On Rosh Chodesh Av, the first day of the Hebrew month of Av, the controversial group Women of the Wall were praying at the Kotel in Jerusalem when they were pelted with insults and hard-boiled eggs by a group of Haredi men.
The time and place are relevant: The first nine days of Av are a solemn lead-up to the day of commemoration for the destruction of both First and Second Temples. The Kotel, the Western Wall, is the last bit of retaining wall from the temple that was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Why did the Romans destroy that holy structure central to Jewish existence? The sages answer: Because of sinat chinam, or “baseless hatred.” In other words, Jewish infighting caused the Jewish people’s own downfall.
Discussions of sinat chinam always pick up this time of year, but they seem to have a renewed sense of urgency this year.
On Sunday evening, July 14, nearly 800 people from across greater Seattle’s Jewish community packed Town Hall to hear René Levy address baseless hatred and its threat to Jewish peoplehood at “Jewish Peoplehood Crisis: A Call for Conversation.”
“When there are no existential crises, the concept of Jewish peoplehood suffers to the point of becoming obsolete,” said Levy. Living in a crisis-free era of Jewish history is a good thing, of course. But the Holocaust, the Six-Day War, the plight of the Soviet Jews — all things that bonded older generations — have become history to younger Jews.
Most troubling to Levy is that when young Jews turn to Jewish sacred texts, they “are unable to decipher our shared mission or our purpose as a people.”
What is needed is a renewed look at the purpose of Jewish peoplehood. In his book, “Baseless Hatred: What It Is and What You Can Do About It” (Geffen, 2011), Levy, a retired professor of pharmaceutics at the University of Washington and longtime member of the Sephardic Orthodox community in Seattle, outlines the genesis of peoplehood in the Torah, its function in Jewish history, and the causes for its failure.
When the fundamental concept of Jewish peoplehood self-destructs, it is typically due to a breakdown of mutual responsibility and the toxic spread of disgust for fellow community members near and far — starting with family. (For more background on “Baseless Hatred,” see our story “Manifesto for a Revolution,” Aug. 22, 2012).
Levy’s suggestion for uniting Jewish people and curbing the phenomenon of baseless hatred is to start with family. “Baseless hatred and in-laws are a match made in heaven, or perhaps hell,” Levy said to a roomful of chuckles.
“You are entitled to justice, not revenge,” he said. “It hurts, because deep down that person is important.”
Ironically, one must override the “primitive neural system” that is wired to shut out or “hate” threatening humans or behaviors, as well as ego, in order to wage peace and assist the survival of the community.
When all else fails, said Levy, ask yourself, “am I selfish enough to forgive?” Invoking an Eastern twist, Levy suggests that when we forgive, we become free and secure.
Not only that, but the Jewish community must commit to educating children and focusing philanthropic efforts on peoplehood.
“By perfecting themselves, Jews can perfect their communities,” said Levy. “And they can perfect the State of Israel.”
Levy left the audience inspired, but not entirely without skepticism. At the question and answer session, he was presented with questions about Jewish anti-Semitism and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, members of which have endorsed a no-dialogue approach to Israel’s supporters.
“Even if we accomplish nothing, we have to sit down and talk,” said Levy. “Are you willing to accept that they are doing this because they expect such a high moral standard for Jews and Israelis?”
According to event moderator Joel Benoliel, the response was overwhelmingly positive. “René‘s presentation was masterful, unique, and beautifully presented,” Benoliel told JTNews. “He is a scientist at heart, and is schooled in the art of making scientific inquiry and bolstering conclusions with proof.”
The purpose of the talk was a call to conversation, and Levy hopes that will prove fruitful. A follow-up email to attendees asked for input on how to move forward, such as creating a curriculum, forming an organization, holding an annual discussion, or participating in relationship workshops.
While a large percentage of attendees were members of Seattle’s Orthodox community, the talk appealed to Jews across the board.
Rainer Waldman Adkins, a founder of South Seattle’s progressive Mitriyah community and an activist for the liberal Israel advocacy organization J Street, told JTNews he was initially skeptical about the topic, but wanted to find out if it would truly promote dialogue.
Adkins was impressed by Levy’s insistence on shared responsibility and empathy for others.
“The ability to listen to other people…to find a very basic commonality, those are critical tools in building connections between people,” he said. Adkins also said that while he’s experienced anti-Semitism, “the most painful contacts I’ve had have been with other Jews, because it seemed they were stereotyping me and not curious about what was motivating me.”
Adkins hopes the conversation will somehow continue, because the community needs it.
“We’ll see where it goes,” he said. “It will certainly be a lot of hard work.”
David Chivo, the executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle — a sponsor of the event — praised the evening.
“Within Jewish life, there are always many voices, and at times they are in conflict with one another,” he said. “What Dr. Levy conveyed through the conversation he led is that the multi-vocality within our community is actually a source of strength, and that we can find ways to have differences of opinions and yet still care deeply for one another.”
Benoliel admitted he had no idea what he was getting into when he was asked to participate in the event. In the end, he was moved.
“The last time I felt a spiritual stirring in a large crowd like this was a few years ago when I went to Century Link Field to hear the Dalai Lama,” he said. “His message was actually very much in synch with René‘s when it comes to interpersonal relationships.”
Could it really be possible to elevate the nature of Jewish community, starting with family and working toward world peace by committing to a sense mutual responsibility?
“Yes,” said Levy at the conclusion of his lecture. “It could be that simple.”