Posts Tagged ‘Talmud’

Causeless Hatred and the Jewish State: Have We Learned Our Lesson?

July 31, 2017 7 comments

What, I’m not good enough to be blacklisted??

Those were the words with which I jokingly feigned righteous indignation last month when the Israeli rabbinate released its “blacklist” of rabbis from whom they will refuse letters of Jewishness for new immigrants. Others of my colleagues had similar amused responses: congratulating those who did make the list, creating multi-step plans for getting onto the next one.

But the truth is, that list ought to horrify us. Especially today.


Tonight begins Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av. On this day, we mark the traditional anniversary of the  destruction of the ancient Temple by Rome in the year 70. This is a seminal event in Jewish history: the beginning of a 2000-year exile; the loss of sovereignty that left us wandering around the world and vulnerable to antisemitism and persecution for centuries.

Like any event, the fall of Jerusalem resulted from a number of geopolitical factors, among them increasing animosity between the Jewish population and the Roman power structure, and General Vespasian’s need to prove himself in his bid to become Emperor. But interestingly enough, the Rabbis of the Talmud – the leaders of the Jewish community in the centuries immediately following those tragic events – did not put the blame on those factors. Rather, they placed it squarely on us: on the fact that we Jews couldn’t get along with one anther.

A story in the Talmud tells that the Temple was destroyed as a result of a grudge-holding socialite and a vindictive curmudgeon named Bar Kamza, who hated each other so much that one of them informed on the other to the Romans and brought the wrath of the empire on Jerusalem. Did that story actually happen? Probably not. But what did really happen is that the Jews of the 1st century were deeply divided into political and religious factions that despised one another. That they fought amongst themselves. That the Jewish factions burned one another's stores of food in the besieged city, making its residents vulnerable to Rome and hastening the destruction.

In other words, Rome didn't do it. WE did it. We destroyed ourselves by trying to delegitimize one another. The Rabbis call this Sinat Chinam – "Causeless Hatred" – and they credit it with bringing down the ancient Jewish state:

Why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that in its time [Jews] were occupying themselves with Torah, mitzvot, and righteous giving? Because of causeless hatred. This teaches that causeless hatred is considered to be as grave as the sins of idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed combined. (Talmud, Yoma 9b)

It is a stinging indictment of ancient Jews for infighting and mutual delegitimization. Too bad we are doing it all over again.

The last month has seen, among other events, the Israeli government’s decision to renege on its agreement to create an equal egalitarian section at the Western Wall, the release of the now famous rabbinical blacklist, and escalating attacks on women praying aloud at the Kotel.

Sadly, these events are no longer surprising. They are part of a pattern of behaviour on the part of both the ultra-Orthodox community (as encouraged by its leadership) and a government (in particular the sitting Prime Minister) that relies on Haredi support to stay in power. But we must not let the fact that such actions have ceased to surprise us mean that they no longer horrify us. Make no mistake: those Jews who shove women at prayer, who campaign against the recognition of liberal rabbis, who actively work to delegitimize Jews who are not like them, are following in the footsteps of the ancient Zealots who burned the stores of wheat. They are loosening the bonds between Jews around the world; sowing the seeds of causeless hatred amongst our people. They are, slowly but surely, bringing down the Jewish state.

It has been argued that since the vast majority of liberal Jews live in the Diaspora, they are (as non-Israelis) not entitled to a say in Israeli internal affairs. And yet there are many thousands of liberal Jews living in the state – both those who affiliate with the Reform and Conservative movements (a small but growing number), and the many more whose values align with those movements. Does any Democratic country have the right to discount the needs and rights of a minority population based on its smaller numbers? And even if this were not the case, the fact is that Israel is the only Jewish state, and has been entrusted with the care and administration of Jewish holy sites on behalf of the Jewish people. That gives it a responsibility to cast the net widely when it comes to defining legitimate Jewish practice and identity.

I love Israel with all my heart. I believe the goodness of having a Jewish state for the last 69 years is unparalleled in the history of our people. And I believe that we are capable of better than Sinat Chinam. Let us learn from the past, and work together to build a Jewish state that is a home for all Jews. One that is a political embodiment of K’lal Yisrael – the entire Jewish people.

Mai Chanukah: A Text Study and Food for Thought

December 7, 2009 1 comment

Just for fun, a text study with discussion questions on Talmud Shabbat 21b, the page of the Talmud that discusses the laws of Chanukah. Commentary by Rabbi Micah Streiffer (

Our Rabbis taught: The law of Chanukah requires that every each person should light one lamp for himself and his household. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b)

In other words, you only need one light – not one menorah, but one candle – in order to fulfill the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukah candle. According to the Talmud, this is the bare minimum requirement. Is it enough to do the minimum that is required of you? When should you go above and beyond?

Those who seek to fulfill the law in a better or more beautiful way may light one lamp for every member of the household. (B. Shabbat 21b)

Today, many families light one menorah per family member. Do you agree with the Talmud that this is a better or more beautiful way to fulfill the mitzvah? How does having multiple chanukiyot help each member of the family take ownership over the tradition?

Do you have any fun, unusual menorahs in your house? What do they look like? Do they help make the holiday more special for you?

The rabbis taught: One should put the Chanukah lamp outside the door of the house. A person who lives in an apartment puts it in a window that opens into the street. (B. Shabbat 21b)

If we follow all of the above laws – light many menorahs and place them in the window – we will be producing a lot of light! Who will see it from your window? Why do you suppose it is traditional to “advertise” the miracle of Chanukah by placing the lights in the window? How do you feel about advertising your Jewishness to the neighborhood?

What is Chanukah all about? Our rabbis taught: “Beginning on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev are eight days of celebration on which mourning and fasting are prohibited. Because when the Hellenists entered the sanctuary, they defiled all the oil that was found there. When the Hasmonean Dynasty (i.e. the Maccabees) triumphed, they looked for oil to light the Eternal Flame, and only found one container with the seal of the high priest intact [indicating that it was kosher and fit for use in the Temple]. The vial contained enough oil for only one day, but a miracle occurred, and they were able to keep it lit for eight days from that container. The following year, those eight days were established as a holiday that includes poems of praise and thanksgiving. (B. Shabbat 21b)

This story does not appear in any of the earlier sources. In the book of Macabees, the holiday seems to be established to celebrate the military victory and the establishment of Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel. What does the story of the oil add to the meaning of Chanukah?

Which version of the story do you like better – the victory or the oil? Why?

Chanukah is a celebration of freedom. How is this relevant to our lives today?
Chanukah is a celebration of miracles. Are there miracles in your life? Explain.

The word “chanukah” means dedication, since it was a rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. To which causes, people, or ideas do you feel most dedicated this year?

Chag Urim Sameach!
Happy Festival of Lights!

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