Tag archive for "Torah"

General, Occupied Territories

One cause: Reflections on the true roots of the conflict

3 Comments 17 July 2014

 As part of Rabbis for Human Rights’ series  featuring the reflections, both human rights related and not,  of our staff and rabbis during Operation Protective Shield, Yonatan Shefa, assistant director of RHR’s Department of Human Rights in the Occupied Territories,  reflects amidst the whirlpool of violence and racial tension threatening to swallow the Israelis and Palestinians this summer on a truth whose knowledge can only to lead to peace Continue Reading


When will the redemption come?

No Comments 09 April 2012

“To catch a glimpse of the ultimate redemption, we have only to look at the first great redemption of the Jewish people, the exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea.” | cc: wikipedia

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester asks when and how will the redemption come? Will the Messianic Times come? And what should we do in order to hasten it?

 Are we on the brink of Messianic times?

When will the redemption come? We’ve been asking the question for thousands of years. Time and again, we have declared ourselves on the brink of Messianic times, only to be disappointed. The most recent manifestation of this is found in Israel’s Religious Zionist Synagogues where we declare each week that our Jewish State represents “the beginning of the sprouting of our redemption”, yet there still seems a long way to go.

The First Redemption – Exodus from Egypt

To catch a glimpse of the ultimate redemption, we have only to look at the first great redemption of the Jewish people, the exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea.

What made the Jews of that generation worthy of so many miracles and what are we missing? Rabbi Meir SImcha Cohen of Dvinsk (1843-1926) – author of the Meshech Hochma argues that when the Jewish people commit ritual failures, God readily overlooks their misdeeds meeting out only minor punishments, but when we abuse one another, the Almighty is far less forgiving; and disaster strikes. For example, the Tower of Babel which was an attack on God’s majesty led only to the dispersal of people, whereas Noah’s generation who robbed one another were all drowned. Likewise, the Golden Calf which was tantamount to idolatry was treated as a relatively minor crime, whereas the sin of the spies which involved gossip and ingratitude was harshly punished. The Jews who were relatively united at the time of the exodus were redeemed despite their assimilated nature, but by the time they reached the Red Sea and divisions were emerging, and God was ready to drown them all.

Respect every human being hastens the redemption

Simplistic though it sounds, so much of the struggle for human rights is based on this simple proposition that God demands mutual respect and understanding from us. When we recognize the humanity of the weaker members of our society, and we treat them with the decency and equality we fulfill some of the core messages of our holy Torah.

Recently, I have heard many rabbis preaching beautiful sermons pointing out how loving-kindness and compassion are the touchstones of the Jewish people. I eagerly await the obvious next step – a ringing affirmation of our responsibilities towards not only our fellow Jews, but the minorities who live in our midst. Sadly, it rarely comes. Loving kindness translates into loving kindness towards our own; compassion is only compassion for those who look, sound and pray like me.

As the Jews marched out of Egypt, they were accompanied by a mixed multitude. At times, this was not easy, at times they created problems, but nowhere does the Torah record Moshe’s demand for racial purity. On the contrary, the Torah constantly calls for equality and justice for the strangers who dwell amongst us.

Redemption may seem far off. By remembering the most basic moral lessons of the Torah; by respecting and caring for those who are different to us as well as for our own, we would surely bring it a lot closer.


Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the Director of the Rabbis for Human Rights Beit Midrash at the Hillel House at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also serves as the British United Synagogue’s Rabbi in Israel.

General, Justice in Israel

Tisha B’Av Thoughts

5 Comments 09 August 2011

Arch of Titus Menorah. cc: wikipeadia

I have been told that both the Jewish and general press outside Israel were very slow of the mark in covering the wave of tent protests engulfing Israeli and dominating our headlines.  For quite a while relatively informed and concerned Jews were telling me that they knew little to nothing about this, or only knew about it because they were reading the Israeli press online.  From a quick google survey of what is out there now, the most people are likely to know is that the middle class is fed up with high rents.  Nobody would have a clue that this is an unprecedented protest movement.  It might fizzle out or be co-opted as often happens, but also has the potential bring about significant and important changes. Nobody would know from the press abroad that this is much more than a protest of the Jewish middle class, or how important the outcome is to anybody concerned with human rights in Israel.

