By Deborah Fineblum Schabb
Their pictures and their names are burned on our hearts—victims of terrorism whose final moments we can’t even imagine. It’s in precisely these times that the job of spiritual leaders is both most challenging and most needed.
All across Israel, rabbis are being asked to make whatever sense can be made of the ongoing wave of Palestinian terror attacks against Israeli Jews doing the kinds of regular things people do daily: going to work, dropping off the kids, visiting friends, going shopping, attending synagogue services.
“It’s been a very sad day,” Rabbi Shlomo Riskin tells JNS.org Oct. 9, a day when the founding chief rabbi of Efrat had visited four homes observing the Jewish mourning week of shiva. “But I see these as the best of times and the worst of times—the best because for the first time in 2,000 years, we can carve out our own destiny and future in our land, as we witness an ingathering of our exiles from all over the world. The worst because the Palestinians have started a mountain of lies that we are encroaching on the Al-Aqsa mosque. They’re starting a budding intifada in malevolent and treacherous ways, which Abbas fomented in his speech before the U.N.”
“It’s something,” he adds with a sigh, “that I hope the world is beginning to see.”
Rabbi Berel Wein—historian, author, and rabbi of the Bet Knesset Hanasi congregation in Jerusalem—lays the blame for the current attacks in great part at the feet of the media.
“The violence against Jews has been going on for 100 years here, so the uptick is because of the news coverage—the terrorists win by publicity,” he says. “Television made ISIS.”
What does Wein recommend as a response to terror?
“You can’t live a hermetically sealed life, but you also have to try for the best security, at least until they finally make up their minds that Jews have a right to be here,” he says.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall and the Holy Sites of Israel, argues that Israelis can’t run away in fear.
“Of course we hope that the attacks stop and at the very least, the security steps the government is taking will help avoid new problems,” he says.
Even with increased violence, the Western Wall and other significant Old City sites saw hundreds of thousands of visitors over the recent Sukkot holiday.
“It’s ironic and sad that, on the Sukkot holiday, when we pray for the safety and peace of all the nations, instead we are the victims of violence ourselves,” says Rabinowitz, adding, “It’s important to be at the Kotel (Western Wall) now, to pray for an end to the terror and show we aren’t intimidated.”
Rabbi Zev Shandalov, a popular teacher in Ma’ale Adumim and a former congregational rabbi in Chicago, agrees.
“Some rabbis say, ‘Stay the heck out of the Old City,’ but we can’t forsake it because God is not forsaking Jerusalem and He doesn’t want us to either. I tell people, ‘Look, practically, we don’t know any single location the terrorists are coming from so stopping them is next to impossible. So we need to daven (pray) that God gives the police and border patrol the skills and tools necessary to protect all of us, even as we ultimately realize it’s God protecting us,’” he says.
The synagogue itself is where that realization often takes root.
“We’ve been through it before, including last summer; it’s part of the reality of living here. And people look to their synagogue for support,” says Rabbi Jeffrey Cymet, leader of Hakehila HaHadasha, a Masorti (Conservative) congregation in Tel Aviv. At that congregation, though current events mean an uptick in prayers for the state and for peace, the emphasis remains on Torah and mitzvot—which Cymet says “have been the support of the Jewish people for millennia.”
Congregants “are asking good questions but of course there are few good answers,” says Rabbi Yonatan Rosensweig of the Netzach Menashe synagogue in Beit Shemesh.
“The job of spiritual leader is not the political or security end of things—we leave that to our elected government—but it’s more common right now when far too many bad things are happening to far too many good people to hear, ‘What does all this mean theologically?’” he says.
Rosensweig’s response: “All I can answer is for us to ask ourselves what we can learn from this. People struck by tragedy often turn it into amazing actions in the world and suffering often triggers emotional and spiritual growth. So it’s not always healthy to focus on how we don’t know why God does things, but it’s healthier to examine what does this teach us.”
Rabbi Seth Farber—who heads Itim, an organization that helps individuals negotiate with the religious authorities in Israel, and is also a congregational rabbi in Ra’anana—tried to deal with tension by creating dialogue. He recently he invited four imams and his congregants to his sukkah, with mixed results.
“The whole thing is very painful,” he says. “What we discovered is no one understands the other side. People left with perhaps a little more understanding, but also immense frustration.”
Rabbi Elan Adler—a teacher, school administrator, counselor, and former Baltimore pulpit rabbi now living in Ma’ale Adumim—takes a different approach. He says he was powerfully reminded by the recent prayer for the new Hebrew month of Cheshvan and the beginning of this year’s Torah-reading cycle that “we have to take a fresh look at things here and remind ourselves that it’s our enemies who are on the attack.”
At the same time, the security situation presents a spiritual challenge for Adler.
“I think of myself as a person of faith, but when these things keep happening to guys praying or coming to the aid of another and the families suffer so much, I find my faith unmoored,” he says. “I have to remind myself that God runs the world and that the God I pray to is the God of the big picture who is just. And that I for one don’t have scintilla of a clue why He does what He does. We need to hold both of these thoughts at the same time and remember that, even though we sometimes pay a huge price to live in God’s corner of the world, our job is to hold on tight when He swings the rope wildly. We need to remember that 6.5 million Jews live in this country, go to work, go out to eat, catch a movie at Cinema City and put their kids to bed, doing their best to live their lives.”
Along those lines, Rabbi Ervin Birnbaum, a retired Masorti pulpit rabbi, reports that none of the Russian-born Israelis he works with through his Netanya-based outreach program cancelled on his monthly tour to sites around Israel.
“They’re not going to be frightened off….I remind them that the mosque Muslims think Israelis covet was generously given to them by Moshe Dayan after the 1967 war, at a time when the victorious Israeli army could have easily taken back that part of the Old City. And that it’s called the Temple Mount because of our Temple,” says Birnbaum.
Now, he adds, Jews visiting the Temple Mount are harassed and forbidden to move their lips over fear that they might be praying, a prohibited action for Jews at the holy site.
“And now, for us, as we begin the Torah again, I tell them we need to be confident that we will finish and start it, finish and start it, year after year, right here, with no need to apologize for being in our land,” Birnbaum says.
Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo of the Jerusalem-based David Cardozo Academy recently blogged in an “open letter” to God about struggling with faith in a time of terror.
“I know that it is more than surprising that we don’t experience waves of terrorism on a daily basis….And I suspect that You (God) are behind this….I still realize that we Jews are the greatest miracle of all,” he writes. “We have outlived all our enemies—the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and many others….Not even the Holocaust succeeded in wiping us out. The State of Israel is an ongoing miracle in a region that has gone completely mad. How, then, can I deny Your existence?”
Cardozo proceeds to tell JNS.org, “Anti-Semitism, whether it’s European or from the Arab world, [occurs] because we as Jews stand for values they have great difficulty accepting. But ironically, what all these anti-Semitic attacks ultimately do is remind us of these values of ours and increase our pride in being Jewish.”