Too much heat, too little warmth
Friday, 07 July 2017 | 13 Tammuz, 5777
We haven’t even started the traditional “Three Dark Weeks”, a time we reflect on the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temples and the internal disunity and conflict (the “causeless hatred”) that brought on the devastation. We haven’t even started and yet Israel is already entangled in a dark conflict over its most sacred site (the Kotel) and the right to define Jewish identity (the Conversion Bill). It’s threatening to tear apart the fragile bonds that connect Diaspora (and especially American) Jewry and Israel. It’s generating enormous angst as well as hysteria and overreaction. In London there’s the unseemly and venomous attack on Rabbi Dweck, Chief Sephardi rabbi for expressing a tolerance for and understanding of the challenge of homosexuality to Orthodoxy. On the local front we have been witnessing ugly and unseemly disputes at shules from Southhead to South Caulfield. Lots of heat and too little light and warmth.
These are significant disputes because they touch on some of the most critical elements of being Jewish today: the reciprocal relationship between Diaspora Jewry and Israel, the control of religious identity and the rights and limits of religious leadership. It's at times like these that we need cool heads, warm hearts and temperate language; ingredients sadly and obviously lacking.
In Israel much of the Chareidi leadership is utterly dismissive and disparaging of Jews from the Reform and Conservative movements. On the other side, some leaders of the American Jewish community are histrionic in their readiness to dump on Israel and their language is reminiscent of the BDS movement. In the UK the personal attacks on Rabbi Dweck and the tone of the debate reminds one of the Inquisition. His antagonists seem determined to destroy him because of his opinions. Their call on Chief Rabbi Mirvis is threatening and bullying: Witness the words of their letter: the rabbis both Sephardi and Ashkenazi wrote that if he did not remove Rabbi Dweck as head he will be responsible for the splitting of Anglo-Orthodoxy and lose his credibility.
It doesn’t get much better on the local scene where the reported comments of both the Southhead rabbi and his detractors amount to personal ad hominem attacks. The problem with all of this toxic talk is that it creates an atmosphere where almost anything people say or want to say is legitimised. Across the world we have opened up doors of dissatisfaction and ‘kvetchery.’ Personal prejudices, frustrations and gripes previously kept under the lid are now deemed perfectly acceptable. Everybody is free to say what they want to without filters or reflection. You don’t have to stop and think before you press ‘send’. You don’t have to consider the consequence of your words and just how damaging and hurtful they may be. Dumping has replaced decision-making, impulse instead of initiative; getting it off your chest is deemed more moral than prudent restraint.
The intemperate tweeting of President Donald Trump is probably both a cause and a reflection of this ugly zeitgeist. Interestingly, this week’s parasha highlights another serial tweeter: the gentile prophet Bilaam ben (son of) Tzipor (literally bird). Bilaam is the son of a twitterer and is paid to shoot off his mouth. He is a hired motor-mouth but his strategy is more like that of a hired gun. He is taken on by the enemies of Israel to curse the Jews. He knows how to wield words as a weapon. In many ways the parasha is a treatise on the uncanny power of words to stir people and to wage war, to hurt and to heal. Rashi suggests that Moab enlists the support of the Midianites reasoning they would know best how to hurt Moses and his people. After all Moses had lived in Midian and married into a Midianite family. Their advice was telling: “They told them: He has no power except with the mouth. They [Moab] said: ‘we too will confront them with a man whose power is with his mouth [Bilaam]’ (Rashi on Numbers 22:4).
Learning the Daf Yomi (Talmud) this week I was struck by the profound rabbinical insight into the psychological power of words: ‘Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav… all people violate the laws of lashon hara [abuse of speech; talking about others]… or at least the dust of lashon hara[clings to them]. Even praising someone in public can stimulate a derogatory comment from a person in the crowd who thinks differently. Rav Dimi put it succinctly: “A person should always be careful not to speak excessively about another’s good qualities for out of this good characterisation may emerge a discussion of the other’s flaws and faults” (Bava Batra 164b and 165a).
The contemporary issues from Jerusalem to Sydney merit discussion; they don’t deserve disparagement. Maybe we should all draw a page out of the parasha and turn our curses into compliments, our harsh criticism into helpful debate. Maybe then we’ll ease the darkness and declare with pride those immortal words of Bilaam: How good are your tents (your homes) Jacob, your sanctuaries (your shules and seats of power), Israel.