Emor: Does This Mean War?

This week, Israeli newspapers were rife with explicit threats of war. This wouldn’t have been surprising had they referred to conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, or with Hezbollah and/or Hamas, or, of course, with Iran.  But these threats of war between Jews.  

According to press reports, the national labor union, which organized a brief airport strike, threatened “war” if the Government didn’t accede to its demands.  Port workers did likewise if their monopoly is threatened.  Haredi representatives said there would be “war” if the Knesset implements some of the reform measures – in particular, mandatory national service for most Yeshiva students, educational mandates, and diminished subsidies. Secular politicians and editorialists threaten “civil war” if such reforms are not enacted.  Settlers threaten “war” if any attempt is made to dislodge them from disputed land.  And so on.

Much (albeit, unfortunately, not all) of this “war-mongering” is sensationalist hyperbole for the benefit of the media or like-minded supporters.  Nor it is unique to the many fault lines that permeate modern Israeli society.  The same strident language has been used by political activists of many stripes throughout American history, too.  Still, it’s disturbing.

It’s also contrary to the Jewish “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself By Giving Her the Benefit of the Doubt” theme about which I wrote last week.  Having done so, it occurred to me this week that giving others the benefit of the doubt isn’t just, or even primarily, about being ethical.  It’s really about promoting mutual respect, understanding, and, ultimately, peace.

Moreover, we too often don’t give the benefit of the doubt to our own traditions!  Here’s an example:

Emor begins by prohibiting priests from incurring ritual impurity through contact with a corpse, other than his closest relatives.  This is why observant Jews who identify themselves as of priestly descent can normally not enter a cemetery.  (Even though they wouldn’t touch a corpse, the principle of being in a place of corpses remains).   A photo of one such observant Jew recently “went viral” when he enclosed himself in plastic while flying over a cemetery.

The common reaction to this was ridicule and, among many liberal Jews, embarrassment and disgust.  At first, many (including some press reports) presumed that this man sought to avoid touching a woman, or perhaps, a seat previously occupied by a woman who had her menstrual period.  They did not give this man the “benefit of the doubt” that there might be a more “benign” explanation.   Then it emerged that “flying over a cemetery” was the problem.  Again, few tried to give him the benefit of the doubt by asking what might be the underlying rationale for such a prohibition, and might that rationale be worthy of some degree of respect (even if it seemed strange or objectionable)?

According to Torah commentary notes that I took some years ago (unfortunately, I did not record the source), the prohibition on priests coming in contact with the dead may have been intended to distinguish them from Egyptian priests and culture, which focused on the dead.  As representatives of Judaism, and of the Jewish people to G-d in promoting the sanctity of holiness, priests were obligated to maintain a very high level of ritual purity.  This, in turn, obliged them to conspicuously and exclusively (except for immediate family) focus upon and “model” the extreme importance Judaism places on the affirmation of life.

This insight helps me to respect what this man did, and more generally, the priestly prohibition upon entering cemeteries.  I may not agree with the ritual, but I can certainly respect its symbolism/purpose: life affirmation!  

The effort to understand the meaning of others’ actions that we find strange, distasteful, or offensive is a critical first step toward “demilitarizing” our attitudes when “worlds collide.”  It’s much harder to “make war” – figuratively and in actuality – if some possible merit to others’ behavior or positions can be imagined or acknowledged. 

Last week I suggested that a way to start “Loving our Neighbor as Ourselves” is to give them the benefit of the doubt.  This week, I go further by suggesting that a way to start doing this is to ask such questions, of them and/or of ourselves, as:

  • Could their actions/position be a reaction to some event or practice, past or present, that they found objectionable?  Can we acknowledge some merit to their view?
  • Is their underlying value something that we can acknowledge, even if not support?
  • Could their actions/arguments be a way in which they try to elevate their sense of connection to the Divine? 
  • Could we have been the cause of their actions/positions? 
  • Can we accurately articulate their reasons, even if we strongly disagree? 

I seek neither to excuse nor agree with everyone’s behavior.  But I do believe that many conflicts of all types could be avoided, or at least mitigated, if the participants sought to understand and articulate the values intended to be reflected by each other’s behaviors and positions. 

Why not give it a try in our own lives?

Shabbat Shalom.

Comments Regarding Last Week’s D’var Torah

Return the money? My post last week included the story of a poor couple who received generous contributions to defray wedding expenses, and then had a lavish reception at the most expensive hall in town.  The community was scandalized that the couple would presume to use their contributions for this, and heaped heavy criticism upon them.  But the community was chagrined at its conduct when it was revealed that the hall’s owner, whose life the groom’s deceased father had saved, had insisted on underwriting the entire event.   Kol haKavod to one reader who asked whether the couple should have returned the money to the donors, or contributed it to others.  An excellent point – but perhaps they did! The story didn’t say!

No brown jelly beans!  This week I heard an interview on the radio program thisamericanlife.org.  When the rock band Van Halen went on tour, it required the promoter to supply jelly beans in the dressing rooms with all brown ones removed!   This was almost universally taken as a sign of how unreasonably demanding, petty, excessive, and egotistical rock stars could be.   But the interviewer revealed a startlingly different reason.  The band used much more and heavier equipment than normal.  This required additional electricity, weight-bearing floors, and other technical requirements.   The “no brown jelly bean” clause was a quick means of assessing contract compliance.  Their presence likely signaled that other important requirements hadn’t been met!  This is a wonderful example of how we should be very reluctant to criticize or even think badly of others’ apparently strange or extreme conduct.     

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb