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August 29, 2015 | 14th Elul 5775

Teaching Israel VII


Galilee Diary #329, March 18, 2007  


Marc J. Rosenstein


Say to the House of Israel: Thus said the Lord God: Not for your sake will I act, O House of Israel, but for My holy name, which you have caused to be profaned among the nations to which you have come.  I will sanctify My great name which has been profaned among the nations – among whom you have caused it to be profaned.  And the nations shall know that I am the Lord…when I manifest My holiness before their eyes through you.

            -Ezekiel 36:22-23                                                                                               


You are in a restaurant with your kids.  They are behaving badly.  The people at the next table are giving you dirty looks.  You try, without raising your voice, various methods, from bribes to threats.  On the one hand, those people at the next table, whose conversation has obviously turned now to topics like incompetent parenting, or why people bring too-young children to too-fancy restaurants, are clearly jerks, who don’t like children and don't identify with your struggles.  On the other hand, it would be really nice if the waiter would hurry up so you could eat and leave quickly.  You are angry at your kids, angry at the other people, and embarrassed.


Are you responsible for everything your child does?  No.

Are you somewhat responsible for your child's behavior?  Yes

Should you care what other people think about your parenting?  Maybe a little

Does your child's behavior reflect, in some way, on your own?  Somewhat

Do our children represent us in other people's eyes?  Yes

Do our children represent us in our own eyes?  Yes


As the saying goes, you can't win, you can't break even, and you can't get out of the game.


The concepts of kiddush hashem (sanctifying God's name) and chillul hashem (profaning God's name) have always been central to Jewish thought.  Whenever a Jew does something heroic, demonstrates a commitment to faith or to moral values, so great that it entails material loss, physical risk, even martyrdom, then s/he is showing the moral strength of the Jewish religion and hence reflecting honor, sanctity, on God.  And conversely, when a Jews swindles, or betrays, or acts crudely, s/he sullies the reputation of the whole people – and thereby cheapens God as well.  In a world where pagans and Christians and Moslems were always looking for opportunities to show the moral depravity of Judaism and to justify their own religious choices (and their persecution of Jews), Jewish communities became very sensitive to these two concepts.  The martyrs of the Crusades demonstrated that their commitment to their faith was stronger than their commitment to life.  And the Jewish communal constitutions of medieval Europe prescribed severe punishments for shady business behaviors likely to tarnish the image of the Jews in the eyes of their Christian neighbors/clients/rulers.


Zionism was supposed to end our concerns about "what will the Gentiles say?"  We were to get out of this competition (whose religion is holier, whose relation to God is more authentic) and into a secular, sovereign nation-state, acting according to geopolitical interests.  And for many Israelis, that transition worked.  But for most Diaspora Jews, I think, Israel itself has become integrated into the traditional mindset of kiddush/chillul hashem: Israeli heroism, from Yoni Netanyahu to Ilan Ramon, reflects on Judaism, as does Israeli high tech achievement or humanitarian missions to earthquake zones.  These behaviors make us feel taller as Jews.  And when Israel's behavior is portrayed in the media in ways that look morally problematic, we are embarrassed, concerned, I think, about what the Gentiles will think about us as representatives of Israel – and hence we are at pains to show that the media are biased, or that the behavior was misunderstood, or justified, or forced upon Israel.  Or we try to distance ourselves from it, expressing our criticism in public, loud and clear.


It seems that this consciousness of kiddush/chillul hashem may be inescapable - that behavior by Jews everywhere – including Israel – affects our self-image and our status and the honor of Judaism and its God.  “All Israel are responsible one for the other.” (Talmud Sanhedrin 27b).  And maybe that is, after all, an important aspect of what it means to be Jewish.


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