Jewish Values Mean Whatever You Want Them to Mean

From the deputy foreign minister to the U.S. president, we’ve gotten used to people hijacking Judaism for their own agenda.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
U.S. President Barak Obama during a visit to the Conservative Adas Israel synagogue in Washington, in May.
U.S. President Barak Obama during a visit to the Conservative Adas Israel synagogue in Washington, in May.Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Dabach, the largest abattoir in Israel was ordered on Tuesday to suspend all slaughtering after footage emerged of its employees' cruel treatment of animals being led to be butchered. Since the disturbing pictures appeared on Channel 2, various politicians and activists clamored to have their say. One of them, the media-savvy Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau was quoted in Haaretz’s report as saying “the Jewish shechita (ritual slaughtering) is a humane slaughtering which tries to prevent, as much as possible, any suffering to the animal. There is no justification for the cruelty against the animals at the slaughterhouse and this kind of thing should be prevented in future.”

I read this anodyne quote twice, and then tracked back to the beginning of the report to make sure I hadn’t missed something. I wasn’t wrong; the images of the manhandling of the calves and lambs at Dabach had been obtained and collected by animal rights activists. The order to suspend work had come from the Ministry of Agriculture. The shochtim (ritual slaughterers) and their teams working at Dabach (which supplies both kosher and non-kosher meat) had not reported the cruelty they witnessed on a daily basis. Nor is Rabbi Lau advocating suspension of kashrut supervision, a massive penalty to a business marketing much of its produce to traditional Jews, as a tool to fight rapacious meat producers. Wouldn’t that be great? If an abattoir owner knew the shochtim could close him down for callous treatment of the animals, cruelty in slaughterhouses would be reduced dramatically. But Lau has no intention of even issuing a warning, much less doing that. Like his father before him, he’s great with a sound-bite; actions are another matter.

In all the years I’ve covered and followed the kashrut industry, I’ve heard of dozens cases in which businesses had their supervision removed, for halakhic and often totally non-halakhic reasons, but never once because of cruelty to animals. Lau knows it’s not going to happen, even if he wanted it to — he has no control over the powerful badatzim, the lucrative kashrut syndicates which employ hundreds of slaughterers and supervisors, their salaries ultimately paid by Israeli consumers. The particular badatz supervising Dabach is owned by a rabbi close to the Shas leadership, and he doesn’t take orders from anyone.

I’m a carnivore, but I am also under no illusion that there can be such a thing as a “humane” method of ending an animal’s life so it can ultimately wind up on my plate. Shechita is another of those killing methods, and I’ll leave the debate on its efficacy to veterinarians. I am mentioning this just to show how empty the talk of Jewish values has become in just about every forum in which they are mentioned.

The Hotovely 'scandal'

A few weeks ago many observers were scandalized by Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely when, at her first meeting with senior Israeli diplomats, she quoted the 11th Century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, better known as Rashi, citing his commentary on the first verse in Genesis: “The strength of his actions he told his people, to give them the land of the goyim. That if the nations should say to Israel, you are bandits, for you have conquered the lands of seven nations, they can reply – the entire earth belongs to the Lord , he created it and gave it to whom he sees fit. He wanted to give it to them and then he wanted to take it away and give it to us.”

There was a lot of distasteful secular arrogance in the criticism of Hotoveli’s quoting of Rashi. Why shouldn’t a young, intelligent, religious, and yes, very right-wing woman, quote a famous (in national-religious circles at least) passage in her opening address. Hotovely exhorted the diplomats to serve as unapologetic advocates of Israel’s right to the land, and that’s perfectly legitimate – she is a democratically-elected official and the foreign service is there to represent the views of whatever government is in power. What is grating is the way she appropriates the bible and Rashi for her own particular ideology. Even the particular passage of Rashi she chose to quote (and naturally, the many quotes in which the rabbi-wine merchant from the Champagne region extolled the value of peace and moderation did not find their way into Hotovely’s remarks) can be seen in a very different context.

Rashi chose to quote an ancient Midrash on the divine right of Jews to their land at the start of his commentary, on the first verse in Genesis to emphasize that the bible isn’t merely a book of rules, but also a moral guide to life as individuals and a nation. He spent his entire life in what is today France and Germany. When he wrote that God “wanted to give (the land) to them and then he wanted to take it away and give it to us,” he was doing so a thousand years after the Second Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and the Jews had embarked on a long exile. He knew very well that the Jews’ right to a land of their own was far from a given. His words contain both a justification for the ancient conquest of Canaan, and the implied warning to the Jews that God could remove his favor and send them packing.

Hotovely’s muscular reading of Rashi is valid, but an alternative interpretation, that the Jews right to the land is conditional and must be earned, is equally so. It’s a pity that instead of the pique at her quoting scripture, none of her critics saw fit to challenge her narrow contextualization. But we’ve gotten used to people hijacking Judaism for their own agenda.

Obama's take on Judaism

It’s not just Orthodox rabbis and right-wing politicians who do so. Last month at the Conservative Adas Yisrael synagogue in Washington, President Barack Obama gave an eloquent speech in which the word “values” featured 20 times, as in “what Jewish values teach me.” So what do Jewish values teach the leader of the free world? “When we’re true to our values... It’s not just good for us, but it brings the community together. Tikkun Olam — it brings the community together and it helps repair the world. It bridges differences that once looked unbridgeable...” Noble aspirations for sure, but how are they uniquely Jewish?

Of course Obama wasn’t talking about “Jewish values” – he was talking about his own values and the values of a liberal America he believes in. Simply slapping the label of “Tikkun Olam” on to those values is no more than a verbal circumcision. I don’t know who the first Liberal-Jewish thinker to use the term in the last century was. He was certainly a great copywriter, but had little understanding of the Jewish religion. Tikkun Olam may mean in modern Hebrew “fixing the world” but that was never the meaning of the original phrase. "Tikkun" in ancient Hebrew came from "Takana" – rule, and when devout Jews said three times a day at end of their prayers le’taken olam be’malchut Shadai – they were speaking of the need to remove every other religion (or as they’re described there — abominations) from the land and replace it with our God’s divine rule. The prayer in which it appears, "Aleinu le’Shabeach" ("We Must Give Praise") was so incendiary that at some point in history, part of it was censored to avoid offending the all-powerful church which took a dim view of Jews dismissing their religion, even in the privacy of the synagogue.

But that wasn’t the Judaism that the liberal Jews of America wanted, quite rightly from their perspective. Like every minority group of immigrants they wanted to identify themselves with the best values of the nation they became part of. In that sense, Tikkun Olam has been a resounding success but it’s as “Jewish” as Hotovely’s nationalist chauvinism and Lau’s nepotistic and vacuous hypocrisy. All are Jewish values; just pick and choose according to your personal predilections and political agenda.



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