A Shabbat Message from Rabbi Bauman: Words Matter
Friday, January 26, 2024
A Shabbat Message from Rabbi Bauman: Words Matter
This week is called Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song, named for the joyous song the Israelites sang on the shores of the Red Sea when they realized the seas had parted and they were, for the first time in over 400 years, free from bondage. Midrashim abound regarding this story, and perhaps none is as powerful as this very short one from the Talmud.
“The Egyptians were drowning in the sea. At the same time, the angels wanted to sing before God, and the Lord, God, said to them: ‘My creations are drowning and you are singing before me?'” (BT, Sanhedrin 39)
God’s reproach of the angels – and by extension all of us – has echoed through the ages, reminding us in every generation that words matter. No matter what we may feel, what we give voice to and the words we use to express it has moral implications perhaps almost as great as the actions we take and in some cases, even more so.
Especially since October 7, our community’s heartache has been particularly acute as we grapple with the immense pain, fears, and loss of life in Israel and Gaza. While it is impossible to capture all of that in one breath, it is also important to respond, to the best of my ability at this moment, to the words of the International Court of Justice today. As ever, I welcome dialogue with you and offer my perspective with humility and a desire to share and grow together.
As Shabbat Shirah comes in, let us continue to pray for the safe return of the hostages; to mourn for the significant loss of Israeli soldiers this week who represented the full spectrum of Israeli society; to grieve the continued catastrophic loss of life and the humanitarian disaster in which our fellow human beings in Gaza are living; and maybe, if we can, to hold onto the hope that seas do part, often when we least expect it. This we read in our Torah. May it be so in our time.
On this day when the provisional ruling of the International Court of Justice has been handed down, our Torah portion and this midrash about God rebuking the reveling angels that speaks to it is especially relevant.
Genocide: this word matters. According to the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, signed in 1948 as a direct lesson from the Shoah and with Israel as one of the first countries to ratify and incorporate its provisions, the legal definition is “an intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” There is ample evidence that there is no such intent in Israel’s actions in Gaza, due to its documented attempts to move civilians out of harm’s way, create humanitarian corridors, and deliver humanitarian aid. Israel’s numerous declassified documents convey this with clarity. (There is of course also ample evidence for Hamas’ genocidal intent against Israelis and Jews.)
A description of what is taking place is a war – a brutal one – but not a genocide. (For an in-depth discussion of these matters, I commend to you this legal analysis and opening statement by Dr. Masua Sagiv and Dr. Tal Becker respectively, two scholars with whom I’ve had the honor to learn through the Shalom Hartman Institute.) The provisional ruling of the ICJ does not label Israel’s actions as genocide but does not exclude it as a possibility, and so the process of exploration will continue. But I believe it is a weakening of the word “genocide” to label Israel’s fighting of this war as such.
This by no means excuses Israel from upholding its stated commitment to abide by the International Humanitarian Law that govern armed conflict. It absolutely must, and in the specific instances when it doesn’t, it must be held accountable, as all nations are. In most cases, this can only happen at the end of the conflict because the fog of war makes investigation into discrete incidents exceedingly difficult. Thankfully, hundreds of thousands of Israelis spent the better part of last year in the streets protesting the attempted judicial overhaul instigated by PM Netanyahu’s rightwing and extremist government, and this stand for democracy succeeded in preserving the ability of Israel’s judiciary and its High Court to do just that at the end of the war. In the meantime, Israel must act responsibly in its prosecution of this and all wars, and we continue to pray that it does so, knowing that the number of civilian casualties is horrifyingly high and the hostages and their families, and all of us who care do deeply about all of these groups grow more desperate by the hour.
Words also matter when they are spoken by ministers of the Israeli government. It is precisely the irresponsible words of some of the most extreme voices in PM Netanyahu’s coalition, and sometimes even the Prime Minister himself, that fueled South Africa’s misguided complaint and gave it more credibility than it deserved. Even taken alongside evidence that this bluster or impassioned speech is not guiding the War Cabinet, their language must be called out and reigned in. Their words imply a blatant disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians in Gaza and the fact that they face no sanction for this from inside the government is a moral stain upon Israel. It is also an affront to every military leader and soldier on the ground who is doing his very best to act morally and avoid civilian harm. The whole world is listening, as well as their children and ours, and their inflammatory speech is absolutely unacceptable. We must remind ourselves, and Israeli Jews must remind their Prime Minister, that God abhors rejoicing at the past or future death of your enemies, even your tormentors, and speaking as though we as a Jewish people never received such a teaching is an abomination. It is hurting every single one of us and making Israel and the Jewish people less safe.
As Shabbat comes in, let us continue to pray for the safe return of the hostages; to mourn for the significant loss of Israeli soldiers this week who represented the full and beautiful spectrum of Israeli society; to grieve the continued catastrophic loss of life and the humanitarian disaster in which our fellow human beings in Gaza are living; and maybe, if we can, to hold onto the hope that seas do part, often when we least expect it. This we read in our Torah. May it be so in our time.