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Holiness and Sharansky

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2005-05-06

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Whenever I see all the magnificent laws in this week’s Torah reading (Leviticus Chapter 19)-- about being nice to one’s neighbour, helping those in need and less fortunate than oneself, not talking advantage of other people’s frailty, not telling tales or gossiping--I am amazed that a code so ancient should contain such phenomenal ideas.

Yet here we are, thousands of years later, and I doubt very much whether an infinitesimal proportion of the human race actually follows these rules. They are so uplifting and yet seem to run counter to basic, natural human instincts.

No one, I think, would say these rules are out of date or barbaric. Yet most people seem to think that all the rest of the Torah is, to some degree or other. It is one of the challenges of Judaism in modernity to try to reconcile the paradox that Torah contains so much we can admire and identify with and yet is irrelevant to most Jews, let alone anyone else.

It is clear that the Torah intended us to set an example and to behave in a way that would elevate us and mark us out as an example to others. It must be admitted that we have not succeeded. It has been left to other religions to take our basic ideas and spirituality and to popularise them in ways that we have clearly failed to so far.  Some argue that by passing on a popular form of our religion to Christianity and Islam we have, indeed, changed the world. But in terms of being a good example, nowadays all the evidence shows that in areas of ethical behaviour, family and business life we mirror the values and mores of the host society. Or as someone once said (and I’ve forgotten who) ‘ Jews are just the same as everyone else…except more so!’

There are, of course, exceptions. Many wonderful, extremely Orthodox people I know spend their time and money visiting the sick and tending to the poor and the dying and the dead. There is a tremendous amount of charity, goodness and kindness in many sections of our community. Yet it coexists with corruption of some sort or another at virtually every level. And to make matters worse, the excessive emphasis on minutiae--like stuffing one’s face with four full-size matzahs in order to eat a massive size olive’s worth within the time limit on the seder night, to give one current example--seems almost to make a mockery of spirituality. Perhaps this is simply the way humans are. In every religion you can find different approaches, political divides and internal tensions that can sometimes even become murderous. Corruption coexists with good deeds.

I justify the need for ritual on the grounds that we need frameworks and constant guidelines to keep us in line. We are like horses that, without bridles, will just go off where the whimsy takes them. God tried giving just one guideline at the beginning, to Adam, but that didn’t work. Then a few more to Noah and that still didn’t work. So it seems we need more reigns. Torah is one example of how to achieve a considered and a controlled life. It is the starting point and the essence of our particular tradition.

We can explain our isolation in terms of the experience of exile and oppression, and the intensity and complexity of our special brand of religious behaviour.  Yet if our Torah insists on certain goals surely we must neither give up nor betray them?

Amongst the many jewels in Leviticus 19  there is the phrase ‘Rebuke your neighbour [when he is doing wrong] so that you do not bear his guilt.’ (19.17) The Talmud goes into this and says that if you see you will have no effect, then there is no point in trying. So perhaps my nagging is a waste of time!

But the phrase, itself, is very ambiguous. It reads ‘Hocheach Tochiach et amiteycha’ which means ‘You should rebuke your neighbour (when he is doing wrong.)’ The second part in Hebrew goes ‘VeLo tissa alav cheyt’ which literally means ‘So that he does not go on bearing the sin.’ The obvious question is who is ‘he’--the sinner or the rebuker?  Logically, it means that the rebuker should not stand by while the bad guy continues to do bad things. Just as, previously, the Torah commands one not to stand by while another is being killed or suffering, the same concern for another requires us to take responsibility for trying to get him or her to do the right thing. This is consistent with the Torah’s values of community and belonging to a people.

The dreaded ArtScroll translation (which is often as far from literal as you can get) goes ‘and do not bear a sin because of him.’ It talks about the rebuker bearing the crime if the bad guy carries on being bad. As interpretation it is fine and, indeed, moving, that we share in the guilt of the crimes of others. But it is not what the text says. We are not guilty for the sins of others. That is the approach of other religions, not ours. Indeed if you are a fan of Dostoevsky, you’ll know how important the Christian idea of suffering in order to achieve redemption is. He believes you must suffer first. That fortunately is not our position.

A beautiful Chassidic ‘take’ on this line, not meant to be literal, goes like this: ‘Tell off your neighbour’ ‘Hocheach Tochiach et amitecha’. But if you can’t  ‘VeLo’, then Tissa , share, Alav Chet, the bad situation he is in. You can tell someone off when they feel you are sharing the burden, you are committed and on his side. But if you are not, then the purpose of the rebuke is suspect.

So it is in that spirit that I offer this criticism of a Jewish icon. I was delighted and sad to hear that Natan Sharansky has resigned from the Israeli Government. He was, for many people, a symbol of Jewish resistance to Russian Communism, and to George Bush he seems to be some sort of guru for democracy. But once he went into Israeli politics he lost his visionary moral authority, as far as I was concerned. I know too much about the corrosive nature of all politics, let alone Israeli!

But now to resign over the Gaza withdrawal just confirms his ‘fall’ for me. If, of all the things wrong with Israeli society over the past twenty years, this is the one point he chooses to resign over, then I believe he has declined even further. Whatever the dangers (and there are plenty), whatever the loss (and it is massive), nothing ventured is nothing gained and the stalemate needs to be broken. That takes guts, not resigning. I can only hope that once outside politics he might throw off the cloak of moral prevarication and again become more than another sad politico.