Religious violence

Israeli Reform synagogue vandalized, death threats conveyed with a knife

The Reform synagogue in Ra’anana was vandalized last night [LINK] in conjunction with the Western Wall controversy. Death threats were conveyed by placing a knife branded with a reference to Maimonides’ Laws of Killing, Chapter 4:10 – “If there is the possibility, one should kill them with a sword in public view. If that is not possible, one should develop a plan so that one can cause their deaths.” Next to the knife were notes bearing the names of the leaders of Reform Judaism in Israel and the USA. Graffiti was sprayed on the walls, referring to the sanctity of the Kotel, and reference to Obadiah 1:18,1:21, which speaks about burning down the “House of Esau” and re-establishing the Kingdom of God.

After the shock and nausea wear off, one might say that good may yet come from this act of violence: 1. This will strengthen the public’s and the police’s understanding that they must exercise a firm hand against these thugs who act in God’s name. 2. Verses quoted out of context are a danger to our society and country, whether they are used by violent goons or rabbis. 3. This is living proof of the shared fate of Diaspora and Israeli Jewry (Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Anat Hoffman, & Rabbi Gilad Kariv were all singled out in the death threats). Together, we ought to change this reality, and bring Israel to actualize its founding vision, which guarantees freedom of religion and equality for all.

The role of Halakha in the modern, secular State of Israel

10903999_10153629284553868_1051290180814195830_oOver two hundred years ago our spiritual ancestors fought the battles of modernity, bringing Jewish practice into the modern world. Who knew that we would have to repeat the process two centuries later?

While all of us, as rabbis, emphasize the importance of halakhah in our lives and the lives of our constituencies, we also recognize the importance, authority and power of the secular state. But modern Israel has not yet concluded that the sovereignty of the State is paramount in all areas, and that fight is now being waged.

In this Hebrew article [click here for article] by Prof. Motti Arad [click here for Prof. Arad’s background and publications] we see the legal basis that the murderers claim for themselves. Prof. Arad also suggests a means around the problem: a הוראת שעה that will annul the rulings of the Mishneh Torah and Shulchan Aruch that he claims permit such murders. (for my abridged English summary, see below)

This Haaretz article [click here] about the arrest of the West Bank bombers displays the perfect case. The man charged with the murders refuses to recognize the state’s authority. Rather, the accused says that he accepts only Jewish law. The problem is obviously both that the State has not been clear in imposing its authority, and there are rabbis who are in favor of the absolute sovereignty of halakhah.

Do we have a role to play in this discussion? What is your opinion? Should we be speaking to a halakhic approach to this issue of the relationship between Jewish law and democracy in the Jewish State? What is your approach?

For me, this is specifically an area in which we should insist on being heard. Just as last week Aaron Leibowitz [click here] published his approach to solving the problem of kashrut, and next week we will hear from Chuck Davidson about his research on the criteria for gerut, so, in my judgment, the interplay between Jewish law and State sovereignty should be a subject for the expert judgment of those who take a modern approach to halakhah.

Currently our efforts at Hiddush are focused, with other Jewish agencies like the AJC and JFNA, on marriage in Israel. Yet, I believe that there are those among us whose opinions and research must be heard in order for Israel to fulfill its mandate as the home of a modern Judaism.

Please contact me with your opinion, and also let me know if you’d like to help on the newsletter’s editorial board.

B’yedidut,
Mark H. Levin


Rabbi Mark H. Levin’s abridged English summary of Prof. Arad’s Hebrew article [link]:

In this article, published in September 2015, Prof. Motti Arad writes about the use of Jewish Law (Halakhah) to justify murder against Arabs in Israel, and what needs to be done to counter it. The Jewish terrorists, like members of Tag Mehir, as well as Yishai Schlissel, Meir Ettinger, and Yigal Amir, are being encouraged and justified by some rabbis’ interpretations of Jewish law that are inciting murder.

He writes:

“I have come to say that we are not speaking of people who are mentally incompetent, to point out a common denominator for all of the deeds, to explain a legal mechanism that justifies and even encourages the murderers, and to suggest a way to take care of the phenomenon.”

“There are three commonalities to Schlissel and the inciters:”

  1. “We are speaking of religious people who believe in Halakhah;
  2. They believe that ‘all that which is holy to Israel’ is being attacked from inside (Jews) and from outside (non-Jews);
  3. They are ready to suffer damage to themselves for the sake of ‘all that which is holy to Israel’ because they perceive us to be in a state of emergency.”

“… all hate crimes done by Jews in recent times have been done, apparently, by religious people, and in contradiction to the opinion of Daniel Oz, in these instances Halakhah is of decisive importance in their decisions to commit these crimes.”

“It is incumbent on the rabbis to prohibit [the transgressors] with a temporary order (hora’at sha’ah — an order by a Jewish court that can change Talmudic law according to current circumstances). It’s incumbent on the families to prohibit their children from committing these [murders that they read as permitted by the Jewish codes of law], and it’s incumbent on the communities to cooperate with the governmental authorities to clarify the plague, before all of us go up in flames. The Schlissels will obey.”

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.