Friday, July 29, 2011

Free Speech for Inflammatory Rabbis? (Hammerman on Ethics)

From the Jewish Week

Q – The recent police detainment of prominent right wing Israeli rabbis accused of incitement has been in the news lately. At issue is the halachic tract “Torat Hamelech," (the “Torah of Kings”) which allegedly condones the murder of non Jews in some circumstances. This is horrible, but how is it different from any artist or politician making an outlandish statement? Certainly those on the left have said equally inflammatory things. Are we discriminating against the rabbis? Aren’t they entitled to freedom of speech?

A – If only Israel had a Bill of Rights entitling those rabbis to freedom of speech. Rabbi Dov Lior, whose recent arrest led to widespread rioting, waxed Jeffersonian in defending his right to share his views. But were the Knesset to suddenly adopt something akin to a First Amendment, alas for Lior, it would be inconveniently accompanied by a declaration of universal human rights that would undercut the political authority of these very rabbis. I suspect there is little chance that Rabbi Lior will be taking this Jeffersonian thing to its natural conclusion, a separation of religion and state – something Israel desperately needs.

Last week in Ha’aretz, a columnist quoted verbatim from the “Torah of Kings,” demonstrating why these passages would have trouble standing up as free speech even in an American court. Someone disseminating literature stating that “every place the presence of a non-Jew endangers a Jewish life - it is permitted to kill him (even if he is one of the righteous among the gentiles and bears no guilt for the situation that had been created)," would likely be accused of a hate crime. Another passage cited includes a bizarre opinion that “when it is certain that children or infants are being raised with the objective of harming Jews, it would be doing them a favor to kill them to prevent them from growing up into evil adults.”

Makes me wonder whether Casey Anthony might have studied in Rabbi Lior’s yeshiva.

Rabbi Lior’s defenders write that he is a Holocaust survivor being humiliated by the government and that Israel’s judicial system needs to be reoriented toward Torah values. They see this controversy as ”a struggle about the future of Israel.” Indeed it is.

Fortunately, many Orthodox Israelis are uncomfortable with the extremism of “Torah of Kings.” Various groups, including “12th of Heshvan” and “Brit Hoshech Legaresh” (Alliance to Banish the Darkness), a coalition of 16 organizations from across the denominational spectrum, have taken up that battle against “Torat Hamelech” and its proponents. Their position paper claims that the book’s assertion that all gentile children are raised to hate and will therefore act against Israel, is a racist claim. I wouldn’t call it racist, since a person of any racial background can convert to Judaism, but it’s hard to characterize the authorization of killing children for revenge as anything but vile and immoral.

As horrible and inflammatory as “King’s Torah” is, Israeli artists, writers and politicians (of the left and the right) have been known to say outlandish things, some deemed by opponents to be dangerous to the state. Why should rabbis suddenly be arrested for doing precisely the same thing that novelists and filmmakers do all the time?

The problem with that argument is that rabbis ARE different from artists and writers. In Israel (and occasionally here in America) people actually listen to their rabbis - and that can be a dangerous thing. People might listen attentively to novelists like David Grossman too, but they will often obey the dictates of their chosen rabbinic leader. No one obeys Grossman. A controversial halachic ruling carries far greater potential to lead to destructive action, at least among a segment of the Jewish community, than even the most subversive op-ed or film.

In an ideal world, Rabbi Lior should have the right to speak freely, and the “King’s Torah” should not be banned. But that ideal world would be a place where the Israeli Declaration of Independence, guaranteeing “freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture” has been codified into Basic Laws and a formal Constitution. For now, it is up to the political, cultural and judicial mainstream of the country to unite in their strong condemnation of those abhorrent ideas. Then, while they are in a unified mood, they can begin to unravel the toxic entanglement of religion and state that, as much as any external enemy, threatens the very future of the Jewish state.

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