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Dead Wrong

A haftorah of rigidity and ritual

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An ambulance outside the entrance to the emergency room of Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, Israel. (David Silverman/Getty Images)

I’ve always thought that John was to the Apostles what George was to the Beatles, the number three guy, the one who would’ve been a superstar had he not had the peculiar misfortune of teaming up with two freakishly talented men who could make even salvation seem effortless and fun. John is all good intentions and low expectations; it’s little wonder that he was the one appointed the patron saint of booksellers.

Make that the patron saint of Passover, too: Of all of Jesus’s entourage, only John and Peter were permitted to ride into town and start making preparations for the seder, and when the big night came—it was, after all, Christ’s Last Supper—it was only natural that John would snag the seat right next to the Boss.

But of his many charms, John may be best remembered for the following pronouncement: “God,” he said, “is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.”

Too often, this sweet bit is presented in counterpoint to Judaism; the old religion, goes the trope, is the religion of law, the new one the religion of love.

John, meet Jeremiah. In this week’s haftorah, the prophet has a message from God that might resonate with the loving crowd.

“So says the Lord of Hosts,” quoth Jeremiah, “the God of Israel; Add your burnt offerings upon your sacrifices and eat flesh. For neither did I speak with your forefathers nor did I command them on the day I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning a burnt offering or a sacrifice. But this thing did I command them, saying: Obey Me so that I am your God and you are My people, and you walk in all the ways that I command you, so that it may be well with you. But they did not obey nor did they incline their ear, but walked according to their own counsels and in the view of their evil heart, and they went backwards and not forwards.”

The implications of this divine rant are vast. Those who perceive religion to be nothing more than the laws governing the mechanics of ritual are sharply rebuked: What matters most, the Lord thunders, is not the system but the spirit. Spend too much time on practices and observances, and you risk losing sight of your true goals. Dive freely and joyfully into the ocean of compassion and meaning that is God and His commandments, and you’re swimming in the right direction.

The word of God, you would think, would resonate with those who declare themselves his ardent followers. This week, alas, Israeli politics provided us with two searing examples of the self-professed faithful walking backwards and choosing the law over love.

It began with Yaakov Katz, a religious member of Knesset from the right-wing National Union Party and the chairman of a committee convened to address the crisis of illegal immigration to Israel. With thousands of African and Asian laborers—many seeking refuge from bloody civil wars—illegally entering Israel in search of service or construction jobs, Katz searched his soul and came up with a solution to stem the tide. Israel, he argued, should declare martial law and shoot on sight any unlucky immigrant caught sneaking into its territory. Those who’d already made it in, Katz continued, should be arrested, placed in labor camps, and forced to work on major, arduous infrastructure projects. When he reclines at his seder table next week, Katz may do well to remember the part of the haggadah that reminds us that the Israelites, too, were once strangers in a strange land.

But Katz’s wicked statement was soon eclipsed by an even grander bout of benightedness, this one involving Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman. Despite the demanding nature of his position, this member of the United Torah Judaism party has received little by way of a secular, scientific education, the sort of education you’d like the man who is the de facto overseer of the nation’s health care system to have. When his underlings, the doctors and professionals who run Israel’s hospitals and clinics, strove to care for the living, Litzman was looking out for the dead. Last week, he urged the government to delay the construction of a new fortified emergency room in Ashkelon’s Barzilai hospital. The new emergency room, he argued, is slated to be built over what may very well be an ancient Jewish gravesite. A master in the arithmetic of precarious political coalitions, Litzman managed to have his way, forcing his fellow ministers to order that the project be relocated to a nearby site. That the hospital is located just a few kilometers from the Gazan border, and as such is often the destination for Israelis wounded by the Qassam rockets lobbed by Hamas, mattered little to Litzman. That the new plan will cost hundreds of millions of dollars more and take at least three more years to complete—leaving doctors and patients alike with no adequate protection in the meantime—barely registered. Let the ancestors rest in peace, Litzman decreed; everybody else, run for your lives.