RHR is deeply involved in this protest both because  in many ways it connects directly to one of the most central messages of Tisha B’Av: Are we or can we become a unified society that truly cares about all of its components?

The dearth of coverage that really “gets it” is not surprising because, for better or worse this movement scrupulously avoids taking any position on the Occupation,the peace process (or lack thereof), or Palestinian human rights (more on this later.).  For many, only the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is of interest. Despite the fact that economic and social justice have been an important component our RHR’s work for many years,  I know how hard I have to work to convey my passion about internal Israeli issues when speaking to audiences who are expecting to hear me speak only about Palestinians.

However, I was frankly shocked when this last Shabbat I heard a sermon at a synagogue almost directly across the street from one of the low income public housing protest camps that RHR has helped set up and where I personally have been clocking untold hours characterizing the wave of protest as a middle class phenomenon which actually shows that things are relatively good here.  The person who gave the dvar Torah was apologetic afterwards and the fact is that that the synagogue is part of a center which has been very supportive, offering logistic support, inviting the protestors for a Shabbat meal, etc.  Nevertheless, this shows that even inside Israel not everybody is aware of the real story about what is happening in their society, and why the stakes are so high. Even as our rabbis have been busy teaching about Judaism and housing rights in the encampments, we clearly have work to do in the congregations.

On the first day that students set up a tent city in Jerusalem, I visited along with one of the organizers of a group of residents from the Katamonim neighborhood being impacted by the ongoing attempt by successive governments to eliminate/minimalise public housing.  He came away convinced that we needed to set up a separate camp because the students’ belief in the right to put a roof over one’s head  did not translate into concern for the plight of lower income public housing tenants.  Since then, there have been incredible efforts to bridge the gaps both in Jerusalem and nationally.  It has been a fascinating and moving educational process.  Today, I still detect hierarchy and paternalism, but today public housing residents are invited to speak at the protests, some of their needs are included in the national list of demands, there are joint activities, and we are moving towards joint planning.

The attempt at inclusiveness does not stop with the attempt to find common cause between the middle and lower classes regarding the right to a roof over one’s head. Today, the protest movement also includes the protests of doctors, teachers, parents of young children and those concerned with the rising prices of basic food staples.  The protest tents bring together right wing Likud supporters with left wing supporters of Meretz and Hadash, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, religious and secular, and to a limited degree Jews and Arabs. Some interpret this as a cynical attempt to unite everybody to topple the government or as proof that there is no real focus the protest movement.  The latter is a genuine challenge.  There is a wide spread sense that there is an overarching principle uniting these protests but it has not yet been clearly articulated.

There are other challenges.  Even as a national network has been set up aspiring to include all of the tent cities, a second network comprising the encampments of lower income people has also been created.  For all of the improvement and change bringing social classes much closer today than when this protest began, more has to be done to make this truly one movement.

For those of us like RHR who have been and will continue to work on public housing issues for the long run, we are concerned that simplistic treatment of these issues now could negatively impact on our attempts to achieve long term, in depth and comprehensive solutions.  Some of our proposals are already a part of the national list of demands,  but many are not. With limited success, we have been attempting to ensure that our list of demands are understood and included by those writing position papers for the protest movement. (The movement has taken up the need to build additional public housing, but there needs to be maintenance of existing housing, transparent regulations governing eligibility, priorities among the some 50,000 on a waiting list for public housing, the calculation of debts, etc)   There must be a change in the disdainful treatment tenants suffer from public officials, Amidar, and the other public housing corporations.  Of course, we are demanding a stop to evictions, especially when no thought has been given to solutions for the children.

