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Rabbis’ Comments After Katrina Show the Need to Repair the World

October 28, 2005
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As Israeli government minister with responsibility for the world Jewish community, I have the privilege of meeting Jews of all types from all over the world. There are huge cultural, historical and theological variations among us, and these lend color and variety to our people. But the differences also create problems. The deep rifts that occurred in Israel over the issue of disengagement from the Palestinians and the battles among different groups demonstrated once again the profound divisions among us. The Jewish people stand in danger of splitting into different factions with different narratives.

Amid so much diversity, what can unite us?

On a daily basis, we witness the disgrace that is attached to religion when it’s linked with the horrors of priests engaging in child abuse and the fanaticism of “religious” suicide bombers. Tragically, our own faith also has spawned instances of the desecration of God’s name. The rabbis recognized these and declared that it was our failure to show care, compassion, decency and lovingkindness to one another that caused so many of our sorrows.

In our own times, the massacre of Arabs at prayer in the mosque in Hebron and the murder of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin were desecrations of God’s name that drove me to put to aside my work in the rabbinate to enter Israeli politics. I felt that it was crucial for the Israeli government to work on a grand scale to change Judaism’s image from one of intolerance and fanaticism and restore it to one of ethics, tolerance and compassion.

Yet the desecration of God’s name has not ended. Like so many of you, I was shocked and bewildered when I witnessed the terrible scenes of hurricanes hitting America’s Gulf Coast, the devastation they caused and the victims’ suffering.

In the midst of this tragedy, it has been wonderful to see how many Jewish communities have stretched out their arms to help those who have lost everything.

But I was saddened by the words of some leading rabbis who took it upon themselves to offer explanations for what had happened. Without any basis in logic or religion, they argued that Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita were the result of America’s support for the Gaza Strip withdrawal and a lack of Torah study in America.

The rabbis’ comments appeared just before the High Holidays, when we were in a time of deep reflection. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not the times when we stand in judgment on other people. On the contrary, they’re the times when we must think carefully about how we have treated others and whether we could have done more to help them.

Holiness is not the exclusive possession of those who engage in detailed ritual observance, nor is it the preserve of those who devote their energies to the pursuit of spirituality. True holiness is found in small actions that make a profound difference to the lives of the people around us and the world in which they live.

Wherever I travel in the Jewish world, I’m struck by the way that ordinary Jews are determined to perform kiddush Hashem — sanctification of God’s name — and to avoid a hillul Hashem, the desecration of God’s name.

The concept of kiddush Hashem offers a powerful challenge that has particular resonance in our times. Each one of us has to ensure that the word “Jewish” is always associated with the highest levels of ethics and kindness, so that our behavior always brings credit to our heritage and to our God.

That’s why I’m so delighted to announce that in partnership with the Koldor organization, leading rabbis, youth movements, student organizations, community centers and synagogues, my office is launching the Jewish Social Action Month in Cheshvan, which begins this year Nov. 3.

It falls one month after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, so it’s a time to draw on all the resolutions we made over the High Holidays. It’s also a month with no festivals in it, enabling us to dedicate time to social action.

Throughout the month, Jews from across the globe will perform acts of loving kindness to their neighbors, both Jewish and gentile. The concept of social action can be interpreted broadly, and there are endless possibilities for action.

Israeli Friends of the Earth, for example, will launch initiatives to clear up the debris that ruins our countryside; Israel’s police force will engage in projects to show care and concern in the community; one youth movement will organize a sports event for the underprivileged, while another will arrange a national blood donation drive.

It’s beautiful to see how in Israel, South America, North America, Russia and Europe, Jews ranging from chief rabbis to the most secular will be engaged in social-action activities.

I very much hope that you will feel moved to join the project; to perform kiddush Hashem and turn our world into a better place. I look forward to hearing about your activities and reading about them on the Web site of the prime minister of Israel,

Rabbi Michael Melchior is a deputy minister in the Israeli government with responsibility for Israeli society and the world Jewish community.

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