in Lonely Man of Faith (page 73 in my copy)  addresses this issue:

…The Talmud treats the problem of disqualification; whoever committed murder forfeits the prerogative and right to bless the people. In Halakhic terms, I would say the murder results in a “pesul gavra”, in the emergence of a personal inadequacy. Indeed, in Maimonides’ view, it is not the moral culpability for the sin of murder but the bare fact of being the agent and instrument of murder which causes this disqualification. Hence, the disqualification persists even after the murderer has repented…


In other words, the Kohen is not disqualified by virtue of having a moral flaw or having necessarily done something wrong, but merely by being an agent of this horrific act of murder. To understand this idea, I’d like to propose that killing, regardless of whether it is right or wrong or justified or unjustified, has an effect on one’s whole personality. To use a Harry Potter analogy, it rips one’s soul into shreds. Yoni Netanyahu, (The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu: The Commander of the Entebbe Rescue Force, 288), describes something of that sort:

To kill at such very close range isn’t like aiming a gun and pulling the trigger- that’s something I had already done when I was young. I’ve learned since how to kill at close range too- to the point of pressing the muzzle against flesh and pulling the trigger for a single bullet to be released and kill accurately, the body muffling the sound of the shot. It adds a whole dimension of sadness to a man’s being. Not a momentary, transient sadness, but something that sinks in and endures.


The Netziv, in a comment on the “brit shalom” given to Pinchas (Bamidbar 28:12) also notes the adverse affect even legitimate violence has upon the perpetrator, seeing the “brit shalom” given to Pinchas as a divine guarantee that the violence he committed would lead him to become a violent person. The danger of even the most legitimate violence is in fact a theme in the Netziv’s thought. (It is interesting to note that the Chizkuni sees the “brit shalom” as allowing Pinchas to recite birchas kohanim). From these sources, the Netziv’s theory, Yoni Netanyahu’s experience, and Harry Potter’s illustration it would appear that even the most justified and legitimate violence still has an effect on the perpetrator, desensitizing them to death and violence and reducing the natural recoil human beings have to the prospect of violence. And I would venture to say that this concept finds partial expression in the law that a Kohen cannot do birchas kohanim when he has been an agent of murder.

To be fair, both Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Ovadia Yosef did not practically pasken this way (though I have seen it quoted from one of Rav Shachter’s books that Rav Soloveitchik did), and thus, it does not have any practical application for that specific law. But I will say that this concept has value to keep in mind when we go to war. It is, to my mind, absolutely true that Israel’s actions are moral and justfied, certainly in its killing of terrorists, and, provided that it has exhausted all realistic and practical options to spare civilian lives, which I believe is the case, in its inadvertent killing of civilians as well. But just because something is morally defensible and justifiable, even absolutely necessary, does not mean that we are unaffected by it. When we kill, even when our reasons are good, we become desensitized to violence and death, and we take steps towards becoming violent people. If that is true even when we kill terrorists, that is all the more truer when we kill innocent civilians and children, when our natural horror at the concept of dead children takes a backseat to the political realities. This is not to say that we should stay at home and not fight, allow rockets to fall on our heads and terrorists to attack our borders, rather than risk our moral sensitivity. Such an approach would be foolhardy, even cruel, and I believe Gandhi’s suggestion that the Jews of Europe do just that during the Holocaust cements his place as one of the most overrated human beings of all time. But that desensitization is something to be aware of, and something to guard against, and our reaction to innocents dying, even when we are not morally culpable, should be tempered by a horror at the thought of violence, and the full knowledge that this is not a l’chatchila situation. 

