Why Jewish Extremists are Not Jewish

Shabbat Nahamu Remarks by Rabbi Michael Berk

I’m going to say something more chutzpadik than normal for me: If you are not shocked and horrified by the murder of a Palestinian baby and the severe injuries to his family by a fire started by Jewish extremist terrorists, than you lose the right to call yourself a Jew. I’m that appalled.

I am equally horrified by the ultra-Orthodox mad man who attempted murder of people participating in the Gay pride parade in Jerusalem. [Note: Since the evening this was delivered; one woman died of her wounds]

What do these two incidents have in common? The perpetrators are convinced that they are excellent, pious, observant Jews. And I am here to say to you today that they know nothing of the meaning of being a Jew. They may know tons more than you or I about the intricacies of kashrut; but they don’t understand anything about being Jewish.

Do you see how dangerous religion can be? I cannot abide people of any faith who are so arrogant that they presume to know God’s mind and by that know the Truth, with a capital “T” and that the truth and God are on their side. This arrogance represents such a misunderstanding of religion in general and Judaism in particular.

Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, knew the Temple in Jerusalem was doomed. In chapter 4, the prophet explains to the people that they have religion all wrong; they misunderstand what God wants. The people think God wants them to follow the mitzvoth, the commandments, and to conduct the temple services according to carefully proscribed instructions. So Jeremiah was ordered by God to the gates of the city to warn the Jews they had it wrong. He tells them to mend their ways and THEN God will dwell among them in approval. “No,” the prophet says, “if you really mend your ways and your actions; if you execute justice between people; if you do not oppress the stranger…then and only then will I let you dwell in this place…”

What makes you right with God? It’s your relationship with the vulnerable, the stranger, the widow, the orphan, in your midst. The rituals of the temple provide no assurance; it is the quality of justice in your society that determines the fate of your nation. The fundamentalists say your relationship with God will protect you. But the prophet says that’s not true. Don’t worry about God smelling the sweet aroma of burnt sacrifices. Worry about those in your society who are poor and who do not have justice working in their favor. Don’t look up; look down. You don’t earn God’s protection through the magical performance of rituals, but by how you protect the unprotected.

When do you need to remember this? When you have power. When you have wealth. When you are comfortable and it’s hard to recall that many are uncomfortable. That’s why we Jews are constantly recalling our slavery in Egypt. It makes us morally sensitive.

Memory and empathy go together. We use memory to close the gap between us and the vulnerable around us. We reach out to help others not because they’re different, but because they’re us. Memory creates shared experience.

I’m not sure God likes religion. Religion is very dangerous. It can really mislead people who aren’t careful. God wants more from us than adherence to rules and religious rituals. Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks taught this in his weekly essay on the Torah portion: Rabbi Israel of Rizhin once asked a student how many sections there were in the Shulchan Arukh, the authoritative book of Jewish Law. The student replied, “Four.” “What,” asked the Rizhiner, “don’t you know about the fifth section?” “But there is no fifth section,” said the student. “There is,” said the Rizhiner. “It says: always treat a person like a mensch.”

Rabbi Sacks concluded: “The fifth section of the code of law is the conduct that cannot be reduced to ritual or law.”

Be a mensch. That’s basically it.


  1. Reply
    Carol R. Gerson says

    Thank you Rabbi Berk, for saying what needs to be said clearly and without apology.

  2. Reply
    Frank Pazos says

    We are all people of the book.
    Thank you for your words of wisdom and understanding that all life is equal.

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