Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
I was horrified by the actions of some of my fellow Jews in Israel, who recently appeared on a video of a wedding celebration brandishing knives and celebrating the violent death of an Arab infant.
I see this as an example of primitive barbarism, which I find repugnant. Am I wrong to object to this behavior? Please help me know how to understand and to deal with this.
Shocked in Secaucus
I assure you that your moral outrage in this case is proper. We pride ourselves as Jews and as members of the civilized world on disdaining the barbarism of primitive societies and on aspiring always, even in times of war, to a high ethical standard.
True, many will argue that when our enemies engage in a wave of terror attacks on us, this creates a state of combat, and thereby it sanctions us to use concomitant fierceness in response.
You want to be clear, to know how ferocious we should to be in our responses, where to draw the line, and where to rise to a higher ethical ground.
Certainly, even when we face barbaric terrorism, wanton emotional reactions never will serve us well. Sober and sane leaders will insist that we need to know and apply the principles of just vengeance that we find in our traditions.
In the biblical stage of our history, for example, we advanced from the ancient and wanton destructive responses to violence to the weighted rejoinder of the rule of lex talionis, an eye for an eye.
In the rabbinic stage of our traditions, we moved from the rule of an eye for an eye to a more just system of compensation for violent damages based on monetary reparation and the principles of justice.
Let’s consider for a moment the import of these early phases of revenge and justice. The Latin phrase lex talionis means the law of retaliation. Some think this law is a core element of early biblical justice, familiarly expressed as “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, an arm for an arm, a life for a life.”
I was teaching a Jewish studies class some years ago about how talmudic law interprets virtually all retaliation in terms of monetary compensation. The Talmud provides methods to determine what is the value of the damages to an eye, the cost of pain, medical expenses, loss of income, suffering, and humiliation.
This is a qualitative advance over the previous forms of justice via the literal direct retaliation of an eye for an eye, I explained. Any questions, I asked.
A student raised his hand. “How can you say the biblical idea was justice? It is barbaric to take out an eye. What kind of biblical morality was that?”
I was caught off guard for a moment, but then I replied. “By the standards of our developed sense of civilization you are right,” I said tentatively. “But imagine, if you will, what came before the biblical reforms. I put out your eye, then you took vengeance on my entire family, and I in turn came to wipe out your whole tribe. In comparison, the biblical scales of justice were a great leap forward in civilization. And the talmudic interpreters carried justice further forward. They say that money compensates for damages, not direct physical retaliation.”
Alas, since the time of that classroom discussion years ago, the world has experienced a dramatic era of regression in the practice of justice, often not even keeping to the rule of lex talionis, the law of even retaliation.
Terrorism worldwide in particular is not meant to be a balanced enterprise. Muslims who felt resentful about occupation took up wanton suicide bombing, killing hundreds of civilians in Israel. Militants in Oklahoma, who had a perceived grievance, blew up a government building, killing young children. Al-Qaeda declared itself our enemy and then flew planes into our buildings, killing thousands of more innocents. And our government, under attack by that small group, went to war, killing tens of thousands in multiple foreign countries.
Nothing in all of this seems balanced in the biblical sense of a tooth for a tooth. To me this means we have allowed our civilization to regress far-far back, to some 3,000 year old pre-biblical concepts of justice.
And yet I do not think we should abandon all hope in the viability of our civilization.
In the case of terrorism in Israel today, we are fortunate to have the vast effective and controlled IDF and Israeli police infrastructures that know how well-calculated strategies and tactics work to combat the terror of our enemies. They understand that random and emotional actions serve only to weaken our positions.
And we have in Israel a democratic political establishment whose members and spokesmen aggressively value our people’s safety, and also resolutely seek to protect us from excessive, impassioned over-reactions.
My advice to you is that you insist to yourself and to others that moral outrage and emotion should not govern our responses to evil. We all should have confidence in the intelligent infrastructures that we have fostered in the United States and in Israel, and allow them to respond in earnest and with forceful professionalism to the evil that continues to rear its ugly head in our world today. And we all do need to pray for greater stability and eventual peace.
Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
I’ve been taught since childhood that our Jewish prayer services are beautiful, even perfect ways to serve and praise God on a daily basis, and to seek his blessings for our lives. But frankly, with each passing year I am more frustrated, to the point that I sometimes feel like I ought to quit davening. I especially find the morning services complex and confusing, with many different kinds of prayers combined together and all of them recited at a hurried pace.
What do you suggest that I do?
Daunted by Davening in Demarest
The good news is first, that from your question I can see that you take the prayer practices of our religion seriously, and that you want to find more fulfillment in them.
Second, that you ask for advice from a columnist makes sense. You are having trouble with your most difficult association, your relationship with God.
The bad news is that you have not had sufficient guidance and opportunity to understand how the complexity of our liturgy operates to foster your connection with God.
The daily morning prayers in many synagogues often last no more than 30 minutes. And you are completely right. During these short prayer services, Jews cycle through a series of quite diverse prayer types. In my books and articles on prayer I often refer to these as prayers as visualization exercises. They are the varied expressions of how we imagine our relationship with God.
Perhaps this will help you. I have compared our busy composite spiritual services, with their rapid movements from one prayer visualization to another, to something like a physical and secular session of circuit training exercises.
As I have discussed in some of my books and articles, Jews who follow the recommended interior visualization regimens of Jewish prayer may find themselves to be engaged at a high level in prayer that is, as former chief rabbi of Great Britain Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests in his work on prayer, “The most intimate gesture of the religious life, and the most transformative.” I have proposed in my books that in the details of our prayers the visualizations, images, and gestures of the liturgy are complex, diverse, and deep in specific ways that define many important aspects of what it is to be a believing and practicing Jew.
I am certain that you are correct in your perception of the dazzling complexity in our liturgy. Each of our prayers requires from you another kind of visualization of your relationship with God, ranging from the metaphors of scribes (in the Shema) to those of the priests (in the Amidah) to those of the mystics (in the Kaddish) to those of the meditators (in many blessings) to those of the triumphal combatant (in the Alenu).
You express in distinct ways, respectively, how you intend to be diligent in your responsibilities toward your bond with your significant Other (God), how you will serve him with respect and honor, how you will be a hero on his behalf, how you will allow your emotional links with him to grow and develop, and how that Other will be a constant presence in the mindful activities of your day.
Like some conditioning that you get through physical exercises, our expressive prayer gestures require you to extend yourself beyond your personal comfort zones. You may not be a pensive scholar or scribe, but some prayers require you to engage in that kind of imagining. You may not aspire to combative engagement with other faiths, but our core liturgies ask you to imagine that you do.
My suggestion to you is this: It’s worth the effort to keep at it, so that you can get into robust spiritual shape. Invest your time and energy in this relationship that you express in your davening. Get to know better the intent of each of your prayers, and you will make yourself a more spiritually robust and well-rounded Jew, with a more lucid connection to your God.
Tzvee Zahavy earned his Ph.D. from Brown University and rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the author many books, including these ebooks available at Amazon.com: “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “Rashi: The Greatest Exegete,” “God’s Favorite Prayers,” and “Dear Rabbi Zahavy.” The last book includes his columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.
The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers timely advice based on timeless talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Please email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.