Wednesday July 26, 2023 – ח׳ אָב תשפ”ג – עֶרֶב תִּשְׁעָה בְּאָב
During the early days of the Yom Kippur War – which were among Israel’s darkest and bleakest – then Defense Minister Moshe Dayan uttered an exasperated defeatist sigh and said, “The Third Temple has fallen.” The existential threat that Dayan and the State faced during the war was real, and many are feeling that the internal threat and deep division and polarization in Israeli society today is an equally grave threat from within.
On Monday afternoon, the bill to overturn the “reasonableness standard” passed the third and final Knesset vote needed to ratify it into law. This bill will end the High Court’s authority to strike down government decisions that it deems “unreasonable” (i.e. contrary to Israel’s Basic Laws or other legislation).
On its surface and in its essence, the bill is not going to be the end of the State of Israel as we know it, nor it will signal the end of Israeli democracy. However, Israelis who oppose the judicial overhaul understand clearly what is colloquially known as “the salami method” – that the complete judicial coup, the dismantling of Israel’s democratic institutions, and the erasure of separation of powers will be done incrementally. Monday’s passage of this law was the coalition’s first major accomplishment on the path to the destruction of Israel’s democracy.
Amidst images of self-satisfied selfies and stick-it-to-the-man high fives and fist bumps from triumphant and gloating MKs, the protests raged on. Angry protesters stormed the Ayalon Highway and surrounded the Knesset with no sign of fatigue or dissipation after two days of massive mobilization.
To be clear, the danger of this new law is not so much about individual rights, as the protection of these rights does not rely on the “unreasonableness” doctrine. Rather, it is about corruption, both in the use (or misuse) of public funds and in the field of government appointments. The biggest immediate threat will be a government decision to dismiss the Attorney General and replace her with a lawyer who will likely do away with PM Netanyahu’s charges of corruption. The effect of the law cannot be gauged solely by the number of cases in which the Supreme Court will be constrained from intervening in corrupt actions. The law will weaken the power of ministry legal advisers to stop decisions likely to be regarded as manifestly “unreasonable.”
In short, this is a reshuffling of Israel’s governing institutions and its system of checks and balances. This law will have repercussions for policies in the West Bank and ramifications for the US-Israel relationship.
The timing of the passage of this bill should not be lost. Taking place on the 6th of Av (pronounced shisha b’Av in Hebrew) so close to the melancholy day of mourning of Tisha B’Av, some regard this moment as the actual demise of the Third Temple that Moshe Dayan lamented a half-century ago.
This is not just a fringe view. The 5 major Israeli newspapers ran, in unanimity, completely black pages on the front of their daily papers the day after the vote to symbolize this dark day for Israeli democracy.
What does this moment require of us right now?
1) We need to increase our activism in Israel and our support for civil society and throw our support behind the Israeli Reform Movement that has dedicated itself to saving Israeli democracy based on our commitment to liberal Torah values as outlined by the prophets of Israel and reiterated in Israel’s founding document – the Declaration of Independence.
2) We need to translate this moment into a longer-term commitment. The problem is that the pro-democracy camp lost the last election and we do not have the power to repeal the legislative agenda within the Knesset. While the next elections in Israel are not until 2026 (if this current government lasts that long), there will be municipal elections this fall. Our democracy camp needs to rebuild and channel our rage, fury, fear, and the ever-growing social consensus and commitment to values into electoral power.
As a Movement, we sit at the table with all the different Zionist organizations that operate within the National Institutions (the Jewish Agency for Israel, the World Zionist Organization, and the Israeli Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael-Jewish National Fund). The issues, debates, and discussions that take place amongst these institutions are a microcosm of the larger debate that is spilling out of the Knesset and onto the streets of Israel (and around the world) these past 29 weeks. The necessity for us to succeed in the next World Zionist Congress elections in 2025 is directly related to the core issues confronting Israel today – freedom of religion, preventing de facto annexation of the West Bank, protecting human rights, etc. We need leaders from our congregations – North American Jews who are committed to the vision of a Jewish and democratic State based on the principles of Justice, Freedom, Peace, and equality – to be willing to roll up their sleeves and act.
