Sin and Politics

By Rabbi Jeremy Gordon 11th Jan 2023

When I wrote about the results of Israel’s election of November last year, I shared pain and concern. Prime Minister Netanyahu and his cabinet have now been sworn in. The Government’s coalition agreements (sort of post-election manifestos) have been published and the new generation of ministers and MKs have begun their work. Prime Minister Netanyahu has spoken out clearly and publicly – especially in international media – in a bid to calm concerns raised about political and civil rights. That leadership is welcomed. But, on the ground, there is much to provoke concern.

One-time Kahanist Itamar Ben Gvir now controls the border guard. Ben Gvir celebrated his appointment by visiting the Temple Mount which EVEN the hard-line ultra-orthodox Yated Ne’eman newspaper considered a “false display [that] endangers the lives of Jews and plays into the hands of the inciters from the minarets.” Avi Maoz MK, self-declared homophobe, now controls over 2bn NIS of Education Ministry discretionary funding. The coalition agreement signed with the ‘Religious Zionist’ party suggests the government will pass a law that would make it legal for business-owners to decline to provide goods or services if doing so “went against their religious beliefs.” Concerns over this kind of legislation increased when ‘Religious Zionist’ MK Orit Strock shared that doctors should be allowed to decline to treat a patient if doing so “goes against their religious beliefs”

And then there was the agreement to relook at laws governing Jewish status. In a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu, a slew of leaders of Diaspora communities wrote:

“It is our duty to share with you our deep concern regarding voices in the government on issues that could undermine the long-standing status quo on religious affairs that could affect the Diaspora. Any change on issues such as the Law of Return or conversion, could threaten to unravel the ties between us and keep us away from each other.”

In amongst this deluge of news, one less-reported issue was the agreement, signed with one of the ultra-orthodox parties, to remove the tax on one-time-use plasticware, beloved and massively over-used by the ultra-orthodox. In a recent edition of the Promised Podcast, journalist Allison Kaplan Sommer used a phrase, to describe this tax, I had not heard before – ‘sin tax.’ That the ultra-orthodox are campaigning to have a self-limiting ‘sin-tax’ lifted struck me as a particularly sharp microcosm for so much of what I fear in this new coalition.

Whether you care for the rights of the LGBT+ community, or Palestinian rights, or believe in reducing plastic use, it’s worth reflecting on the long-term blindness these policies and positions manifest, even to the very problems they profess to address. They won’t bring a more peaceful and coherent nation in the long term. Or rather, these policies will only work if the theology of the ultra-orthodox and the far-right is correct. That is to say, if God is going to step in to ensure plastic overuse does NOT destroy the planet on which we all live – we’re going to be fine.

Similarly with the Palestinians, if God is going to step in to ensure that embittered Palestinians are not going to embitter the lives of their Jewish neighbours – we’re going to be fine. But the horse-trading and machinations of the ultra-orthodox and the far-right are not made on the basis of carefully weighed evidence. They are actions predicated on beliefs grounded in a form of messianism and theological absolutism I, as a Rabbi!, simply don’t recognise as authentically Jewish. The problem is theological. We must strengthen ourselves to preach and live a different kind of Judaism, to spread its message and support, particularly those in Israel, who are working to achieve truly holy aims.

Rabbi Jeremy Gordon is part of the rabbinic team at New London Synagogue

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