One doesn’t have to be a Talmudic scholar or even a participant in a daf yomi study group to be familiar with Hillel’s Talmudically cited original version of the equivalent of the Golden Rule that summarizes all of Judaism’s teachings in a nutshell: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah. The rest is interpretation” (Talmud Tractate Shabbat 31a).
One does, however, have to be a follower of Touro University’s Dr. Henry Abramson’s historical daily insight on the Orthodox Union’s website (on Yevamot 5b, read and studied throughout the world the Shabbat before this issue of this newspaper went to press) to appreciate a lesson closer to home that would have benefited President Putin, and, in turn, all of humanity, and could have prevented a situation, as this article goes to press, where the world finds itself on the brink of World War III, or a nuclear holocaust, G-d forbid, not to mention the terrible plight of so many Ukrainians whose lives will never be the same, even if they are fortunate enough to survive.
Our story begins with a simple reference to the Tamid (yes, the Tamid, not the Talmud), the daily sacrifice that was offered in the Temple in Jerusalem. Nothing could seem to be further from our current events of the day, except that Dr. Abramson took this opportunity to discuss the concept of bitul hatamid – literally, the abolition of the daily offering. And now, the relevance to our current cataclysmic events. Subsequent to the destruction of the Temple, the daily sacrifices have been replaced by daily prayers, carefully structured.
Rabenu Gershom (960-1040) is perhaps most famous for his rulings against polygamy and reading other people’s mail without permission, but it seems that he also was instrumental in the development of the concept of the above referenced bitul hatamid, literally the abolition of the daily offering, as noted above, but understood as an interruption of the public daily prayer services in order to seek redress of a wrong, primarily a judicial or moral one, such as when a person refused to answer a summons to appear in court. More broadly, it was considered a form of protest and a means of creating outrage to lead to actions by the community to undo an undue injustice perpetrated generally by wealthy or powerful people.
[To the editor: If this article has to be condensed, the paragraph that follows is a good candidate for deletion, in my opinion. AR]
Normally, an attempt had to be made to set this in motion during the evening prayer, three times, and if it would fail to get results, allowance was permitted to interrupt the more important and time-pressed morning prayer, after which people would normally be hurrying to work. But for a woman or an orphan, a Book of Customs allowed for an interruption of the morning prayer in the first instance.
Most famously, this procedure was set in motion after the Conscription Law of 1827, whereby Nicholas I required many Russian Jews – and others, presumably -- to send their sons to cantons, to be brainwashed out of their religion and trained to enter the army where they would serve from the age of 18 for 25 years, thereby being deprived of their youth and their religion, and often of their life, as well.
Jewish mothers used the mechanism of bitul hatamid to interrupt the service presumably to demand that the Jewish community do more, through their more influential leaders, to exempt more Jewish sons from this cruel decree.
Fast forward to Ukraine of today, which is fast becoming quite different from the Ukraine of yesterday. The youth of Russia were sent, undoubtedly against their better judgment (had they been given a choice), to commit all kinds of war crimes and to massacre the civilians of a country that used to be part of the Soviet Union, with many of the citizens under attack being friends or relatives, sharing to some degree a common culture – most are certainly not Nazis, as some of the naïve young Russian soldiers were led to believe (despite the fact that Ukraine’s duly elected president is Jewish, perhaps the second-worst-kept “secret” in Russia).
Thousands of Russian soldiers died in the early days of the fighting due to the unexpected determination and heroism of the Ukrainians, and sadly many more deaths are anticipated on both sides of the battlefields.
If only President Putin had cared about the Golden Rule of doing unto others as one would want done to them, or as stated in an alternate way in the Talmud, how many lives would have been saved?
If only Russian women – even gentiles – would have been given an opportunity to prevent their sons from being conscripted to the Russian army for such an unholy purpose….
Actually, a Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia (CSMR) was created for a remarkably similar purpose in 1989 and won worldwide acclaim following their intervention in the Russian war with Chechnya in 1994. But clearly their work remains unfinished.
Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir was most famously quoted for saying “When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.” (Harvey Rachlin has questioned the authenticity of this quote, in June of 2015, but let’s assume it is accurate, for our purposes.) I had always been bothered by this quote, since I don’t believe that I or anyone else has a right to forgive a murderer for killing another person in cold blood without provocation or justification. But perhaps now I can understand the thrust of Golda Meir’s observation. She might be able to forgive misled followers, but not intentionally misleading leaders. The soldiers now attacking the Ukraine did not sign up in the Russian army for the purpose of massacring innocent Ukrainians, and some thought they were only fighting Nazis (absurd as it may sound to us); they had been told they were coming to the Ukrainian border only for military “exercises,” and afterward to fight “the Nazis.” So perhaps there would be some merit in not blaming the young soldiers for carrying out orders under false pretenses from their leaders, knowing that they themselves would have faced severe punishment – or death – for participating in a mutiny. (And Arab leaders also absurdly convince many of their followers that the Jews are no better than Nazis.) But what is truly unforgiveable was for the Russian leadership to place Ukrainian civilians in the position where they had to become defending soldiers and kill Russian misled invaders while risking their own lives, and, in many cases succumbing in the process.
It is unrealistic to expect President Putin to act like a Jew or to study the Talmud, but we can at least pray that we won’t have to wait for the Messiah to see justice and order restored to the world.
Rabbi Reichel prays that there will be peace and that this article will be out of date by the time it will be published.