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Local response: Affirming justice in Israel

Posted by Jesse Singal  December 20, 2010 01:32 PM

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Editor's note: A group of Israeli rabbis recently published an open letter forbidding Jews in Israel from renting or selling homes to Arabs. In response, the New Israel Fund sent a letter to those rabbis condemning their decision — a letter signed by almost a thousand rabbis of every denomination from around the world. One of the signatories, Rabbi Ben Greenberg, the Orthodox Jewish chaplain of Harvard University, explains his reasoning below.

Judaism is a religion concerned with the work of justice. The Biblical narrative is a protest against the world that is and a struggle for the world that ought to be. Abraham himself risks his future by posing a question of supreme chutzpah to God, challenging God to hold Himself accountable to His own system of justice. “Shall the judge of the whole earth deal unjustly?” (Gen. 18:25)

The Hebrew Bible, from Exodus through Deuteronomy, extols the nascent nation of Israel to remember their origin in Egyptian slavery and to therefore accord dignity and respect to the Other in their society: “The stranger you shall not oppress for you know the spirit of the stranger because you were strangers in Egypt.” (Ex. 23:9) “The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native among you and you shall love him as yourself... “(Lev. 19:34) “Love the stranger because you were strangers in Egypt.” (Deut. 10:19)

It is deeply and profoundly troubling that a group of Israeli municipal rabbis recently issued a proclamation forbidding the rental or sale of homes to non-Jews in the State of Israel. These rabbis are civil servants and are meant to represent both the values of democratic Israel and of Judaism. The Jewish tradition spans three millennia and throughout the centuries has developed a long and at times seemingly contradictory legal tradition. Any rabbi charged with determining the application of Jewish law to the realities of the modern era must take into consideration a full array of factors, including socio-economic, political, and ethical values. The ruling by these municipal rabbis is nothing more than thinly guised political maneuverings and a perversion of the cherished processes of Jewish law.

As an American Orthodox rabbi I am very hesitant to interject my opinion into the fray of internal Israeli policy making. Oftentimes, the choices being deliberated involve existential questions for the State of Israel, and as a Cambridge resident, my life will not be directly affected by most decisions. This situation, though, is markedly different. I bear a moral imperative to speak out when the religion I cherish is misrepresented in the global public square. If this ruling would be implemented, the perception of Judaism by people the world over would be irreparably damaged.

For these reasons, I added my name to a letter organized by the New Israel Fund. I am not an avid petition-signer since the very nature of a petition does not allow for a full presentation of the complexities of any situation. Yet this matter requires an immediate and deliberate response with little room for nuance. Approximately one thousand rabbis from across the world stand together with the New Israel Fund in declaring that “The attempt to root discriminatory policies based on religion or ethnicity in Torah is a painful distortion of our tradition.”

I pray that the addition of my signature to the collective voice of more than a thousand rabbis from every corner of the globe, representing the broad diversity of the Jewish people, along with the support of the overwhelming majority of the Israeli rabbinate, will be a source of strength and encouragement to Israel's political leadership to swiftly and decisively respond to this disturbing edict. Then we will all stand and affirm the statement in the Talmud that “the whole Torah is for the sake of the ways of peace.”

Rabbi Ben Greenberg is the Orthodox Jewish chaplain of Harvard University, Orthodox rabbi of Harvard Hillel and Director of the Orthodox Union's Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Harvard.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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