On Saturday night, thousands of Israelis gathered in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to rally for tolerance. The twin demonstrations followed a weekend of violence that left a 16-year-old Israeli woman and a Palestinian toddler dead—the former stabbed at Jerusalem’s gay pride parade by an ultra-Orthodox man, and the latter burned to death in his home by suspected Jewish terrorists. The gatherings were addressed by many politicians and cultural leaders, including Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and his predecessor Shimon Peres, who each spoke powerfully about the need to fight extremism. But perhaps one of the most moving speeches of the evening came from an unlikely source: an Orthodox rabbi named Benny Lau.
Lau, the nephew of a former Israeli chief rabbi (and cousin of a current one), leads a modern Orthodox congregation in South Jerusalem, and is known for his efforts to bridge the country’s wide secular-religious divide. Standing in Zion Square before hundreds of rainbow flags, he forcefully denounced those who use religious Judaism as justification for their homophobia and hatred.
Lau opened with a reference to Deuteronomy 21, which instructs the Israelites to perform a ritual when a dead traveler is found in the field, in which the elders of the nearest town proclaim, “Our hands did not shed this blood.” The recent murders in Israel, Lau noted, offer no such escape from responsibility.
“It is not possible to say ‘our hands did not spill this blood,'” the rabbi said. “Anyone who has been at a Sabbath table, or in a classroom, or in a synagogue, or at a soccer pitch, or in a club, or at a community center, and heard the racist jokes, the homophobic jokes, the obscene words, and didn’t stand up and stop it, he is a partner to this bloodshed.”
“All the worshippers in all the synagogues in Israel,” Lau continued, “all of them heard today, this very day, heard for themselves the Ten Commandments [in the weekly Torah portion]. And in them, at the top, they stood and heard, ‘Do not murder.'”
“In the name of what Torah,” he asked, his voice cracking with emotion, “in the name of what God, does someone go and murder, do people go and burn a baby and his entire family? Whose Torah is this?”
Lau also took aim at those in the religious community who offered only lukewarm condemnation of the fatal pride parade attack in Jerusalem. “It is unacceptable that after Thursday night’s stabbing, someone should come and say that he condemns the act because ‘a Jew doesn’t stab another Jew,'” he said. “That is racism. A Jew does not stab another human being. Period.”
The rabbi concluded with a plea for those present to reclaim the Jewish tradition from those who have used it to justify violence. “We must free the Torah of Israel from the handcuffs that she has been bound in by people of darkness,” he said. “The Torah is a Torah of light, and Judaism must illuminate the world.”
At a time when religion is increasingly seen as the source of problems in a violent Middle East, Lau’s speech serves as a poignant reminder that it is also part of the solution.
Watch Lau’s full speech, with English subtitles, below: