The Murder Midrash
A controversial treatise, ‘Torat Hamelekh,’ raises questions about a purported ‘Jewish morality’ and the role of rabbis in society
By KAMOUN BEN-SHIMON • Jerusalem Report
ON A DAY IN LATE AUGUST, Rabbi Yosef Meidan, head of the Gush Etzion Yeshiva in Alon Shvut, a settlement south of Bethlehem in the West Bank, the most prestigious yeshiva of the moderate Zionist religious movement, began his daily lecture with a different lesson than the usual one on Jewish law.
He held up a copy of “Torat Hamelekh” (“The King’s Torah”), a book with a marble patterned cover and embossed gilt letters, to his students.
“This is a challenging book, written by learned men,” he said to the assembly of students.
After a short silence, he added, calmly and deliberately, “We should burn this book and never allow its authors to teach halakha ever again.”
Written by Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira and Rabbi Yosef Elizur, both from the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar, “Torat Hamelekh” was first published by the settlement yeshiva, Od Yosef Hai, nearly a year ago. The book deals with questions, such as the fate of a non-Jew who, in time of war, does not violate what are known as the seven principles of the sons of Noah, considered the basic commandments of all humanity, and the fate of a non-Jew who does violate these principles, and under what circumstances is it permitted to kill children and strangers living in the land. One of its six chapters deals with the prohibition for a Jew to give up his life in order to avoid killing a non- Jew, while another chapter deals with the question of when it is necessary and permissible to kill innocents.
“The prohibition (in the Ten Commandments) ‘Thou shalt not murder,” the authors write, “applies only to a Jew who kills a Jew.” Since “non-Jews are uncompassionate by nature,” they should be killed in order to “curb their evil inclinations,” they write.
“There is justification for killing babies if it is clear that they will grow up to harm us, and in such a situation they may be harmed deliberately, and not only during combat with adults.”
“Torat Hamelekh” was not published surreptitiously nor was any attempt made to hide it from the eyes of the general public. In fact, it would appear that the authors wanted to reach as large an audience as possible and to generate public debate on whether it is justified to kill non-Jews, including children and innocent citizens.
Yet initially, although it attracted some attention in the religious-Zionist community, it raised a brief furor in the secular press, which died down quickly.
In January 2010, Shapira was briefly detained by the police for incitement, which preceded the torching and vandalizing of a mosque in Yasuf, a Palestinian village near Yitzhar. Security agents simultaneously raided the Od Yosef Hai Yeshiva and arrested 10 settlers, on suspicion that they were involved in the arson.
The police took no further action and the public took no further notice. For months, “Torat Hamelekh,” was on sale in religious book stores and at events sponsored by radical nationalist groups. But over the past few months, it has become almost impossible to find a copy of the book in Jerusalem or almost anywhere else. In the Od Yosef Hai Yeshiva, officials complain that the police have confiscated all the copies. The police deny confiscating copies from book shops, but say some were taken as evidence from houses of suspects.
IN MID-AUGUST, STATE PROSEC– utor Moshe Ledor sent investigators to Shapira’s home in the early hours of the morning and brought him in, handcuffed, for questioning about the publication of “Torat Hamelekh.” Rabbi Dov Lior, head of the Shavei Hebron Yeshiva in Kiryat Arba, near Hebron in the West Bank, and Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, leader of the Hazon Yaakov Yeshiva in Jerusalem, a former member of Knesset and son of former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the Shas party, a central component of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, were called in for questioning, but publicly announced that they refused to appear.
An assistant issued a statement in their name, saying that they had no intention of “providing anyone with an accounting of their opinions with regard to halakha. This persecution of the rabbis because of their religious opinions is a clear contradiction to accepted principles of freedom of religion and freedom of expression.”
Lior and Yosef did appear at a wellattended and well-publicized rally, held in Jerusalem several days later, to denounce what they referred to as the “the persecution of the Torah by the institutions of the State.”
“Torat Hamelekh” was now receiving full attention, raising not only questions regarding a purported “Jewish morality” but also regarding the role of rabbis in society, heightened by the rabbis’ refusal to appear for questioning. Is it proper to investigate rabbis – some of whom are civil servants whose salaries are paid by the state – for their religious writings? And who determines what religious laws are acceptable in the current social and political context, especially now, as direct peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians resume and as tensions escalate between fundamentalist religious settlers and Israel’s more moderate majority, religious and secular.
In a press release issued at the time of publication, the authors of “Torat Hamelekh” wrote that they “do not plan to grant interviews to the media, especially not to those not committed to the Torah.”
