Rabbi Adin Even-Yisrael Steinsaltz is one of the most notable Jewish scholars in the world today, whose lifelong work on making the Talmud accessible to all Jews earned him the Israel Prize, his country’s highest honor.
In this interview, he answers 5 most common question that are asked during these challenging times for Israel and Jews worldwide.
1. Why is God doing this to His people? Some Rabbis and so-called fortune tellers claim to know the Divine reason behind this Gaza war (i.e. baseless hatred, not observing the Shabbat). What is your take on this?
A: It is not in our hands to find answers for such a question. In the age of the Prophets, at least people had a way of getting answers to their questions: the prophets spoke directly in the name of God and had authoritative answers – even though some of the prophetic answers are not as sharp and clear as one would like.
In our times we do not have these means, and the best-intentioned rabbis are not much better than soothsayers of all kinds.
Of course, we have the general admonition always to understand troubles as calls for us to change, to do better. But that is a general call which can be applied to any good purpose, whenever there is reason to raise an issue.
What one has to do in any kind of trouble is to mend whatever one can. But in that sense, rabbis are not like plumbers who can tell what happened to the water pipes.
2. Is there real evil? Even in a war such as this one, should we be distinguishing between evil acts and evil people?
A: There surely is real evil; in fact, in the book of Isaiah (45:7) God says: “I make peace, and create evil.”
There is one conclusion we can draw from the last month’s events. Perhaps we are not aware enough that evil exists, and therefore we don’t always defend ourselves enough from it. The comparatively easy life that people lead — and the belief in progress — have created the illusion that evil does not exist. But it does, and it is not weaker now than it has ever been at any other time.
But even when one knows that there is evil, it is not at all simple to attribute it to specific places or people. There are evil ideas and also evil countries, and there is a fair number of evil people who do wrong things.
In many cases it is important to make clear definitions. Sometimes, it is possible to perform a “surgical process” to separate between the evil part and the rest.
And sometimes our only reaction should be to kill and destroy that evil – regardless of whether it is an individual or a collective body. (Think of it as the same way one should treat the virus of smallpox, or cancer).
In practical life, we should distinguish between people who are driven by evil ideas or evil countries but are themselves rather normal — like most of the residents of the Gaza Strip — and individuals who identify themselves with that evil, who have evil within themselves The latter group are like the kidnappers of the three boys or the perpetrators of some other atrocities.
3. Do we celebrate our enemies’ destruction when it comes with so much collateral damage?
A: We are admonished not to rejoice in the downfall of our enemies, even when these enemies are evil (Proverbs 24:17: “rejoice not when your enemy falls”).
The Midrash (Sanhedrin 39b) says that when the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea, the Almighty said to the angels: “my handicraft is drowning and you want to sing before Me?!”
The Almighty said this even though it was He Himself who drowned them. It is perhaps a fine distinction that says that we have to act, but not always to rejoice.
Here, too, however, there is a natural human reaction which is understandable and should not be condemned completely: “when the wicked perish, there is joy” (Proverbs 11:10).
4. How can we best help our brethren in Israel during these difficult times? Some say we should pray more, others way we should simply write a check to Israeli organizations dedicated to helping the IDF and our brothers and sisters in crisis, many also say that we should “take upon ourselves a mitzvah.” If you had to pick the most effective way we can help our brethren at this moment, which would it be?
A: All the possibilities suggested here are good things to do, all of them together or any one of them. I would suggest to our brethren in the Diaspora two more things that they can do, each according to his ability. Both would be helpful.
The first is to try to influence public opinion by explaining the purpose and the merit of what is being done. For instance: what the Israeli army is doing — by warning people of Gaza ahead of time to evacuate in order to escape the harm of shelling — possibly has no precedent anywhere in the world.
The other way is internal: to strengthen everyone’s connection with our people, especially for the younger generation. We should be strengthening our feelings of unity and the connection with the State of Israel.
5. What should our response be when Israeli citizens (or the government) commits acts that are wrong? Are we necessarily always better?
A: We should comment on, or criticize these things. However, this should be done very carefully, not only for appearance’s sake; because by-standers don’t always have enough information about and knowledge of what really happens. We should therefore get the right facts and be accurate and we do criticize – to do so without animosity.