The Earth Trembles


To any early 20th century Polish Jew, Japan could as well have been Neptune.

The distance between the shtetl and the Far East was measurable not merely in physical miles but in cultural and religious distance no less. Yet when, on September 1, 1923, a powerful earthquake hit Japan’s Kanto plain, laying waste to Tokyo, Yokohama and surrounding cities, killing well over 100,000 people, news of the disaster reached even the Polish town of Radin. That was the home of the “Chofetz Chaim,” Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, the sainted Jewish scholar renowned around the world even then for his scholarship, honesty and modest life.

Informed of the mass deaths in Japan, the 85-year-old rabbinic leader was visibly shaken, immediately undertook to fast and insisted that the news should spur all Jews to repentance.

Yes, Jews to repentance. Jewish religious sources maintain that catastrophes, even when they do not directly affect Jews, are nevertheless messages for them, wake-up calls to change for the better. Insurers call such occurrences “Acts of G-d.” For Jews, the phrase is apt, and every such lamentable event demands a personal response.

It is, to be sure, a very particularist idea, placing Jews at the center of humankind. But, while Judaism considers all of humanity to possess seeds of holiness, Judaism does in fact cast Jews as a people chosen – to embrace special laws, to be aware of and serve G-d constantly and, amid much else, to perceive Divine messages in humankind’s trials.

Like the Haitian earthquake now feared to have brought about the deaths of twice the number of human beings who perished in the 1923 Japanese quake.

Our government and, prominently, Israel’s, have responded with an outpouring of aid, as have countless individual citizens, including Jewish ones.

From a truly Jewish perspective, though, there is more that we must do in the wake of a disaster as terrible as the recent one in Haiti. We must introspect, and make changes in our behavior.

The 2004 tsunami in Asia occurred during the same period of the Jewish year’s Torah-reading cycle as the recent Haitian disaster, a period known as “Shovavim Tat,” an acrostic of the initials of the weeks’ Torah portions. It is a time considered particularly ripe for repentance. After that cataclysm, a revered contemporary Jewish sage in Israel, Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, pointed out that the revered Gaon of Vilna identified a particularly powerful merit at this time of year in “guarding one’s speech” – avoiding the expression of ill will, slander and the like. That, Rabbi Steinman added, is a merit especially urgent “in these days, when the evil inclination puts all its energies into entrapping people in this sin… [when] it is almost impossible to find someone who hasn’t fallen into the ‘mud’.”

No prophet or wise man, only eyes and ears, are necessary to recognize that the Jewish world today is rife with “evil speech” – speaking and writing ill of others (whether the words are true, false or – so often the case – some toxic mixture of the two), and with the hatred that breeds such sins. Jewish media are filled with accusations and “scoops”; they compete gleefully to find the vilest examples of crimes to report, to do the most attention-grabbing job of reporting them, and to be the first to do so.

The very week of the recent catastrophe in Haiti, a national Jewish newspaper published a comic strip featuring grotesque depictions of religious Jews and aimed at disparaging Jewish outreach to other Jews. And another Jewish newspaper ran an editorial placing the alleged ugly sins of an individual at the feet of Jewish rabbinic leaders, simply because the presumed sinner, before he was exposed, had arranged for several respected rabbis to deliver lectures and had encouraged people to make donations to their institutions. Having thus “established” guilt by that association, the editorialist demanded that every Orthodox organization and rabbinic leader publicly condemn the alleged sinner or be smeared themselves with sin. Then he mocked rabbinic authorities as a group for, instead of issuing condemnations of sinners, rendering decisions on social and halachic matters, as if that were not precisely what rabbis are for.

Those are examples of anti- Orthodox invective. But ill will and its expression, tragically, know no communal bounds – in fact, the offensive comic strip seized upon intemperate statements made by Orthodox Jews about others.

Jews can take positions. Indeed we are charged with standing up for Jewish principles. But personalizing disagreements or slandering individuals is – or should be – beyond the pale.

Had we only eyes like the Chofetz Chaim’s, we would discern that hatred and the misuse of the holy power of speech are not small evils. We would understand that they shake the very earth under our feet.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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5 years 8 months ago

Re: L.Oberstein – I agree with all points made regarding Kiruv, but one. Of course, righteous bashing of the irreligeous will not influence many to return to Sh’miras HaTorah, if any at all. However, anything we say, in any way we say it, to be M’karev R’chokim must begin with certain absolutes or it is doomed to failure. It must be said softly – it must be said with the understanding that we love and accept all Jews as being Jews without regard to their level of observance, but it must be said – it cannot be obfuscated – the basic premise is that we believe in the legitimacy of only one stream of Judaism. If this is not conveyed at the outset – lasting and real Kiruv will not and cannot be effected. Period.

L. Oberstein
5 years 8 months ago

We have to be wise in our efforts and be careful to understand what we are fighting against.Kiruv professionals yearn for the good old days when they could deal with people who belonged to a Reform temple and were Jewishly engaged. Nowadays, they have to search for Jews in all sorts of venues because they are mostly uninvolved, disinterested and Jewishness is not very relevant to their lives. Reform Judaism wishes that it were strong enough to be our sparing partner. We ignore them because they have no influence on their own members’ children, much less on our children. Have you met a kid who went off the derech by joining a Reform temple? We have to find a way to respond to scurilous attacks that will not be counter-productive. In this age of personal autonomy, it is only the orthodox who still maintain that there are absolute standards and who insist that their way is the right way. It is almost un-American in its absolutism. How then, will you influence a Jewish person by delegitimising Reform Judaism. Much better is to explain your position positively.

5 years 8 months ago

Shira: I don’t think your average assimilated Jew sees nearly the degree of character flaw in the Orthodox community that we see within ourselves.

Ori: Definitely. Most assimilated Jews don’t so much consciously reject Orthodoxy as consider it irrelevant.

5 years 8 months ago

With all due respect, the matter so scornfully portrayed in the cartoons was precisely the Chareidi attempts at Kiruv. No, my friend, what the Reform (and Conservative, for that matter) desire most of all is that which we cannot give them – recognition of equal status for their brand within authentic Judaism. Anything short of that fills their Leadership with resentful bitterness, and, tragically, their lay-people, with acute feelings of rejection. You are correct in your portrayal of much of the Chareidi world as having been apathetic. For a good many years, however, it took a great deal of our collective energy just to secure our own little space in America. In recent times, there has been much more encouragement on the part of Chareidi Rabbanim and Roshei Yeshiva of all stripes to engage the non-Frum – to understand our great responsibility towards those many Tinokos She’nishbu among our Brethren.

5 years 8 months ago

Anonymous @12:49 pm

I don’t think your average assimilated Jew sees nearly the degree of character flaw in the Orthodox community that we see within ourselves. And while some claim near perfection for political reasons, an attempt at introspection is in my opinion far more common throughout the spectrum.

But rather than starting with such a complicated introduction, I think Rabbi Shafran took a different approach to bring the concept to the general public, something like “amidst world catastrophe we all owe it to ourselves to behave more peacefully – let’s give it a try.”