The shocking terror attack on Israel by Hamas and the war against Hamas in Gaza, with the appalling costs in lives and suffering, force us to rethink what we mean by humanity, Torah, and God. This challenge did not begin on October 7, but the horrors of that day and the following months have laid it before us more sharply and painfully than ever.

From generations of rabbis in my family, I inherited a Judaism broadly in accord with humanitarian values, deeply rooted in traditional Judaism, yet influenced in its universalist direction by the impact of the Enlightenment on 19th century German culture. The God to whom they prayed was Der Ewige, the Eternal, the “God of the spirits of all flesh” (Num 27:16). The Torah they taught, although perhaps in a more pronouncedly European cultural idiom on the liberal rather than the Orthodox side, was that of a comprehensive humanity as articulated compellingly by Samson Raphael Hirsch in his comment to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18):

The reason given as the motive for this commandment is “I am the Lord.” It is something that is expected from us towards all our fellow men in the name of God who has bestowed on all men the mutual calling of re’a, “neighbour” . . . Nobody may look on the progress of another as a hindrance to his own progress or look on the downfall of another as the means for his own rising, and nobody may rejoice in his own progress if it is at his neighbour’s disadvantage.

Hirsch expresses these principles even more forcefully in his commentary on “You shall not oppress the stranger” (Exod 22:20): Beware therefore, so runs the warning, lest in your state you make the rights of anyone dependent on anything other than the simple fact of their humanity which every human being possesses by virtue of being human.

Those values broadly underlie Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which, although not a theological document, is nevertheless rooted in the social and spiritual aspirations of Judaism. Hence the oft-quoted paragraph, affirming that the state will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.

Yet, since 1948, if not before, numerous pressures have put these values under increasing stress. Some are external: the long history of marginalization, degradation, humiliation, religious persecution, enforced exile, and murder, to which Jews have been subject, culminating in the pogroms and the Holocaust; the hatred and aggression with which the unborn State of Israel was greeted by its would-be neighbors; the repeated calls for its destruction; the attack on Israel’s borders the moment the state was declared; the effective expulsion of Jews from virtually all Muslim countries; the renewal of aggression in war after war; the terror tactics of the PLO, at least in the early decades of Israel’s establishment; the ideology of Hezbollah and Hamas and their backer, Iran; the rhetoric of hatred; the global  undercurrent of antisemitism that repeatedly resurfaces, including at the United Nations. Each of these factors, in different ways, has had a corrosive effect on the belief that we share even the most basic shared universal values, that the world is a forum in which justice can ultimately prevail, and that one can rely on the basic decency of others who are not part of one’s own group.

These deleterious forces have profound internal costs: the effect on the psyche of being hatred and rejected; the trauma, exacerbated over generations, of being persecuted and murdered simply for existing as Jews; the resulting potential distrust of the attitudes of other nations; the sense of insecurity at the heart of the state, whether or not it is always militarily and politically justified; the constant awareness of the threat to personal security posed by terrorism and the intifadas; the impact of the loss of so many young lives in battle on all Israelis, and not only on the bereaved, and the fear that one’s own children, never far from the front lines of war, may be next. We are, in short, a people that have been and continue to be persecuted, if not always in our external reality, but often in our internal world, as a result of having been persecuted in many lands across centuries by different antagonists.

To these factors we can add those rooted in Biblical and rabbinic texts, which can be regarded as opposed to liberal universalist humanitarian beliefs and ideals: the supremacist aspects of the messianic vision underlying the return of the Jewish People to their ancestral land; the renewed relevance of numerous passages in the Bible concerning the vanquishing of Israel’s enemies and the conquest of the land, which had lain dormant during almost nineteen centuries of exile and powerlessness; the not rarely pejorative references to “goyim” who do not recognize the God of Israel, and who are seen as idolators; the rejection of a diaspora Judaism which was obliged, for better or worse, to interact with other faiths and cultures; possibly also, the theology of God’s return to history and “hands-on” engagement in our destiny after the hester panim, the hiding of God’s face, during the Holocaust (a theological position that I do not accept).

These elements have interacted with each other and continue to do so in ways that are so complex they are ultimately inseparable, making it impossible to ascribe definitive causation to any specific component. In blunt emotional terms, many of us do not know what to feel most angry and pained about first, and in what proportions to allocate responsibility and blame. I have asked myself the horrible, unthinkable question: whom would I blame most if Israel were, God forbid, to fail? It would be Israel’s enemies first and foremost, followed by the impact this long hatred has had on our own psyche.

