There’s a Hasidic story about a rebbe who was journeying through an unfriendly village. Hooligans lined the sides of the road and made ready to pelt his carriage with stones. Unafraid, the rebbe recited aloud a verse from the Torah, “The might of Your arm shall make them rigid as stone” (Exodus 15).” Immediately, the arms of the would-be attackers became paralyzed. A listener to the story reacted in great surprise, “If that’s the case, why did you rebbe return home with a swollen eye?” The Hasid explained, “One of the hooligans was hard of hearing.”
Throughout the ages, the Jewish people have seen many hooligans who have been deaf to our yearning to live at peace. Many inflicted physical harm on our people. Others have sought harm to Jews in more subtle ways. Still, few could have anticipated that the latest “hooligan” to insult the Jewish people would be none other than Stephen Hawking, the renowned cosmologist and wheel-chair bound victim of ALS. Hawking had initially accepted an invitation to appear next month at Facing Tomorrow: The Israeli Presidential Conference under the auspices of President Shimon Peres. Then, Hawking backed out of attending the conference. When the news media reported that it was due to Hawking joining an academic boycott of Israel, first Cambridge University released a statement that he cancelled due to health reasons. Then, as memos leaked clearly revealing Hawking’s true rationale, Cambridge was forced to clarify that in fact he was withdrawing out of sympathy for the boycott. The university released a statement indicating that Dr. Hawking had told the Israelis that he would not be attending “based on advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott.”
Hawking apparently came under the influence of our modern day hooligans, the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement, or BDS. They are often more subtle than tormenters of Jews in generations past. For one thing, they often say they have no problem with Jews, only the State of Israel. However, the Jewish yearning for a Jewish national home in the Land of Israel is intricately connected with our religious tradition, and attacks on the legitimacy of Israel often feel like anti-Semitism and in fact often are. People who espouse such a view are “hard of hearing” in the sense that they don’t hear our pain over this ostracism. The insidious attacks on the legitimacy of Israel through BDS are carried out by a modern day, sophisticated, gang of hooligans who have intoxicated Western circles of intelligentsia and academia. While most Israelis and Jews around the world are sympathetic to the national aspirations of Palestinians, it is disheartening, to say the least, when seemingly intelligent people are willfully deaf to the aspirations of the Jewish people. Israel is a democracy that promotes free expression and advanced scientific inquiry. Through scientific discovery, Israel contributes more per capita to the world’s quality of life than just about any other nation. Furthermore, Israel has committed itself to a two-state solution in which a Jewish state would sit peaceably side-by-side with a Palestinian state. Yet, this is not good enough for the BDS Movement that seeks to undermine the very legitimacy of the State of Israel through prevailing upon academic institutions, scientists, professors and artists from dealing with Israel or Israelis in a spirit of open exchange of ideas.
Before discussing the Hawking episode further, it’s important to note where we find ourselves in the Torah reading cycle this week. We begin reading the fourth book of the Torah, Bemidbar, the Book of Numbers.
The way our calendar works, this week’s Torah reading usually falls the week in which we are to observe Shavuot, the Festival celebrating the gift of the Torah to the Jewish people. The midrash note the juxtaposition and wonder aloud why God gave the Torah in the desert. One midrash reads: The Torah was given in the desert so as not to incite dissension among the tribes, so that one will not say “In my land the Torah was given,” and the other will say “No, in my land it was given.” Therefore, was the Torah given in the desert, in no-man’s land (b’farhesia). This midrash continues: The Torah was likened to three things—desert, fire and water—to teach you that just as these things are free, the words of the Torah are free to all who come into this world.
(Yalkut Shimoni, Parashat Yitro, Remez 286)
The Talmud elaborates further on the theme of openness and transparency: “One should be as open as a wilderness to receive the Torah” (BT Ned. 55a). It is intimidating to open oneself to the demands of God, to a new and morally demanding way of life. The Torah portrays the people Israel as periodically wishing they were back in the predictable, morally undemanding servitude of Egypt. Yet Israel’s willingness to accept the Torah, to be “as open as the wilderness” to let the Torah’s morality fill the moral vacuum in the lives of former slaves, was the essential first step in God’s remaking the world. For the first time, God’s world will contain a model people, guided by the Torah to live a God-oriented life.
The image of the desert in the eyes of the rabbis is not one of barrenness. Rather, it is one of openness. A journey through the desert provides time and space for thinking and open inquiry. It is unencumbered by the biases of specific societies. In modern times, scientific conferences should serve the purposes of scientists coming together from all parts of the world for the sake of the betterment of humanity. Political boycotts run afoul of the very purpose these conferences serve.
Sadly, Stephen Hawking, despite all of his well-deserved accolades over the years, sullied his reputation with his decision to cancel a trip to Israel. It was strikingly odd in light of the fact that he appeared in Israel four times previously. Aside from his recognized genius in exploring the origins of the universe, Hawking is also known for being paralyzed from ALS and using a computer to speak. One can hardly overlook that much of the sophisticated computer technology that enables Hawking to speak was made in Israel. In addition, Israel has been at the forefront in developing treatments for ALS.
In response to Hawking’s cancellation, Israel Maimon, the chairman of the conference, strongly criticized the professor’s decision, saying in a statement, “The academic boycott of Israel is in our view outrageous and improper, certainly for someone for whom the spirit of liberty lies at the basis of his human and academic mission.” He added: “Israel is a democracy in which all individuals are free to express their opinions, whatever they may be. The imposition of a boycott is incompatible with open, democratic dialogue.”
As we begin our reading of Bemidbar and prepare to celebrate Shavuot, let us take to heart the spirit of the desert that it will continue to inspire in us the thirst for knowledge and inquiry that for thousands of years has been a beacon of light for humanity. We may encounter obstacles that seek to obscure this light, but let us not waver from our noble pursuit of truth.