By Rabbi Josh Weinberg February 12th, 2021 – ל’ שבט תשפ”א
The fourth Israeli election in two years will take place in 6 short weeks. Last week the newly dubbed (ציונות הדתית) Religious Zionism party and extremist Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) party announced that they had signed a merger agreement to run jointly in the upcoming election. What’s more, the merger and newly formed alliance will also include the Noam party which sits just to the political right of the racist Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party. This new merged party positions itself as a staunchly anti-LGBTQIA and openly castigates liberal Jewish streams including the Reform Movement for recognizing such alleged “abnormalities.”
Otzma Yehudit’s leader, a firebrand lawyer named Itamar Ben Gvir, has landed his most hopeful position yet. He is slated as #3 on the merged party’s list. He finds himself running without his former running mates, ex-MK Michael Ben-Ari, Baruch Marzel, and Benzi Gopshtein, who were disqualified from running for the Knesset over accusations of racism in an appeal led by lawyers from our own Israeli Reform Movement in the last election and opted out this time around.
This merged party claims that it is “true” to Torah. So they must know that in this week’s Parashat Mishpatim, Torah directly formulates the foundation of a just society. … “And these are the judicial rules that you shall set before them.” (Exodus 21:1) Yet, even as we read the directives and instruction given in the Torah this week, we hear those who claim to speak in the name of Torah promulgate the exact opposite of fundamental Torah values.
In a combination of extremist positions Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s new party, simply named “Religious Zionism,” has laid out an aggressive platform including:
- Full sovereignty over Judea and Samaria (as they refer to it), otherwise known as the occupied West Bank;
- A policy to expel African asylum seekers/refugees (largely from Sudan and Eritrea) from the Jewish State;
- An end to soccer matches on Shabbat as a clear violation of the laws of the Torah. (Shabbat soccer is otherwise sacrosanct in Israeli society – there have even been cases of rabbis issuing halakhic permission for observant players to play on Shabbat);
What is so puzzling about this platform is that it directly contradicts a law repeated 52 times in the Torah to welcome and treat with kindness the stranger:
וְגֵ֥ר לֹא־תוֹנֶ֖ה וְלֹ֣א תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20)
Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch (1808-1888) comments on this: verse:
“You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Here it says simply and absolutely, “for you were strangers,” your whole misfortune in Egypt was that you were strangers there. As such, according to the views of other nations, you had no right to be there, having no claim to rights of settlement, home, or property. Accordingly, you had no rights in appeal against unfair or unjust treatment. As aliens you were without any rights in Egypt, out of that grew all of your bondage and oppression, your slavery and wretchedness. Therefore beware, so runs the warning, from making rights in your own State conditional on anything other than on that simple humanity which every human being as such bears within. With any limitation in these human rights the gate is opened to the whole horror of Egyptian mishandling of human beings.” (translated by Uri L’Tzedek from the German, and h/t to Rabbi David Seidenberg)
Rabbi Hirsch was a stalwart of the Religious Zionist community and was essential to the evolution of modern Orthodoxy that inspired an educational philosophy known as “Torah im Derech Eretz,” meaning observance of Torah and mitzvot while interacting humanely with the wider/outside world.
But Smotrich and Ben Gvir are all Torah in its narrowest and most tribal sense and no Derech Eretz. Their Torah is so highly selective that they emphasize Shabbat and blatantly ignore other unambiguous commandments such as not wronging a stranger.
How sad it is that those who claim to hold the Torah in such high regard disregard a central and unequivocal Torah principle.
I know. This is not new. Alas, there will always be extremists who fixate on aspects of Torah and ignore others. And yes, since the days of Torah interpretation began there have always been those who accuse lenient Jews of emphasizing Torah’s universal principles while failing to prioritize particularistic ritual practices.
So why raise this issue again now? For two reasons:
- Every Jew around the world is reading these words this Shabbat. I want to call upon those who hold the Torah close and regard it as the guiding principle in their lives to internalize the principle that the mitzvah to treat the stranger humanely is essential to the Torah’s vision of a just society.
- Smotrich and Ben Gvir have a realistic chance of being elected to the 24th Knesset on March 23rd. This week they closed a surplus vote agreement with Likud and “Religious Zionism.” which boosts their chances to be included in a right-wing coalition, possibly even with a ministerial portfolio. This means that Likud – who decades ago joined the mainstream in condemning the racism of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane now becomes their main promoter. This move would give them a considerably greater platform and legislative opportunity to advance their narrow and bigoted agenda.
This is the time for all who consider Torah law to condemn the vitriol of the “Religious Zionism” party. This is the time to remember that the law alone cannot provide for a just society unless it is reinforced by the moral commitment of its citizens, motivated by the religious conviction that God cares and demands that we act ethically.
Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “The divine commandments are not mere recommendations for [hu]man[kind], but express divine concern, which, realized or repudiated, is of personal importance to God.” (Heschel, The Prophets, 24)
The measure of the moral health of a society is whether it is informed by compassion, justice, good will, and the moral commitment of all society’s members, individually and collectively, from the grass roots to its leadership.