Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Israel's Revenge?

Four boys are dead and Israel is again on the brink of war: Three Jewish boys killed to provoke Israel into military action that her enemies hoped would bring down the wrath and ridicule of the world (which responds, on queue, in knee-jerk fashion that way pretty much every time something happens); and an innocent Israeli Palestinian boy savagely burned to death in retaliation. Predictably, riots in Jerusalem and Hamas rockets fired into Israel ensued, and Israel has responded by flying sorties over Gaza and targeting Hamas operatives and rocket launchers. The situation is a tinderbox. It could be snuffed out by an effective cease-fire, or flare into a full-scale war.

More on these possibilities in a moment. I want to turn to the brutal and unthinkable murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir. It is generally presumed that it was an act of revenge for the killings of Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel, and Gilad Shaar. Revenge seems to be an inborn human trait, part of our very make-up. William Makepeace Thackeray put it most succinctly when he said, “Revenge may be wicked, but it’s natural” (Vanity Fair). The impetus to retaliate—arising from anger, shame, and humiliation, which are all sadly inevitable elements of life—is fierce and difficult to suppress. Is there anyone who has not at some time fantasized of revenge?

Parshat Matot is about raw and brutal revenge in the guise of holiness. It is one thing to recognize our passion for revenge, but quite another to claim it is God’s bidding. That is precisely what we find in Parshat Matot:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin. (Numbers 31:1-2)

The very last public “service” of Moses, himself the model of humility, devotion, and courage, will be to launch a bloody campaign against a notorious enemy.

Moses spoke to the people, saying, Let men be picked out from among you for a campaign, and let them fall upon Midian to wreak the Lords vengeance on Midian. You shall dispatch on the campaign a thousand from every one of the tribes of Israel. So a thousand from each tribe were furnished from the divisions of Israel, twelve thousand picked for the campaign. (Numbers 31:3-5)

To make matters worse, Pinchas, the fanatical vigilante we encountered in the past two parshiot, is to serve as the priest of the military campaign, equipped with the sacred utensils and the trumpets for sounding the blasts (Numbers 31:6), signifying that Israel fights not only with God’s imprimatur, but at God’s behest.

Torah records that the Israelites slew every male, including the kings of Midian and the prophet Balaam. The women and children, along with animals and property, were seized as booty. The Midianite towns were torched. And when all that was done, the spoils of war were brought to Moses and all Israel awaiting them in the encampment on the steppes of Moab. Moses becomes inflamed with anger because the women have been spared. He reminds everyone that it was Midianite women who seduced Israelite men into idolatry at Pe’or, and orders them to kill every woman, as well as all the male children, and spare only virginal girls.

It is a shocking story. Were it actual history, it would be all the more horrifying.

How often in history have individuals and nations sought revenge against their enemies and claimed that they were fulfilling God’s will? Yet Leviticus 19:18 is very clear: You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Lord. We should be careful not to dismiss this mitzvah as applying only in the realm of smaller grievances, the type we have with our neighbors over the quotidian of life. The Talmud offers the example of two neighbors: Reuven refuses to lend Shimon a saw, so the next day Shimon refuses to lend Reuven an axe. Paltry stuff. We’ve all been subjected to far worse. It is when we face the “big stuff” of life that this commandment reveals its wisdom and moral value. In fact, the mitzvah to not seek revenge is a vaulted a high moral standard to aspire to. The Rambam (Moses Maimonides) wrote:

Whoever takes revenge against his fellow violates a negative commandment, as is written, Do not take revenge or bear a grudge…” Even though he does not receive lashings, it is a very evil trait; a person should not take to heart anything in the world, for those who understand know that all is vanity and worthless, and not worthy of revenge. (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Deot 7:7)

Many have sought to defend the story of revenge in Parshat Matot by citing Deuteronomy 32:35, Vengeance is Mine; I will repay, and to point out that God commands the Israelites to avenge themselves against the Midianites. To those who wish to make this claim, I would assert that there is no one qualified to affirm that God has again commanded vengeance, and there are no longer any Midianites. Midrash Bmidbar Rabbah 22:2 claims that Moses knew that he would die as soon as he had completed the task; therefore acting immediately is to be viewed as meritorious. This amounts to a glorification of Moses’ zeal for the butchery.

