Love and Critique, Together Forever

YOM HA-ATZMA’UT / KEDOSHIM 5779

MAY 10, 2019 – 7:45 PM

LOVE AND CRITIQUE, TOGETHER FOREVER

One of the most confounding verses in Torah appears in this week’s parasha, Kedoshim.  At the center of Leviticus 19—the celebrated “Holiness Code” that outlines the terms of a life of Jewish sanctity, the same passage that, famously, demands, “V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha,” “Love your neighbor as yourself”—we read:

Lo tisna achicha bilvavecha; hocheach tochiach et amitecha, v’lo tisa alav chet. 

There is no one perfect way to translate the verse, but here’s my attempt:

“You must not keep bad blood toward your brother in your heart; rather, you should admonish your fellow, so that you will not have to bear his guilt” (Lev. 19:17).

In other words, “If you see something, say something.”  If you observe your brother—probably here meaning a fellow Israelite or Jew—going astray, it’s up to you to call him out, lest the transgression be yours to bear for not having done anything about it. 

The verse follows in the vein of much other Biblical law concerning the structure of Jewish society, in which, for lack of a better way of putting it, everybody’s stuff was all up in everybody else’s.  In America, we have “Mind your own business”; in Torah, we have, “your business is my business,” a sharp contrast that may shed light on particular characteristics of Jewish people to this day. 

And so we derive from this verse the premise that it is not only okay, but sometimes required—indeed, a mitzvah or commandment—for us to critique another, when we see someone going astray. 

Once we unpack the complex syntax of the verse, the concept is simple to understand, but difficult to apply. 

The Babylonian Talmud offers an exchange between prominent rabbis, in which one, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, complains that no one of his generation seems able to accept critique.  Rabbi Akiva interjects, “By God, I don’t know of anyone in this generation who knows how to deliver critique” (Arakhin 16b).

Hearing and delivering critical feedback are difficult, but necessary, practices, what we might call “essential life skills.”  No genuine relationship can thrive without them.  In Midrash, Rabbi Yosi notes that “love without reproof is not real love,” and the Sage Resh Lakish replies, “And peace where there has been no reproof is not real peace” (Bereshit Rabbah 54:3).

I share these comments with you as a shaky peace, a welcome but unpredictable cease-fire, holds in Israel, following last week’s unprovoked rocket fire from Gaza on Jewish population centers that resulted in four civilian casualties.  There are more than a million bomb shelters in Israel—that’s one for almost every eight people—and last Shabbat, that’s where you could find a million or more Israelis, seeking refuge. 

WRT joins the Reform Movement in condemning the attacks. 

Our Movement leadership has written:  “We hope and pray that the cease fire holds, and at the same time, the Union for Reform Judaism and Central Conference of American Rabbis deplore the massive rocket attack unleashed upon Israel and its citizens by Islamic Jihad and Hamas, the terrorist clients of the Iranian regime, which controls the Gaza Strip. 

We mourn the innocents who have lost their lives in this new round of violence. We pray for the healing of the injured and for the safety of the Israel Defense Forces as they strive to combat this murderous assault on Israeli sovereignty and security. As we send strength and blessings to our congregations in the south of Israel, we are grateful that peril to life and limb in Israel has been greatly limited by the effectiveness of the Iron Dome, emblematic of longstanding U.S.-Israeli security cooperation.

As this week, together with Jews across the globe, we prepare to celebrate Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut, we stand in solidarity with the State of Israel and all Israelis even as we pray for Israel’s safety and security, for an end to this tragic violence, and for a future of real, lasting, and sustainable peace for Israel and for the Palestinian people.”

As we celebrate Israel’s independence, we recognize that it ought never be taken for granted.  As rockets target Israel civilians; as Jews all over the world feel—and are—more threatened today than in a generation or more by antisemitism; as we confront an ancient hatred perpetrated anew on college campuses, in the pages of the international news, and by disturbed gunmen firing on Jews praying in shul—we stand with Israel and for Israel:  a home, a haven, and a harbinger of hope.     

And yet, in light of the verse we have examined, might we still dare to ask:  Does the Jewish obligation to reprove your fellow ever apply to our relationship with Israel? 

I know plenty who say no.  They say:  What Israel needs most from the Jewish community, especially now, is our unconditional support.  They say critique is damaging, even dangerous.  They say Jewish critique of Israel is the mark of the self-hating Jew.  They suspect any critique of Israel of being a cover for antisemitism. 

I reject this view, even if it means that I am thereby protecting the right of the actual antisemites to broadcast their noxious opinions.  The ability to give and receive critical feedback is a sign of any healthy relationship.  Stifling all criticism is both unwarranted and unhelpful.  As we have learned:  “Love without critique is not love.  Peace without critique is not peace.”  It is intentional that the Torah places the verse about rebuking your neighbor directly next to the words, “Love your neighbor.”  The two are inextricably linked.

And so, as we stand unwaveringly with Israel, especially when besieged—as we celebrate her independence, renew our commitment, pledge to make travel to Israel a priority, and support the special relationship between the United States and Israel that helps to guarantee Israel’s security—we also do not flinch when it comes to holding Israel to the highest moral standards of our Jewish faith. 

Following services tonight, we’ll enjoy the opportunity to reflect on last month’s general election in Israel.  I am always grateful to our congregant, teacher, erstwhile Executive Director and friend, the erudite and insightful Yoel Magid, who will join me in conversation about the meaning of the election and where Israel, and we, might go from here. 

As we do, Yoel and I will endeavor to keep in mind what the Talmud teaches, that it’s hard to hear critique, and even harder to deliver it properly—with sensitivity and love.  We hope not to miss the mark. 

Some may feel uncomfortable with our sponsoring a dialogue that raises concerns about the way in which security and nationalism may be exploited to undermine Israel’s democratic character; or about growing threats to religious pluralism; or about incitement against Israel’s non-Jewish citizens of Israel who comprise one fifth of the population; or about the alarming rise in public acts of anti-Arab racism; or about the empowerment of religious intolerance in the form of Ultra-Orthodox rabbis and politicians who seek to deny the equal place of women, converts, the LGBTQ population, and all non-Orthodox Jews, in the world’s only Jewish State.  All this, before we even touch the seemingly ever-receding prospect of meaningful reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. 

“But rabbi,” I can hear them say—this is no time to speak of such things.  Tonight is Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, a time for celebration, a time for unconditional love. 

To which I say, “Our celebration continues unabated.  And our love for Israel is indeed unconditional, the same word we use to describe the love for our siblings, parents, and children—unconditional, yes, but not uncritical, and there’s a critical difference between the two. 

I for one would not wish to be part of any society, country, group or above all religious tradition where thoughtful dissent is silenced.  Having just returned from a week in and around Berlin, in large measure spent excavating the history of Jews in Germany, having stood in the public squares where the Nazis burned our books, and on the train tracks where the Nazis deported us to our deaths (on Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, no less), I feel obliged to remind us that we Jewish people are all too familiar with the silencing of dissenting voices, with the way in which autocracy thrives on fear and intimidation, and dictators often strike first against a free press precisely because they cannot abide even a modicum of public censure.

So tonight we celebrate and confirm our unique and permanent bond, between our people and our homeland.  And tonight, we also question, challenge, probe, critique, and converse. 

We do this because we are Jews, and that’s how we Jews show our love. 

Shabbat Shalom.

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