Liberty and democracy become unholy when their hands become dyed with innocent blood (1)
Mohandas K. Ghandi
The Jew is that sacred being who has brought down from heaven the everlasting fire, and has illumined with it the entire world. He is the religious source, spring, and fountain out of which all the rest of the peoples have drawn their beliefs and religions. The Jew is the pioneer of liberty… The Jew is the pioneer of civilization… The Jew is the emblem of civil and religious toleration (2)
Television has become a major and unfortunate player in our obligation as Jews to sanctify God’s name, to create a Kiddush Hashem.
The privacy of a nation and its inner struggles are challenged today as never before. What was once obscured from the eye of the world and consequently dealt with as a local affair is now shown on the world stage and judged accordingly. While this is true for all the nations of the world, in the case of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, it has far greater consequences. This is due to the fact that Israel’s image is directly related to the raison d’etre of Jews. How Israel and the Jewish people are perceived, touches at the core of Israel’s mission towards the world.
The obligation to sanctify God’s name is perhaps the most far reaching commandment in the Torah. Its reverse, the desecration of God’s name, is the only prohibition for which there is no repentance and forgiveness in this world. Once God’s name is violated in public, a limit has been crossed for which there is no pardon. (3)
Judaism demands from the individual Jew and of the Jewish people at large to be a living advertisement for God and Jewish ethics. The commandment of Kiddush Hashem has many components. Perhaps the most crucial one has to do with the way that God is perceived by the world. While God Himself can obviously not be desecrated, His “name” can. The idea of “name” here is what we would call today reputation, standing and public image.
On several occasions Moshe admonished God not to destroy the Jewish people since it would give Him a bad name. Moshe uses this argument when he deals with the terrible consequences of the golden calf incident (4) and following the demoralizing report of the spies: “And Moshe said to the Lord: …and You will now kill these people like one man! Then the nations… will say: Due to God’s inability to bring these people to the land that He promised them, He slaughtered them in the desert….” (Bamidbar 14:15-16)
God seems to be most sensitive to this argument and cancels His far reaching punishment. This is most difficult to understand from a theological point of view. Why should God be concerned about how the nations perceive Him? Since when are issues of truth dependent on public opinion? What has popularity to do with faith? Judaism’s response is quite clear: Only through man’s godly acts do we know about God’s ethical distinctiveness. Man is created in His image and it is man and specifically the Jewish people who represent Him in this world by acting out His commandments. Through the wisdom and the far reaching beneficial effects of these ethical demands, one recognizes His greatness. How the Jew behaves is how God is perceived.
But it is also the Jewish people’s highly unusual fate in history which reminds us of God. Just as God is unique so are the Jewish people. Neither can be explained in conventional terms. God is the wholly Other and the Jewish people are “a nation which dwells alone and is not counted among the nations.” (5) The eternity of God is reflected in the eternity of the Jewish people. Its strength to survive under all circumstances and against all odds makes them into a vehicle through which God reminds mankind of His very existence and involvement with the world. One is reminded of Nietzsche’s observation when he wrote: “The Jews are the most remarkable nation of the world history…. They defined themselves counter to all those conditions under which a nation was able to live.” (6)
By destroying the Jewish people, God would obliterate His own standing in the world. It is the Jews who through their fate and commitment to the commandments represent the divine in this world. As such they need to serve as an inspiration to all the other nations of the world. Their role is to be an example, no more, no less. They are called on to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation and it is their task to inspire and to make sure that the world follows in its path, imitates its deeds and walks in its ways. Exemplary conduct! A nation defined by a supreme ethical mission. It is for this reason that the commandment to create a Kiddush Hashem is vital to the very existence of the Jewish people. When Jews violate this commandment, they lose their very raison d’etre.
It is in this context most important to remind ourselves of a most unusual Talmudic ruling (7): When there are legally or morally justified reasons to act in a certain way but the result will be the violation of God’s name one is forbidden to do so. When God’s reputation is at stake and consequently the honor of the Torah, the need to sanctify His name must override any other consideration. Much of this depends on circumstances and how matters will be perceived by the public. This is the upshot of all Talmudic discussions concerning the concept of Kiddush Hashem. On numerous occasions the Talmud obligates the Jew to sanctify the name of God in the eyes of the world. When Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach bought an ass from an Arab and his students brought it home and found a pearl in it harness and suggested that he could legally and perhaps morally keep it, he told them: “Do you think that Shimon ben Shetach is a barbarian? He would prefer the Arab to say, Blessed be the God of the Jews, than posses all the riches in the world….” (8) In fact the Halacha states that the violation of Gods name in relationship with non-Jews is much more severe than with a fellow Jew. So, whereas Jewish field workers may eat part of the produce on which they are working, they are forbidden to do so when working for a gentile. It could be construed as theft. And so there are hundreds of other examples. (9)
Only when it is a matter of live and death and no other options are open is one allowed to do something which may be seen as contrary to the obligation of making a Kiddush Hashem in the eyes of the world.
In the days of the disengagement of Gush Katif, a non- Jewish journalist, Rob Hoogland, of the well respected Dutch Daily paper Telegraaf, wrote about his total amazement on seeing how the Israeli army and the settlers dealt with each other. Never, he wrote, did I see an army which, without any weapons, and with tears in their eyes and as softly as possible removed their opponents. “What an unbelievable army Israel has! Watching this taking place made my flesh creep. While Arabs shoot in the air when they are celebrating and no weapon is required, Israeli soldiers completed this most difficult task with not a weapon in sight. Class!, well done, Israel, shalom!” (10)
It is for this reason that the clash last week between the Israeli police and the settlers at Amona is so deeply tragic and unprecedented. There was no need for this clash which led to many injured on both sides and fueled even more mutual antagonistic feelings. Ultimately it also led to an unprecedented Chillul Hashem, the desecration of Gods name in front of millions of spectators. No greater blunder could have been made.
What both sides should have known and could have known is that the whole world would be watching this unfortunate event and as Jews, just as in the case of Gush Katif , they should have shown what it means to be a Jew, even when one Jew opposes another. Not only was an opportunity for Kiddush Hashem lost, but an elementary part of this special and undefined Jewish neshome and comradeship was badly injured. It is not just the future of the land which is at stake but the very essence and existence of the Jewish people. The government of Israel and the leadership of the settlements must do everything in their power to make sure that this will not happen again. May God have pity.
(1) Non Violence in Peace and War, 1948, 1.357
(2) Quoted in A Book of Jewish Thoughts, Chief Rabbi
(3) Maimonides: Mishne Torah Hilchoth Teshuva,1:9-12
(4) Shemoth, 32:12
(5) Bamidbar, 23:9
(6) Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols and the Anti-Christ, trans. R.J
Hollingdale, Harmondsworth, Penguin,1968, 134
(7) Gittin 46a
(8) Jerusalem, Talmud Baba Metzia, 2:5. See also Devarim Rabbah, 3:3
and Pne Moshe ad loc
(9) See Semag Mitzvoth Ase 74, Rabenu Bachaya, Vayikra, 25:3, Also
Tzefanya, 3:13. See also Encyclopedia Talmudit, volume 15: Chilul
Hashem, p 351-360
(10) De Telegraaf, August 20, 2005