To­rah says you can be for Is­rael... and for Pales­tine

A two-state so­lu­tion re­flects the To­rah’s call for jus­tice, says Rabbi El­iz­a­beth Tivkah Sarah, ahead of Is­rael In­de­pen­dence Day next week

The Jewish Chronicle - - Judaism -

LIFE/DEATH; bless­ing/curse; good/ evil; love/hate; peace/war; left/ right; black/white; right/wrong — the list of bi­nary op­po­si­tions is end­less. On the face of it, it may seem en­tirely rea­son­able to make sense of the world in bi­nary terms: does the To­rah not, in­deed, urge us to “choose life” and “good” — and re­ject “death” and “evil” (Deuteron­omy 30:15ff)? The trou­ble with th­ese bi­nary choices is that some­times they force us to choose be­tween right — and right. The logic of bi­nary think­ing dic­tates that when there is only one sin­gu­lar right pos­si­ble, the other con­tender must be wrong.

And so it is with Is­rael/Pales­tine: if I am “for” Is­rael, I can­not also be “for” Pales­tine; but the fact is I am for Is­rael and Pales­tine — and for bona fide Jewish rea­sons.

The bi­nary im­pulse found in Jewish teach­ing as else­where, is not, as it hap­pens, the dom­i­nant mo­tif. In­deed, Jewish teach­ing em­braces both par­tic­u­lar­is­tic — that is, Jewish peo­ple-cen­tred — and uni­ver­sal­is­tic con­cerns. The prob­lem is, Jewish in­di­vid­u­als and de­nom­i­na­tions of­ten choose to em­pha­sise ei­ther the par­tic­u­lar­is­tic or the uni­ver­sal­is­tic; ei­ther/or — an­other bi­nary af­flic­tion.

The case for Is­rael is well-re­hearsed. Equally, the case for Pales­tine — made on the part of those caught up in the flip side of the bi­nary trap — is also well­re­hearsed. But there is an­other approach, which, rather than “tak­ing sides”, ac­knowl­edges the just claims of both Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans.

If we re­turn to the source of Jewish teach­ing, the To­rah, we find that the long nar­ra­tive of our an­ces­tors’ jour­ney to­wards the land promised by God is ac­com­pa­nied by a frame­work of leg­is­la­tion fu­elled by an eth­i­cal im­per­a­tive.

At the heart of the To­rah, we find this week’s parashah, Ke­doshim, known as the Ho­li­ness Code, which opens at Leviti­cus chap­ter 19. Most of the chap­ter is taken up with a se­ries of eth­i­cal in­junc­tions. To­wards the end, we find th­ese verses (19:33-34):

“And if a stranger so­journs with you in your land, you shall do him no wrong. The stranger that so­journs with you shall be like the home-born among you, and you shall love him as your­self, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Eter­nal, your God.”

The He­brew noun for “stranger” here is, ac­tu­ally, “so­journer” — ger — which is re­lated to the verb, yagur, “so­journs”. Rab­binic law un­der­stands ger as “pros­e­lyte”, that is, one who con­verts to Ju­daism. How­ever, clearly, th­ese verses sug­gest, sim­ply, that a “so­journer” should be treated like one “home-born” ( ezrach) — which is rather ironic: the Is­raelites are not home-born; they did not orig­i­nate in the land; they were so­journ­ers in the land of Egypt –— which is why they should not wrong other so­journ­ers and, in­deed, rather em­pathise with them.

As we read in Parashat Mish­pa­tim (Ex­o­dus 23:9): “And a so­journer you shall not op­press, for you know the in­ner­most be­ing [ ne­fesh] of the so­journer, for you were so­journ­ers in the land of Egypt.” Parashat Be­har un­der­lines the point in the con­text of the leg­is­la­tion con­cern­ing the Yovel, the Ju­bilee year, by mak­ing an­other one (Leviti­cus 25:23): “The land shall not be sold in per­pe­tu­ity, for the land is Mine; for you are so­journ­ers and set­tlers with Me — ki gerim v’toshavim atem imadi.” So­journ­ers in Egypt, the peo­ple of Is­rael are also so­journ­ers in the land — be­cause the land be­longs to God.

This year, we read Parashat Ke­doshim on the Shab­bat morn­ing be­fore Yom Ha’atz­maut, and we be­gin read­ing Parashat Be­har on the Shab­bat af­ter­noon that fol­lows, less than two days later. This jux­ta­po­si­tion gives us pause for thought.

For Is­raelis, Yom Ha’atz­maut marks a joy­ous mo­ment, the birth of the mod­ern state of Is­rael; for Pales­tini­ans it marks naqba, the day that ush­ered in “catas­tro­phe”. It is only pos­si­ble to rec­on­cile th­ese two op­pos­ing nar­ra­tives by re­course to jus­tice. We read in Ke­doshim (Leviti­cus 19:15): “You shall not per­vert judg­ment; ei­ther by show­ing favour to the poor, or by de­fer­ring to the great; in jus­tice shall you judge your peo­ple, amitecha.”

In jus­tice shall you judge your peo­ple — only your peo­ple? Verse 18 seems to re­in­force the mes­sage: “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the chil­dren of your peo­ple, but you shall love your neigh­bour as your­self, I am the Eter­nal — v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha, Ani Adonai.”

But if the sys­tem of jus­tice ap­plies only to the peo­ple Is­rael — and “neigh­bour” here clearly means a fel­low-Is­raelite — why does the To­rah in the same pas­sage, as we have seen, go on to spec­ify that Is­raelites must not wrong the so­journer (33)? And why, echo­ing verse 18, does it ex­hort Is­raelites to love the so­journer “like your­self”, kamocha (34)?

Ul­ti­mately, jus­tice is im­par­tial. We read in Deuteron­omy, in Parashat Shof­tim (16:19-20): “You shall not per­vert judg­ment; you shall not re­spect per­sons; nei­ther shall you take a gift; for a gift blinds the eyes of the wise, and per­verts the words of the righ­teous. Jus­tice, jus­tice shall you pur­sue, so you may live and in­herit the land, which the Eter­nal your God gives to you.”

“ Tzedek, tzedek tirdof”, “Jus­tice, jus­tice shall you pur­sue”. In He­brew syn­tax, the verb usu­ally comes first; here, the noun, jus­tice, tzedek, is placed in ad­vance of the verb for em­pha­sis: jus­tice you shall pur­sue: But why the rep­e­ti­tion of jus­tice? In the con­text of the pre­ced­ing verse, the rep­e­ti­tion em­pha­sises the point about im­par­tial­ity to­wards both sides in a dis­pute.

We could leave it there, but the phrase that fol­lows brings us back to the land: “Jus­tice, jus­tice shall you pur­sue, so you may live and in­herit the land, which the Eter­nal your God gives to you.” Again: the land be­longs to God — not to the peo­ple of Is­rael: “You are so­journ­ers and set­tlers with Me” (Leviti­cus 25:23); in­hab­it­ing the land is con­di­tional upon the ex­e­cu­tion of jus­tice, and that in­cludes the just treat­ment of the other so­journ­ers: the non-Is­raelites.

So, jus­tice, jus­tice you shall pur­sue — jus­tice for the Is­raelis; jus­tice for the Pales­tini­ans; two sov­er­eign states, both pur­su­ing jus­tice. El­iz­a­beth Tik­vah Sarah is rabbi of Brighton and Hove Pro­gres­sive Syn­a­gogue


Dreams of peace: an ex­hi­bi­tion of paint­ings by Is­raeli and Pales­tinian chil­dren shown at the House of Com­mons in 2005

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