And if all this isn’t enough, is it mere coincidence that the people Moses orders Israel to avenge themselves against is none other than the family in which he married? His wife, Tzipporah, is the daughter of Jethro, the priest of Midian. The closer we are to people, the deeper we are wounded when they hurt us; consequently, the greater the desire for revenge. Familiarity breeds contempt and proximity breeds resentment—on steroids.

What remains for us is to live up to the standard of Leviticus 19:18 as Rambam taught—as difficult as that is. Talmud teaches:

Those who are insulted but do not insult back, hear themselves slandered but dont respond, act with love and rejoice in tribulations of these Scripture states that, Those who love [God] are like the sun rising with all its might (Leviticus 6:4). (B. Yoma 23a)

All this swirls through my mind as I painfully contemplate the torture and murder of  16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir and the brutal beating of his 15-year-old cousin, Tariq Khdeir. I know of no one who doubts that both were acts of revenge, the first for the murder of three Israeli teens several weeks ago, and the second for Arab protests against the murder of Muhammad.

All last week, Israel was engaged in military action in Gaza. As I write this the United Nations has reported that 177 Palestinians have been killed in Operation Protective Edge in the past week, many of them children, and many more have been injured. More than one voice has shouted to the hilltops that Operation Protective Edge is an act of revenge. We should not be too quick to label it as such because the evidence does not bear this out. To whit:

    Israel has gone to historically unprecedented lengths to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza. Hamas targets have been warned by cell phone calls and leaflets dropped from the air to vacate houses targeted for destruction. Israel’s goal is to cripple the Hamas infrastructure, not harm the people of Gaza.

    Hamas operatives have embedded themselves deep within the civilian population, increasing the likelihood of civilian casualties because this plays well in the media and the arena of world opinion. They have long employed the tactic of using civilians as “human shields.” They are also ensconced in a labyrinth of tunnels below ground built to infiltrate Israel and attack Israeli civilians.

    Hamas rockets are aimed at Israeli civilian targets. Israeli rockets are aimed at removing the means to launch rockets into Israel in order to protect her civilian population, as she ought. Every country has the right and responsibility to protect its citizens.

    Israel worked out a cease-fire arrangement with the aid of Egypt. Israel has unilaterally initiated a cease-fire. Hamas summarily rejected it, firing 84 rockets toward Israel within a few hours.

    Iron Dome, Israel’s air defense system that intercepts and destroys short-range rockets and artillery shells whose trajectories would bring them to populated areas, is working well. Thank goodness. And thank you to the United States for contributing to its development. As Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren has pointed out, Iron Dome has saved countless lives—both Israeli and Palestinian—and staved off war on numerous occasions. How so? Israel’s ability to protect its civilian population has bought time to pursue diplomatically-arranged cease-fires, thereby decreasing incursions into Gaza, which would surely have resulted in Palestinian casualties.

    At this time, many in Israel believe that the only long-term solution is to eject Hamas from Gaza, given Hamas’ terrorist activities and its stated goals (articulated in the Hamas Charter) to obliterate Israel (preamble), establish a fundamentalist Islamist state in Palestine (Articles 11 and 13) through Jihad (Articles 15 and 33), reject a negotiated peace settlement (Article 13), and kill every Jew everywhere. Concerning the last point, the Hamas Charter reads: “The Day of Judgment will not come about until Moslems fight Jews and kill them. Then, the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will cry out: 'O Moslem, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.’” (Article 7) And if that isn’t enough to make your blood run cold, the Charter also trumpets the notorious anti-Semitic canard, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” forged in Czarist Russia, that purports to describe a Jewish plan for worldwide domination.

