Friday, November 24, 1995

God on Trial

The Jewish Week, November 24, 1995

Just as the world finally began to shake itself of that year-long melodrama known as the "Trial of the Century," we are soon to face a court proceeding that could top it.

When all the evidence is assembled and Yigal Amir and his cohorts answer to the assassination charges, the real defendant on the docket will be God.

Underlying this case will be two radically different views of Judaism: one backed by rabbis so certain that they know God's will that they are willing to sanction homicide to sustain it, and the other less certain of God's true intentions but far more in line with Judaism's talmudic roots. The vast majority of Jews, including rabbis of all denominations, uphold this flexible, non-fundamentalist perspective. Until now, Israelis and their government have never issued a direct challenge against the messianist-fundamentalist strain. Now they will have to.

Yigar Amir, the confessed assassin, may plead innocent by virtue of divine imperative. The prosecution will then have to be ready to answer basic questions: How do we know that God did not want Amir to pull the trigger? How can we be so certain that the God of Israel didn't see it is an abomination that a Jew was willing to give sacred soil away to the murderer of Jews?

The response to these questions will involve expert testimony, but this time there will be no DNA evidence or bloody gloves. This time, the experts paraded onto the stand will be rabbis and theologians, and the goal will be to deligitimize these deviants so that the government can then proceed to snuff them out when the case is closed. As much as the Eichmann trial educated the world about the horrors of the Holocaust, the Amir trial will be Israel's way of renewing the integrity of Judaism in the eyes of its own populace.

For too long, most secular Israelis have turned a blind eye to Jewish fundamentalism, because there were always more pressing needs. They had little to fear from most haredim, who seemed to care less about the West Bank than the other types of banks needed as repositories for hefty yeshiva subsidies. And the settlers, well, they were just modern-day chalutzim (pioneers), a little overzealous, perhaps, but they meant well.

Sorry. Messianic fundamentalists are dangerous creatures, even when they are ostensibly on our side. So now Israelis will finally begin to purge themselves of this ideological cancer in their midst. The trial will clearly demonstrate that the Rabin killing was caused less by the escalating verbal violence between left and right than by the nation's incubation of a virulent strand of Judaism that was then allowed to run amok.

God will be on trial in Israel, and in the end, God will win. Whether or not the other defendants find a way to evade justice, Israelis will finally begin to take seriously the need to fight fundamentalism on its own theological turf. That means learning why Judaism is flexible enough to allow for the exchange of land for peace. That means inculcating pluralistic values to the secular masses. Ultimately that also means learning why Jewish values are too precious to be left in the hands of the rabbinate.

One of the most incredible things about Yigal Amir for myself and many of my colleagues is that here is a man who actually listens to his rabbi. His rabbi allegedly permitted his deadly deed. Most rabbis I know can't even get their congregants to eat fewer cheeseburgers. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

I would shudder to meet a congregant who took my every word as, pardon the expression, "gospel" truth. One reason I had to use that expression is that Judaism has no real parallel. Our tradition is far too wary of human fallibility to allow us to place complete faith in the decisions of any human, even one steeped in wisdom, even a rabbi. I would never want to deny another person the chance to use his God-given faculty of reason.

Just as Jews everywhere have been shaken from our apathy in the face of fundamentalism, so have many been galvanized toward the fulfillment of Rabin's final dream of peace. With one dramatic, epoch-making event, the chain of hate just might finally have been broken.

Undoubtedly, there will be more terror, as the extremists see the hopelessness of their plight and become more desperate, but it will be much more difficult to hate Arabs after so many of their leaders turned out to be such menschen in our hour of darkest grief. It will be hard to erase the image of a bare-headed Yasir Arafat, looking a little like old Uncle Abe, paying a shiva call to Leah Rabin.

In contrast, Bibi Netanyahu's flailing defensiveness has rendered him politically maimed, soundbitten by his refusal to say, with simple dignity, what all of us wanted to hear: "Yes, I was at those rallies, and I can't tell you how ashamed I am that I didn't do more to stop it."

With nationalist bumper stickers being replaced by "Shalom Chaver," with the endless procession of Israelis past their slain leader's grave, and with the dovishly defiant "Shir L'Shalom" ("Song of Peace") enjoying the greatest musical revival this side of the Beatles, a dynamic shift is occurring in Israel.

It's occurring here, too. For the first time since Sabra and Shatila, my Hebrew school students are connecting to Israel on the most human level, and with a deep pride that has been masked for a generation. In death, Rabin has become the hero that he never quite was while alive. Among adults, the spontaneous outpouring of grief has pierced that tough hide of assimilation, a casing that not even 39 Scud missiles could penetrate.

We've all done so much crying these past two weeks. Even Henry Kissinger cried. Our hatred toward Arabs and cynicism toward Israel have been washed away. And we, although washed out, are more ready than ever to give peace a chance.

Yigal Amir will lose the war that his ideology spawned. But it will not be enough to convict him alone. We've got to discredit his God too, as our God (we think) and our ancient sages (we know) would want us to.