Parashat Ki Tisa: Religious Fanaticism in Israel

Israel’s non-profit SpaceIL launched its spacecraft from Florida’s Cape Canaveral last night in a bid to become the fourth country to make a soft landing on the moon. The unmanned craft, called “Beresheet,” a reference of course to the first word in the Torah, began an approximate seven-week journey to the moon, from where it will send back images of the rocky surface and conduct experiments on the lunar magnetic field.

This should be a time of pure joy and celebration for Israel. Yet it is not. In the same week in which we saw the best of Theodor Herzl’s Zionist vision, we also saw a much uglier side of the Jewish State.

This week PM Netanyahu courted members of the fanatic and racist Otzmah Yehudit (Jewish Power) party to join the right-wing Jewish Home party in the coming elections.  It came with offers of prominent positions in the government like Minister of Education.

Otzmah Yehudit have no place in Israel’s government. As Rabbi Josh Weinberg of ARZA (Association of Reform Zionists of America) wrote, “The same people who support annexation and promote separate labor and delivery hospital wings for Jews and Arabs could potentially be responsible for educating Israel’s youth.” Or as the organization T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights puts it, “Otzma Yehudit is comprised of “extremists who celebrate violence and preach genocide.”

These descriptions of the Otzmah Yehudit party and its leadership are not surprising as they are the direct disciples of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose own party was deemed illegal in the late 80’s and early 90’s as a result of his racist ideology and incitement to violence. Kahane was even convicted of domestic terrorism in the US before making aliyah and now Netanyahu is courting his protegees in a last ditch effort to hold on to power.

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, we read about the sin of the Golden Calf and its aftermath. Quick review: Israelites are clearly told in the 10 Commandments not to make idols. Big surprise – they make a golden calf. God and Moses get really mad and then we read (Exodus 32:26-29):

Moses stood up in the gate of the camp and… all the Levites rallied to him. He said to them, “Thus says the God of Israel: Each of you put sword on thigh, go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay brother, neighbor, and kin.” The Levites did as Moses had bidden; and some three thousand of the people fell that day. And Moses said, “Dedicate yourselves to the ETERNAL this day—for God will bestow a blessing upon you today.”

You heard that correctly. In our very Torah we read that Moses and God command the Levites to slaughter 3,000 of their brethren who took part in the idol worship. And to top it off the, Levites are then rewarded for their zealotry with God’s blessing. It is disturbing to say the least.

We often do not focus of this part of the portion. It is troubling; it is difficult and uncomfortable to think that our own sacred text contains fanatical and fundamentalists streams. It is hard to acknowledge that, although rejected by the majority of our people, Judaism contains violence and extremism.

But we must shine a light on the difficult truths of ancient Israel and the modern State of Israel. To ignore these realities and put our heads in the sand, does a disservice to Judaism and to Israel. We are taught to engage, to question, to wrestle with the challenging aspects of our religion and peoplehood.

And when we find that those aspects of our tradition or those factions of our people are morally wrong, we are commanded to denounce them. In the book of Leviticus, chapter 19, called The Holiness Code, we are told in no uncertain terms that we have an obligation to tochecha, to rebuke, our kinsman who have taken the wrong path. It is without a shadow of doubt that Netanyahu has gone too far in welcoming this fringe, hate group into his new potential government and we must speak out.

Many like our own Reform Movement, the ADL, the New Israel Fund, AIPAC, and the AJC have made public statement condemning Netanyahu’s move to legitimize right wing fanatics; yet many other Jewish organizations have remained silent. Now is the time for every Jewish organization to speak out against Otzma Yehudit and their reprehensible ways. They do not reflect the core values that are the very foundation of the State of Israel.

We need to speak out because of our love for Israel. The commandment of tochecha (rebuke) from Leviticus is immediately preceded by the commandment to, “love our neighbors as ourselves.” The two are intrinsically connected. As Anat Hoffman, head of the Israeli Religious Action Center, a civil right organization protecting women, Arabs, progressive Jews and others is apt to say, “I show Israel I love her, by sueing her.”

Similarly, Rabbi Jeff Salkin, in a recent article about Otzmah Yehudit reminds us:

We must double down on our support of Israel. Now, more than ever before, we must make a loud, feverish, pointed distinction between the Netanyahu government and Israel itself. We must make a loud, feverish, pointed distinction between this government, and its partners, and Zionism itself.  Just as it is necessary for those who oppose the Trump administration — in the name of American ideals — we, too, must oppose the Netanyahu administration — in the name of Zionist ideals. Again to use the American example: some separate themselves from, and disavow, the current administration. But, they do not separate themselves from, and disavow, the United States of America itself.

Here at Rodeph Shalom, we take seriously the words of Rabbi Salkin. We do not disavow, we do not separate ourselves from Israel. To this end, next Shabbat we will be hosting two student filmmakers from Israel. The two students, one Arab/Muslim and one Jewish are from Beit Berl College – an exemplar of diversity and coexistence.

Beit Berl College prepares Israel’s educators, civil servants, artists, and filmmakers to make a difference. It trains leaders for the next generation who will shape the face of Israeli society for generations to come. The college is founded on the idea that Israel’s diverse population is its advantage. They truly believe that, “Israel cannot afford to leave anyone behind.” Even the college’s very location, “at the meeting point between one of Israel’s high-tech centers (Kfar Saba and Raanana) and the Triangle region of Israel’s Arab towns (Tira and Taibeh), is a living laboratory for building a shared society.”

Please join us next Shabbat for a film screening, discussion, and of course, falafel, right after services.

So, back to the rocket. Beresheet will travel approximately 4 million miles on its journey, circling the earth multiple times to gain speed before it slingshots toward the moon. It is scheduled to land on April 11th. Israel’s upcoming elections are on April 9th.

I pray that on the 11th, we will be celebrating two amazing accomplishment for Israel and the Jewish people – landing on the moon and the rejection extremism and bigotry.

Theodor Hertzl said, “Im tirtzu, ein zo agadah… If you will it, it is no dream.”

If we will it, it is no dream:

To make the desert bloom

To land an Israeli spacecraft on the moon

To have a moral, democratic Jewish State in the in the Land of Israel that lives up to our Jewish values of tolerance, inclusion, and respect.

Ken Y’hi Ratzon – May this be God’s will


Shabbat Shalom