My great-great uncle, R. Baruch Rabinowitz, in an essay entitled “Dor V’Dor”, attempts to compare the Biblical epoch with our modern era of Zionism and the state of Israel. His account of the biblical era concludes with what he calls “the tragedy of David”, that a great, righteous leader such as David, whose commitment to his nation was unparalleled, who risked his life in battle numerous times, could not build the Beis HaMikdash because, as Divrei HaYamim I 22:8 relates, he had fought too many battles, spilled too much blood, become too accustomed to violence for the Beis HaMikdash to be built by him. And he concludes his account of the modern era with this (my translation from the Hebrew):

With blood and fire the State of Israel has protected its existence, and a generation came that was educated in war, a generation that will soon be victorious. But, the world as it stands, instead of seeing the righteousness and justice, calls out on Israel as a conquering nation, a militaristic nation, a nation of murders.
And the tragedy of David returns. Am Yisrael, born for greatness and nobility, will not in this generation, that is like King David’s, become a light unto the nations, not in this generation will we turn our country into a model society. But there will come a generation, a generation similar to that of Shlomo, a generation that knows rest, a generation that does not need to lead wars, a generation that knows to put the power of wisdom before that of strength-that generation will establish the state as a model, a state in which there is knowledge of Torah, Ethic, Righteousness, and equality will serve as basis for all life of humanity, and then Mashiach Tzidkenu will come, a offspring of David our king, and from Zion shall come Torah, and the word of God from Yerushalayim.

In our imperfect and unredeemed world, we must fight for our existence, and we are necessarily tainted by the violence we have justly committed. But we must yearn and prepare for the day that we will be able to be have peace and be peaceful, that we will no longer need violence. My goal for myself is to try, to best of my ability, to ensure that the people who will emerge victorious from this war will be able to adjust back to peace. Which entails, to my mind, keeping people aware of the desensitizing nature of violence, trying to keep alive a small flame of compassion for when we need it. That is all I am trying to do. May we see the need for such a fire sooner rather than later. 


Regularly Scheduled Programming: Holiness, Idolatry, and Korbanot

I want to return back to our regularly scheduled programming, which is, expounding a system of Jewish philosophy based on our metaphor of a relationship between two lovers. I think we can use such an analogy to come up with a theory of holiness, and then, using that as a foundation, come up with a theory of the attitude towards idolatry in Judaism, including an explanation of that famous Rambam on korbanot.

So, let us begin by taking your average romantic relationship between two lovers. Their relationship is a loving and romantic one. But do they spend their time engaged in primarily romantic pursuits? Is every day completely subsumed by their stretching out luxuriously in bed, whispering sweet nothings in each other’s ears, feeding strawberries to each other? No, because that’s not real life, and they have to go to their jobs and earn enough money to pay for those strawberries, and the bed, etc. etc. So their life is not spent continually in what we would call intrinsically romantic endeavors. But, they love each other, and that fact underlies their entire relationship, and more importantly, the way they view the world. Because of the fact they love each other, certain times are imbued with a romantic feeling, even though there is nothing necessarily intrinsically special about that time otherwise. For instance, a couple’s anniversary has no romantic significance to anyone else except for that couple, but to that couple, the fact that it is a date significant to their relationship imbues that date with romantic significance. Certain objects also become imbued with romantic significance. An engagement ring has no intrinsic romantic significance unless it is used as part of the romantic relationship between a couple; once it is so used, it becomes a romantic object. This extends to even the most seemingly insignificant of things; movies, songs, jokes, random one-liners, anything can attain romantic significance if it becomes part of a romantic relationship. And it is that ability to imbue romantic significance to anything which strengthens the relationship, that allows the two lovers to construct a reality around each other.

So, that’s how I understand holiness. We are not actively engaged in dialogue or union with God at all times, but our love for him and our relationship with him transforms the way we construct our reality even when we are not. It alters our perception of time as we commemorate times of the year that were significant in our relationship. We imbue certain objects, certain books, certain places, certain people with significance because of the role they have played in our relationship. The quality we bestow on these things, the recognition of something as imbued with significance by virtue of the role they have played in our relationship with God, is what we call holiness.


But there is a dark side to this quality. For before we entered into our relationship with God, we served idols. We loved others before we met him, were seduced by their specific charms. We knew these charms were illusory, that nothing compares to the one true God, that we have committed to a loving relationship with him, and we do not desire to return to our previous, obviously inferior loves. But yet, polytheism still had a power over us. Polytheism does not demand commitment to any one god, it does not demand that one act in accordance with one true moral law and obedience to the source of all goodness. It merely demands sacrifice and ritual to the numerous powers that control man’s destiny, who have little regard or fondness for humanity, and after that is offered, man is free to pursue his own pleasure and/or destruction. Whereas monotheism is a loving monogamous relationship between equals, polytheism is a series of one night stands with people who want nothing but to use someone for their own pleasure, and are willing to be used themselves to get it. Which is to say the former is obviously preferable, but the latter has its appeals. And with this comes its own set of imbued significance, memories of hedonism and license, the food we ate for free in Egypt, free of commitment, free of responsibility, free of difficulty. And there are times and things which recall those times, festivals and objects and places, all of which recall that sweet hedonism of despair, a sort of inverse of the idea of holiness we spoke of previously.