The wounded weep, the foreigners cower, but the strictures of orthodoxy at their narrowest are zealously observed. It’s a good thing Moses isn’t around any more; had he celebrated Passover in Israel of 2010, with Litzman and Katz and their ilk, he might’ve been devastated to know just how much the Promised Land had come to resemble Egypt.

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David J says:

Leil continues his vendetta against Halachic Judaism, choosing to highlight two random cases that support his agenda, while ignoring thousands of ennobling statements and actions that are performed by religiously affiliated Jews, because they don’t further his benighted goals. Keep doin’ it, Leil. You’re just digging yourself into an ever bigger hole.

To many frum Yidden, ritual observance has become the sole purpose of Judaism and, consequently, their lives. I believe that at the heart of this approach is messianism cloaked in Judaism.

I remember a profound statement made to me in a discussion about halacha. The issue was the ruling of an orthodox rabbi who refused to allow a child to be buried in a Jewish cemetary because the rabbi did not recognize the mother’s conservative conversion. I thought that this was cruel and heartless. Halacha, I was told, is not about compassion.

Then what the hell good is it for?

Dear David,

Thank you for taking the time to reply to my column. However, I fail to see why you interpret my commentary as possessing anything of an agenda against Halachic Judaism. When I had a chance to spend some time learning in a yeshiva, the first thing I was taught is that pikuach nefesh, or a threat to human life, overrules even the holy Sabbath. Seeing men like Yaakov Litzman choose the sanctity of the dead over the well-being of the living should enrage us all, but I would hope that observant Jews in particular come to disregard the political underpinnings of this sordid affair and denounce the government’s decision for being anathema to the spirit of Judaism, a strong and refreshing gust of which we see in this week’s haftorah.

you got the wrong guy! the first john ain’t the next john,or my christian theology is frishemeled. not to worry; your point is excellent.

Marie says:

Throughout the US you will see the love of Passover being extended to the secular community through the sponsoring of seder dinners at area restaurants – non-kosher restaurants. In one particular case, it would have been the first time the dinners were ever attempted in our state. Proceeds would benefit a well-meaning Jewish charity. Committees were formed. Votes were taken. Boards were consulted. All was well and the program moved forward. Then someone complained/consulted a Rabbi. He had one opinion. The next rabbi had another. A third had another. And the buzz began. It was ok for a non-Jewish group to have a seder, it seemed, but because a Jewish charity was associated with it it was blasphemous. The event was cancelled. Thousands of people who had queries about Passover and Judaism would not get the opportunity to learn. The staff member who was hailed on one day for creativity was fired the next as the sacrificial, albeit Pasach lamb! Ritual does not breed understanding and acceptance unless, like leaving the door open for Elijah, you welcome others in. If you lock that door you miss the educable moment, the opportunity to make peace. Yes, you have your kosher food and you are ritually observant, but you have forgotten the meaning of Passover – the escape to Freedom – let us learn that it does not hurt for everyone to be free. My prayers are with the staff member who must be wondering where is God right about now?

jason says:

This decision was made by the previous government. Olmert and Shas and the health ministry director general made the decision to move the ER and yet the media was silent then.

The same people in Kadima who supported this now hypocritically use this for political points.

The previous govt didn’t even give the existing structure rocket protection and delayed and delayed to the next government.

Isn’t it amazing how this writer didn’t blast the decision when the previous government made it and the preparations for it were already in the works for the current govt.

I’m not religious at all, but boy, what a conceited column this is. Who are you to know the mind of God and deduce the ‘spirit’ behind the laws? Lets face it, you have your own predetermined conclusions, and ‘interpret’ stuff according to it. More honest people would understand that tiny Israel can’t afford to take in economic refugees rather than quote an opposition politician as a guide to government policy…

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Dead Wrong

A haftorah of rigidity and ritual

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