A hurtful letter and a ‘woke’ up call

A hurtful letter and a ‘woke’ up call

Thank you to all whose letters in the last few weeks complimented me on my recent columns. One letter two weeks ago, however, delivered sharp criticism of a column published two weeks before that. It was very hurtful and requires a response. (I will not name the letter’s author to avoid embarrassing that person because to do so would violate Torah law.)

Criticism should always be constructive, but this letter failed that test.

The letter begins by backhandedly putting down my “progressive woke ideology” before getting to the specific complaint. I will address that “ideology” below.

The letter then rebukes me because “we as diasporic Jews have no right to shame and lecture the democratically elected Israeli government —period. When he [meaning me] moves to Israel and pays taxes there, and his family serves in the IDF, and he votes there, then he can openly criticize the government….”

I do not live in Israel, and I do not pay taxes there. I do, however, contribute financially to the state through various “woke” charities, including Leket Israel (arguably the largest food rescue organization there) and Meir Panim, which operates soup kitchens and food pantries across Israel, among its other services to the poor.

Most hurtful is the statement that I have no right to comment on Israeli government actions unless my “family serves in the IDF.” The letter adds: “How dare he be so arrogant to think he can tell those on the front lines with missiles exploding overhead the correct tactical response from the plush comfort of Bergen County….”

The implication is that my opinions reveal a lack of concern for the safety of every Israeli Jew — soldier, or civilian — because I do not have family fighting in Gaza “with missiles exploding overhead.” For the record — and even though I consider it no one’s business outside my family — two of my grandchildren are non-commissioned IDF officers serving with missiles exploding over their heads. I held one of them on my lap at his brit milah.

Whether I have any immediate family fighting Hamas, however, misses (or is purposely meant to deflect) an important point. I doubt that there are many Jews here, in Canada, or anywhere else who do not have a relative or who know of others who have a relative or relatives on the front lines. All of us need to support Israel in its war to completely eliminate the threat Hamas poses, of course, but we have a right to have our views heard about how the war is being fought and the government that is managing it.

Since this war began, I added specific prayers in the morning and before I go to sleep urging God to protect everyone in the state, to give those brave soldiers of the IDF total victory in defeating Hamas, and to return them to their families alive and unharmed mentally and physically.

As I have written often, and as I truly believe, we Jews are all one family. We all descend from our father Jacob. That is why “all Israel is responsible one for the other.” (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Shevuot 39a and Sifra to Leviticus 7.5.)

The letter also accuses me of being a “frightened diasporic Jew.” I am frightened, although not in the spineless way the letter intended.

We all should be frightened. The Anti-Defamation League recently reported that antisemitic incidents here — physical assaults, harassment, and vandalism — more than tripled in the three months following October 7, and about two-thirds of them appear directly related to the war in Gaza. There have been at least 628 incidents reported against synagogues and community centers. There have been more than 500 incidents on college campuses, and nearly 250 cases at K-12 schools.

Intemperate, and even racist, remarks by some Israeli ministers play a part in this Jew-hating explosion, to be sure, but so have the deliberate misquoting of other ministers. In charging Israel with genocide, for example, Defense Minister Yosef Gallant often is cited in the media and by politicians on the progressive left as saying, “Gaza won’t return to what it was before. We will eliminate everything.” What Gallant actually said was this: “Gaza will not return to what it was before. There will be no Hamas. We will eliminate it all.” Israel will eliminate Hamas, Gallant said. He said nothing about committing genocide. Because he is intentionally misquoted, Jews in and out of Israel are branded as oppressors by much of the world. Must we who are among these “oppressors” remain silent because we live in the Diaspora?

In a very real sense, we are all on “the front lines.” We may not have rockets flying over our heads, but Jewish institutions in Montreal and Berlin have been firebombed. London’s Metropolitan Police reported that hate crimes against Jews in the British capital soared by 1,350 percent in just the first three weeks following October 7th and Israel’s response. We all need to support Israel in this war, but we must also recognize that we, too, are at risk.

The letter refers to “the democratically elected Israeli government” but ignores the facts. An overwhelming majority of Israeli voters did not vote for that government. Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party won just 32 seats, while other parties won 88 seats. The letter also ignores that Netanyahu had to get the deadline extended for him to form a coalition government.

Let me deal now with my supposed “progressive woke ideology.”

The term “woke” began as a compliment in the late 1930s or early 1940s. It referred to a person who had awakened to all manner of societal injustices in our world. Nowadays, the term is used to demean anyone who has such awareness.

In a column that was published here on June 11, 2021, I responded to a Facebook posting that blamed my “progressive politics” for the rise in antisemitism in general and for the “self-loathing Jewish trend” among Jews who criticize Israel’s policies. As I wrote back then, that charge “would be laughable if it did not expose the gross misperception of Torah law underlying its words.”

I also wrote this: “To advocate for better health care for all, for equality in education and in employment, for better gun control laws, for criminal justice reforms, for more affordable housing, for more humane immigration laws, and for a woman’s reproductive rights is not being ‘progressive,’ it is taking the words of Torah seriously, something the poster (who is Orthodox) and those who seconded the post apparently do not. (What the poster decries as ‘progressive’ are issues advocated by Uri L’Tzedek, the Orthodox social justice organization I urge everyone of every stream to support. It proudly proclaims being ‘guided by Torah values and dedicated to combating suffering and oppression,’ something incumbent on all Jews.)”

Among the most “progressive” Jews in history are our prophets. (See, for example, Isaiah 1:11-17, and 56:1; Amos 5:23-24; Malachi 3:5,22; Micah 6:8.) Topping the list, of course, is Moses.

The laws in Leviticus 19, among many others in the Torah, make it clear that all forms of social injustice are prohibited. For example, we must pay those whom we employ in a timely fashion (19:13), because, as Deuteronomy 24:15 later explains, the worker “urgently depends on it.” Verse 19:34 requires us to treat all strangers in our midst as we would treat ourselves and our citizens. This would include people fleeing from oppression, according to Deuteronomy 23:16.

The laws of Leviticus 19 are not “progressive”; they are Torah law. In Genesis 18:19, we are told why the Torah is filled with such laws when God explains why Abraham was chosen to found our nation: “For…he will teach his posterity to do tzedakah u’mishpat,” to do what is righteous and just — and to do so without regard to race, religion (or the lack thereof), national origin, and so forth.

In the words of the late Rabbi Aharon Soloveichik, zt”l, “Mishpat and tzedek both emanate from the doctrine of human rights…; the notion of rights [tzedek] comes first and the notion of duties [mishpat] second….A Jew should always identify with the cause of defending the aggrieved, whosoever the aggrieved may be, just as the concept of tzedek is to be applied uniformly to all humans regardless of race or creed.” (See his “Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind: Civil Rights and the Dignity of Man,” pages 64-67.)

There is nothing “progressive” about my politics. My “ideology” is driven by an understanding of the Torah’s commandments and the mission of our people. We are God’s kingdom of priests and holy nation, as the Torah portion this week makes clear (see Exodus 19:6). As such, we are tasked with helping to make this a better world — a world the Torah insists must be just, equitable, and caring.

This is not a “progressive” agenda; it is the agenda of the One who gave us that mission, and it should be the agenda of every Jew. It is time that we all “woke” up to that.

Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Kehillat Torat Chayim v’Chesed a virtual congregation, and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.

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