The Torah thus demands to rid the Jewish people of any such thing that carries such associations, like someone who was dumped trying to delete their former lover’s name and memory from their life. Break their idols, smash their mounds, burn their temples. Even things that may have been okay, even praiseworthy beforehand, like the mounds (matzevah) erected by the Avos, must now be destroyed, for they are now tainted with other, pernicious associations. Everything associated with these former dalliances must either be forcibly removed from consciousness, or else be forcefully distanced from.

But yet, not everything gets destroyed. (And here’s where the analogy kind of breaks down a little, but bear with me) The same power of a loving relationship to imbue anything with romantic significance can be of use here. It can take something which previously had associations dangerous to this relationship, and turn it into something positive. Such a process can even be helped by the already present emotional urgency in such negative associations, diverting such turbulent emotional waters towards a new, more positive goal. This is basically the Rambam on korbanot, who says in the Moreh Nevuchim that they were instituted to wean the Israelites off of idolatry. In other words, according to our thesis, the Israelites had a practice, korbanot, which to them, was strongly emotionally associated with the drive to paganism. By instituting korbanot, the Torah seeks to turn the practice, motivated by an emotional need to sacrifice an animal in a bloodthirsty frenzy to a bloodthirsty God who demands sacrifice, and incorporate it into a monotheistic worldview, keeping and incorporating the emotional drive but ultimately doing away with its conceptual foundations, so it receives a new understanding in light of this new, healthy, relationship.

The real thing I’m adding to the Rambam here is that I’m assuming that once incorporated, it receives a new interpretation. In this way, the questions asked on the Rambam, how a mitzvah could be contingent upon the existence of idolatry, can be dismissed. The initial reason is not the final reason, what matters more is how its incorporated into the framework of the existing relationship. This makes sense with the fact that the Rambam himself says in the Mishneh Torah not only that the korbanot will return when the beis hamikdash does, but that they are a mitzvah whose meaning is beyond human comprehension. He’s not saying he doesn’t know the reason they were instituted, because he does. He’s saying he does not know yet what significance they have within a religious system that no longer sees idolatry as a threat. But yet, they remain within the system, their meaning to be figured out in the messianic era when they will be reinstituted.


A Grown Up Zionism for Mature Adults

In all of this recent misfortune and horror, I’ve recently been thinking about what it means to be a Religious Zionist, to believe in the State of Israel as the “first flowering of redemption”, as we say in the Tefillah L’Shalom HaMedinah. What exactly does such a belief entail? What does it mean to have a Jewish state, and why do we have one? Why now? And what do we do with it? I’d like to put forth my own understanding of the issues, taking the form of an extended analogy, which you can take or leave, but one that I think can at least provide food for thought for those who give me the time of day. 

Imagine, for a minute, a child who is orphaned at a young age. He’s lost his parents and his home, and he is forced to go into foster care. But there are complications. Every home he goes to, he’s an outsider, someone who the parents had mercy on and allowed him a place to stay, but someone who does not fundamentally belong there. The other kids in those homes, they pick on him sometimes, sometimes they beat him up, and sometimes he’s forced to move to a different foster home, where the process repeats itself. Over this time, he grows and matures, and he begins to think about what kind of person he wants to be when he grows up, how we wants to act, how he wants to run his household, what kind of ideals he will value, how he’ll treat people in his house. His ideas are starkly different from the people around him, sometimes they make an positive impression, sometimes they laugh at him for his strange ideas, sometimes worse. Sometimes he borrows from his own surroundings, noting things he likes in some of the foster homes that take him in. Sometimes his ideas are a reaction to things and people he really doesn’t like. But, everything remains theoretical, as long as he’s still in the care of others.

