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When Both Sides Are Wrong

Yonoson Rosenblum

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Torat Hamelech controversy leaves chareidi community caught in the middle


The controversy over Deputy State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan’s decision to confiscate copies of Torat HaMelech, a work by two rabbis from the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar, and to summon for police questioning two prominent national religious rabbis who wrote haskamos for the book, inspires one to shout “Shame on you” at all sides.

I have seen only excerpts of Torat HaMelech, but those excerpts might as well have been deliberately crafted to provide ammunition for anti-Semites who claim that Jews believe that only their blood has value. That is why Rav Elyashiv reportedly condemned the work as endangering Jews around the world. And Rav Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg, who initially also wrote a haskamah, subsequently withdrew it due to halachic errors that were pointed out to him, and other conclusions that “defy logic.”

The authors show a casual regard for life — Jewish as well as gentile. They classify those who lower national or IDF morale as rodfim. Ironically, that definition could include those who called upon soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate Gush Katif.

About twenty years ago, I debated a rabbi from the same circles. In the course of the evening, I found myself progressively horrified by his casual attitude towards bloodletting of “enemies”; by his willingness to rely on quotations pulled from aggadata to reach legal conclusions that, if implemented, would have immense implications for Jews around the world; and by his confidence that we live in an era in which Jews can say and do whatever they want in the Land of Israel without concern for the reaction of the rest of the world. Torat HaMelech reflects the same cast of mind.

Though I am convinced that Torat HaMelech is wrong both in tone and in its specific halachic conclusions, once Shai Nitzan’s prosecutorial group set its sights on the book and summoned rabbis for questioning, the Torah world could not remain indifferent. It is not, after all, for secular courts to distinguish between “correct” and “incorrect” Torah views; nor will they wish to do so. There are doubtless numerous statements in the Talmud and Codes that conflict with various aspects of Israeli law. What, then, will ensure that halachic discussions of the Rambam or Shulchan Aruch do not become fodder for future incitement prosecutions, especially given that in situations when the halachah and Israeli law conflict, and the rule dina d’malchusa dina does not apply, religious Jews are bound by halachah?

Surely opposition to a particular law or laws, no matter how vociferous, is not grounds for a prosecution for incitement. I recently heard Professor Asa Kasher strongly criticize the decision to send thirteen IDF reservists to search what turned out to be booby-trapped house in Jenin during Operation Defensive Shield to make sure there were no civilians inside. He did so on the grounds that when a state conscripts citizens into military service, it must not risk the lives of those citizen-soldiers to save enemy civilians. Nations have always preferred the lives of their own soldiers over enemy civilians. That was the rationale for the Allied carpet-bombing of Germany at the end of World War II and the dropping of atom bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

The authors of Torat HaMelech would reach the same conclusion based on distinctions between Jews and non-Jews, as opposed to distinctions between one’s own citizens and those of enemy states. Does that somehow turn Torat HaMelech into a “racist book”? Will all distinctions between Jews and non-Jews in halachah now become the subject of prosecutions for the “possession of racist material”?

If Nitzan was not merely seeking to harass the settler community, he would have been far wiser to leave it to the national religious community, which felt most implicated by Torat HaMelech, to respond. Rabbi Ariel Finkelstein has already written a point-by-point refutation, about which Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, head of the hesder yeshivah in Ramat Gan wrote, “He has succeeded in refuting the main arguments of the authors ... beginning with their prejudiced presumption that non-Jewish blood is cheap, and ending with their tendentious and erroneous proofs from halachic sources.” Refuting distortions of Torah law that bring calumny on the Torah would be a worthy task for chareidi scholars as well.

Similarly ill-advised was the decision to drag in Rabbis Dov Lior and Yaakov Yosef for questioning. If Nitzan believes that Torat HaMelech constitutes incitement to violence, and that haskamos therefore also constitute incitement, what could their testimony have added? If the haskamos were ambiguous on their face as to whether they constituted an endorsement of the halachic conclusions of the work or a call to action, then there is no basis for an incitement conviction, which requires the equivalent of shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater. Demanding that the rabbis report for questioning, then, was nothing more than a public humiliation ritual.


Reader Beware

I presume everyone who offers his thoughts to the public on a regular basis is gratified when someone compliments him on a particular piece, or even better on the general excellence of his columns. At the same time, I suspect that such compliments are also received with a certain discomfort, particularly when the one offering the compliment seems to assume that the recipient is someone of great wisdom and each column reflects his deep reflection upon the issue at hand from every possible angle. Generally, the recipient of the compliment has inside information that both assumptions are highly questionable.

Those misgivings were sharpened for me recently by a shiur from Rav Moshe Shapira on Parshas Balak. Trembling before the approaching Israelite army, Moab sought counsel from Midian, where Moshe Rabbeinu had grown to maturity. Midian responded that Moshe Rabbeinu’s great power lay in his mouth.

Where precisely did Moshe Rabbeinu reveal his mouth as the source of his power? Answered Reb Moshe: in his difficulty speaking. Each word that he spoke contained within it the power to transform reality, and as such could only be pronounced with great difficulty. He suffered from a “heaviness” of speech, resulting from the manner in which each word was weighed out.

“In matters of Torah and in matters of wisdom, the words of the wise should be minimal,” advises the Rambam. Only speech that has its root in the ability to remain silent is worth attending to, explains Reb Moshe. For that reason, the Brisker Rav refused to give shiurim at designated times; he did not want to be a baal chov (obligated) to produce chiddushim on schedule.

By definition, columnists are people who must fill up a certain amount of space at regular intervals. Silence is not an option. And the more they write, the further removed their speech is from that deliberative process where each word is carefully weighed before emerging from silence.

So columnists may stimulate thought, provide a different perspective, or new information. But none consistently achieve such a degree of wisdom as to absolve the reader from rethinking the matter for himself.

My nineteen-year-old son put the matter in perspective at a family sheva brachos for his older brother last week. “Some might think it strange for a bochur to be offering marital advice,” he began, “but I noticed Abba writes columns on parenting, and figured, why not?”


It Takes a Village?

Apropos of last week’s discussion on the need to help our children develop identities and values from within, and not just in response to peer pressure, I discovered this passage of uncommon power and beauty in Rabbi Moshe Antebi’s superb translation of a shiur from Rabbi Moshe Shapira on the five tragedies of the Seventeenth of Tammuz. Reb Moshe is explicating the verse, “A breached city without a wall is a man who has no rule over his spirit” (Mishlei 25:28):

Very few people feel their own feelings, think their own thoughts, love what they themselves love, distance what they themselves distance. Most people do not own themselves. In one matter they fulfill the obligations of one person, and in another matter the obligations of a different person. They do one thing because it appears correct in the eyes of one person, and withhold from doing another thing so as not to anger a different person. They think one way because someone said something, and they love another thing because yet another person said something else. Essentially, the “self” of every person is a great assembly of other people, a public domain [i.e., a breached city]. The only thing missing is he.

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