Soldiers in the Army of Torah

Sunday, March 2, 2008
Special to the Jewish Week

Just a few hours ago, an Arab terrorist (maybe two?) made his way into Yeshivat Mercaz Harav in Jerusalefom and opened fire, killing at least seven Yeshiva students and wounding many others. It doesn’t take a political scientist to attribute this heinous act of barbarism to some form of revenge for Israel’s actions recently in Gaza. Significant numbers of civilians were killed in those actions, and the conventional wisdom in that part of the world is “blood for blood.”

When I was spending a year of my rabbinical studies in Jerusalem in 1978, there were a number of terrorist incidents, but one stands out most clearly in my mind. It came to be known as the “Coastal Road Massacre.” After coming ashore in Kibbutz Maagan Michael and killing nature photographer Gail Rubin, terrorists occupied a bus on Israel’s k’vish hachof and ultimately, more than thirty Israelis were killed. Among them, I recall, was a young clarinetist.

The perpetrators of the massacre claimed that all citizens of Israel were appropriate military targets, since they were instruments of Zionist aggression. I remember an op-ed piece that Cynthia Ozick wrote titled A Soldier in the Army of Clarinets. How absurd, she said, to make such a claim. In what possible way could this young musician be blamed for anything? In what army was he a soldier?

I can’t help but think of that article today, as thirty years later, the same kind of senseless violence continues to be an instrument of some obscene and absurd political statement. The yeshiva students who were killed were, ironically, celebrating the beginning of the new Hebrew month of Second Adar. In our tradition it is a time of great joy, as we prepare to observe Purim, and commemorate our historic victory over a senseless hatred that threatened our very existence as a people.

I have no illusions about the purity of all Torah study. My last entry in this blog decried the abuse of Torah learning by rabbinic authorities in Israel, and only the most naïve would deny that the nexus between religion and ultra-nationalism is a potentially toxic one. Yes, religion plays a role in Israeli politics.

But on Rosh Chodesh Adar- the beginning of this new month- those students were simply celebrating their religious tradition in a way that no one could construe as hostile. Yes indeed- what an act of bravery and resistance it was to burst into a Yeshiva and start shooting a bunch of unarmed students of Torah. Soldiers in the army of Torah… How brave.

Without a doubt, the moral relativists will rationalize this act as the reprisal for Gaza. It’s so tempting. But there is all the difference in the world between an enemy that hides its missiles and missile launchers among civilians, shooting them daily at non-combatants in undisputed territory in Israel, and a bunch of Yeshiva students celebrating Rosh Chodesh in Jerusalem.

Isn’t there? Do you have to be Jewish, and Zionist, to see that?

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