From: Rabbi Eric Yoffie
To: Rabbi Haim Druckman
Aisha Rabi was, according to news reports ,struck in the head and killed by a stone as she rode with her husband and two daughters near the Jewish settlement of Rehelim. Israel’s Shin Bet security service has taken into custody five students of Pri Haaretz, a yeshiva high school in Rehelim, on suspicion of throwing the stones that killed Mrs. Rabi.
Many in the settler movement have rushed to the defense of the students, but no voice has been more prominent than your own.
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When the students were initially detained, you publicly demanded, even as you acknowledged that an interrogation might be called for, that the prime minister "order the immediate release of the children." The reason they should be released, you said, was that "(t)hey are not terrorists."
Your statement was interesting on many levels.
I saw no hint of the revulsion that you should have been feeling and that, I hope and believe, most religious Zionists in Israel were feeling about the terrible crime that the yeshiva students were arrested for allegedly committing.
It is true that in this pre-election season, most of Israel’s right-wing leaders have chosen to be silent about the horrors of the murder, reserving their concern for the alleged perpetrators rather than the alleged victims. Nonetheless, I would have hoped that you, as a rabbi and educator, would have set an example by expressing both compassion for the grieving family and abhorrence at the violent act that led to Mrs. Rabi’s death.
I was struck too by your reference to the accused as "children." Your intention obviously was to generate sympathy for the supposed suffering of the young people who, it is true, are minors. But it is important to note that when Palestinian youths commit abominable crimes that cry out for condemnation from all civilized people, we in the Jewish community hardly ever refer to them as "children."
We refrain from doing so because it is a linguistic trick; the term implies innocence and the indiscretions of youth. And we know that teenagers who carry out brutal murders are not entitled to our sympathy or to be excused on the grounds of immaturity.
And I was most distraught by your statement that the young men "are not terrorists." How could you say this?
It is true, of course, that they have as yet been convicted of nothing and are entitled to a presumption of innocence. It may be determined, after appropriate judicial proceedings, that they are guilty of no crime. But how can you know that now?
And the wording of your statement suggested that you uttered it as an unconditional declaration, regardless of what transpires in the legal system. In other words, even if they turn out to be guilty, you refuse to see them as terrorists.
But this is an appalling proclamation, and one that makes a mockery of every discussion of terrorism ever held in Israel. When an Arab throws a stone for the purpose of maiming and killing, it is a terrorist attack. And when a Jew throws a stone for the same purpose, he is a terrorist in precisely the same way that an Arab is.
Worst of all, given your position as a religious leader and a man of Torah, your words may be taken by some to suggest that the Jewish tradition takes a forgiving approach to the crime committed near Rehelim. Many of the young people of Rehelim, and the murderous circles of "hilltop youth" in which they travel, have already embraced this perverse view of our sacred teachings.
And your words can serve only to strengthen their conviction that they operate with the backing of rabbinic authority when they engage in the politics of vigilantism, the harassment and physical intimidation of innocents, and outright acts of Jewish terror that have grown fivefold over the last year.
Who are the rabbis who teach, enable, and empower these unhinged zealots? Who are the teachers that allow out-of-control youth, supposedly operating with a mantle of Torah but in fact freed of Torah’s moral constraints, to believe that unspeakable crimes can be seen as justified acts of retribution, sanctioned by our Jewish tradition?
There cannot be many such rabbis, but apparently there are enough to feed the sickness that keeps these young extremists going, and enough mainstream rabbis who choose to remain silent rather than putting an end, in the name of God, to this hillul hashem.
If you will permit me to suggest it, Rabbi Druckman, your job is not to excuse the inexcusable. It is to teach these young people Torah - and that means the Torah of truth, and not the Torah of murderous zealotry.
A good place to start might be "Meshiv Milchamah," a book of responsa by Rabbi Shlomo Goren. Rabbi Goren, of course, was the first head of the Military Rabbinate of the IDF and later the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel. Having served in the military in three wars, he knew first-hand about how Judaism is to be practiced even in the most difficult times, when Jews may be under attack.
In the volume noted above, he discusses the famous midrash (Sanhedrin 39b) in which God instructs the ministering angels not to rejoice after the Egyptians, pursuing the Israelites as they flee Egypt, are drowned in the sea.
From this midrash, Rabbi Goren concludes that when Jews go out to war, they are obligated to fight their enemies with all their heart and all their might, but they are forbidden to rejoice when doing so. Yet Goren takes the point a step farther:
"Despite the explicit commandment to do battle found in the Torah, we are commanded to show compassion to our enemy and not to kill him except when compelled to do so by the need for self-defense and victory. And we must not cause any harm to the non-combatant population. And surely it is forbidden to hurt women and children who are not participating in the hostilities."
Goren, in other words, makes completely clear the prohibition against killing civilians in time of war. And in fact, he also extends this prohibition to include the killing of an enemy soldier if it is not required during the actual fighting - an extraordinary humanitarian judgment.
Goren then goes on to discuss whether the commandment in Deuteronomy 20:17 to kill all the members of the seven Canaanite nations, a commandment repeated by Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah, can ever be used as justification for taking the lives of non-Jews who live in the Land of Israel in our day.
His position on this point is emphatic: "We are not to harm the non-combatant population (in the Land of Israel), and one can learn no lessons from wars fought in ancient times…One cannot, heaven forbid, conclude anything from other, (earlier) wars concerning wars in our time…We are commanded by law to walk in the paths of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and to show mercy to His creations, as it is written: 'God’s mercy is upon all God’s works.'" (Psalms 145:9)
Rabbi Druckman, should not the responsa of Rabbi Goren be taught in the Pri Haaretz yeshiva in Rehelim? And if they were, is it not at least possible that some of those alleged rock-throwing killers might have learned from the wisdom of his teachings, and chosen another course for their lives?
In any case, if Rabbi Goren were alive today, I have no doubt that he would not be embracing the alleged murderers, excusing the crimes of which they have been accused, dismissing their deeds as the work of "children," and demanding gentleness rather than justice from the authorities authorized by the Jewish state to enforce the law.
Instead of coddling them, he would be condemning their actions - as Torah demands and as justice requires.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie