Hamas, Divine Justice, and the Immortality of Israel

Aton M. Holzer Tradition Online | November 7, 2023

About 1000 of the estimated 1400 victims of October 7 (click for full listing).

At the time of this writing, the terrible events of Simhat Torah 5784 are an ongoing trauma. Much is being written and will be written about this event, which about a month on, as yet lacks even a suitable name. For those of us in Israel, the depraved massacre has been compared to 9/11, to the Holocaust, to the Kishinev pogroms. The collapse of our most basic sense of security, of our trust in the security apparatus’ institutions and leadership, recalls R. Soloveitchik’s description of the Maimonidean view of shofar: “The abrupt, tragic realization that the false assumptions upon which we build our lives have come crashing before our eyes… we find ourselves alone, bereft of illusions, terrified and paralyzed before God.”[1] Only this awful shofar-experience came at the end of the days of Awe, rather than their beginning.

The event raises timely questions: Where was the State? Where was the army? How could the intelligence gatherers have failed so spectacularly? How could the military have been caught so unprepared? What will become of Bibi and his coalition? What will be the regional implications of this war? What will be the global implications? What will become of the raw anti-Semitism now exposed on college campuses and in mass demonstrations throughout the West? As events overtake analysis, much of the ink now being spilled so profusely is rendered obsolete almost before it is read. None will be consulted in a decade, or even a years’ time, when most if not all of the answers will surely be known.

But the events also raise timeless questions, ones which I hear now from those closest to me. Forget Bibi. How could God let this happen? One of the happiest days on the Jewish calendar, the one day upon which dancing is part of the ritual was turned into a day of mourning. (President Biden reminded us that Simhat Torah also harbors a tragic theme, the death of Moses – which indeed colored the ancient Eretzisraeli commemoration of the conclusion of the Law; but this theme has lain dormant in the liturgy since late antiquity.) One recalls the verse from Lamentations “The joy of our heart is ceased; our dance is turned into mourning” (5:15), when the season of vineyard dances, the month of Av, was rendered the month of mourning for national catastrophe.

However, the heart refuses to speak the next verse: “The crown is fallen from our head: Woe unto us, that we have sinned!” What sort of sin justifies burning alive, torture, rape, kidnapping, dismemberment? Crude retributivist arguments linking such suffering to violation of the Sabbath or “idolatrous” motifs at the music festival were mercifully shut down quickly, rendered vulgar by their own absurdity even before it became clear that the cream of the religious Zionist community were the first among the fallen in the initial military response. More sophisticated arguments linking the events of Simhat Torah to those of the Yom Kippur that preceded it by a mere twelve days – the manifestation of a deep right-left societal divide ripening into war of secular vs. religious – succeed on the level of political analysis, indeed cited by Hamas as a reason they thought we could be subdued. But this fails as theology. What sort of communal transgression deserves the unleashing of radical evil? Were we as divided as the generation of Aristobulus and Hyrcanus, which saw the imposition of a siege on Jerusalem and sending up of a pig for those awaiting a sheep for the tamid sacrifice? As the generation of Hurban Bayit Sheni, with murderous Sicarii, and each faction burning the food stores of its opponent?

And yet, Scripture insists that “He is the Rock, His work is perfect. For all his ways are judgment—a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is He” (Deuteronomy 32:4). And this in a chapter that proceeds to enumerate horrors which defy this locus classicus for Divine justice! The terrible events visited upon the people in its land today (and indeed repeatedly since the first recorded Arab nationalistically-motivated murder, of R. Abraham Shelomo Zalman Zoref, in 1851) hit too close to home: “And I will move them to jealousy with those which are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation… The sword without, and terror within, shall destroy both the young man and the virgin, the suckling also with the man of gray hairs” (32:25).

The protest against a God who seems absent, unreliable and unjust comes to surprisingly vivid expression in the book of Psalms, in what R. Elhanan Samet terms the “protest psalm.”[2] In particular, psalms 44 and 89 lacerate God bitterly for abandoning His people and violating His covenants – and unlike similar complaints in the Torah, prophets or Job, close without any Divine response. R. Samet adduces Biblical and Rabbinic sources that emphasize that while we may subscribe to the belief that divine justice is manifest in the grand sweep of history, man is forbidden to lie to God, to praise Him for attributes that he does not see manifest in his own time, and is moreover dutybound not to keep silent in the face of suffering, but to describe reality as he sees it with integrity. While Abraham Ibn Ezra recalls a Spanish sage who could not bring himself to recite or hear Psalm 44, the majority view sees no impiety, but rather devout sincerity, in wrestling with Jeremiah’s question upon beholding the enemy demolishing His sanctuary—ayeh nora’otav, where is His awe (Yoma 69b), with no hope of a response. The cri de cœur is itself a canonical, critical religious gesture.