As mentioned above, there is a real struggle going on as to whether or not the spirit of inclusiveness extends to Israeli Arabs.  In some places they have been welcome, in others not, and in some places initial rejection has been replaced by an extended hand.  The Bedouin of the unrecognized villages in the Negev have a symbolic tent at the Beer Sheva camp, but do not feel truly integrated.  If the last chapter is still to be written on the inclusion of Israeli Arabs, it is absolutely clear that this movement will not and can not address the needs of Palestinians because it would rip the coalitions apart.  When spokesperson after spokesperson says this movement is not “left” or “right,” this is in many ways code for “No position on the Occupation.”

So, what is this as of yet undefined unifying principle, and how is it connected to Tisha B’Av?

Among the reasons given for the destruction of the Second Temple, we are taught about causeless hatred.  The Talmud emphasizes that the people of theSecond Temple period were righteous people, who did not engage in the bloodshed, sexual crimes and idolatry that led to the destruction of the firstTemple.  The Tosefta to Tracate Menakhot specifies that people “Loved their money while hating their fellows.” We were already warned in the Haftarah for the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av that a fast is meaningless if we do not “Learn to do good; Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged; Uphold the rights of the orphan.  Defend the casue of the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)  The aspiration is to be anIr Tzedek (A city[nation] of righteousness) (Isaiah 1:27).  In other words, even well intentioned and good people can fail the test of inclusiveness and social solidarity.  They can identify with the suffering of some while being blind to the suffering of others.  Sometimes, they are concerned with their needs only.

When we began the three weeks of prophetic warnings leading up to Tisha B’Av the Torah portion was Masai.  There Moses becomes enraged with the tribes of Reuven and Gad for wishing to settle on lands east of the Jordan river, asking how can they let their fellow Israelites go on to fight without them.  Whether or not it was their intent, Moses perceives that they are only worrying about their own needs, and not demonstrating solidarity.

When I visited the student tent city on that first day several weeks ago, I said that the true parashat hadrakhim(moment when the students would be tested as to their real mettle) would come when they were made an offer that solved their problems, but did not solve the problems of lower class public housing tenants. With all of the caution I have learned over the years, one of the most significant, moving and hopeful movements of this entire protest was when PM Netanyahu offered a package that seemed to meet the needs of the middle class, and the protest leadership made it clear that they would not accept an offer which left the lower class behind.

The leadership passed one test, but there will be many more tests before we are done.  The final chapter is far from having been written.  However, as I wrote for our Israeli mailing list last week,  our genuine fast on Tisha B’Av can lead to cleansing, uplift and purpose. I pray that our fast this Tisha B;Av will be a fast reminding us than “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (Martin Luther King Jr.).  I pray that this will be a fast that opens our eyes to needs beyond our own. I pray that this will be a fast teaching us to put people before profits, and rededicating us to the prophetic ideals to which we committed ourselves in our Israeli Declaration of Independence.

That illusive and hard to define common denominator bringing together the various and varied movements is actually quite simple.  When the crowds shout out, “The people want social justice,” they are saying that, even if it can’t be easily expressed in position papers and even if in a world of limited resources it seems that meeting the needs of some requires us to deny the needs of others, there are as of yet unimagined possibilities and solutions when we start from the premise of ahavat khinam, social solidarity stemming from the spiritual ability to see God’s Image in every human being.

Every year I ask myself about the meaning of the Tisha B’Av fast.  It is not commanded in the Torah and it focuses on but a few of the so many Jewish and human tragedies we could mourn over.

This year I know why I am fasting.

Parasha / E-Letter

Something is Happening Out There | Rabbis Against Price Tags | Shavuot Thoughts: Human Rights Were Designed For the Real World

No Comments 14 June 2011

Parashat Hashavua “Shlach Lecha”: What Will Be, What Was and Tora Thoughts

Last Wednesday activists of Taayosh (we do not work on Saturdays and holidays) successfully accompanied residents of Um El Chir, a village in South Hebron Hills, to the fields to herd their sheep. Unfortunately, there is a cooperation agreement between Israelis from Karmel settlement, who harass the Palestinian  shepherds, and the army to prevent Um El Chir residents from going out to the fields with their sheep. You can change this  –  by addressing a letter to the Defense Minister, Ehud Barak,  and demand the return of  security to the South Hebron Hills. Please sign our letter.

