Listening to the debate in Israel in the wake of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, I hear a question being asked that was never asked before: “Is Judaism a threat to Israel?”
That profound, troubling question arises from the fact that Yigal Amir, Rabin’s assassin, was a product of the best religious-Zionist schools in Israel. How could that system have produced such a person, and his accomplices?
The answer, say some religious-Zionist scholars, is that too many of their schools and rabbis give more emphasis to the value of land than to the value of life. They stress Jewish teachings about preserving sovereignty over the land of Israel more than Jewish teachings that say he who sheds the blood of another human being destroys the image of God in the world.
For Yigal Amir, Rabin was the enemy because he was ready to trade land for peace, and, as Amir told the court, he had always been taught that “According to Jewish law, you can kill the enemy. My whole life I learned Jewish law.”
Amir’s comment is a reminder that Jewish traditions, sacred texts, Talmud and Bible by themselves cannot shape a moral human being. They require living teachers who interpret the tradition and mediate what it is about. Rabbi Shlomo Goren, former chief rabbi of Israel, once said that democracy was not a Jewish value. Rabbi Abraham Kook, Israel’s first chief rabbi, argued it was. It all depends who is interpreting the texts.
“Jewish texts by themselves, not mediated by people who have a profound respect for democratic values, will turn into a moral barbarism,” argues Rabbi David Hartman, one of Israel’s leading moderate religious scholars. “If that happens Judaism will be a threat to the future of Israel.”
It doesn’t have to be that way. As Hartman notes there has always been a strain of religious-Zionist thought, unfortunately a minority, which argued that the command for the Jews to be a holy people, which God made to Moses on Mount Sinai, preceded God’s command for the Jews to enter the land of Israel. The law was given before the land. The Ten Commandments, including “Thou shalt not kill,” preceded the conquering of Israel.
In other words, says Rabbi Zvi Marx, another moderate religious scholar, the same texts Yigal Amir used to justify killing Rabin could be interpreted to say that what creates holiness is how people live, and the land is simply an instrument to that end.
The value of the land is measured by the quality of the society you build on it and how people are treated within its borders. In this view, Rabin, far from being a heretic, was expressing the Jewish value that you cannot have a “Holy Land” if it requires dehumanizing another people - the Palestinians.
The point for American Jews is this: If you are giving money to Israel, are you giving it to institutions that are building an Israel you would want your own children to live in? Too often secular American Jews get caught up in this “Fiddler on the Roof” sentimentalism where they think that by giving money to fundamentalist orthodox yeshivas they are somehow saving their own grandchildren, and that by preserving the most anti-modern forms of Judaism they are preserving the authentic religion.
No. Fundamentalism is not the only form of Judaism. As Hartman notes, Judaism has always been a religion that absorbed new values while maintaining its core. After all, it was the great Jewish teacher Maimonides who incorporated the teachings of Aristotle into Jewish thought.
So ask yourself this: Are you funding Yigal Amir’s teachers and their interpretation of Judaism or are you funding an interpretation that embraces modernity and coexistence?
An anguished orthodox rabbi called me and said, “Don’t lump all orthodox in with Yigal Amir.” He’s right. Many orthodox were appalled by Amir’s words and deeds. Demonizing all religious Jews is not the solution, because Israel without Judaism is not the solution. The solution is deciding whose Judaism? Whose texts? Whose interpretations?
There is a naive assumption that whatever goes on in the most fundamentalist yeshivas in Brooklyn and Jerusalem cannot be as bad as modern society. Wrong. It can be worse. If left alone it will destroy Israel. If combatted in its own terms, with interpretations of Jewish tradition that make Judaism the friend of democracy, pluralism and life over land - not the enemy of those values - then Judaism can still save the Jewish state.