I mention these facets of the current situation to make the point that Israel’s actions in Gaza, however much we might wish they hadn’t happened and Israel had not considered them necessary, are not acts of revenge, except in this sense: “The best revenge,” wrote Marcus Aurelius, “is not to be like your enemy” (Meditations). The killing of Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali was an  intentional act of provocation. Israel’s sorties over Gaza are to protect its population from the rain of Hamas rockets showering Israel, from the south nearly to Haifa.

Only the death of Muhammad and, most likely, the beating of his cousin Tariq Abu Khdeir, were acts of revenge. They were both reprehensible and shameful. For the record: Upon hearing of Muhammed’s death, and then Tariq’s treatment at the hands of Israeli police, Israeli society went into convulsions of moral revulsion—that wasn’t covered by the mainstream news media. Those responsible for Muhammad’s death were rounded up within 24 hours; they will be charged, tried, and punished. The Israeli police officer who beat Tariq has been suspended and could be indicted. In contrast, the murderers of Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali, however, are still at large; the Palestinian Authority has made no effort to identify them. Palestinians on the West Bank gave their children candy to publicly celebrate the murders.

 שַׁאֲלוּ, שְׁלוֹם יְרוּשָׁלִָם Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Killing Children / Parshat Pinchas 2014

The past few weeks have been exceedingly painful ones for Jews and Palestinians, marked by the kidnapping and brutal murder of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach, andwithin hoursthe kidnapping and barbaric torture and murder of an Arab Israeli boy, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, apparently in retaliation. Both acts are egregious, unconscionable acts of vigilantism. All life is precious, and at no time should children become pawns and weapons in the wars of adults, used to incite hatred and violent reprisal. 


Vigilantism is not new. Last week, at the end of parshat Balak, we read a most emotionally disturbing and morally unsettling tale: Following the idolatry committed by the Israelites at Baal Peor, God commands Moses to publicly impale the ringleaders. Before that extraordinary punishment can be carried out, a man named Zimri brings a Midianite woman named Cozbi into no less sacred a place than the Tent of Meeting where, in the sight of all, he copulates with her (no G-rated book, the Torah). Imbued with zeal for God and Torah, Pinchas, the leader of the Levitical retinue in the Tent of Meeting, grasps a spear and runs them both through with one stroke. To insure that we, the readers, know that this was is to be understood as a righteous act, Torah tells us that the plague which had been devouring the people, and took 24,000 lives, ceased immediately. This weeks parashah, which bears the name of the zealot, Pinchas, opens with an account of Gods reward to Pinchas for this act:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned bad My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. Say, therefore, I grant [Pinchas] My pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all times, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.’”  (Numbers 25:10-13)

Gevalt! There is no end of difficulties to understanding this passage of Torah. It is so riddled with troubling aspects that I hardly know where to begin. But begin I must because, however discomfiting the account of Pinchas, Zimri, and Cozbi may be, it is part of our sacred tradition: It is holy text. Yet, whenever I contemplate this episode of Torah, the words which leap to mind are not inspiring, ennobling, and edifying. Rather, Im apt to conjure up: appalling, revolting, and horrifying.

So I pause to consider other biblical accounts that remind me of the story of Pinchas and also trouble me: the Torahs tacit approval of Moses murder of an Egyptian taskmaster who was, himself, not guilty of murder so far as we know; and the erratic and violent behavior of Samson that led to the deaths of hundreds of Philistines. All three stories all have a feature in common: Each story seems to applaud and approve vigilante justice.

We want to know what these stories teach us about how we ought to live our lives, but the lesson that seems implicit in eachat least on the very surfaceis abhorrent. People have struggled with the source of ethics from time immemorial. The ancient Greeks believed that the human mind, endowed with the capacity for logic and reason, could eventually plumb the depths of any problem, however thorny, tangled, or torturous. But it is easy to recognize the weakness in this approach: Logic and reason are invaluable, but humans rarely practice them purely. We make a muddle of reason when we unwittingly combine it with our emotional proclivities and political alignments; the results are far from pure reason and rationality. On the other end of the spectrum are those who tell us that all ethics derive from divine revelation, and human reasoning plays no part. This essentially boils down to a bumper stick I loathe and disdain: God said it. I believe it. That settles it. This puts a divine imprimatur on any act that a person claims is biblically permitted or mandated. Its hard to imagine anything more religious self-serving and narcissistic.