Shabbat Shalom Continue Reading


Shavuot Thoughts: Human Rights Were Designed For the Real World

No Comments 09 June 2011

Receiving the two scroll mount Sinai cc: wikipedia

Shavuot (The Feast of Weeks) is many things.  Among them, it is a celebration of the wheat harvest and the first fruits.  It is “Atzeret Pesakh,” the conclusion of Passover and it is “Khag Matan Torah,”  the anniversary of the Revelation on Mt. Sinai.  A favorite midrash (form of rabbinic commentary on the Torah) on the giving of the Torah (the Torah only recounts that the ten commandments were given, but the rabbis believed that Moses received the entire Torah) comes from the Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 88b-89a. Continue Reading


Rewards and Punishments

1 Comment 17 May 2011


This week I have many more questions than answers.

Parashat BeKhukotai closes out the book of Leviticus.  It contains a list of the good things that will befall us if we obey God’s commandments, and the punishments that will come about if we are not faithful.  The portion continues with rules for various vows and regulations for consecrating a house to God.  There are a number of disturbing and difficult questions that arise from this portion: Continue Reading


Memory Unification – Yom Haatzmut Eve

1 Comment 08 May 2011

The real or false awareness of unity which accompanied our struggle for the independence of Israel and the establishment of Israeli society has mostly faded away in the present generation. The goal of the State we established and the image of the society we formed – are subject to painful and difficult differences of opinion. The privatization process constantly wears out the solidarity of groups in the society and threatens its consolidation. Also the Israeli wars and IDF operations are not necessarily part of a consensus any more. Even when we celebrate the Jewish holidays, we can see the gaps between the different groups of the Jewish people and their interpretation of ideas in the Torah, of freedom, renewal, repentance (teshuva) and salvation. Continue Reading


Promoting Enduring Peace

2 Comments 05 May 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen, Members of Promoting Enduring Peace, dear friends, From the Bottom of my heart, I want to thank you for the great honour which you have bestowed upon me, upon my friend Rabbi Asherman and upon all our colleagues in Israel, members of Rabbis for Human Rights. We are proud and humbled to receive this prestigious award and to join the list of such distinguished people, past recipients of this outstanding award. Today’s ceremony falls on a most significant date in both the civil and the Jewish calendar. Today is May Day – a day which symbolizes the solidarity with the workers and standing for their rights. However, according to the Jewish calendar, today is also the Eve of Yom HaShoah – the Annual Memorial Day for the six million Jews, who were murdered in the Holocaust. I am a second generation. My father is a holocaust survivor. His entire family was murdered in Auschwitz. Therefore, for me, in particular, this is a most significant day and receiving the Gandhi Peace Award today makes it an exceptional unique and moving experience.

As a second generation, what is the lesson that I take with me from this tragic past? I think the most important lesson that we should all take from the Shoah is summed up in the famous words “Never Again”. We are bound to ensure that it will never happen again. However, the lesson of “Never Again” is twofold: firstly, there is the lesson which most Jews, particularly Israeli Jews take and that is: Never again will Jews be led to slaughter without being able to defend themselves. Indeed, it is a worthy lesson and for this reason, I have always taken a great pride in my military service as a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Force, continuing to serve until the age of 45 when I was released from my reserve duty. However, alongside this particularistic lesson there is also a universal one which is no less and perhaps today even more important and that is: Never again will people – any people, suffer from persecution, oppression, humiliation de-humanization and denial of their basic human rights. Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting in any way any comparison between the Shoah and the situation between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East.

