Skip To Content
Back to Opinion

How the Middle East Conflict Is Warping Judaism

Sunday will be the 12th of Cheshvan, a grim anniversary: 20 years since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. He was shot on a Saturday night after the world’s synagogues read the Torah portion Lech Lecha, the first night of the week looking toward the next reading, VaYera, the “binding of Isaac.”

But in real life, unlike in the biblical story of human sacrifice, no angel narrowly averted the disaster.

Twenty years after this horrible crime, amid a new wave of Palestinian terrorism and Israeli reprisals that seems like the beginning of the beginning of the third intifada, it’s time for reflection. We’ve all seen too many analyses of the long road from Oslo to Wye River to Camp David, from disengagement to hilltop caravans, from Jenin to Lebanon to Gaza to Gaza to Gaza. We too rarely ask what is happening to our religion. How is this endless, pitiless conflict shaping Judaism?

I feel ashamed, appalled and heartsick, watching religious Judaism slouch toward Bethlehem. Yigal Amir was not the first fanatic in whom Torah teachings nurtured a murderous hatred. But he represents an early bellwether of Judaism transforming before our eyes, from an ennobling path of wisdom, devotion and ethics to an angry, bloody weapon.

I fear we are becoming a religion of hatred.

After all, it is Judaism — a warped version, sure, but nonetheless an interpretation of Torah — that motivated Israelis who keep the Sabbath, pray and study to execute hundreds of “price tag” attacks on Palestinians. Those who firebombed the Dawabshe family’s house in Duma, near Nablus, on July 31, killing an 18-month-old and his parents, revealed this beyond all doubt when they spray-painted the burned home with the words “revenge” and “long live King Messiah.” Did they forget Isaiah’s prophecy about wolf and lamb, that “none shall do harm in all my holy mountain”? Does any religious Jew imagine that redemption comes from the burning of toddlers?

And it is Judaism and — it must be admitted — considerable Torah learning that inspired those “sages” who produced the tract Torat HaMelech, which justifies killing Arab children who one fears could become terrorists. Yes, we can offer replies to that ugly work. But when people start quoting sacred texts to support the murder of children, it’s time for everyone to wake up. When people who allegedly love the Torah and love the land of Israel destroy other people’s olive trees and give a halachic rationale for it, you know we’ve all been kidnapped to hell and the Torah has been kidnapped along with us.

Jews must recognize that there are places in the Palestinian territories that are basically Mississippi in 1963 — places where the powerful may kill the powerless without fear of prosecution. (No one has been arrested yet in the Duma attack, although the authorities say they know who perpetrated it.)

Lest you think I am getting all hysterical and anti-Zionist on you, I assure you I am not. The scope of the problem was aptly described by former Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin in September, in an essay noting that dozens of messianic ultra-nationalists attack Palestinians every day, and that they and their hundreds of supporters have come to “set the tone for mainstream religious Zionism.” And I urge Hebrew readers to consult the searing Tisha B’Av dirge by Dov Halbertal, a Haredi attorney who bewailed the Duma attack among other dark trends, like the 100,000 votes in the last election that were cast for Baruch Marzel, the Kahanist thug who openly advocates expelling Arabs. “How have we reached this stage,” Halbertal wrote, “when religious and Haredi Judaism is becoming more and more violent? And it is not just a marginal fringe, but a large minority.”

I will remain a liberal Zionist until my dying day, even if I am the last one. In my humble view, given the events of the past 150 years, there is no credible alternative to Jews having power and learning to wield it responsibly. I’m just not sure we’re passing that test.

I know very well that the “price tag” perpetrators are not interested in what a liberal rabbi from Manhattan has to say. But since, as the Talmud states, every Jew is responsible for every other Jew, I am not free to ignore them. I remain responsible for the Torah. Jews of spirit and ethics must offer an alternative.

We are told that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat hinam, abundant, pointless hatred. Now, the remarkable Jewish society created in our ancestral homeland might likewise be destroyed by hatred — the kind found in the souls of those who hate Arabs and want to burn their homes, and those who hate secular Jews and want to destroy their values and sometimes their bodies (remember the murderous madness at the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade).

As the senior Rabbi Kook taught, the only plausible response to abundant hatred is abundant love, ahavat hinam.

American Jews think “love” is a Christian idea. So be it. It’s still a good idea. In the words of an ancient Pharisee, who once called himself Rabbi Saul of Tarsus:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

That is Corinthians 13, in the Christian Bible. It’s a good Jewish teaching. The word “love” in this passage is an English translation of the Greek word agape, meaning selfless devotion to others. It translates to the Hebrew chesed, which is the name of my synagogue, Ansche Chesed, or “people of agape.”

The apostle Paul didn’t invent this mitzvah. He derived agape from the Torah’s command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” How does Jewish tradition understand this mitzvah?

Nachmanides saw it as the imperative of beneficence: “The Torah commands that there be no jealous stinginess in your heart. The same best wishes you have for yourself, you should have for your neighbor. There is no withholding in love.”

Maimonides defined it as a group of deeds: “Speak your fellow’s praises. Care for his property as you care for your own…. Visit the sick. Comfort the mourners. Bury the dead. Escort the bride…. These are the immeasurable deeds of kindness.”

Amid too much Jewish hatred, the mitzvah of the hour is to love. Love your fellow Jew, even those you don’t understand. Beyond that, demonstrate our capacity to love our own people, with special duties to our comrades, without hating those beyond our boundaries, even those with whom we clash deeply.

Before our very eyes, Judaism and the Torah are increasingly captured by those with hatred in their hearts and blood on their hands. What we need above all is a religion of chesed, of agape, of love. The Torah of Israel depends on it.

Jeremy Kalmanofsky is a rabbi at Ansche Chesed in Manhattan.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.