What is clear, though, is that in some toxic combination, these factors have collectively had a deeply corrosive effect, as they would surely have on any society or faith community. They have re-oriented the understanding of God, Torah, and humanity in widespread sectors of Israeli society and have led to the adoption of attitudes and, sometimes, policies that I cannot help but regard as racist.

It is only appropriate that I write with caution, especially in these cruel months of trauma and danger, because, living in England, I have not risked my life or been called upon to expose the lives of my children in wars to defend Israel’s very right to exist. Nevertheless, I would maintain that three issues are vital not just to Jewish theology and the reputation of Judaism as a world religion, but also to the State of Israel’s long-term security. These three concerns are interlinked, so that it is impossible to set them in any clear order of cause and effect. But I will put the greatest first: how we understand God. “I was brought up to think of God as Jewish, the God of the Jews,” Dr Dror Bondi, a lecturer in theology at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, told me. But his thinking was transformed when he encountered the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972). Heschel was a philosopher of religion and a Hasidic mystic turned activist “because indifference to evil is worse than evil itself.”[1] He was a close friend and ally of Reverend Martin Luther King in the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Bondi likes to quote Heschel’s aphoristic definition of idolatry: “What is an idol? Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you.”[2] The line between faith and idolatry can easily become perilously thin. There is always the danger that we read the word “our” in Judaism’s best-known declaration of faith “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God” not as an affirmation of relationship but as an assertion of possession: You are “our” God, but not the God of everyone else. This runs counter to every text in the Hebrew Bible, every passage in the liturgy, and every rabbinic teaching from the Mishnah through to Hasidic discourse, which understands God as the God of all, not just of all humanity but of all life and the entirety of creation.

Dan Pagis (1930–1986) who escaped from Nazi-occupied Romanian Bukovina as a teenager in 1944, wrote with painful irony in his poem “Testimony” that “they,” the Nazis with their uniforms and jackboots, were made b’tselem, “in the image,” whereas “I was a tsel, a shade,” a mere shadow, because “a different creator made me.”[3] Such a notion is, of course, entirely foreign to Jewish theology, the central tenet of which is that there is only one creator of all humankind, who fashions all human beings in the same divine image. Pagis’s powerful lines throw this belief into question. The dangers for us are not only that we are seen as lesser creatures, but that we in turn risk coming to see others, non-Jews, Muslims, Palestinians, as children of a lesser God. In Heschel’s compelling terms, religion degenerates into idolatry when only some people are truly human; when only some, not on account of their actions but because of their birth and identity, deserve to fall within the protection of its basic moral code.

From this view of God, it follows that the understanding of humanity is rooted in the principle that every person is created equal. This is founded on the opening chapter of Bereshit in which we are told that “God created the human being in God’s image and according to God’s likeness” (Gen 1:27). Whether “image” refers to intellect, moral discernment, creativity, or language, this is a declaration of radical equality since at this point in the history of humanity there can be no differentiation. There are no distinctions of status, due neither to faith, nationality, ethnicity, nor, according to rabbinic interpretation, gender.

This categorical value of each and every life is expressed differently in the second chapter of Bereshit, where we learn that God breathes the divine breath into the nostrils of the first, and by implication, every subsequent human being, rendering every life sacred (Gen 2:7). This equality, coupled with the assertion of the uniqueness of each individual, is affirmed in the widely cited Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) that the human being was created yechidi, both sole and singular, to teach that “whoever destroys a single life is as if they destroyed an entire world”; to further prove that no one is entitled to say “my father was greater than yours”; and to emphasize the uniqueness of each person, so that everyone must be able to say “for me the world was created.”

However, a cursory reading of the current text of that Mishnah suggests that this may be a misreading, since “whoever saves a single life” is followed by the words “of Israel”; that is to say, this applies to Jews only. But, considering that the Mishnah references the very first human beings, Adam and Eve, when there was neither Jew nor non-Jew, it seems fair to conclude that the qualification “of Israel” was very likely a later insertion into the original version. That raises the awkward question as to why it was put there. It may well have been the result of persecutions in the Middle Ages: Can one, should one, regard those who hate us as equally human, as entitled to the same respect and rights?