What I am suggesting however, is that we should always remember that no one is immune from racism and xenophobia. Therefore, we need to be constantly on guard less anyone, including ourselves, fall into the deadly trap of bigotry and hate. That is the reason why Rabbi David Forman Z”L, the one who really should have stand here today, decided in 1988 to establish the Rabbinic Human Rights Watch later known as Rabbis for Human Rights. Unfortunately, David passed away exactly a year ago, and so it is me – a co-founder of the organization and its first Executive Director that humbly stand before you today. Allow me to say a few words about the early days of Rabbis for Human Rights: 1988, the year our organization was founded, was the year in which the first Intifada – the Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories – took place. For me personally, it was a most significant year in my life.

promoting enduring peace logo

Firstly, it was the year I was ordained as a Rabbi – the first native Israeli to graduate the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem. But in addition, it was also a year during which I served for nearly sixty days as a reserve duty soldier in the Khan Yunis, refugee camp near Gaza. This was the first time for me to see from close the living conditions in the Palestinian refugee camps and it was an eye opening experience. During my regular military service as paratrooper I had many opportunities to serve in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip but it was always within confined military bases or driving on the main roads. Only during the Intifada, when we had to chase after little children into the narrow allies of the refugee camp and into the poor homes in which they lived, that I could see the reality and get a new perspective. Upon my return home, I felt I must do something as a Jew and as a rabbi to try to change things, to show the concern for human rights and the sanctity of human lives from a Jewish religious perspective. 1988 was also the year in which the big controversy regarding the validity of non-Orthodox conversions in Israel had reawakened. A political controversy that was entitled “The Who is a Jew Question”. For David Forman as a Reform Rabbi, for me as Conservative Rabbi as well as for our Orthodox colleagues such as Rabbi David Rosen or Rabbi Max Warshawsky Z”L it was no doubt a most important question, however, with all its importance, we thought that there is even more important question and that is not “who is a Jew?” but rather “What is a Jew?” and how therefore a Jew is to behave. Dear friends, yesterday we read in the synagogue the weekly Torah portion of Kedoshim from Leviticus 19:” You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy”.

In this Torah portion we find among other things the famous words:” You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. But not only that, in the same portion we also read: “And if a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. But the stranger who dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Time and again the Torah warns us: “You shall not wrong a stranger, nor oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”. “For you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt”. We, who suffered for 2000 years from oppression, persecution, expulsion, humiliation and denial of our basic rights, should be more sensitive than any other people to the suffering of others. What is the essence of Judaism? When Hillel the elder in the 1st Century CE was asked to sum up the entire Torah while standing on one foot he said: “What is hateful to you do not do unto others”. Or to put it in a positive way: Treat others the way you would have liked to be treated by them. This is the message of Rabbis for Human Rights. Every human being is created in God’s image and we must respect that image and try to see God in the face of our neighbor, in the face of the other.

How shall we promote an enduring peace? By trying to see every person as family member, as a brother or sister, by following in the footsteps of our common father Abraham who was the model for justice, righteousness and the pursuit of peace. The book of Genesis tells us the following story about Abraham and his nephew Lot: “And there was strife between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and the herdsmen of Lot’s cattle…Then Abram said to Lot, Let there be no strife between me and you, and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen, for we are brothers.Isn’t the whole land before you? Please separate yourself from me. If you go to the left hand, then I will go to the right. Or if you go to the right hand, then I will go to the left.” Two conflicting values we find here: On the one hand the love of the land – the land that was promised to Abraham, not to Lot, and on the other hand the pursuit of peace. For the sake of peace Abraham is willing to even give up parts of the land promised to him and his seed. Before I introduce to you my friend and colleague Rabbi Arik Asherman, allow me to conclude with a wonderful poem written by the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, called Tourists: Once I sat on the steps by agate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!” I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

I pray for the day when we shall all come to recognize that the man who bought fruit and vegetables is more important than Roman arches; that human lives are more important than marble and stone, shrines and temples; that Adam – a human being is more important than Adama – earth. Bayom hahu yehiyeh Adonai ehad ushemo ehad. On that day, the Lord shall be one and His name one.

Legal Work, Occupied Territories

Land Dispute and Land Rights in the Holy Land

2 Comments 17 April 2011

Readers of the Bible are no doubt aware of the Divine promise made to the ancestors of the Jewish people, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, that their descendants would inherit the land of Israel. Continue Reading

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