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Isha Bekia

Q&A – February 2012 – Israel – Incidents of Controversy: "Jewish Life" magazine

Feb 18, 2012 | Israel, SA Media


In the past few months in Israel, there has been controversy  surrounding much publicized incidents which included verbal abuse, rioting, and spitting. What is going on? How can any religious Jew do such things?
The Telzer Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Mordechai Katz, was once asked how he explains a religious person who lies and cheats in business. He answered, “How do you explain a religious Jews who eats on Yom Kippur?” The questioner responded that such a person is not religious. Rav Katz said that neither is the one who is dishonest in business, and it is the same thing here. A person who verbally or emotionally abuses or degrades another person cannot be called religious.
But what then are people missing – it isn’t always so cut and dry …
There are two major categories of mitzvot: bein adam laMakom –our responsibilities toward Hashem – and bein adam lachaveiro – our responsibilities toward our fellow person. They are both part of the Torah. Torah is  made up of  mitzvot which are religious and spiritual in nature, connecting us to Hashem – such as davening, Shabbos, kashrut, and interpersonal mitzvot –how to talk to another person, how to look after the poor, etcetera. They are the same mitzvot, from the same Torah and you cannot separate them from each other. Torah Judaism cannot be compartmentalised. So the real definition of a religious Jew is someone who incorporates both dimensions.
But how can we explain then what we see with our own eyes on the news and in other media – men  from the most religious sects of Judaism worldwide, – it doesn’t make sense to me…
Firstly, there were only a handful of perpetrators. Secondly, just because they are dressed as religious Jews doesn’t make it real. If a band of robbers were to dress up as policemen and rob a bank, who would you say robbed the bank, the police, or the robbers? Obviously, the bank has been robbed by the robbers, criminals dressed up as policemen. People who violate halacha, which prohibits any form of verbal abuse or conduct which causes another person pain, are merely dressing the part of being religious. To call such people “religious extremists” would be like calling bank robbers “capitalist extremists” because they are trying to make money through extreme methods. They are not religious extremists; they are criminal vigilantes, because they do not operate under the auspices or instructions of any recognised rabbinic authority. We need to understand this to avoid falling into any traps of prejudice or stereotyping anyone.
So how do we gain control?
You cannot control the incidents. Because these are in the hands of a few criminal elements and whilst they should be condemned, even publicly, one can never stop the actions of a few vigilantes. But society needs to work on its reaction to the situation – and that is where things got so out of hand in these incidents in Israel, which became a catalyst for opening old wounds of tensions between the religious and the secular, and between the different religious communities themselves. And this has lead to a wildfire of dispute – machloket – and wildfire is the correct term because when a fight starts – and this is importantly related to our personal life, communal life – because any machloket is like a fire which is unpredictable in everything other than it destroys everything in its path.
Even if one is in the right?
Yes – even if you are correct if there is a dispute, you will never be able to control the outcome of where things will eventually be headed.  The wildfire of machloket destroys families, marriages, relationships between siblings, parents and children and whole communities. So what we see from this whole incident is what that fire is in reality. It burns out of control.
What can we learn from this?
In our own personal lives we have to be so careful about entering into a conflict. The Mishna says “We must pursue peace”. The language “pursue” shows us that peace is something that doesn’t come without effort and dedication. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of conflict and anger.
What does this mean practically?
It means self-restraint. Sometimes people say or do things to you that make you want to lash out. We need to realise that one angry word can cause destructive consequences for years to come. Our guideline for how we speak and behave should be the verse from the Book of Mishlei (3:17) which describes the quintessential character of the Torah: “her ways are ways of pleasantness and her paths are those of peace.”  It also means in our families and community that we must be ready to talk, to listen and especially to apologise. Worst of all is lashon hora which is the fuel in the fire of machloket.  When one speaks lashon hora the machloket intensifies, creates its own reality and generates momentum for the conflict.
So what should the response from the Jewish world have been to these events in Israel?
I can only talk from the perspective of our community. The South African Jewish community has an impressive and relevant message for world Jewry and that is the power of unity and kindness. For example one symbol of our community, I am sure that anyone who was at last year’s Sinai Indaba will remember the energy of the atmosphere of the unity of the day. (By the way, we’re in preparation for this year’s Sinai Indaba which is looking very exciting). To a large degree we South African Jews from across the religious spectrum engage with each other with respect and even friendship albeit with all the natural weaknesses and imperfections. Jewish unity with respect and decency is the gateway to the Jewish future. The South African model needs to be promoted worldwide.