This thought brings us disturbingly close to where we find ourselves today: If people from Gaza who worked in the south of Israel reported back to Hamas the layout of homes down to the details of door codes, how can we trust any of our Palestinian neighbors and treat them as equal? Has not the notion of shared humanity been betrayed, and are we not only justified but even compelled to regard some, in Orwell’s words, as “more equal than others”? Even writing down such words leaves me deeply troubled, since the equality of all human beings as created in God’s image seems to me the root of Jewish ethics.

In the face of powerful mutual distrust, we are faced with a choice: to set aside the notion of universal and equal humanity, if not in theory, then in practice; or to embrace it all the more strongly, albeit with caution wherever evidence indicates that it has been betrayed by others. I believe that our Judaism, with its millennial reputation for justice and compassion, for acting “for the sake of the ways of peace,” mandates us to follow the latter path, however challenging this may be. That is not to deny the reality of evil behaviors; rather it is to see their causes as social, economic, political, and psychological, rather than as ontological and genetic. At this time of trauma and horror, that calls for deep moral courage, imagination, and forbearance. But the alternative leaves no hope, only the prospect of unending conflict.

The foundations of Judaism, and indeed of the very concept of a Jewish state, undeniably lie in Torah and Tanakh, however secular we may think ourselves to be. Hence the critical question of how we read Torah. There are many verses in the Torah in which God promises to drive out the other nations from the promised land (e.g., Shemot 23:28–30; 34:11) which can be, have been, and are still currently used by some who see themselves not only as permitted but even as ordered in God’s name to follow such “commandments,” uprooting people from their ancestral holdings because they feel entitled to regard that land as theirs ever since God’s promise to Abraham, and its repeated re-affirmation in the Torah. On the military front, enemies may come to be seen as modern reincarnations of biblical Amalek, so that verses such as “God is eternally at war with Amalek” (Exod 17:16) and “blot out [their] memory” (Deut 25:19) can legitimately be applied to them. “The Torah,” an Israeli colleague commented to me sadly, “is the problem.”

It is therefore essential that we read Torah critically; I would argue, doubly critically. The first level of critical reading is rooted in rabbinic tradition; the rabbis of the Midrash and Talmud were prepared to turn verses inside out if they believed that this was how they needed to be understood in their current context, if they considered this to be God’s will in their day. Hence, a key example, Rabbi Yehoshua’s assertion in the 1st century CE that neither Amalek nor any of the nations mentioned reprehensibly in the Torah still existed, because “Sennacherib came (in the 8th century BCE) and mixed up the nations” (Talmud Berachot 28a). In other words, the Bible’s laws of war need to be taken in their specific historical and legal contexts and cannot be applied when these no longer pertain.

The second level of critical reading is more contentious. It can be summed up as “no text without context.” The overwhelming majority of biblical scholars agree that the Torah must be regarded not as written by God, but by humans reaching out to God. It remains the sacred text, the organizing narrative, of Judaism. But it is ultimately a text produced by human beings, with all the limitations that accompany the human condition and, therefore, inevitably influenced by its historical, legal, moral, economic, and literary contexts, and by the limitations of the human mind. The demand that we understand it as Torat emet, the Torah of truth, requires us to study, strive to comprehend, and work with its commandments precisely within our contemporary reality and, on occasion, to reframe what we understand it to require of us. Rabbinic interpretation and legislation through the ages indicates that this has always been an endeavor of the utmost strenuousness, driven by the need to remain faithful to both the Torah and the moral demands of the age. Judaism requires us to be in perpetual pursuit of Torat tzedek, the Torah of righteousness and Torat hesed, the Torah of lovingkindness.

These words are easily written. But there can be no greater challenge than trying to exist by them amidst the cruel trauma and horrors of today. I believe that, despite everything, we are required to live in the presence of God who is the God of all humanity and all life, to maintain, however much it may be betrayed, the principle that all human beings are equal and unique and that every life is of potential value, and that the Torah is both the source of these values and must be understood in their light.


[1] A. J. Heschel, “My Reasons for Involvement in the Peace Movement,” (1973) in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, ed. Susannah Heschel (New York: Noonday Press, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996).

[2] A. J. Heschel, Lecture on Religion and Race, (1963).

[3] Dan Pagis, “Testimony,” in The Selected Poetry of Dan Pagis, trans. Stephen Mitchell (Berkely, University of California Press, 1996).