from the heart of jerusalem

Learning to love each other when we disagree


Originally published in 2013.

A few weeks ago, at a now much publicized Rosh Chodesh prayer service at the Kotel, things got ugly.

As they have been doing for nearly 25 years, a group of women from a range of Jewish backgrounds, known as the Women of the Wall, gathered at the Kotel to pray the special morning prayers of Rosh Chodesh. This group included women wearing tallitot and tefillin, and reading from a Torah scroll. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews (a label whose definition is beyond the scope of this article) arrived to protest, and things soon got out of hand.

A group of my students from Yeshivat Orayta happened to be at the Kotel for the traditional Rosh Chodesh services and were caught in the middle of it, later describing to me a horrendous scene which included Jews throwing chairs, spitting at their fellow Jews, and even pummeling and knocking down a policewoman. While the group of Jews displaying such violence was certainly a small fringe element, one wonders how we have arrived at such a sorry state of affairs.

So how did we get here and what can we do about it?

• • •

This week’s portion contains the story of Korach’s rebellion against Moshe and Aaron and an interesting perspective on this topic.

Korach, Moshe’s first cousin, challenged his authority, claiming that the appointment of Elitzafan (another cousin, from a younger brother than Korach’s dad) as tribal prince was nepotism, and not the word of G-d. Ultimately, Korach questioned Moshe’s motives, for which he was punished, along with many of his followers, by being swallowed up by the earth in what may have been the first recorded earthquake in history.

There is a principle that when G-d metes out punishment, it is done “measure for measure” (middah ke’neged middah) with a punishment chosen to mirror the crime, thus making it clear why the perpetrator is being punished. So why was an earthquake G-d’s choice of punishment?

Jewish tradition teaches that just as Korach and his followers opened their mouths to speak ill over G-d’s prophet Moshe, the earth in turn swallowed them and silenced them forever.

This concept is found often; another example was the story of Joseph. The Torah tells us that Joseph slandered his brothers by telling his father Yaakov of their misdeeds. Rashi (Genesis 37:2) says Joseph said the brothers ate unslaughtered meat, degraded the maidservants’ children by calling them slaves, and they were suspect of infidelity.

Joseph was punished measure for measure: The brothers dipped his coat in the blood of a slaughtered goat (showing they did indeed slaughter their animals before eating them); he was sold into slavery; and he was jailed when his master’s wife attempted to seduce him.

Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, in his Sichot Mussar, points out that middah ke’neged middah is less about punishment and more about a message. Every event that affects our lives really carries a message for us; we need only be sensitive enough to recognize it.

As an example, the Baal Shem Tov points out that if we see a person desecrating Shabbat, it does not mean we are supposed to scream “Shabbos” at them; it means there is a flaw in our own Shabbat. And if this is true on an individual level, it is certainly so on a national level.

• • •

In the summer of 2005, during the Israeli disengagement from Gush Katif (the Jewish towns in the Gaza Strip), I felt that if Israeli soldiers could be expelling 8,000 Jews from their homes, something was dreadfully wrong. The Hebrew word for the disengagement was hitnatkut, literally meaning to be cut off. Perhaps we underwent the terrible events of that dreadful summer because we were, and in many ways still are, cut off from each other.

Here in Israel, many of us live in our island communities, religious or secular, Chassidic or Litvish, right wing or left, and as a result have very little to do with those who are outside of our comfort zone. How many religious Jews (whatever that term means) who live in settlements in Yehuda or Shomron have close secular friends who live in Tel Aviv? And how many modern Orthodox Jews (another label needing much more of an explanation) have close friends in the ultra-Orthodox world? How many of us even have healthy avenues to dialogue with each other?

Indeed, the Talmud tells us that the second Temple was destroyed, along with a sizable portion of the Jewish community of the time, due to sinat chinam (baseless hatred). But a normal person does not hate someone for no reason; he does have a reason — so it’s not really baseless hatred, is it?

The Netziv (Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berllin, Rosh yeshiva of the famed Yeshivat Volozhin in the mid- to late-1800s) suggests, in his introduction to Genesis, that sinat chinam refers to someone who hates his fellow Jew because that other person’s pathway to a relationship with G-d is different from his own.

When you hate someone because of the way they choose to practice their Judaism, however different from your own, and regardless of whether it is halachically correct, then that is sinat chinam.

Interestingly, the Netziv suggests this leads to the destruction of the land of Israel and the forfeiting of a Jewish connection to the land, which may well be what was really happening in the summer of 2005.

Perhaps, when we read of all the dangers that abound today for the State of Israel — a nuclear Iran, missiles in the hands of Hezbollah in Lebanon and so on — we need to look inwards and not only outwards towards our dangerous neighbors.

And if hating our fellow Jew for his or her different opinions leads to the destruction of the land, then learning to love each other even whilst disagreeing on how Judaism asks us to relate to G-d, is the solution.