By Rabbi Gideon D. Sylvester
My great aunt was a difficult woman. She loved nothing more than to bait my father, regaling him with graphic descriptions of frying the bacon for her son’s breakfast. Then puffing on her cigarette, she would dismiss our entire heritage with one sentence: “Religion is the source of all conflicts.” She was not alone in her views; sadly, her aggressive image of religious Jews is becoming increasingly pervasive. It need not be that way; Judaism commits us eternal watchfulness, moral responsibility and, where possible, peaceful coexistence with our neighbors. It also promises that ultimately we will live side-by-side, even with the wicked of the world. So it’s depressing to hear the naysayers composing obituaries for the American led peace process, even as it soldiers on.
Dr. Natan Ophir’s new biography of the hippie scholar, musician and storyteller Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, “Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission, and Legacy,” offers a wonderful antidote to my aunt’s perspective and the negativity of some of our people. Carlebach was indeed deeply attached to the biblical land of Israel, a proud Zionist and a lover of the Jewish people. He also loved humanity.
As he entertained Israeli troops during a round of heavy fighting, he told journalists that what made the Israel Defense Forces special was that as each soldier loaded their weapon; they silently prayed that before their bullet reached its target, the messiah would arrive to end all wars.
His love of peace was rooted in the Jewish sources, but perhaps it also owed something to his intriguing relationship with the rebellious Jewish American hippies. As an Orthodox rabbi, he worked tirelessly to return them to the fold, but he also admired their idealistic search for meaning and their peace-loving ways.
Ophir writes that after the Six Day War, foreseeing the urgent need to build bridges with Arabs who had fallen under Israeli rule, Carlebach made the following outlandish proposal to the Israeli government:
“Give me 5,000 free tickets to bring holy hippies from Los Angeles and San Francisco and we will go to every Arab house in the country and bring them flowers and tell them we want to be brothers with them . . . we have to live together.”
When he performed at a women’s prison in Ramleh, he walked from cell to cell imploring the Arab inmates to attend his concert. He then invited a Palestinian woman who had planted a bomb in a Jerusalem supermarket to act as his interpreter, translating his Hassidic teachings into Arabic so that all the Palestinian prisoners could understand his words. By the end of the evening, Jews, Arabs, prisoners and guards were all up on their feet, singing and dancing together.
Carlebach was a complex man; some of his suggestions for peacemaking may seem naïve, bizarre and unrealistic, but his wonderful ability to see the potential for love and peace in the greatest darkness made him a visionary from which our religious world can learn.
There are others like him. Rabbi Menachem Froman of Tekoa worked tirelessly to build relations with the Hamas leadership, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat has been a generous supporter of his neighboring Arab village of Wadi Nis and Rabbi Michael Melchior is constantly in contact with Arab leaders, pursuing the paths of peace and inspiring Jewish and Arab educators to do the same. But the peacemakers on both sides need much more support, to create an atmosphere of trust that eases the path for our leaders to sign a just and responsible peace treaty.
Rather than importing “holy hippies” from America to be our ambassadors for peace, we should be educating our own Israeli yeshiva students to take the lead in eradicating racism, ending price tag attacks, and creating an atmosphere where minorities in Israel such as Bedouin, Palestinians and refugees feel respected and valued members of our society. This is the task of our next generation of religious leaders.
Our enemies have their share of blame for the violence and hatred, and until there is peace, Israel will have to remain strong and vigilant. But as the rulers of this land; a nuclear power with a strong army, we should be taking the initiative; and at the head of that search for peaceful coexistence should be religious Jews.
As Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine said, “The purely righteous do not complain of the dark, but increase the light; they do not complain of evil, but increase justice; they do not complain of heresy, but increase faith; they do not complain of ignorance, but increase wisdom” (Arpilei Tohar).
When we act in these inspirational ways, supporting the search for peace, we will prove my great aunt and her friends wrong, inspire them with a renewed love and respect for Judaism, end the threats of sanctions against our country, and eventually bring peace to our region.
Rabbi Gideon D. Sylvester is the British United Synagogue’s rabbi in Israel He also serves as Senior Rabbinic Educator in Israel for T’ruah – The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.
This article was first published in Haaretz