Jewish Journal

Appropriate response to killings rests in Torah

by Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg

Posted on Mar. 27, 2008 at 6:00 pm

The pain felt by the family and near environment of any murder victim is deep and traumatic. The murder of adolescents in an educational institution is horrifying. But a murder that takes place within the walls of the house of study, the yeshiva, amplifies and extends the grief and suffering beyond the families that lost their dear ones and beyond the victims' close surroundings.

We immediately associate this slaughter with the picture that has become fixed in our minds as Jews schooled in millennia of persecution: The bloodthirsty non-Jews kill us as we stand in prayer in the synagogue and as we sit learning Gemara in the house of study.

In this old-new picture it is quite clear what symbolizes each side: We are symbolized by prayer and study; they are symbolized by the sword, the gun and acts of violence. We sit in the tents of Shem and learn Torah, motivated by a moral drive, self-criticism and a desire to repair the world. They engage in "Esau's labor," raining down the blood and fire of destruction on themselves and on us.

But as we delve deeper into our minds to agonize over this painfully sharp image of murder in the house of study, our field of view is blurred by other pictures that interfere with the age-old world order. A gang of Jewish fascists goes on a rampage in the neighborhood of the murderous terrorist; several hours later, we are told, in the name of a leader of the ultra-Orthodox Torah world, that yeshivot are forbidden to employ Arabs.

At first sight, these two Jewish reactions are quite unrelated: The band of neo-Kahanists is light years removed from the Lithuanian world of Torah study; the person who informed the media of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky's opinion had no inkling that the riot and the ruling would be connected in the press and later in the public mind.

The general public -- both the sector that condemns these responses and the sector that sympathizes with them -- perceives them as "religious Judaism's reaction to the murder." How do "religious Jews" react to the murder at the yeshiva? They take the law into their own hands and run amok in the neighborhood where the murderer lived or cast collective guilt on all Arabs and call for dismissing them from their jobs and depriving them of their livelihood.

But we could also witness an appropriate Jewish response of another type, which rests on loyalty to the views of the Torah and halacha, as recorded in the pages of the very books whose pages were perforated by the murderer's bullets.

We might hear that those of us who sit and learn in the house of study adhere steadfastly to a moral position that begins by isolating violent murderers from all other human beings. We might hear that we clearly distinguish between the absolute majority of the Arab citizens of Israel and the violent murderers among them.

As Jews, we have a different language, which is not the language of force; a different language that is not based on violence.

Halacha defines the right of minorities to live among us in peace and security, to determine their place of residence according to their needs and free choice, without posing a security threat to us and without our discriminating against them or harming them by deed or humiliating word.

As with the modern return to Zion, it was also clear at the first return from Egypt that the future Jewish kingdom would include a non-Jewish minority. Halacha states a fundamental principle about the residence of a non-Jew in the Land of Israel:

"One does not let him settle on the frontier or in an unhealthy place but only in an attractive place in the middle of the Land of Israel, where his crafts are marketable, as we read, 'He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill treat him'" (Deut. 23:17) (Tractate Gerim 3:4; also Sifre Tetze).

Halacha established dependence between the right of residence and the right of livelihood and insisted on the right of minorities to move up to a better neighborhood if they wished to do so. Developing from this statement of principle, the issue of the status of the non-Jewish minority in a Jewish state emerged as a broad and ramified halachic topic, with implications for security, employment, workers' rights, residential rights, welfare, commerce, agriculture and industry as well as for cultural ties and neighborly relations between Jews and non-Jews.

The Torah lays down the precept that we must provide for the basic livelihood and welfare of both Jews and non-Jews who live in the Land of Israel and strenuously insists that we not infringe the status and rights of the minority. All social rights, the laws against fraud and withholding wages, apply to both Jews and non-Jews.

Many halachic texts indicate that the Torah sees itself as the guardian of the minority and is careful to emphasize and define its rights in detail, because in the absence of a halachic fence to defend the minority, the majority is apt to discriminate against it.

According to the commentators, there are several reasons for this halachic stance:

  • The acid test for the ethical nature of a Jewish majority society is how it treats minorities, or in contemporary terms, if we want the State of Israel to be a Jewish nation state we must meticulously respect the status and rights of the non-Jewish minority among us.

  • As Jews, we have long experience of life as a minority and must display understanding of the pain of the minority. In the words of Sefer Hahinnukh (by Maimonides' disciple): "He reminded us that we have already been burned by that great pain, which is suffered by every human being who sees himself in the midst of strangers ... and we remember the great anxiety attached to this."
The widespread public expectation that religious or ultra-Orthodox Jews will conduct themselves in keeping with Jewish standards, that they will evince loyalty to the moral principles anchored in the precepts of the Torah, is manifested after every act of violence, corruption or immorality in which religious people are involved.

By the same token, what the two Jewish reactions mentioned above have in common is that they do not see the Torah as the source of obligatory moral behavior, whether toward ourselves or toward others.

They do not believe that we have a duty to present a clear alternative to the terrorists and murderers, an obligation to tell them: "You murdered innocent people who were learning Torah; you desecrated a holy place. But you will not deprive us of our values and essence.

"You may cry, 'Death to the Jews' and go out and murder. We will not respond with, 'Death to the Arabs' but with, 'He shall live with you' and with, 'You must not ill-treat him.'

You want to get us to assign collective guilt, to persecute and discriminate against all the Arab citizens on your account. But we, who have been victims of such an indictment, will endeavor, even at the height of the war you are waging against us, to improve the lot of the Arabs who live with and among us in peace."

Professor Naftali Rothenberg is a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and the rabbi of Har Adar.

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