Shavuot and Self-Immolation
Shaul Magid reflects on how hatred of the 'other' is inseparable from hatred of self.
There is an odd convergence of themes around the festival of Shavuot. The Book of Ruth is read in synagogues, the enigmatic story of a stranger/convert (Ruth the Moabite) who makes her way into the Israelite family through a semi-illicit sexual encounter and then ironically becomes the mother of redemption (King David is born from her progeny). The festival also converges with the beginning of the recitation of the Book of Numbers that includes a string of conflicts from inside Israelite society, the Korah rebellion to unseat Moses, Pinhas’s murder of Zimri, and from without, Balak and Balaam’s attempt to curse the Israelites out of existence. Finally, Shavuot always falls in early summer, a time when people again take to the streets, where communal strife that simmered during the rainy winter months begins to emerge. This season gave us the social protests in Israel two years ago and always produces conflicts between the police and haredim on a variety of issues.
The blessing (or is it the curse?) of Balaam that Israel “shall dwell alone” (Numbers 23:9) still echoes throughout the Jewish world even as Zionism was supposed to accomplish just the opposite. “Normalization” was Herzl’s clarion call, “alienation” the spirit of the pre-Zionist Jewish diaspora, the Judaism of the ghetto. Normalization was not simply between Israel and the world but inside Israel as well, a society that did not live in the amoral universe of victimhood, did not blame all its troubles on anti-Semitism, a society where fear was not the norm but the exception. And yet, as this Shavuot season shows, normalization (tolerance being one of its salient features) is hardly a word to describe the internal strife that plagues contemporary Israel.
While the conflict with the Palestinians is ongoing and the engine of occupation continues to churn, many Israelis seem almost bored by it all. Instead, internal eruptions have caught the headlines. Hate-speech from the hasbara machine and the righteous defenders of Israel has reached a heightened pitch against any who dare criticize Israel (Stephen Hawking and Dustin Hoffman being the latest victims). Anti-Semitic tropes are shamelessly deployed against Israel’s critics. Now that the government, after decades of inaction, has finally decided to allow Women of the Wall to pray at the Kotel, haredim gather to spit and throw stones and chairs at the women and their supporters (religious and secular) and unleash verbal abuse, calling the Israeli police “Nazis,” crossing a red line in the Jewish psyche.
One would be mistaken to place all the blame on the haredim. Their behavior is no worse than those secularists who use hate-speech against Israel’s leftist critics, many of whom consider themselves Zionists. The problem here is not religion. The problem is the result of a society that has become so accustomed to hating the “other” (the Palestinians, the Arabs, the U.N., Obama) that “others” continuously need to be created in order to hate them. The Talmud teaches that one who is angry repudiates the entire Torah. Anger is a consuming fire. But it does not only consume the object of one’s anger, nor does it only consume the angry subject. It consumes the entire society. Anger erases Torah and civility. Lest the righteous Israel defenders unleash their wrath on me, this is by no means exclusive to Israel. Just across the security wall, the Palestinian’s anger and hatred of Israel (justified or not) consistently turns into self-hatred as Fatah and Hamas continue to consume one another. The sword has two ends, one for the enemy and one for the self. A homicidal society soon becomes a suicidal one.
Some argue that such anger toward the “other” (the Palestinian, the Arab, the U.N., Obama) is justified. Perhaps. But on that logic, haredi anger toward Women of the Wall is justified as well. In their world-view they are protecting Israel against those they consider blasphemers. But consuming anger is not placated by justification, not toward the stranger and not toward the self.
I find it odd when I hear Jews express shock that Jews use hate-speech or violence against fellow Jews but remain silent when Jews use hate-speech and violence against the “stranger” in their midst, as if to say one form of hated is not intrinsically connected to the other. Why is hatred against the “other” any more legitimate than hatred toward one’s own? Is the mitzvah of “loving one’s neighbor” (Lev. 19:18) intrinsically more important than “loving the stranger” (Deut. 10:19)? The Torah explicitly states, “There should be on law for the Israelite (ezrakh) and the stranger that dwells among you.” (Ex. 12:49). In fact, anger and hatred toward the stranger may very well be the source of the anger and hatred toward the neighbor. Focused anger invariably becomes indiscriminate anger.
Ruth the Moabite is the heroine of Shavuot. She loved those who were not her own and was granted protection by the Israelites in return. Most strangers are not Ruth the Moabite. But the Torah commands its readers to “love the stranger” nonetheless. Not only because it is civil and just, that too, but because when anger and hatred pervades toward the stranger, it eventually turns within. An angry society will eventually consume itself.