Whether it is a tolerance for radical and objectionable political views, or a lax and forgiving response to dangerous and illegal behavior, sometimes the compassionate thing to do breeds a culture of forgiveness towards wrong and evil that contaminates and weakens our attempts to live moral lives, creating only more misery.
I came across a video someone sent me on Facebook about a haredi grandfather in B’nai Brak whose five year-old grandson was left accidentally in a hot car by a young teacher and neighbor who was asked to drive him home as a favor. The child died. The grandfather, a G-d-fearing and compassionate man, now made it his task in life to embrace the newly-married young teacher and to encourage him to get on with his life. “My grandson is gone,” he says. “But X is still alive and has his whole life ahead of him.” He arranged a meeting between X and his son – father of the dead child–trying to create a loving and forgiving bond that would help the young teacher forgive himself. Together, grandfather, son, and perpetrator, started an organization to help prevent such accidents. All of those involved were haredi Jews.
This video, which I found brought me to tears, left me with mixed feelings, perhaps because of the young teacher’s obvious discomfort in the face of such compassion.
These kinds of things are normal in Israel, common-place among Jews. My father-in-law, may God rest his soul, lived into his nineties. But despite the fact that he had walked shoeless through the wilds of Russia as part of a slave labor brigade for the Hungarian Nazis, and returned home to find his wife and two children had been gassed in Auschwitz and all his belongings stolen by his neighbors, he never said a hateful word. He was the kindest, most compassionate man I ever met.
But sometimes there is a danger in such compassion.
A few weeks ago, when the country was reeling from the accidental death by pesticide poisoning of two little girls, members of the same family, I attended synagogue. To my surprise and shock, our rabbi chose to address his sermon to this tragic event. He knew the alleged poisoner, a seventy year-old religious man whose name, Yossi Barkan, was until very recently hidden from the public by court order apparently to protect his reputation. Our compassionate Rabbi, who never disappoints in his big-hearted and often unconventional take on being a G-d fearing person, told us that he knew Mr. Barkan, and had only the highest praise for him as a human being. You look away for one minute and make a mistake. It could happen to any one of us sitting here in the congregation judging this man for his part in this tragic accident, he told us.
I have not stopped thinking about his message, which I found, and continue to find, both uplifting and upsetting in equal measure. It did not help that Mr. Barkan, whom a compassionate court sentenced to house arrest, was sent back to court when it came to light he had gone out on yet another exterminating job during his confinement. He hadn’t used any poison for that job, he told investigators. He’d just set traps. The response of the court was an additional home arrest, and the publication of his name “to protect the public.”
Similarly, in the sad and shocking case of convicted sexual offender, the once much respected Rabbi Mordechai Elon, Rabbi Chayim Druckman has allowed Elon to continue teaching young boys, supporting him through his trial and conviction. Rabbi Druckman, who received the Israel Prize, has been accused of covering up for another sex offender , Rabbi Ze’ev Kopolovich whose tenure at the prestigious Netiv Meir yeshiva in Jerusalem under Druckman coincided with the suicide of several students. Druckman reportedly failed to report Kopolovich to police and instead harassed the victims in an effort to persuade them to withdraw their complaints.
Naftali Bennet, head of the political party which revers Druckman as its spiritual leader, has said nothing. He too has compassion.
Sapir Sabah, a 17 year-old student in Kiryat Tivon, walked into her high school civics class taught by Adam Verete, and according to her, her teacher “stressed that the Israel Defense Forces acts with unusual brutality and violence,” and that “he doubted the statement that the IDF is the most moral army in the world.” As a self-proclaimed radical leftist who admittedly voted for Israel’s Communist Party, Chadash, Verete believed that “the state did not belong to the Jews at all but to the Arabs, and as far as he was concerned, the Jews had no business being in Israel at all.” As Sapir told Channel Two News, “I am supposed to join the army in less than a year, and my teacher is telling me that the army is immoral, and that anyone who joins it is forced to do cruel things.”
Her letter of complaint to Education Minister Shay Piron went viral. But despite widespread calls to fire Verete, the ORT school system where he works decided, I’m sure with a measure of compassion as well as fear of legal consequences, to keep him on. This capitulation was not wasted on Verete. At the end of the ORT hearing reinstating him, he urged teachers to continue expressing their opinions in class “as, the Education Ministry makes clear, significant learning involves teachers expressing their opinions, in a pluralistic atmosphere in the classroom that respects all opinions.”
Unlike Verete, Professor Robert Aumann, 2005 Nobel Prize winner for economics, was denied a compassionate hearing before facing consequences for his democratically expressed views, the University of Haifa last month canceling plans to award him an honorary doctorate. Apparently, there were objections from by some faculty members for his right wing stance, although 160 supported him.
Similarly, the Israeli Association of Composers, Authors and Publishers of Music (ACUM) downgraded a Lifetime Achievement Award to be presented to Ariel Zilber, an Israeli pop star who, like Verete, has embraced radical, often objectionable, political views. Unlike Verete, however, Zilber is on the other side of the political spectrum, supporting the transfer of Arabs, and even writing a song in 2011 entitled “Kahane Was Right.”
Following objections from fellow awardees like singer Achinoam Nini (who once sang “Ave Maria” to the Pope at the Vatican), ACUM caved in to the pressure, renaming the prize to Zilber as an award “for a contribution to Israeli music.”
Michael Handelzalts writing in Ha’aretz on Feb. 13, 2014 compared the cases of freedom of speech this way: “At first glance, then, it seems that two individuals – an artist and a scientist – had to pay a not-too-heavy public price (a sort of highly visible “snubbing”) for adhering to radical right-wing views, whereas a civics teacher got off relatively lightly (in effect, unscathed) for holding radical left-wing views.”
This desire to avoid taking a firm stand because it might cause pain has its admirable qualities. As Jews, we are taught that to embarrass someone in public is like murdering them. Thus bending over backwards to see the other fellow’s point of view is a democratic value and forgiveness a divine one.
“Jews are the compassionate children of compassionate parents,” the Talmud teaches. “One who is merciless toward his fellow creatures is no descendant of our father Abraham.”
But as Jeff Jacoby, the Boston Globe writer, recently said: “We live, these days, in a sea of nonjudgmentalism … Even after September 11, there were prominent voices that refused to categorically condemn the terrorists who had slaughtered so many innocent people. Reuters, the British wire service, decided as a matter of policy not to call Al Qaeda and the hijackers “terrorists” — on the grounds that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”
It is not easy to be a good person. Taking a moral stand is often uncomfortable. It makes you feel bad to be negative and judgmental, a position condemned by modern society no matter the circumstances. But it’s important to recognize that this attitude can weaken the resolve, encouraging good people to do nothing, and allow evil to flourish.
As Jews in a Jewish country, we need to remember the words of Psalm 97: “Those who love God, hate evil.” In our attempt to balance our compassion with moral judgment, we must be aware of the very fine line we tread. Whether it is a tolerance for radical and objectionable political views, or a lax and forgiving response to dangerous and illegal behavior, sometimes the compassionate thing to do breeds a culture of forgiveness towards wrong and evil that contaminates and weakens our attempts to live moral lives, creating only more misery.
For everything there is a season. Compassion too has its time and place. It’s up to moral people to forcefully and clearly hold the line.
This article was first published in the Jerusalem Post on 28 February 2014.