By Rabbi Josh Weinberg July 2, 2021
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ צָר֖וֹר אֶת־הַמִּדְיָנִ֑ים וְהִכִּיתֶ֖ם אוֹתָֽם׃ כִּ֣י צֹרְרִ֥ים הֵם֙ לָכֶ֔ם בְּנִכְלֵיהֶ֛ם אֲשֶׁר־נִכְּל֥וּ לָכֶ֖ם עַל־דְּבַר־פְּע֑וֹר וְעַל־דְּבַ֞ר כׇּזְבִּ֨י בַת־נְשִׂ֤יא מִדְיָן֙ אֲחֹתָ֔ם הַמֻּכָּ֥ה בְיוֹם־הַמַּגֵּפָ֖ה עַל־דְּבַר־פְּעֽוֹר׃
“Adonai spoke to Moses, saying, “Assail the Midianites and defeat them—for they assailed you by the trickery they practiced against you—because of the affair of Peor and because of the affair of their kinswoman Cozbi, daughter of the Midianite chieftain, who was killed at the time of the plague on account of Peor.” (Numbers 25: 17-19)
The challenges that the current Israeli government face are not merely its own, but challenges shared by the entire State and society at large. In this week’s parasha we read of Pinchas’ zealotry who took the law into his own hands and slayed the adulterous couple Cozbi and Zimri in broad daylight. This story of extreme zealotry should motivate us to look with clarity to our own society and assess the conditions that could result in history repeating itself.
One might have expected greater sensitivity and restraint by knowledgeable Jews especially on the day after the 17th of Tammuz, a day on which we remember the breaching of the walls of the City of Jerusalem three weeks before the destruction of the Temple on the 9th of Av which tradition teaches that the second Temple was destroyed because of sinat hinam, groundless hatred between Jews. But instead we heard this week vicious attacks, defamation, and incitement against a seated member of Israel’s Knesset, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, from the mouths of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox leaders.
This week the Knesset voted to approve the formation of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, led by Labor MK Rabbi Gilad Kariv. Sixty MKs supported the motion and fifty-two opposed. The committee is composed of a powerful panel tasked with redrafting and moving key legislation forward. The fact that this committee will be headed by Rabbi Kariv, the first Reform rabbi ever to serve in Israel’s parliament, has drawn intense criticism from ultra-Orthodox lawmakers in the opposition. Haredi leaders have said they will boycott this influential committee and will not appoint representatives to it.
In reaction to Rabbi Kariv’s appointment MK Meir Porush of United Torah Judaism said:
“What is the problem with the Reform? They take parts of the Torah, they have a new religion, they spread their trotters and say ‘we are pure’ like the pig which spreads its trotters.”
MK Porush said the new government, which he described as a “government of hate,” (with no evidence to substantiate his calumny)decided to appoint Kariv “that man, the Reform [Jew] in the Knesset who all the time spreads his trotters and says, ‘I am pure’.”
The hatred and vitriol on display towards Rabbi Kariv and Reform Judaism is not new, but this week showed us an even uglier side — vitriol that has, in many ways, crossed all red lines of decency and arguably constitutes incitement to violence.
MK Shlomo Karai of the Likud party expressed his hatred as well using the following verse from Psalm 139: (21-22):
הֲלֽוֹא־מְשַׂנְאֶ֖יךָ יְהֹוָ֥ה ׀ אֶשְׂנָ֑א וּ֝בִתְקוֹמְמֶ֗יךָ אֶתְקוֹטָֽט׃
תַּכְלִ֣ית שִׂנְאָ֣ה שְׂנֵאתִ֑ים לְ֝אוֹיְבִ֗ים הָ֣יוּ לִֽי׃
O Adonai, You know I hate those who hate You, and loathe Your adversaries.
I feel a perfect hatred toward them; I count them my enemies.
And Shas MK Michael Malkieli referred to Kariv as “oto haish,” meaning “that man,” an irreverent and euphemistic reference to Jesus.
While these words may seem like just rhetoric, we fear that they are much more. The Haredi world is understandably feeling threatened. For the first time in two decades, they feel the rug being pulled out from under them. They are now in the opposition and simply cannot handle the fact that a Reform rabbi – who, might I add, is uniquely qualified as a legal expert – was appointed to head this committee.
However, it doesn’t end there. Two weeks ago the Haredi newspaper “HaMevasser” published MK Porush’s words:
“הרפורמים הם זייפני תורת משה, אנשי דמים ומרמה, זיוף וכחש, וכאשר ייעשה להם – כן ייעשה להם“.
“The Reform [Jews] are falsifiers of the Torah of Moses, people of blood and deceit, forgery and denial, and when whatever is done to them, so it will be done to them.”
This is a call for physical violence. Porush stood by his words and encouraged them to be disseminated widely.
It is nothing new to hear insults, degradation, and verbal abuse towards Reform Jews from the mouths of the ultra-Orthodox. But now the stakes are much higher. A Reform rabbi has never before been in such a position of authority, and the Haredim have not faced such despair at their loss of power and influence. As we learned from the assassination of PM Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and the vicious murder of Shira Banki at the Jerusalem pride parade in 2015, it only takes one deranged individual to go from rhetoric to murder. It only takes one zealous soul who regards him/herself as a modern-day incarnation of the biblical Pinchas, who, as this week’s parasha teaches: “displayed among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion.” (Numbers 25:11).
Just one individual to rise up and act violently towards leaders of the Jewish people claiming that they do so to save the Jewish people. So, let us remind those who accuse us of selective reading of the sacred text that they are guilty of the incitement that resulted in the deaths of PM Rabin and Shira Banki. Let us remind them of another passage in the Psalms that they overlooked (among many others):
נְצֹ֣ר לְשׁוֹנְךָ֣ מֵרָ֑ע וּ֝שְׂפָתֶ֗יךָ מִדַּבֵּ֥ר מִרְמָֽה׃
“Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech.” (Psalm 34:14)
It is upon us to condemn in the strongest words politicians and influential leaders who incite to violence. It is our time to support our growing Reform Movement in Israel and to produce more MKs, more Rabbis, and more Jews who embody the spirit of Judaism and democracy, of reason, inclusion, and moderation.
During this period of the three-weeks leading to the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, may we use our words for good, to shun evil, to seek peace and pursue it.