Such raw honesty was brought home during my shiva visit to David Guedalia, a friend, neighbor, tech genius, and talmid hakham with a keen interest in the intersection of Judaism and semiotics. His 22-year old son Yosef Malachi, a new husband and prince among men, from the elite Duvdevan unit, was called from his side at shul on Simhat Torah morning to Kfar Azza. He battled terrorist marauders and spirited civilians to safety for two hours, until he was overtaken by the bloodthirsty hordes. Hundreds passed through the shiva house and drew inspiration.

David articulated a new understanding of aninut, one which resonated with all of us in the first dark days. One does not perform mitzvot in the rawest phase of loss because it seems as though there is no metzave, no One who commands. There is simply no way to reconcile loss, not such loss, with a just God, with an ordered universe—the bereaved are inevitably bound to a sense of let din ve-let dayyan, Heaven forbid—a feeling that the Almighty has abandoned His post. Only after burial, once mourning begins, is the loss processed, and only then can work begin toward integrating the void into a theistic worldview.

A second question arises when staring in the face of radical evil: If modern human beings can degenerate into the hideous and demonic, how can we be assured that we and our children are inoculated from aping such ghoulishness? From the very day of the pogrom, the specious assertion of Israeli, or more properly Jewish, venality—that we already inflict or embody evils worse than what was visited upon us—was pressed in major cities, networks, and premier universities, the citadels of Western learning where the intellectual foundations for the next Holocaust are being laid. While these moral distortions are easily dismissed, these weeks have seen the output of more thoughtful pens, such as David Grossman and Yuval Noah Harari, who decry the massacre but also the “messianic,” extremist coalition. The unspoken, or softly spoken, assumption that religious Zionism, whose fringes produced the hilltop youth who set upon Huwara, could just as easily yield a Hamas; that bearded Haredi clerics who eschew a Western education, whose extremists pelt “immodestly clad” women with trash and cover over their photographs with spraypaint, could morph from non-ideologues holding domestic ministries for provincial ends to members of a shura council in a totalitarian theocracy on the Iranian model.

In a landmark paper penned in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, David Shatz[3] treats both questions. He notes that the thrust of Biblical and Rabbinic Jewish sources do not subscribe to a Divine Command theory of morality, and, pace Kierkegaard’s reading of the binding of Isaac, the true lesson is in its denouement. As R. Kook insisted – God does not seek for us to sacrifice our own understanding of morality to fulfill his command. Hodu la-Hashem ki tov is not a tautology only if there exists a human assessment of “good” independent of religious law and doctrine by which it is possible to assess the Divine. In a classic formulation, Shatz writes, “we must not allow anyone to conflate Akedah and al Qaeda.” From the sources he adduces, it is clear that it is no mere happy coincidence that the one Jewish State finds itself on the proverbial “right side of history”; the weight of Jewish tradition could never meaningfully support the alternatives.

As far as the matter of theodicy in the face of radical evil, he notes that Judaism speaks with multiple voices on this matter; elsewhere he catalogs them – the retributivist theodicy, which is rejected already in the Biblical book of Job; atonement, trial, “tribulations of love” to increase reward in the next world; mazal (fate), the Babylonian Talmud’s surprising approach, which rejects theodicy outright; free-will theodicies and soul-making theodicies (the latter of which Shatz favors, in other works) – in which the possibility of evil and the existence of evil provides us a chance to grow in our own character, to empathize, to bring to the fore benevolence, faith and sacrifice.[4] Indeed, the response of Israelis and Jews across the world is “making” quite a few souls, allowing ordinary folk to rise to this occasion. The behavior of the broader Jewish community has shone the spotlight on Jews’ unique propensity to form what Nel Noddings describes as “chains of caring,”[5] opening wallets, homes, hearts and kitchens to those of our extended Jewish family.

But in his 2002 essay, Shatz notes that halakha stands in opposition to theodicy, since theodicy aims to diminish the negative perception of evil, while halakha is committed to fighting evil with all the means at our disposal. He closes the essay with three examples of phenomena which “dull the urge to ethical action” and thus must be eschewed: messianic speculation, blaming the victim, and moral relativism. All are as relevant today as they were two decades ago; although today, no one is speaking of a Zohar regarding three walls of Rome that would fall on the twenty-fifth of Elul, but instead about a sharply worded lament by R. Jonathan Eybeschutz (Ya’arot Devash 1:5) regarding promiscuous behavior in Simhat Torah dancing, or pseudo-Jonathan on Genesis 6:11 linking hamas to subterranean hostages. Both subsume the horrors within a foretold divine plan, although none make the explicit link to messianism.