Yet Yisrael Ariel did agree to speak exclusively with The Jerusalem Report in late August. Ariel is a close assistant to Rabbi Yaakov Ginsburg [sic – should read, Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh], who has published similarly controversial books, including one that lauds Baruch Goldstein, the settler who murdered 29 Muslims while they were at prayer in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in Hebron, in 1994. “Those who have complaints about ‘Torat Hamelekh” don’t understand and have not internalized the meaning of democratic values or Jewish morality,” Ariel tells The Report.
He explains the rabbis’ position: “President Obama, for example, is the antithesis of what we Jews believe. Obama divides the world into weak and strong, and he tries with all his might to support the weak. But according to the Torah, the true division in the world is between those who are right and just, and those who are not. “But unfortunately, Obama’s position has penetrated everywhere, even into the Israel Defense Forces’ code of ethics. In Israeli society, we no longer think in Jewish terms.”
The statements in “Torat Hamelekh,” Ariel contends are thus a perfectly reasonable response to the capitulation to the false Western values that conflict with the spirit of the Torah.
Speaking at the Jerusalem rally, Yosef similarly declared that “Torat Hamelekh” is no different from the Haggada, which Jews read on the holiday of Passover. The Haggada, he reminded the audience, calls for God to “pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know You and on the kingdoms that do not call upon Your name” and contains passages about killing non-Jews. So does the Bible. “Does anyone want to change the Bible?” he challenged.
MOST OBSERVERS BELIEVE that “Torat Hamelekh” reflects a fringe viewpoint held by a small minority of rabbis from settlements and yeshivas in the West Bank that are known to be radical and extremist.
Yet, the late-August rally brought in a crowd of more than 250 rabbis and supporters, some of whom declared that, while they did not agree with the content of “Torat Hamelekh,” they had come to protest against the Attorney General’s office, the judicial system, academic institutions and anyone else who believes that halakhic rulings should be subject to the secular legal system.
“I don’t agree with the book,” declared Rabbi Ya’akov Ariel, the rabbi of the city of Ramat Gan and, as such, a civil servant, “but the question here is not about agreement, it’s about interrogation by the police.” And Rabbi Sha’ar Yashuv Hacohen, rabbi of Haifa and similarly a public employee, declared that he was attending the rally in order to “protest against the degradation of the Torah.”
Thundered Rabbi Haim Druckman, head of the state’s conversion courts, “in the State of Israel, academic freedom is considered sacred. Only in the past few days, we have heard from the media that there are professors who openly incite against the State of Israel. One of them is reported to have said,” Druckman continued, apparently referring to (and imprecisely quoting) Professor Zeev Sternhell’s op-ed in a Hebrew daily several years ago, “that the Arabs should aim their missiles at the settlements.”
Isn’t that incitement? But no one called for an investigation, and he even was awarded the Israel Prize. We are speaking about the most elementary issue – the right to express words of Torah. And if there are differences regarding our understanding of the Torah, there are places of study where we can discuss these differences.”
But Eliaz Cohen, a student of Druckman’s, a poet and a resident of Kfar Etzion, in the West Bank, attended the rally to protest against it. He tried to interrupt Druckman’s speech – an almost unheard of act by a student towards his rabbi. He was removed by force from the rally, and later tells The Jerusalem Report, “I know he opposes what is written in the book. But I could not be silent in the face of the hilul hashem (desecration of God’s name)” – a particularly emotionally-laden term in the religious world.
And other, no less prominent, rabbis boycotted the event. In addition to Meidan, Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, one of the veteran founders of the Gush Emunim settler movement, wrote, in an opinion piece on the Ynet website, that he assumed that many of the rabbis who were in attendance at the event had not actually read the book. “But from this moment on,” he wrote, “anyone who rises to defend the right to write such a book, or to engage in such an evil discussion as if it were a discussion of Torah… testifies before heaven and earth that he has no part in the manner in which Rabbi Kook defended the Torah,” referring to the spiritual leader of Gush Emunim.
Of the younger influential rabbis, Beni Lau, nephew of former chief rabbi Israel Meir Lau, leader of a study house devoted to social justice, also tells The Report that the book and the rally should be considered a hilul hashem.
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, head of the armyaffiliated yeshiva in Petah Tikva and considered one of the most prominent moderate voices of the religious Zionist camp, denounced the meeting in the harshest terms. “Whoever convenes a meeting solely on this topic [the alleged insult to the Torah] and does not, at the same time, completely distance himself from what is written in this book is a sinner,” he tells The Jerusalem Report.
“This book purports to be very Zionist. It is very concrete in the way in which it relates to the reality we face today. It is intended to give soldiers the tools with which to defend themselves. It claims that the IDF’s ethical code is immoral vis-a-vis our soldiers and endangers the IDF through all sorts of pseudo-moral claims. But the men who wrote this book are merely defining Judaism in the way they believe. This book and its authors want to force Jewish morality to suit their opinions. And I, as one who deals with Jewish ethics, insist that you must say not only what is correct, but also what is worthy and what is not worthy.”
