Rabbi Barry H. Block
The classic reason given for the destruction of the Second Temple—groundless hatred among the people of Judea1 — is well-attested and oft-repeated. However, it is far from the only cause the sages offered to explain Jewish history’s greatest tragedy. An equally authoritative Talmudic passage argues instead that “Jerusalem was destroyed only because the people did not rebuke one another.”2 As wrongdoing multiplied in ancient Israel, good people failed to raise their voices in tochechah, criticism, against destructive forces among their own people.
Criticism didn’t destroy our ancient Temples. Instead, ancient Jerusalem was laid to waste because of a failure to protest wrongdoing.
We often hear that American Jews must refrain from “washing our dirty linen in public” (i.e., we must not criticize the actions of the State of Israel in public). For a rabbi, “in public” includes words spoken within our Jewish communities. When we denounce Israel’s government among our fellow Jews, we are told that we weaken American Jews’ attachment to Israel, which is already increasingly fragile. Worse, when we raise our voices of dissent in more public fora, we are accused of giving aid and comfort to those who would destroy Israel, even to antisemites.
In 2023, the future of Israel as a Jewish democracy is under assault from a government intent on destroying the State’s democratic institutions and civil society. Meanwhile, millions of Israelis are determined not to repeat the mistakes of history. If God forbid Jerusalem is destroyed again, neither tochechah, rebuke, nor the lack of it will be the cause of that catastrophe. Since January, Israelis have taken to the street in massive protests every Saturday night and many weekdays in between. The symbol wielded most prominently at these demonstrations is the Israeli flag, emblematic of the patriotism of those who will not rest as long as the Jewish state’s democracy is threatened.
I have been privileged to join the protests during visits to Israel in both February and July. The primary subject of the demonstrations is the proposed destruction of the Israeli judiciary, and the assembly cries out, “Democratia!” (“Democracy!”). But that is not the only issue raised in these protests. When a speaker from the podium mentions the government’s intention to increase the size and number of settlements in the occupied West Bank, sanction one illegal settlement after the next, incite settler pogroms, and endanger the lives of innocent Palestinians, the assembled crowd shouts “Bushah!” (“Shame!”).
The extremist Israeli government finds support from powerful quarters in the American Jewish organizational establishment. Many more are silent—that is, they fail to engage in tochechah, the loving critique that must be articulated if we are to partner with our family and friends in Israel to resist the destruction of Israeli democracy and the end of all hope of two states for two peoples living side-by-side in peace and security. Now is the time to raise our voices in tochechah, to rebuke not only the extremist government but its American Jewish collaborators and enablers.
Those of us within the pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy movement who are proudly speaking out at this moment – and have been doing so for years, as we have seen the occupation increasingly threaten Israeli democracy – have had our character and our love and support for Israel questioned as we have faced calumny. While there is certainly room in the Jewish community for disagreement on policy, let us not presume to know others’ motives, for rechilut, slander, is a grave sin in Judaism.
Torah teaches, “Reprove your kin, but incur no guilt on their account.” In his commentary on this verse, Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah wrote: “If it has come to your attention that your kin has made negative comments about you…do not bottle your resentment up in your heart with hatred. You should rather remonstrate with the one who wrongly accused you.” In other words, we must lift our voices against those who slander us for sounding the alarm to save Israeli democracy, those who greet Israeli extremism with support or silence; but we must neither hate them nor match their defamation.
Let us join our Israeli partners and raise our voices for the future of an Israel of which we can all be proud, an Israel that will not only survive but thrive, an Israel that will live up to the words of its own Declaration of Independence. Then, we may proclaim with faith: Jerusalem will not fall again!
Rabbi Barry Block is one of the newest members of the J Street Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet and serves as the rabbi at Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock Arkansas. Rabbi Block is the editor of The Mussar Torah Commentary, published by the CCAR Press in 2020. His writing appears in chapters and articles in several CCAR Press anthologies and other publications.
1. T.B. Gittin 55b-56a.
2. T.B. Shabbat 119b.