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The Price We Pay For Contempt

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein

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A monastery in Israel is desecrated, almost certainly by nationalist extremists.

The desecration was condemned by the prime minister and others in the government. Chief Rabbi Metzger called it a “heinous deed.” The Internal Security minister did not hesitate to use the word “terror” and announced the formation of a special police unit to combat it. Many people traveled to the monastery to personally apologize, including Rabbi Dov Lipman of Beit Shemesh, who took brush in hand to help scrub the offensive words from the walls.

Short of undoing the damage by way of a time machine, you could not ask for a stronger response. But in a harsh statement that was picked up around the world, Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa lashed out at haredim – and others – for creating the climate that stimulates attacks on Christians in Israel.

Fr. Pizzaballa is the custodian of all Christian holy sites in Israel on behalf of the Vatican. I know him, and he is an honorable man. He is fair-minded and ordinarily not given to harsh words against Israel. I called him myself after learning of the attack to express, on behalf of the Simon Wiesenthal Canter, our shame as Jews that this would happen in a Jewish state. (He was abroad, but the message was relayed to him, and he received it with thanks.)

While I don’t believe there is really any link between haredi education and this attack, I cannot dismiss his feelings – nor his observations about attitudes toward Christians.

He has complained before about spitting incidents directed at him and his colleagues in the Old City. We called at the time to apologize, and to see if there was any way we could intervene. A colleague sat with him in his office for an hour-long amicable conversation. We had hoped that the problem would subside, especially after a strong statement from the Badatz. Apparently it hasn’t.

So what we have is a message, beamed to the world, that “real” Jews – the ones who look the part and believe in the traditions of the Bible, etc. – despise Christians and treat them like dirt. This despite decades of support from large numbers of Christians as the most reliable advocates for the Jewish state. How’s that for gratitude!

Should we speculate on how many pro-Palestinian websites will make fine capital of this, or restrict ourselves to worrying about the hundreds of right-wing anti-Semitic sites in Europe and the U.S. that will do so?

What could have been accurately written off as the work of extremist kids, not condoned by a majority within their own community, is now on record as an assessment that believing Jews despise believing Christians.

Do we need this? And is Fr. Pizzaballa wrong about a climate of intolerance? I’m not sure he is. Don’t we indeed evidence too much contempt for others? We often treat our own with contempt, for dressing a bit different, or espousing a view we see as wrong.

I can’t even guess which contempt comes first – do we first show contempt for the person who uses/does not use the eruv, and then extend it with a kal v’chomer to non-Jews, and then even further with another kal v’chomer to non-Jews who hold theological beliefs we oppose with heart and soul?

Or do we begin with the outsiders, and then move closer to the outliers, as the bitterness of contempt inexorably spreads through more of our emotional apparatus?

It almost doesn’t matter. The point is that contempt, springing from (in our circles) a glorification of bitul, backfires. It endangers us as a community, because when we are contemptuous of others, others learn to reciprocate.

Every negative attitude we harbor becomes a focus of public attention. In a world of insatiable curiosity and easy communication, not even our thoughts remain private very long.

More important, it seeps into our middos in ways we do not (or should not) like. And it is no consolation that we are not “worse” than other communities. That is not the way they judge us; it is not the way we judge ourselves; it is not the way God judges us.

Can we not convey firm and confident difference without showing contempt? When a child sees a Christian cleric on a Yerushalayim street, bedecked in his strange-looking garb, does his parent help his understanding and development by saying something disparaging about the person and/or his beliefs? Wouldn’t the child (and our community) learn far more if the parent spoke about people who look for Hashem in different ways, and how fortunate we are that we have a Torah to show us how to do it, and how one day all people on earth will learn to serve Hashem the way He wants them to?

And when considering the hundreds of millions who are not spiritually engaged, would it not make more sense to speak of them as worthy of respect simply because they are endowed with tzelem Elokim?

The Latrun monastery is located in Emek Ayalon, the place where Yehoshua miraculously made the sun stop. Alas, for too many of our brethren, time has stopped with regard to the way they interact with non-Jews. While we won the biblical battle, we are not going to fare as well in the ones ahead if we cannot recognize the rules of the game in interacting with the world at large – and that we bear some of the burdens of galus even in our Jewish state.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein directs interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and holds the Irmas Adjunct Chair in Jewish Law at Loyola Law School.

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About the Author: Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of Interfaith Affairs of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and the Sydney M Irmas adjunct chair, Jewish Law and Ethics, Loyola Law School.


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One Response to “The Price We Pay For Contempt”

  1. Rebekah Simon-Peter says:

    Thank you for this courageous post.

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