What, then, are we to make of the extreme violence and vigilantism of Pinchas? Does God expect us to replicate Pinchas behavior? Is this what God wants? We know deep within that it is not. Yet Pinchas is the poster-boy for fanatics like Meir Kahana, Baruch Goldstein, Rabbi Bakshi-Doron, Yigal Amirand many West Bank and Gaza Israeli settlers, whose claims to promote Judaism and its values are utterly belied but their hatred toward Palestinians and their immoral actions, from desecrating churches and mosques to the latest and most horrific: the torture and murder of an innocent child. What have they all missed?

It may seem an enormous leap from the story of Zimri and Cozbi being speared by Pinchas to permission for a modern-day vigilantism, but sadly it is not.

The Sages do not shower Pinchas with unadulterated approbation. On the one hand, the Israelites have descended yet again into communal idolatry. From this perspective, Pinchas embodies Gods wrath and carries out Gods will, and in so doing, halts the plague that is devouring lives by the thousands. This perspective, in an attempt to defend him, garners Pinchas praise, and the covenant of peace is understood to confirm the propriety of Pinchas actions. The Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 9:7) tells us that the Elders wanted to excommunicate Pinchas and only relented when God declared that the covenant would be for him and his descendants for all time. Concerning this, Rabbi Baruch Epstein, in Torah Temimah,  writes: Such a deed must be animated by a genuine, unadulterated spirit of zeal to advance the glory of God. In this case, who can tell whether the perpetrator is not really motivated by some selfish motive, maintaining that he is doing it for the sake of God, when he has actually committed murder? That was why the Elders wished to excommunicate Pinchas, had not the Holy Spirit testified that his zeal for God was genuine. On the other hand, the Rabbis and later commentators are clearly uncomfortable with Pinchas and express great ambivalence. They are wary of vigilante action; they do not wish to legitimate the violence of any zealot who feels himself imbued with Gods wrath. Therefore the Rabbis attempt to limit the application of Pinchas example to while the fire is burning, meaning that Zimri and Cozbi had to be caught in the act and without the slightest hesitation on their parts. Abraham ibn Ezra expresses even greater concern about the precedent the story may set for other zealots, and therefore tells us that witnesses had already given testimony concerning Zimri and Cozbi in court, and therefore Pinchas was acting in the capacity of a duly authorized executioner following a proper court hearing. This is both an attempt to justify the simple sense of the text precisely that cannot be justified, and to forestall the use of the text to promote vigilantism. Some commentators openly hold that Pinchas behavior was condemned by Moses. It has been explained that the broken letter vav in the term briti shalom (covenant of peace, Numbers 25:12) reflects Gods unwillingness to offer a full covenant of peace to Pinchas, a man who had just committed murder. Clearly, the Rabbis were deeply ambivalent about Pinchas, and very wary of his violent vigilante behaviorhowever much Torah tells us that God approved. And well they should be! Such behavior is exceptionally dangerous and highly reprehensible.

And lest you think that such things are the stuff of Torah legends and could not happen today, two examples will suffice. In 1996, the then-Chief Sephardic Rabbi in Israel, Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, delivered a dvar Torah on Shabbat afternoon in which he likened Zimri to liberal Jews who desecrate Jewish traditions, thereby suggesting that a righteous Jew might act the violent role of Pinchas. When furious and vociferous objections were raised from every corner of the country, he responded that he meant it in a metaphorical way. Well, Pinchas did not run Zimri and Cozbi through metaphorically.  The response to Bakshi-Dorons dvar Torah was swift and strenuous because we had already seen what can happen when the halakhic process is short-circuited: the result can be disaster. The year before Bakshi-Doron delivered his ignominious drash, Yigal Amir assassinated then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin zl, propelled by yet another ignoble dvar Torah delivered by an irresponsible ring wing rabbi based on the din rodef (law of the pursuer). The rodef is one who, with weapon in hand and articulating clear threats to another, runs after him with intent to kill.[1] Amir heard a rabbi liken Rabin to a rodef for proposing negotiations with the Palestinians. It thus became a mitzvah in the mind of a fanatic to kill him. Yet another metaphor translated into concrete and violent vigilante action.