An ad-hoc coalition of moderate religious groups issued a statement in which they wrote that “Israel’s rabbis are subject to the laws of the state, as are all of Israel’s citizens, and that obligation also conforms to the halakhic precept of dina demalchuta dina (the law of the state is law). So such insubordination [of refusing police questioning] can also be considered a halakhic transgression…” And even a handful of settler rabbis censured the book and boycotted the event, including Shlomo Aviner, chief rabbi of the settlement of Beit El and head of the Ateret Yerushalayim Yeshiva.
GIVEN THE GROWING INFLU ence of rabbis over the growing number of religious soldiers, and the growth of the army-affiliated yeshivas, the question arises whether “Torat Hamelekh” and similar rabbinic literature will affect the way soldiers respond to events in the territories.
Yisrael Ariel hopes they will. “Soldiers need to understand that they are right and righteous, they shouldn’t ask questions about who is weak or who is strong. If you are right, then it doesn’t matter if you are weak or strong.
“Torat Hamelekh” was written to change the attitudes of the people who have adopted this Western attitude…When my son goes to the army to fight, he is not alone, he is with his mother and father, his community, the people who are with him in his life. Morality seems very different when you think this way.”
And, in fact, there were large numbers of youths at the Jerusalem rally, most of them wearing the long thick side-locks and large skullcaps associated with the extremist fringe of the national religious movement. Several wore T-shirts with the slogan, “Show no mercy.”
Yet Cherlow says that he is not concerned regarding the impact that “Torat Hamelekh” will have on young men as they enlist in the military. “Religious soldiers act according to ethical rules and morality. Not that there isn’t any such danger, but I think that it is on the fringes. Isolated soldiers, weak in their faith, alone in the country, may take advantage of the book to commit crimes, even murder.”
But the anxiety regarding the soldiers – torn between prevailing moral codes and the writings of their teachers, and troubled by what many see as the attack on the world of Torah – is reflected on the websites, which the rabbis of the religious Zionist movement have opened over the past few years in order to enable youth to ask for rabbinic opinions anonymously. On the “Kippah” website, one of the most active of these sites, a soldier asks, “In this book, you write that it is permitted to kill innocents and even children if they endanger me. But is it not God who decides who should live and who should die? And He has specifically written, ‘Thou shalt not murder.’”
The rabbis respond to his query by writing that “war is cruel and in war you must win completely, and in our times, we must aspire to a complete victory, so that our enemies will surrender… Unfortunately, the IDF, once an idealistic institution that was meant to defend our ancient and holy people and our land has become an organization in which the personal careers of the soldiers conflict with our true values… If the religious soldiers want to fix the IDF, they will have to stop hiding their Jewish- Israeli positions. They must say loudly and clearly that the role of the IDF is to defend the land and the people, and not pretend that they are UN soldiers who are supposed to keep the Jews and the Arabs apart, and they must denounce commanders who do not understand that we are in the land of Judea and Samaria because it is the land of our forefathers.”
Cherlow repeats that he doubts that soldiers will be influenced by these writings, but he adds, “I am more concerned that the authors think that this is what Judaism is supposed to be – and no one will want to become part of such a Judaism. In addition, they are providing fuel to all those in the world who hate us.”
TO DATE, BOTH SEPHARDI CHIEF Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger have steadfastly refused to comment on the book or the rally. And the government and its officials have remained silent, raising serious questions regarding the extent to which Netanyahu, whose coalition is dependent on the right wing, is willing to confront and contend with the extremists in the national religious camp, especially as the decision regarding the continuation or cessation of the 10-month housing freeze approaches.
Despite the tone of their writings, defenders of “Torat Hamelekh” often use arguments taken from liberal democratic theory. “It breaks my heart that an open, democratic discussion has not been internalized,” says Yehuda Glick, head of the Mikdash Institute and a strong proponent of permitting Jews to pray on the Temple Mount. “If they disagree, why don’t they pick up the gauntlet, open the book and discuss and debate? These people – Rabbi Meidan’s students, for example – are intellectually capable of dealing with ‘Torat Hamelekh.’”
But legal commentator Moshe Negbi, a contributing editor to The Jerusalem Report, retorts, “This is clearly incitement to racism and to violence, for which the law mandates a five-year prison term. Religious incitement is the most dangerous, whether it is by Bin Laden, Hamas, fundamentalist Christians or extremist rabbis. Perhaps prosecuting these rabbis will prevent publication of the next book – we all remember that Yigal Amir, the assassin of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, said that without the support of the rabbis, he would not have done what he did. It is useless to run after the mosquitoes; we have to dry out the swamps. And those swamps are halakhic rulings and books like ‘Torat Hamelekh.’”