Thursday, December 16, 2010

More Petitions Against the Rabbinical Manifesto

Two more petitions against the rabbinical manifesto prohibiting the sale and rental of property to non-Jews, both originating from modern orthodox Jewish circles, have garnered hundreds (and soon thousands) of signatures. One originates from Israel; the other from America. Comparing the two is a worthwhile exercise in the difference between Jerusalem and Babylonia, or between Yavneh and the Upper West Side.

The first, here in Hebrew, begins with a strong protest against the rabbinical letter, "which employs expressions that appear to be taken from the vile language used by minority-haters in other times and places.

We, the undersigned, graduates of yeshivot and seminaries, and others committed to the Torah of God, wish to hereby express our shock and sharp protest to the aforementioned letter. This is not our way and this not our Torah.

We protest against turning the halakha into an instrument of advancing a racist ideology. We protest against the destruction of human dignity. We protest against the deliberate damaging of the delicate fabric of relationships between Jews and Arabs in our land. We protest against the irresponsibility shown towards Diaspora Jews.

The letter goes on to claim that the halakhic sentiments of the rabbinical manifesto expresses more their own ideology than the unequivocal voice of the tradition. Mention is made of more tolerant halakhic precedents from the middle ages and the modern period.

We desire a Torah whose ways are peace and comfort, a Torah of loving humans who were created in the Divine image. We desire a Torah that is not alien to the achievements of democracy and its values – the advancement of human rights, the obligation of the majority towards the minority….

We desire to strengthen the hands of rabbis who do not hesitate to speak out at this time with another voice, a voice that integrates the love of Torah with the love of mankind.

The letter is a fine one; my only criticism is that the headline of the petition is the verse from the Bible, "You know the soul of the strangers, since you were strangers in the Land of Egypt" The Palestinian Arab may be a stranger in the Land of Israel according to Jewish tradition, but he is a native of Palestine, and a native-born citizen of the state of Israel. If I can register that reservation next to my name, I will sign the petition, which as of this writing, had 1262 signatures. It speaks to me as an orthodox Jew, if not as a citizen of what purports to be a modern, democratic state.

The American rabbinical petition once cites a verse referring to non-Jews as strangers, although, to be fair, neither petition makes any Biblical verse part of the actual letter.

Do not pervert the rights of the stranger . . . and remember that you were once a slave in Egypt (Deuteronomy 24:17-18)

To our rabbinic colleagues in Israel,

We, rabbis serving in congregations and communities across the world, are turning to you for your assistance and leadership at a time of crisis. The recent halakhic ruling from community rabbis in Israel that forbids leasing apartments to non-Jews has caused great shock and pain in our communities. The attempt to root discriminatory policies based on religion or ethnicity in Torah is a painful distortion of our tradition. Am Yisrael knows the sting of discrimination, and we still bear the scars of hatred. When those who represent the official rabbinic leadership of the State of Israel express such positions, we are distressed by this Chillul HaShem, desecration of God's name.

This degradation of the Torah threatens both Israel and our communities. We struggle to maintain a strong, loving relationship between Jews outside of Israel and the Jewish state. Every day, that challenge grows more difficult. Many of our congregants love Israel and want nothing more than the safety and security of the Jewish homeland, but for a growing number of Jews in America this relationship to Israel cannot be assumed.

Statements like these do great damage to our efforts to encourage people to love and support Israel. They communicate to our congregants that Israel does not share their values, and they promote feelings of alienation and distancing. Further, these attacks on the principles of our prophets, which form the basis of Israel's law and society, provide justification for anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment across the world.

Many of you have raised your voices in the past, and have dedicated your lives to pursuing a just society in Israel. You have taught us that the discriminatory attitude expressed in that halakhic ruling does not reflect the belief of the majority of rabbis and Torah scholars or the people of Israel, and for that reason, we turn to you. For the sake of our people, our Torah, and Israel, we beseech you to take a strong public stand and oppose those who misrepresent our tradition.

בברכה, שבמהרה ציון במשפט תפדה

Note that the racism card is not played here, as in the Israeli petition (although that may be due, partly, to the poverty of the Hebrew language when it comes to words denoting bigotry; giz'anut ("racism") covers a variety of sins.) Note, also, that the tone is one of turning to Israeli rabbis for guidance. And note, finally, that the bulk of the letter appeals to the negative consequences for support of Israel. The letter is less sharp and more deferential than its Israeli counterpart – as befitting the inferiority complex of many American Jews.

No matter – a big yasher koah to all the rabbis that signed it. And it is particularly gratifying that most of the rabbis are non-orthodox, representing all segments of the Jewish religious world.

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