Holier than thou?

Many people are not aware that we are currently in a period of the Jewish calendar that is heavily focused on Mourning.  A broad period of 3 weeks, and the even more intensive mourning period of the “nine days” (between the start of the Jewish month of Av, and the ninth day of the month) is currently our seasonal focus.  Many tragic historical events happened during this time, amongst them the destruction of the two Temples, the first by the Babylonians 2431 years ago, and the second by the Romans 1941 years ago.

It is a great shame that many in the community disregard the importance and significance of Tisha B’av and its surrounding period of commemoration.  Our Sages teach that those who do not mourn for the destruction of Jerusalem will not merit to participate in its rededication.  It still amazes me every year that members of our Jewish community will turn out in great force to mark their respect and commemorate the Holocaust on Yom Hashoa, but show no regard whatsoever for Tisha B’av.  When members of the community organise parties and public events and completely ignore the status of this period in the Jewish calendar, it reflects poorly on all of us.  However, although this disturbs me, I wonder whether I am being oversensitive?

I was engaged in discussion on this topic over Shabbat.  One of my friends, who has a wonderful ability to focus on the positive and broader elements of Jewish unity at all times, reminded me that this was Shabbat Chazon.  It is a time of vision.  Jews never mourn without an element of hope and a belief in the future.  He also noted that Jewish people do not have the same concept of “history” as the non Jewish world.  In fact, modern Hebrew has no word for “history”, we say “historia” from the English.  The Jewish concept of the past is “zachor” – memory.  Our mourning is about remembrance, and our focus is on destiny.  Any grief or morning is of no worth, unless it is accompanied with a purpose, and in our case it is the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

How does this concept relate to Jewish people in Perth who show disrespect for their own religion?  It is because, our Rabbis teach the Temple was destroyed through Sinat Chinam – hatred and intolerance between Jews with no apparent purpose.  The rebuilding is through the opposite of this – unconditional love and unity from within the Jewish people.

Is there a paradox or conflict between denigrating non-religious Jews for unbecoming communal conduct, and the principles of complete Jewish unity, which no doubt espouses tolerance and respect?

I read yet another fantastic Torah commentary by Rabbi Beryl Wein that puts a perspective on this issue.  Here is an abbreviated extract:

There are numerous instances in the Talmud when the rabbis state that if a certain item of behavior is permissible to some Jews then why is it not permissible to all? The Talmud and the Torah itself recognizes exceptional circumstances, unusual pressures, differing opinions that need be taken into account but the Talmud never advocated differing standards of halachic behavior.

It did recognize that there are different personality needs and differing societal mores. But the Torah was always the same Torah for all Jews. What was expressly forbidden in the Torah was forbidden to all and what was permitted was also permitted to all. Much of the problems that exist in the Jewish world today have nothing to do with halacha as much as they do to political and societal norms.

Elevating these societal and political issues to realms of Torah law and halacha only sharpens our differences and creates unnecessary friction which eventually casts very negative light upon all religious Jews and the Torah generally.

In the haftorah from Yirmiyahu that was read for parshiot Matei -Maasei the prophet strikingly says “that those who hold the Torah tightly knew Me not.” Those who hold the Torah tightly unto themselves, who see no one else but themselves and their society, and who are therefore completely separated from the rest of the Jewish people, truly know Me not. For the Torah is for everyone and not merely the self-anointed few. 

Everyone has the right to create their own grouping and society but no one has the right thereby to create an halachic basis that does not truly exist and to claim the Torah exclusively for themselves. 

This luxury of being able to be separate one from the other has been seriously reduced currently here in the Land of Israel. Here we are all thrown together so that the societal mores of one group clash daily and regularly with those of other groups. The only way therefore to justify one’s societal mores over those of others is to elevate them to the status of halacha. This is a terribly damaging process for all concerned.

The struggle for turf, political and economic power, influence and direction of the Jewish world has been the hallmark of internal Jewish life for the past two centuries. The erroneous hopes and unfulfilled expectations of secularism, Enlightenment, nationalism, Marxism, humanism, etc. all of which captured much Jewish support over the past centuries have, as a result, created a climate of separatism – us against them – in much of the observant religious society.

Feeling threatened and constantly on the defensive, much of religious society has wrapped the Torah about itself unwilling and unable to share it intelligently with others. Walling out the outside world to the best of its ability this grouping allows its societal norms not to be seen as that but rather as halacha from Moshe on Sinai.

This only serves to further the frictions and deepen the differences between Jews. Thinking that one’s societal norms are those that are best for everyone smacks of arrogance and weakness at one and the same time. A system of education that teaches that one’s societal norms are paramount even to halacha only reinforces the difficulties that our religious society already faces in a world of instant communication and multiculturalism.

Once we agree that the Torah is for everyone and that it operates very effectively in different places and differing societies we will be on the way to the balanced view of life that the Torah truly demands from us.

There is a big danger for the Orthodox Jewish community in Perth as it continues to grow and strengthen, that it stands prepared to leave behind many Jews that feel marginalized because their standard of observance or relationship with Judaism is not as meticulous as it could be.  

This is not a matter of condoning conduct that is not appropriate for a Jewish community, but at this time of year, there are a number of lessons for us.  Firstly, understand the difference between halacha and tradition, secondly, take great care in the way in which this is communicated.  Thirdly, do not be judgmental , and fourthly, set an example through positive conduct, but do not expect everybody to immediately represent the same standards of observance as yourself.

It is vital in our small Jewish community that we maintain respect for our fellow Jew, and there is no better time of year than now to remind ourselves of this.  There is also no better place than Perth to demonstrate that unity within the Jewish community can deliver huge rewards and accomplishments.