In the midst of Jerusalem’s Gay Pride Parade on Thursday, a "religious" Jew stabbed six people. The assailant was apprehended and it quickly became clear that he had committed an almost identical crime before going to prison for ten years, only to be released last month; free to vent his blood thirsty hatred again.
When Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein delivered an address in the yeshiva that he headed. He lamented the fact that the religious Zionist community had produced a murderer. Don’t say that Yigal Amir, who murdered Rabin, was a bad seed or an aberration, he said. Instead, recognize that our community has allowed a rhetoric to buzz around that was so violently opposed to Rabin’s policies that a sick individual could get it into his head that Judaism would sanction such a heinous crime.
Rabbi Lichtenstein was a moral hero. He lived up to the Jewish value of heshbon hanefesh – which is the process of self-critical reflection essential for moral growth. I understand why people in the religious community didn’t take kindly to the secular court, whose judges, when delivering a judgement against Amir, made it clear that in a sense they were finding the entire religious establishment guilty – from the religious high schools to the rabbinical schools – for creating a climate of incitement that led to the assassination of a prime minister. Israeli society was in need of healing, yet when the judges made this statement, it only served to further entrench the divisions.
But when Rabbi Lichtenstein gave his address he wasn’t pointing an accusatory finger from the outside. He was engaging in self-criticism.
I’ve seen too many religious Jews on Facebook threads saying that the man who attacked the parade in Jerusalem was a bad seed or an aberration. I heard somebody say, "We have no reason to be ashamed that one madman goes and stabs people; instead, we should be proud of the 99 percent who don’t."
Well, I am ashamed.
I’m not pointing an accusatory finger from the outside. I’m looking in. I am religious. And it is my community that has failed. And for the same reason that Rav Lichtenstein wouldn’t let the community off the hook for one young man’s evil act, we cannot afford to let ourselves off the hook here. To some extent, we all sharpened the knife of this crazed extremist.
The ultra-Orthodox newspaper Kikar HaShabbat condemned the killing, but its editors still made clear that in their view the parade was an "abomination." The Bible does call a certain homosexual act a toeiva (generally translated as an "abomination"), but it doesn’t ever call walking in Jerusalem an abomination. Furthermore, the Bible calls eating shellfish an abomination, but we don’t tend to see protests outside non-kosher restaurants, and it calls certain types of corrupt business practices an abomination, but we don’t see the same sort of moral indignation and cultural taboo around people who flout the basic principles of business ethics.
And the point is this: Had Yigal Amir gone and robbed a bank instead of killing the prime minister of Israel, nobody in their right mind could have suggested that the community from which he came had lead him to believe that there was something righteous about robbing a bank. But because of the sorts of rhetoric and attitudes that were being voiced in the religious community by leading rabbis at the time, it was reasonable to say that no matter how much of an extremist Amir was, and despite that he took things much further than anybody had intended, it was still the case that the community itself had acted in ways that could lead him to believe that his act was holy.
Exactly the same thing can be said today.
We have created, in our internal communal discourse around homosexuality, not merely a climate in which gay Jews are made to feel guilty and isolated and shunned and hated, but a climate in which a "bad seed" could come to think that murderous violence against people on a pride parade was a holy thing to do.
To that extent, we are guilty of sharpening that knife.
Whatever our halakhic position on homosexuality may be within the religious community, we cannot shirk our responsibility. We have to change the climate and the culture that animates and colors our discussions of this topic.
Dr. Samuel Lebens, an Orthodox rabbi, is a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Rutgers University
Correction, August 18, 2015: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Supreme Court judge Aharon Barak delivered the judgment against Amir holding the entire religious establishment guilty.