3) We need to act with חֶסֶד / hesed (lovingkindness). As we prepare to mourn the destruction of our ancient Temples, we must not only focus on the traditional causes of those destruction – zealousness and wanton hatred – but to look to the example of how we as a people reacted, rebuilt, and refocused Jewish life after the destruction. When the students of Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai came to him bereft and without bearings, they asked him how we will continue the sacrifices (Avodah) at the Beit HaMikdash without the central institution of our Temple? He replied, (as told in Avot DeRabi Natan Ch.4):
הא למדת שאין עבודה שהיא חביבה לפני הקב״ה יותר מעבודת בית המקדש:
על גמ״ח כיצד? הרי הוא אומר: (הושע ו) כי חסד חפצתי ולא זבח. העולם מתחילה לא נברא אלא בחסד, שנאמר: (תהלים פט) כי אמרתי עולם חסד יבנה שמים תכין אמונתך בהם. פעם אחת היה רבן יוחנן בן זכאי יוצא מירושלים והיה רבי יהושע הולך אחריו וראה בית המקדש חרב [אר״י אוי לנו על זה שהוא חרב] מקום שמכפרים בו עוונותיהם של ישראל. א״ל בני אל ירע לך, יש לנו כפרה אחת שהיא כמותה. ואיזה? זה גמ״ח שנאמר כי חסד חפצתי ולא זבח.
We know that there is no greater mission beloved by God than the worship in the Holy Temple. But what about Gemilut Hasadim – Acts of Lovingkindness? Ben Zakai quoted the prophet Hosea (6:6): “For I desire goodness, more than sacrifice,” which at the time signaled the transition to prayer as our main form of ritual, but in today’s context can symbolize a prioritization of our social behavior.
Jerusalem Post editor Avi Mayer has written:
“…a government that callously ignores the pain of half its citizens, dismisses the warnings of its most dedicated soldiers, and disregards the counsel of those entrusted with the country’s economic well-being is one that exhibits a breathtaking failure of leadership.”
I would add: it is a government that exhibits a lack of hesed, compassion, and empathy. The inability of Israel’s government to see that millions of Israeli citizens are terrified of what is now occurring instead of gloating over them in their moment of anguish is a manifestation of evil, no less than the cause of the destruction of the ancient Temples.
It is this feeling that is the real destruction – the inability to understand and empathize with what pains another and triggers their fears.
Tisha B’Av is about learning the lessons from the tragic ramifications of rigidity and stubbornness. It is about the unwillingness to budge in one’s opinions and course of action. It could be seen in that remarkable moment on the floor of the Knesset when Defense Minister Yoav Gallant leaned over [across PM Netanyahu] to his colleague, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, and pleaded with him to “Give Something… Something!” to soften the proposed legislation and acquiesce something to the protesters – including thousands of reservists who are threatening to refuse to serve a government that no longer is democratic. Extreme stringency is the opposite of hesed.
There is no question that those protesting, many on the Left, are equally guilty of not understanding the plight of those who have for so long felt wronged, marginalized, and unheard. The call for hesed is one of the most important things we can respond to now. On Tisha B’Av, we are wise to heed the call from the Midrashic text Yalkut Shimoni commenting on Psalm 65:
“A human being, mere flesh, and blood, cannot hear the cries of two individuals who are crying simultaneously. However, the Creator can. Even when all of the world’s inhabitants cry out at once, the Holy One hears every individual cry, as it is written, ‘All humankind comes to You, You who hear prayer.’ (Psalms 65:3)”
As we bow our heads in mourning on Tisha B’Av and lament the destruction of both yesteryear and today, what might it look like to make room from within our own pain and suffering to acknowledge the pain and suffering of another – even one who is causing us such angst and suffering?
Can one have hesed even without power? Can acting through hesed preserve this Third phase of Jewish sovereignty?
Perhaps not, but let’s give it a try.
Wishing you a meaningful Tisha B’Av and Tzom Kal.
 The bill (amendment to be exact) repealing the reasonableness clause passed 64-0 as every member of the Opposition boycotted the plenary session.