Hatred, or Judaism told backwards

The student who called me told me that he saw the poster in his yeshivah. At the top it says, in Hebrew, “The Arab enemy is within Jerusalem!” Next Sunday, it says, at the end of the week of mourning for the students killed in the attack at Merkaz Harav, “We will get up and act” by marching to the house of the terrorist in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber and demolishing it.

The particular phrase for “to act” – la’asot ma’aseh – is one consistently used by the far right for privatizing violence: The state has refrained from punishing Arabs qua Arabs, as a group, a faceless mass, so let us do it. The words carry a hint, a lynch mob murmur, of ma’aseh Pinhas – an allusion to the original angry young man, the first fanatic, Pinhas, in the book of Numbers. At the bottom of the poster are words from the Book of Esther, “To the contrary, the Jews dominated those who hated them.”

Esther is read on the holiday of Purim, which falls a few days after the planned march. The poster is a call to celebrate the holiday early with a march of angry young men into an Arab neighborhood – with a pogrom. To emulate the Jews who defended themselves from hate-enraged mobs in ancient Persia, Jews will become a hate-enraged mob in the sacred city.

It would be simplest for me to say that this is a modern aberration, a twisting of Judaism with no precedent. That’s half-wrong, though: It is indeed a grotesque distortion of Judaism, but it has historical roots.

As historian Elliot Horowitz has written in his pioneering work Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence, Purim has a long history as the holiday of despising Gentiles. The villain of the holiday, Haman, is described as a descendant of Agag, king of the tribe of Amalek, which embodied hatred for its own sake. In medieval Jewish tradition Amalek was equated with Christianity. For centuries, mocking Christianity was part of celebrating Purim.

(Horowitz, I should note, is an Orthodox Jew who teaches at Bar-Ilan University. He once explained to me that researching Jewish history without fear of what he would find expressed his Zionism: “Zionism mean being ‘a free people in our land'” — free to search for the truth, rather than writing history as a defense brief).

In recent years in Israel, the radical right has recast Arabs as the mythical enemy Amalek. But now Jews have guns, and real violence can replace symbolism. The massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron 14 years ago took place on Purim. This was not coincidence.

So a purely academic telling of the Jewish past would say that Judaism, like every religion, has its potential for sanctified violence. Sacred texts can be read every which way. Judaism can produce an Abraham Joshua Heschel, marching arm and arm with Martin Luther King to Selma, saying afterward that “our legs were praying.” And it can produce Meir Kahane, a frothing racist who cited scripture and inspired the murderer of Hebron.

But to continue what Haim has written, there’s more to history than fact. There’s also the moral choice of what narrative to tell. Telling the bare facts alone can lead to moral relativism: Judaism has all these possibilities, all these traditions, and different Jews emphasize different ones.

To which one must answer: Some options for interpreting tradition are right and some are wrong. Some ways of learning from history contain truth, and some are lies. Heschel spoke for Torah. Kahane spoke the photo negative of Judaism, black turned white, white turned black. When Jews are too meek to insist that every human being is created in God’s image, then humility becomes cowardice, and

We have turned morality into something relative, a matter of taste. “Everyone has their own opinion” has become a common slogan, even if the opinion under discussion is clearly immoral, even when people advocate racism and violence, presenting them as belonging to the Torah. We have erased the commandment surely rebuke your fellow and say instead let each man do what is right in his own eyes.

That’s from an essay (Hebrew original here) that my son Yehonatan published two months ago. (There is no joy like learning Torah from one’s children.)

Elliot Horowitz would agree that the historical precedent of Purim violence is something to overcome. This morning he sent me a short riff on the subject, which I hope will be up soon on the Net. (Update: The link is here.) He quoted the dean of Merkaz Harav, who made the dangerously inflammatory statement that “the murderers are the Amalek of our day.” If there is any metaphorical sense in which that’s true, Horowitz says, then the Jewish murderer of Hebron was also Amalek.

Which means that his example is the negation of Torah. And a march of vengeance to Jebal Mukaber is a desecration of all that is holy.

5 thoughts on “Hatred, or Judaism told backwards”

  1. A beautiful post. No tool can work without being applied skilfully–the tool simply can’t accomplish the task by itself. An airplane won’t fly from A to B without the skilful intervention of a pilot.

    Why on earth should anyone expect any different from religious texts is beyond me. Like scientists keep saying about science–that it is morally neutral–the same is true of religious traditions after a fashion. If the practitioners put hatred in that is what will come out. If they approach it with a good heart, humility, love and a desire for knowledge and harmony then they will get results to match.

    In Tibetan Buddhism, once the transmission for a text has been broken it is dead. End of story. The text itself is no longer a religious text and has no religious or spiritual value. The only way for it to be passed on is from realised master to qualified student.

    I look forward to lots more of your beautiful tradition on this blog.

  2. Chris has it spot on. A beautiful post. And an issue that bothers any thinking Jew. I’ve always thought that our religious tradition is a historical struggle between warring impulses: to be just or merciful; to be vengeful or loving; to be tolerant or exclusive. You can find a Jewish text for any season. The Kahanists can find their source as Gershom and I can find ours. The issue is which sources will become normative? Which sources will dominate the discourse? Do we as Jews want to be known for the genocide we commited against Amalek and the Jebusites? Or do we want to be known as the people who love God and treat our fellow human beings as if they were created in His image?

    I don’t think this struggle is ever won. That’s why we must try to make our mark in the ongoing debate and put forward the best, more humane values that Judaism has to offer. If we don’t do this then we cede the field to the haters among us and let the world know our religion as one of fear, ignorance & violence.

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