Appropriating Heaven

Even the Talmud does not say the Torah was given to Moses directly by God. But Rabbi Avraham Shapira, in the statement he issued this weekend ordering soldiers to refuse to participate in implementing the disengagement plan, spoke in the name of Heaven and presumed to express the will of God.

The Talmudic tractate of Avot says: "Moses received the Torah at Sinai and gave it to Joshua, and Joshua [gave it] to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the men of the Great Assembly." Note that it does not say that the Torah was given to Moses directly by God; even the writers of the earliest texts were hesitant to say something that explicit. But Rabbi Avraham Shapira, in the statement he issued this weekend ordering soldiers to refuse to participate in implementing the disengagement plan, spoke in the name of Heaven and presumed to express the will of God.

It is not by chance that Judaism, in its foundational holy texts, refrained from stating that its heritage was transmitted from generation to generation directly from God. A faith that empowers man to represent God necessarily leads to idol worship. Judaism leaves room for a wide field of interpretation of the Torah, and in every generation, teachers arise who explain it and adapt it to circumstances. In the nature of things, this process of discussion and debate has given birth to disagreements and to differing, even at times contradictory, conclusions.

But now along comes Rabbi Shapira, the former chief rabbi of Israel, who is considered the supreme spiritual leader of religious Zionism, and presumes to know the will of God. In the halakhic ruling that he published on refusing orders, he speaks dogmatically in the name of "Heaven." Rabbi Shapira does not say: "This is my opinion," "this is how I understand the halakha," "this is how I interpret the Torah." He states: "There is no disagreement over this. Heaven does not will it," "Heaven does not will it, so it is forbidden to anyone [to participate in evacuating settlements]," "we say that Heaven does not will it."

In this context, it is worth recalling the famous story in Tractate Baba Metzia, page 59, sides A and B. It describes a disagreement between Rabbi Eliezer and the other rabbis about the kashrut of an oven. All of Rabbi Eliezer's arguments fail to persuade his colleagues, so finally, he asks God for help: He requests signs to prove that he is right. And indeed, nature changes its course at his request - but despite this, his opinion is not accepted. Finally, Rabbi Eliezer shouts: "If the halakha is as I say, Heaven will prove it," and a voice from Heaven confirms his ruling. At that moment, Rabbi Joshua gets up and says: "It is not in Heaven, because the Torah was already given at Sinai and it was said that we should `err after the majority.'"

This story reflects the proper approach: In the Torah and in the halakhic and interpretative literature derived from it, one can find a thing and its opposite. No one has the right to speak in God's name, and no one has the right to claim the status of supreme decision-maker whose rulings cannot be appealed. The Talmudic discourse constitutes lasting proof of the pluralistic nature of the biblical text and of the conclusion that necessarily follows from this nature: The Torah was given so that men would study it, interpret it according to their understanding and draw conclusions from it based on the circumstances of their lives. The Torah does not discuss the situation in which the State of Israel finds itself today, and therefore it is impossible to speak in its name on issues concerning the conduct of the state's current affairs. It did not foresee a scenario in which Jews living in a sovereign state would rule over another people and have to decide whether to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. There are no divine verses dealing with day-to-day politics.

Rabbi Shapira does not derive his rulings from the Torah; the reverse is true: He has a political opinion, and to give it greater force, he ties it to biblical trees. At most, it is possible to say that his worldview regarding the future of the territories derives from his personal interpretation of the holy texts. Therefore, he ought to emphasize the limited and biased nature of his opinion, instead of speaking in absolute terms, in the name of Heaven, and thereby attempting to exempt himself from a national discourse on the wisdom and correctness of his stance. And that is also how his students should relate to his words.