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Jewish Ethics and Dispute

May 22, 2024

by: Rebecca Brimmer, International President

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How do ethics (or morality) and dispute go together? Good question. Rising Israeli hip-hop artist Roy Kornblum seems to think they do. In a compelling video entitled “0.2%,” he captures the questions that plague many Israelis in a post-October 7 nation.

Since that terrible Saturday, now referred to as Black Shabbat, Israelis have been trying to come to grips with a harsh reality: a massacre in which 1,200 civilians were brutally killed, scores of hostages taken and the nation plunged into war. Questions abound. “How could this happen?” “What’s next?” “Do we have a future?” “Who are we as a people?” “Why?”

Israeli social media is full of thoughtful, insightful and outrageous posts. Art has been created. Musicians write and perform songs. Websites track the hostages. People gather in Hostage Square in Tel Aviv around a long Shabbat table set with enough places for each hostage. The song written for the Eurovision contest is entitled “Hurricane,” and without ever mentioning October 7, the singer shows the emotions of a nation in crisis.

Kornblum’s Hebrew language video on Instagram and YouTube is trending because he asks the big questions in a raw, real way. He highlights the uniqueness and contradictions of Israeli society within the current tragic circumstances. He discusses Jewish ethics and dispute. He talks about a people with a covenant with God, and challenges himself and his people to live up to the covenant.

Who Are the Jewish People?

The people of Israel came to Israel from the four corners of the world, speaking 80 different languages. They eat different kinds of food and wear different styles of clothing. Some prefer 500-year-old religious garb and others opt for the latest fashion trends. Some are religious, while others are secular. They comprise only 0.2% of the world’s population, and yet they are world achievers, with 22% of the Nobel Prize winners being Jewish. They care deeply about Jewish people who they have never met, and they yell at strangers in traffic. Some are rich and some poor.

Yet to their enemies, this melting pot of diversity makes no difference: they are the Jews. On October 7, Hamas’s rallying cry wasn’t “Slaughter the Israelis,” it was “Slaughter the Jews.”

As a result, Kornblum asks, “Shouldn’t I at least learn what it means to live as a Jew?” He then goes on to challenge himself and his fellow Jews to remember that they are in covenant with God.

Arguing and Ethics

One of the pertinent points Kornblum makes is that “we are a people who love to argue, but we’re not interested in winning. We argue to become more wise, more Jewish. And ethics are the root around which we argue.”

In the video, Kornblum claims that the Jewish people are the original source of ethics. “The Jews invented ethics long before Aristotle, Nietzsche and long before America. Morality didn’t come from Geneva, Rome or Greece. It came from Ramban, Solomon the King, it comes from here.”

I would argue that the God of Israel is the source of all ethics and He inspired the Jewish people to write the Bible, which brought truth, ethics and values to the world. The wisdom of Ramban and Solomon came from the ultimate source of wisdom: the God of Israel. After living in Israel for 33 years, it seems that I have also learned how to debate, even if with a video!

Over thousands of years, the Jewish people have wrestled with the Bible. In fact, their study of the Bible is typified by debate, dispute and argument. A visit to a yeshiva, a Jewish religious school, is an interesting experience. The students are divided into pairs called chavruta or fellowship. Each pair studies a particular text. A study hall may have as many as a hundred such pairs. These study halls are anything but quiet. They are noisy, as each pair discusses the text. Their discussion is often passionate, as both students argue and debate their point of view. The Talmud, rabbinic commentary on Jewish tradition and the Hebrew Scriptures, is another example of such debate, containing differing viewpoints on biblical texts.

Solomon teaches, “As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend” (Prov. 27:17). Debate can clearly be positive, but when debate turns to hatred, it no longer has a positive outcome.

Arguably, all Israelis have a deep interest in living ethically. Even in secular communities, it is very common to join a Torah (Gen.–Deut.) study group. Bible study is a subject in public school. The laws of Israel are based on the ethics and morality of the Torah. For instance, one of the important laws in the Torah is the need to have a justice system. Everyone in Israel agrees on this basic premise, but in the days leading up to October 7, there were fierce debates on the issue of reform of the Israeli justice system. Unfortunately, some strayed from the idea of arguing about ethics to learn and became haters of those with alternate ideas. Interestingly, as soon as Jews were murdered and the nation was threatened, those disagreements were set aside and the nation stood together against an enemy whose goal was to destroy them all.

Arguing in Love

In the aftermath of October 7, Israelis are indeed coming to grips with a harsh reality, while at the same time navigating the internal issues that have caused fierce debate in the past. Even as the war rages, questions continue to abound between different groups within Israeli society. As the nation of Israel searches their hearts for answers to deep questions, I pray that they will remember their 5,000-year-old covenant with the God of Israel. I pray that they will remember that one of the core commandments of Judaism is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) and thus continue in the age-old culture of arguing about ethics to learn. This commandment stands at the center of the central book in the Torah, and two of Judaism’s sages, Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, indicated that this is the central commandment of the Torah. Jesus (Yeshua) also highlighted this as the second greatest commandment. May we all learn to argue without hatred, and seek to live for God with His ethical standards.

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