Israel’s recent cycle of religious violence

Dear friends and colleagues,

We are aware that many of you have already spoken about these events from your pulpits, but for the benefit of those who have yet to address these tragedies, and even for those who have already done so and faced subsequent questions, we would like to provide you with relevant sources published in Israel and abroad that reflect the reactants’ very different religious attitudes.

These are somber times in Jerusalem and in Israel. Religion has raised a threatening fist, sending shockwaves throughout the country and the Jewish world. The recent cycle of violence began with the burning down of the Church of the Multiplication. Hebrew graffiti at the site grounded the motives for the destructive act in Jewish liturgy; a direct quote from the ‘Aleinu’ prayer was sprayed on the wall: “The false gods will be eliminated.” Then, on Tisha b’Av, a group of non-Orthodox worshippers were barricaded inside a Conservative synagogue in Modiin. While it remains unclear who committed this act of vandalism, and it could very well have been done by pranksters, the intentions behind it remain troubling. It’s notable that the fast day of Tisha b’Av commemorates, among other tragedies, the baseless hatred among Jews that led to the destruction of the Second Temple.

The violence continued with the burning down of a house in the Arab village of Duma, incinerating an eighteen month old baby, and, a few days later, resulting in the death of his father. The mother’s life still hangs in the balance. There too, graffiti at the scene spelled out the perpetrators’ religious and murderous motives: “revenge” and “long live the King Messiah.” Several days later came the attack upon the Jerusalem Pride Parade by the murderer Yishai Schlissel who stabbed and wounded six marchers; one of whom, Shira Banki z”l, did not survive her wounds and died in the hospital. Schlissel made no secret of the reason for the murder, citing the Biblical capital punishment for homosexuality, and stressing that his act, like that of Rabin’s assassin in 1995, drew its inspiration from the zealous priest Pinchas who assassinated the fornicating Jew and Midianite woman, Zimri and Cozbi, thereby halting the plague that threatened to consume the Israelites under God’s wrath. Schlissel explained that his act was intended to remove the present day plague, and was dismayed by the lack of wider rallying for the cause among his co-religionists.

To assist those who still plan to speak about these events, we have collected sample posts, articles and public statements made in the last few weeks. For simplicity’s sake, they can be divided into two categories: The first category represents those who feel that while the acts were carried out by a few individuals, there is need for acknowledgement of group responsibility and soul searching, particularly among the Orthodox religious sector in Israel. They point to the atmosphere, the public discourse, and the religious teachings that advocate hatred and rejection of Arabs and the severe Biblical prohibition against homosexuality, demanding that the pride parade be eliminated, at least in Jerusalem. The second category represents those who shirk all group responsibility, expressing dismay at accusations directed at the Orthodox community, and stress that these acts were committed by deranged individuals, without sanction from their communities. Many of the sources have not been translated into English, but their emotional and intellectual weight leads us to believe that you may want to nevertheless take advantage of them.

In the last few days, Benny Gopstein the leader of Lehava, an extreme and often violent anti-miscegenation and anti-assimilation organization, was recorded speaking at a panel at which he explicitly stated that the Halakha according to Maimonides sanctions the burning of churches. Similarly, Rabbi Kahane’s grandson, who was recently put under administrative detention, has written a number of blog posts, referring to the need to “purify” Israel of the idol worship represented by Christianity and its churches. It’s painful to all of us to realize how little the law enforcement authorities have done thus far in countering this vicious anti-Christian rhetoric and action (during the past 3 1/2years, 43 churches and mosques have been vandalized, and with the exception of the recent arson of the Church of the Multiplication, where two suspects have been charged with the act, none of the numerous, criminal acts have resulted in serious investigation, let alone apprehension of those responsible). When you take a look at the Israel chapter of the State Department’s international religious freedom reports, you’ll find that for quite a number of years, the reports highlight the assaults on Christian clergy in the Old City of Jerusalem, which have not resulted in legal actions against the perpetrators. Similarly, while there have not been explicit calls for the assassination of homosexuals, there have been numerous oral and written statements by ultra-Orthodox and some other Orthodox rabbis and leaders, quoting the Biblical prohibition, enflaming hatred towards homosexuals.

Our position sides with those courageous, bold voices from within the Orthodox community who have called for serious soul searching and resulting action to prevent further atrocities.

We will be writing more about this complex challenge, but for the time being we wanted to make sure that these original sources are at your disposal. They speak for themselves.

The question that we raise is whether the time has not come for an even bolder approach, such as the one manifested by the rabbis of old, who recognized that threatening and unacceptable Biblical practices and commandments needed to be halted. It was with that in mind, we believe, that known Talmudic statements nullified the practical potential for implementation of the law regarding the ben sorer u’moreh (rebellious son), ir hanidachat (the subversive city), Parshat Sotah (the woman accused of adultery), and the seven nations of Canaan. Of course, there were the purists of the time who resented such a radical approach for doing away with concepts that no longer had a desirable religious message, and protested, like Rabbi Natan, “yes, they did exist, and I stood on their graves.”

Is such a drastic approach not direly needed today? When some are fanning the flames of hatred and violence, based on out-of-context, antiquated religious edicts regarding capital punishment and the annihilation of homosexuals, Shabbat desecrators and Christians? We do not mean to sanction a “Soviet Encyclopedia” or even “Jefferson Bible” approach, thereby publishing editions of the Tanakh and rabbinic texts with such edicts omitted. Rather, this requires that we acknowledge that the times have changed, and in every instance in which these ancient texts are studied, and their bloody messages quoted, the teachers must immediately explain that such acts are not allowed under any circumstances, whether because we hold them to be in the category of drosh v’kabel sachar (delve only theoretically into the Torah’s complexities, and you will be rewarded) and not implementable, or because we recognize that in the clash between Torah law and civil law on matters of sanctity of life and property, as well as human dignity, we need to bow to the civil law and genuinely accept its restrictions.

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