Soon, however, he starts to consider that maybe it would be a good thing if he went out on his own, got his own place, and started putting all his ideas into practice. And he starts asking the board in charge of dealing with orphans, hey, maybe you can get me a new place, because I’m getting sick of this whole foster home thing, it isn’t working out. And they hem, and they haw, they send him a letter admitting that it’s a decent idea, but they don’t get around to doing anything about it, because there aren’t really any houses for sale right now. So they say, listen, it looks like your new foster home is really trying to be nice to you, why don’t you stick it out for a bit. Okay, says this kid, but he’s still scouting out houses. One day though, one of the other kids in the new foster home flips the hell out and beats our hero within an inch of his life.  The board in charge of orphans visits him in the hospital and says “Okay, this foster home thing isn’t working out. It’s very clear you need your own place. So, I got good news and bad news. We actually got you the house that your parents lived in, which still technically belongs to you. The bad news is, there is someone living in it now. So we split the house in two, and made two apartments. Here’s your key”

(So this is where the metaphor gets insufficient because of wars for control of a house doesn’t really make sense. But anyway.) So our kid, he’s got control of his part of a house that could be said to technically belong to him. Finally, he can put all his youthful ideas into practice. But there are issues. For one, didn’t he want a real, full house for himself, not a house he has partial control over? And isn’t it really his house, really? But he can’t just kick the other guy out, for two reasons. One, he can’t really break the laws of the town they live in. The dude did buy the house, at one point. For another, it would go against those youthful ideals, borne of being kicked out of every foster home he was in, and to kick someone else out of their home seems hypocritical.  But fact is, this guy isn’t so nice, because this guy also thinks he’s entitled to the whole house, so he occasionally goes in and vandalizes our hero’s apartment. So, y’know, it’s a bit of a difficult situation. They’ve tried to talk it out, but nothing’s worked. So does he throw out the very ideals that led him to wanting a house? A small part of him wants to, to abandon any responsibility to his ideals in the face of expedience, to ignore those who condemn him as hypocrites who never were all that concerned about him, but the vast majority of him simply refuses; what use is this house if the you throw out the reasons you wanted it? If something is wrong, does it become right simply because it was done to you? This is symptomatic of a larger problem: When his youthful ideals about what kind of person he wanted to be and what kind of house he wanted to have don’t seem possible for whatever reason; practically, morally, legally, what does he do? Does he throw them all out and just become the same kind of person as all the people that he railed against as a kid? Does he stubbornly stick to them regardless? 

Basically, our kid must now become an independent adult. He must figure out how to reconcile his youthful ideals with the real, dangerous and confusing world, to navigate between selling out and being an obstinate fool, and must be mindful of his own past without being bitter about it. He must take responsibility for his own actions, and deal with any potential consequences on his own. He’s got to buy his own groceries, lock his own doors, and make his own rules. He’s got to deal with other people now, often the very same people who tortured him in his youth, all grown up and very sorry, and know when to trust them and when to distrust them. He has to know when to compromise with others and when to not back down from others, and to differentiate between situations he needs other people’s help and situations where other people should mind their own business, knowing how to say the latter without alienating them, and ask for the former without ceding his independence and autonomy. He can no longer rely on someone else to make the rules for him, to deal with bullies for him, to make decisions for him. He’s on his own now. And in a lot of ways it’s terrifying and an almost impossibly daunting challenge. And he’s gonna mess up sometimes. And maybe he wasn’t even ready for it. But he didn’t have his ideas to have them stay theoretical forever. He believes that he can contribute something to society at large, that he can be a person who other people look at and say “let’s be like that guy!”, that he can help bring everyone to a better place. So he’s gonna try his best to figure it all out. 

Listen, not everything in the metaphor lines up perfectly, especially because many facts are in dispute among various parties, but hey, that’s how I understand it. And I don’t mean to propose any answers to any questions, merely to raise the questions. 