Parshat Pinchas does not present a rosy picture of how people are, but then very little in Torah does. Torah is a view of life without blinders. Its realistic portrait of humanity is far more valuable than a pietistic whitewashing because it is against this background that we are propelled into wrestling with God, struggling with our traditions, and ultimately arriving at religious imperatives in which we can have ethical confidence.

I am glad that Israeli politicians in the Knesset spanning the broad political spectrum publicly condemned the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir. Finance Minister Yair Lapid rightly said, We should all be ashamed of the findings on the Arab teens murder. The State of Israel cannot stand silent following the shocking murder of a young, innocent Arab boy by Jewish murderers. There is no difference between our blood and their blood. Law enforcement must act determinedly and harshly against the murderers and put them on trial. MK Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid party) said: Our responsibility as a nation is to purify our camp from fringe elements who were forced on us. The values in our national DNA require us to act. The investigation of Muhammad Abu Khdeirs murder should be a top priority and his murderers should be brought to justice. MK Shelly Yacimovich (Labor Party) summed up the situation succinctly: Woe to us if the lust for revenge will replace the state, its institutions and its rule of law, Whoever is fanning passions and giving legitimacy to blood lust should know that his hands are stained with blood.

I feel a measure of relief that six people have been arrested in connection with the abduction and murder of Muhammad and that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has denounced their actions as terrorism, saying, We do not distinguish terror from terror. But this is not enough. The settlement culture and reality that support and breed such acts remains, and receives enormous support from the government. Until that is addressed, such criminal and immoral actsunquestioned violations of Torahmay continue. The bottom line: those who take it upon themselves to deliver  vigilante justice are nothing more than violent, fanatical zealotsin other words, they are terrorists.

One should always try to end with a nechamta (words of consolation).  I wouldnt have thought that possible in the case of the barbaric murders of four innocent children, yet it is. Two Palestinians from the Hebron area (I regret I dont know their names, but I suspect they wish to remain anonymous) visited the Fraenkel family last Sunday, during shiva, to express their condolences personally. One of them said: Things will only get better when we learn to cope with each others pain and stop getting angry at each other. Our task is to give strength to the family and also to take a step toward my nations liberation. We believe that the way to our liberation is through the hearts of Jews I see before me a Jewish family who has lost a son opening the door to me. Thats not obvious. It touched my heart and my nation. That same day, Naftalis uncle Yishai called Hussein Abu Khdeir, Muhammads father, to express, our deep empathy with their sorrow, from one bereaved family to another bereaved family There is no difference between those who murdered Muhammad and those who murdered our children…” Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem, also spoke with Abu Khdeir to express his condolences on behalf of the residents of Jerusalem. May the deep humanity and sincerity of gestures and actions such as these turn the hearts of many others toward a just and lasting peace.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] Lets say youre shopping at a mall. Youve just pulled into a parking spot. You see two people running, one pursuing the other. The pursuer is holding a gun and waving it at the person running away from him, and hes shouting, “You think you can get away with it, dont you? Im going to catch you and kill you. See if I dont. You cant escape me.” What to do? There is no time to call the police because the pursuer is gaining on his prey by the second. The din rodef tells us that not only may we kill the pursuer to prevent a murder, but we must kill the pursuer in this one narrow circumstance. (This of course assumes we have the means to kill the pursuer and prevent him from committing murder.) The din rodef also requires that the one who observes the pursuer must let him know that what he intends is a crime punishable by death, and the pursuer must acknowledge that he is aware of that. It’s difficult to imagine being able to fulfill these requirements and thereby fulfill the din rodef, isn’t it?