Free Speech for Inflammatory Rabbis?
07/28/11
Jewish Week Online Columnist

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.
 

Last Update:

08/03/2011 - 17:01

Comments

Rabbi Hammerman's point that what rabbis say is different, since it might incite others to act, is well taken. A case in point is the butler of the Grand Rabbi of New City attempting to fire-bomb the home of a resident of that town that chose to daven at a different synagogue. As a result, a man practicing freedom of religion and protecting his family from the attack, was burned over forty percent of his body. How can heinous crimes be justified as part of Judaism? How can Israel have no Bill of Rights or Constitution? The tyranny of the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli politics and the sinas chinam must end.

The above seems to be a weak defense. I imagine that if I were a respected authority and were asked to endorse something I would be pretty careful that it refleted my world view and not protest afterwards..." I didn't write this- I just endorsed it and of course I never read it, so I'm innocent if that is what it takes to get myself out of this awkward situation."

My point was not to entirely exonerate Rabbi Lior. I am not a big fan of his. Rather, my point was 1. he didn't say what he is accused of, 2. no one cares what appears in approbations. People usually read them for fun and Rav Lior just said, good man book is probably ok, 3. Rabbi Hammerman, himself, lacked caution and accused Rav Lior falsely, and 4. I was defending Rav Lior he isn't the one writing to you so don't blame him for my lame defense.

Without understanding the genre of literature we are talking about (approbations on halachik books) one cannot really appreciate how much this is a tempest in a teapot. Rabbis write these for friends and acquaintances all the time. Maybe that is a stupid thing to do. But nonetheless pretty common.

Is it a criminal act justifying a lynching he has received at the hands of the Israeli police and in print by Rabbi Hammerman? I don't think so. It may have been a dumb thing to do and unbecoming of a rabbi to endorse something without reading it. But then Rabbi Hammerman seems to have committed the same act -- not read what he wrote about. The true authors of the book, perhaps, are guilty of something -- but that is a mighty slippery slope to go down. Free speach is a pretty delicate thing.

Um, heh, well, the one problem with this post is that Rabbi Lior actually didn't say any of the things he is being accused of saying here in this post. Other rabbis did say those vile things; however, Rabbi Lior did not author the book. He did give the book an approbation or "haskama" in Hebrew. Anyone who has some experience with classic Jewish books knows that most of the time the authors of approbations didn't really read the work. A "haskama" is basically just a declaration that the author is a good guy and maybe the book is worthwhile reading. So Rabbi Lior's real crime would be not having read the book -- like almost all authors of haskamot.

I guess Rabbi Hammerman could be accused of not reading what he is referring to either.

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