Nonetheless, since Viktor Frankl, we know that the human psyche insists upon making meaning, of subsuming unfathomable events within a logical structure that directs future action. President Biden’s initial address reminded us that the weekly Torah portion has classically provided this structure.

To this end, the teachings of R. Yaakov Medan, one of the Roshei Yeshivat Har Etzion, have been particularly salient.  In a recorded teaching for Bereishit, R. Medan fleshes out the cause cited for the world’s destruction in the deluge, hamas (Genesis 6:11). In seven generations of his descendants, Cain’s sin of murder – which elicited within him guilt and shame – came to be glorified. Lamekh goes so far as to compose a song about killing adult and child alike to avenge his bruises. The culture of glorified violence, compounded by the benei ha-elohim – the mighty rulers who kidnapped and raped women as they pleased – with the sanction of the regnant system of law, constituted the hamas which necessitated the world’s destruction.

In Parashat Noah, R. Medan highlights the unexpected parallels between the flood story and that of the giving of the Torah, as recorded at the end of Parashat Mishpatim. Both took forty days, and culminated in the construction of an altar, the “signing” of a covenant, and the provision of mitzvot – in the former, the seven commandments to the sons of Noah, in the latter, the entire Torah.

What is the meaning of this parallel? R. Medan doesn’t explain, but R. Jonathan Sacks zt”l provides an answer:

Individuals can be bound together as a group not just because of where they came from but where they are going to; not just because of what happened to them but because of what they are called on to achieve. They share ideals, a common vision… the Exodus was only the prelude to Israel’s birth as a nation. The decisive event took place not in Egypt nor even when they left, but seven weeks later as they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai. It was there that they heard the voice of God and received the Ten Commandments, the most famous of all moral codes.[6]

When the world succumbed to a culture which normalized murder, kidnapping, rape, deceit, and whose lodestar was envy, when all men “destroyed their way upon the earth” (6:12), God came to regret having created humanity.

The lesson of the commandments to Noah is that any individual or group identity would need to be founded upon principles; the right to land, or even life itself, is not a given. Noah’s descendants failed to uphold them, and worship in Mesopotamia degenerated into a doctrine which divinized leaders and legitimated violence and power.[7] God selected one people and committed them to ten principles, which equate five principles of monotheism – God-awareness, proper worship, respect, holy days, and tradition – with thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not kidnap, thou shalt not bear false witness, and thou shalt not covet, the very precepts violated in one bloody day for all the world to see by devotees of modern neo-archaic religion, a cult of violence and power. The ten principles, presented in the wilderness—before land and group identity, long before any hint of what would come to be called “religion”==forever remained the basis for all of them.

It is the nation that remained committed to these ideals for three and a half thousand years that “consoles” God for creating this broken world. Akeda is not al Qaeda, but Hamas surely is hamas. As God’s suffering servant who never devolved into hamas, Jews submitted to repeated subjugation and exile rather than to seek the comfort of forcible world domination and empire. Jews never lost sight that respect for life, truth, and rights of the innocent come before any religious or national goal. And so Israel alone survived three and a half thousand years, to the modern day, to be repatriated to their national home, and be the “treasure from among the nations” promised in the covenant at Sinai – the vanguard of the free, decent world, and its last, best hope.

Rabbi Dr. Aton Holzer is Director of the Mohs Surgery Clinic in the Department of Dermatology, Tel Aviv-Sourasky Medical Center.

[1] Arnold Lustiger, Before Hashem You Shall Be Purified: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on the Days of Awe (Ohr Publishing, 1998), 9-10.

[2] Elhanan Samet, Studies in the Book of Psalms [Hebrew], (Yediot Sefarim, 2012), 115-154.

[3] David Shatz, From the Depths I Have Called to You: Jewish Reflections on September 11th and Contemporary Terrorism (Yeshiva University, 2002).

[4] David Shatz, “On Constructing a Jewish Theodicy,” The Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil (Blackwell, 2013), 309-325.‏ See also David Shatz, “Does Jewish Law Express Jewish Philosophy? The Curious Case of Theodicies,” Jewish Thought in Dialogue: Essays on Thinkers, Theologies and Moral Theories (Academic Studies Press, 2009), 291-304.

[5] See my “Esther, Feminist Ethics, and the Creation of Jewish Community,” Lehrhaus (March 13, 2022).

[6] Jonathan Sacks, A Letter in the Scroll (Free Press, 2000), 116-117.

[7] Robert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Harvard University Press, 2017), 212-226.

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