Thoughts on Another Tragedy

Yesterday, our worst fears were confirmed. The horrific death of an Arab boy, abducted, burned alive, and left it in the Jerusalem forest, was perpetrated by Jews, with six suspects hailing from Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, and Adam held in custody. I would like, if you don’t mind my French to call them bastards. Not just in the usual, perjorative sense. But based on a Rambam, Hilchos Matanot Aniyim, Perek 10, Halacha 2:

וכל מי שהוא אכזרי ואינו מרחם (ה)* יש לחוש ליחסו

Anyone who is cruel and non-merciful, we suspect his lineage

While the Rambam is talking about giving to the poor, I think I’m safe in assuming that “lighting an innocent teenager on fire” is not exactly merciful. Which leads me to doubt their lineage, and thus I am forced to assume that they are in fact, bastards. Or not really Jewish, as the Rambam goes on to say. I’d like to, but I can’t. I can’t say that our community bears no responsibility for this occurrence. Because we do. We’ve allowed racist, violent streams of Jewish thought a place at the table in our society. We tolerate people who preach that killing non-Jews is no sin, that Jews have “higher souls”, that Arabs are inhuman creatures solely out to destroy us. We don’t all subscribe to these beliefs, and a majority of us don’t. But we allow them a place at the table. You can find the works of Meir Kahane in most Jewish bookstores, even as only a minority would agree with his positions. We even sometimes allow ourselves to admire their resolve, their dedication to their country, to the Jewish people, all admirable traits, admittedly, but we allow ourselves to think their positives outweigh their negatives. That calling for the indiscriminate murder of innocents is excused by their other admirable traits. We have allowed such intellectual trends a place in our society. We should not be surprised that someone acted on it.

At this time, I think of one of the kinot of Tisha’a B’av, one I’ve always found to be incredibly interesting, Kinah 17. It starts off with a chop right to the jugular: “If women can eat their own children, woe is me”. Wow. But think about what that’s mourning. It’s not mourning what the Romans did to us, necessarily. It’s mourning what became of us, what became of our morality, our humanity, that we were sunk so low that women went ahead and overcame their natural, human desire to protect their children, and cooked and devoured them instead. The kinah jumps back and forth between things done by us, and things done to us, recounting people tied by their hair to speeding horses and children digging up their parents for food, all in the same vast, horrific tapestry of a people who are treated inhumanely acting inhuman. There are similar stories of the Holocaust. In a famous speech, Chaim Rumkowski, leader of the Lodz Ghetto, implored the Jews there to give up their children to meet the quota for deportations, pleading:

The ghetto has been struck a hard blow. They demand what is most dear to it – children and old people. I was not privileged to have a child of my own and therefore devoted my best years to children. I lived and breathed together with children. I never imagined that my own hands would be forced to make this sacrifice on the altar. In my old age I am forced to stretch out my hands and to beg: “Brothers and sisters, give
them to me! – Fathers and mothers, give me your children…” (Bitter weeping shakes the assembled public)… Yesterday, in the course of the day, I was given the order to send away more than 20,000 Jews from the ghetto, and if I did not – “we will do it ourselves.” The question arose: “Should we have accepted this and carried it out ourselves, or left it to others?” But as we were guided not by the thought: “how many will be lost?” but “how many can be saved?” we arrived at the conclusion – those closest to me at work, that is, and myself – that however difficult it was going to be, we must take upon ourselves the carrying out of this decree. I must carry out this difficult and bloody operation, I must cut off limbs in order to save the body! I must take away children, and if I do not, others too will be taken, God forbid…(terrible wailing).

In times of great stress and great trouble, humanity may be pushed aside by the need for survival, and people find themselves justifying the most horrific and inhuman things, based on their fear and their desire to survive at all costs. And that is worthy of mourning on Tisha’a B’av, that in our long exile, oppressed and persecuted at every turn, fighting for our survival, we have forgotten our humanity, our mercy, our kindness. That still today, with a state and an army and independence, we have yet to get that back, that there are people in our society so fearful and so terrorized by any threat they lose all sense of humanity in responding to it. That there are people who are willing to burn another human being alive, an innocent random teenager because they feel so threatened by Arabs, they abandon any natural sense of what is right and justifiable. I mourn the loss of life, an innocent life, taken senselessly. But I also mourn the loss of our soul, the loss of our Jewish moral compass, the loss of the kindness and compassion that is supposed to typify us, and I pray for the day that we find it once more.