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Dead Wrong

A haftorah of rigidity and ritual

Liel Leibovitz
March 26, 2010
An ambulance outside the entrance to the emergency room of Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, Israel.(David Silverman/Getty Images)
An ambulance outside the entrance to the emergency room of Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, Israel.(David Silverman/Getty Images)

I’ve always thought that John was to the Apostles what George was to the Beatles, the number three guy, the one who would’ve been a superstar had he not had the peculiar misfortune of teaming up with two freakishly talented men who could make even salvation seem effortless and fun. John is all good intentions and low expectations; it’s little wonder that he was the one appointed the patron saint of booksellers.

Make that the patron saint of Passover, too: Of all of Jesus’s entourage, only John and Peter were permitted to ride into town and start making preparations for the seder, and when the big night came—it was, after all, Christ’s Last Supper—it was only natural that John would snag the seat right next to the Boss.

But of his many charms, John may be best remembered for the following pronouncement: “God,” he said, “is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.”

Too often, this sweet bit is presented in counterpoint to Judaism; the old religion, goes the trope, is the religion of law, the new one the religion of love.

John, meet Jeremiah. In this week’s haftorah, the prophet has a message from God that might resonate with the loving crowd.

“So says the Lord of Hosts,” quoth Jeremiah, “the God of Israel; Add your burnt offerings upon your sacrifices and eat flesh. For neither did I speak with your forefathers nor did I command them on the day I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning a burnt offering or a sacrifice. But this thing did I command them, saying: Obey Me so that I am your God and you are My people, and you walk in all the ways that I command you, so that it may be well with you. But they did not obey nor did they incline their ear, but walked according to their own counsels and in the view of their evil heart, and they went backwards and not forwards.”

The implications of this divine rant are vast. Those who perceive religion to be nothing more than the laws governing the mechanics of ritual are sharply rebuked: What matters most, the Lord thunders, is not the system but the spirit. Spend too much time on practices and observances, and you risk losing sight of your true goals. Dive freely and joyfully into the ocean of compassion and meaning that is God and His commandments, and you’re swimming in the right direction.

The word of God, you would think, would resonate with those who declare themselves his ardent followers. This week, alas, Israeli politics provided us with two searing examples of the self-professed faithful walking backwards and choosing the law over love.

It began with Yaakov Katz, a religious member of Knesset from the right-wing National Union Party and the chairman of a committee convened to address the crisis of illegal immigration to Israel. With thousands of African and Asian laborers—many seeking refuge from bloody civil wars—illegally entering Israel in search of service or construction jobs, Katz searched his soul and came up with a solution to stem the tide. Israel, he argued, should declare martial law and shoot on sight any unlucky immigrant caught sneaking into its territory. Those who’d already made it in, Katz continued, should be arrested, placed in labor camps, and forced to work on major, arduous infrastructure projects. When he reclines at his seder table next week, Katz may do well to remember the part of the haggadah that reminds us that the Israelites, too, were once strangers in a strange land.

But Katz’s wicked statement was soon eclipsed by an even grander bout of benightedness, this one involving Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman. Despite the demanding nature of his position, this member of the United Torah Judaism party has received little by way of a secular, scientific education, the sort of education you’d like the man who is the de facto overseer of the nation’s health care system to have. When his underlings, the doctors and professionals who run Israel’s hospitals and clinics, strove to care for the living, Litzman was looking out for the dead. Last week, he urged the government to delay the construction of a new fortified emergency room in Ashkelon’s Barzilai hospital. The new emergency room, he argued, is slated to be built over what may very well be an ancient Jewish gravesite. A master in the arithmetic of precarious political coalitions, Litzman managed to have his way, forcing his fellow ministers to order that the project be relocated to a nearby site. That the hospital is located just a few kilometers from the Gazan border, and as such is often the destination for Israelis wounded by the Qassam rockets lobbed by Hamas, mattered little to Litzman. That the new plan will cost hundreds of millions of dollars more and take at least three more years to complete—leaving doctors and patients alike with no adequate protection in the meantime—barely registered. Let the ancestors rest in peace, Litzman decreed; everybody else, run for your lives.

The wounded weep, the foreigners cower, but the strictures of orthodoxy at their narrowest are zealously observed. It’s a good thing Moses isn’t around any more; had he celebrated Passover in Israel of 2010, with Litzman and Katz and their ilk, he might’ve been devastated to know just how much the Promised Land had come to resemble Egypt.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.