The conflagration at Notre Dame de Paris that badly damaged the ancient cathedral on Monday was possibly divine punishment, an influential Israeli rabbi said on Wednesday, invoking a 13th-century burning of Jewish scriptures.
Addressing the fire at the 856-year-old church in Paris in a Q&A article published on religious-Zionist Israeli news website Srugim, French-born Shlomo Aviner, now the rabbi of West Bank settlement Beit El, also said it is a mitzvah - a deed done from religious duty - to set fire to churches in Israel, but warned that shouldn't be done anyway, because they would then have to be rebuilt.
Asked if the fire at Notre Dame was cause for grief, Aviner said "that isn't our function at this time. There is no command to seek out Christian churches beyond Israel and burn them down. In our holy land, things are more complicated. Indeed the Rabbi of Satmar wrote that one of his reasons against immigration to Israel is that here the command to burn churches applies but it isn't exercised," and therefore being in Israel without burning churches is prohibited.
He added that the rabbi Menachem Mendel Kasher said that building churches, "which we'll have to do" should they be burnt, is a greater offense than leaving them as is.
Gadi Gvariyahu of the Tag Meir nongovernmental organization, which monitors hate crimes in Israel and the West Bank and promotes interfaith dialogue, called Aviner's remarks "sad, angering and shocking."
"If an influential rabbi says 'there is no command to seek out Christian churches abroad and burn them down but in our holy land, the issue is more complicated' – what will the extreme right be likely to do?" Gvariyahu added.
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The American Jewish Committee said in a tweet that Aviner's comments "are repulsive and un-Jewish."
At first, Aviner pulled back from explicitly calling the fire a punishment from heaven. However, when answering the question "So it can't be said that it was punishment?" the rabbi wrote, "It is possible, after all. The first big Talmud burning was in Paris, there in the plaza of the Notre Dame Cathedral."
Aviner said it was a result of the Paris trial, "In which Jewish sages in France of that generation were forced into confrontation with the Christian sages. The result was the burning of the Talmud. The Talmud books were brought to the Note Dame square in 20 wagons … and were burned there, meaning, 1,200 Tamlud books."
Answering a question about displeasing non-Jews by failing to demonstrate grief at the cathedral fire, Aviner wrote, "That is no reason to grovel. … Rabbis must remain faithful to the truth. Every God-fearing Jew must adhere to the truth."
French President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday that the fire-devastated cathedral be rebuilt, hopefully within five years. Hundreds of millions of euros have already been pledged by business leaders and companies for the reconstruction of the iconic 12th-century church.
Also on Tuesday, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin extended sympathy to France, tweeting," Our hearts are with the people of #France and the legends of @notredameparis, real and fictional, and we pray it will stand in eternity."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a tweet he expresses his "deep sorrow over the fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, a cultural and religious heritage site of France and of all humanity."