Jerusalem & Babylon Lior's Battle Divides Us

I we have learned anything from the Rabbi Lior saga, it is that the dialogue has broken down between Israeli society and the community who chooses to uphold a racist and parochial version of Judaism over the rule of law.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Fifteen and a half years ago, I was a student of one of the rabbis briefly accused of having in some way contributed to an alleged halakhic approval of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. I won't mention his name as it was quickly proved that he had been inadvertently dragged into the affair and he was cleared of any suspicion. This week, I thought a lot about those who rioted following Rabbi Dov Lior's arrest and questioning on Monday, and about how my friends and I felt in 1995, when we were in their place.

I remember the outrage and almost personal pain over the anguish of a man we greatly revered. We were angry at spurious and politically motivated allegations. But I don't recall - at any moment - thinking or hearing that the police and Shin Bet had no right to investigate suspicions or question a rabbi. Indeed, when my rabbi went in for questioning, there was a certain relief - we were confident that the accusations that had been playing in the media for days would end in exoneration, and they did.

The controversy over Rabbi Lior's arrest has been described as a "dialogue of the deaf," but is it really?

That a rabbi or any member of the public is questioned by the police over a book, or in Lior's case, over a rabbinical endorsement (haskama ) he wrote for a book should concern any believer in the freedom of speech, and certainly not just the rabbi's acolytes. Israel's laws against incitement are too wide-reaching, too open to interpretation and the discretion of the authorities in deciding when to open an investigation and press charges. This will always leave significant parts of society with the feeling that they have been unfairly singled out.

Echoes of this argument have been heard not only in the impassioned words of the rioters and Lior's entourage, but also in the first paragraph of this paper's editorial on Wednesday. The views expressed in Torat Hamelech, written by rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur, permitting the killing of civilian non-Jews, even children, in time of war, are abhorrent, and that should not need writing. Neither should the principle of equality before the law. Once the state attorney decided to investigate and question the book's authors and the three rabbis who endorsed the book (a fourth rabbi rescinded his endorsement after realizing what was in the book ), they had no choice but to appear at the police station. That this principle is under attack is what makes this dialogue impossible.

The religious community in Israel was almost unanimous in its condemnation of Lior's arrest, but there were two lines of argument against the police action. Some said the arrest was heavy-handed, that prosecuting a spiritual leader over the endorsement of a book, was an unequal application of the incitement laws, and that in this instance the state attorney had failed to properly balance the public implications. But many who took this line were also prepared, even willing, to distance themselves from the contents of the book.

Others who used the freedom of speech argument agreed with the book and questioned not only the wisdom of the state attorney's decision, but also the power of his office to call in the rabbis. This is the thin dividing line that for the last few years has been splitting the national-religious camp in two, even if its leaders prefer not to acknowledge this fact.

Let's take two young men as an example. In recent days, a Youtube clip making the rounds features Matanya Offan, who is presented as a soldier drafted into the Israel Defense Forces and is shown in uniform, carrying an M-16 and a copy of Torat Hamelech, saying that "the army's role is to defend Jews and act resolutely against the enemy" but apparently, "commanders in the army don't understand this simple fact" and allow "enemies from Syria or Sudan to cross the border." He promises that when he, "God willing," gets to the border, "not to care about all the rubbish that the commanders say; and if I see some enemy coming to the border, I will do everything to harm them, because that's the way you protect Jewish lives." By the way, despite the uniform, Offan has not served in the IDF, and his M-16 is made of plastic.

Compare him to Avner Finkelstein, a student at the hesder yeshiva in Netivot, who last year took upon himself to write a book, Derekh Hamelech, which uses halakhic and rabbinical sources to totally refute the book under investigation and prove that the basis of the arguments in favor of killing non-Jews is fundamentally flawed. His book was endorsed by mainstream rabbis such as Yaakov Ariel and Yuval Cherlow. Ostensibly, these two men are members of the same community, and that is the main problem facing the religious community in Israel today. Because if we have learned anything from the Rabbi Lior saga, it is that the dialogue has broken down between Israeli society and the community who chooses to uphold a racist and parochial version of Judaism over the rule of law many times since the disengagement from Gaza five years ago and the decisions of a democratically elected government. Not irrevocably perhaps, but for now that can be the only conclusion.

Lior's refusal was not about a fine point of law or a stand for freedom of speech. It was a direct challenge to the state's authority. It's a challenge based on the supremacy of his narrow interpretation of Jewish law and values. Those criticizing his arrest without distancing themselves not only from the book's views but also from Lior's entire standpoint, if they are religious and fail to say this is not how they see their lives in a democratic state according to the Torah, are his unwitting accomplices.



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