An IDF soldier prays near the Gaza border.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM & FACEBOOK)
Appointing a rabbi who believes that “the concept that non-Jews have equal rights with Jews in Israel goes against the opinion of the Torah” as the chief chaplain of the IDF is an insult to Jews, non-Jews, the IDF and the Torah itself. It is yet another instance in which the official organs of the State of Israel are promoting an interpretation of Judaism that is a disgrace to our religion. As if that were not enough to disqualify him, this candidate, Rabbi Eyal Karim, is identified with extreme right-wing organizations, has stated in the past that the Torah permits Jewish soldiers to rape under certain circumstances, even though he says that this is simply a matter of stating the interpretation of Torah laws and not a halachic ruling, and has ruled that women are forbidden to sing at army ceremonies and indeed should not serve at all.
The problem is not that Rabbi Karim cannot find statements within Jewish tradition to support some of his ideas, but that he chooses to endorse such unenlightened views when Jewish tradition in overwhelming measure takes the opposite view. By doing this he aligns himself with other Israeli rabbinical functionaries connected to the religious establishment who have taken racist positions concerning the rights of non-Jews to rent homes in Israel or even to live here, as well as the notorious opinions concerning the killing of non-Jews found in such works as Torat Hamelech.
I had occasion to study this entire matter recently when asked to write a responsum on the place of non- Jews in Jewish law and lore for the Rabbinical Assembly, the world-wide organization of Conservative/Masorti rabbis. In researching the matter I discovered that there is no question but that contradictory concepts exist and that various historical eras present differing pictures: inclusive and exclusive, positive and negative, laudatory and condemnatory. Nevertheless it is clear that the Torah itself and biblical writing in general posit the basic equality of all humankind and demonstrate God’s love of all human beings, even while recognizing a special role for Israel as a “kingdom of priests.” Israelites are seen as having a special relationship to God since they are given the task of being God’s specific servants, God’s priests. This does not, however, imply racial superiority, as the prophets, especially Isaiah and Amos, make clear, and does not imply the right to discriminate against non- Jews in their civil rights.
Based on the Torah’s teaching that all humans are created in the divine image and the fact that the experience of Egyptian bondage should teach us not to mistreat the stranger, the Torah’s legislation is always sensitive to the needs of the non-Israelite.
The basic ethical norms of the Torah apply to all, Israelites and non-Israelites. The non-Israelite who is a foreigner is distinguished from the Israelite only in very specific laws in which differentiations are made in any society between the rights of citizens and non-citizens. Under Torah law, non-Israelites are treated fairly and equitably.
Rabbinic writings upheld the Torah’s principle that all humans are created in the divine image and that all humans stem from the same primal couple, so that the concepts of racial inferiority or superiority have no merit. Nevertheless, often reflecting the feelings of oppression and even hatred of the conquering power, there are places where these writings display open hostility to Rome and to paganism and gentiles in general, voicing varying approaches to the treatment of gentiles. Whereas some authorities countenance favoritism toward Jews, others are strict in demanding justice for all. Nevertheless the Tannaim (the early Sages) themselves in the first and second centuries CE ruled that non-Jews came under the rulings of morality that were found within the covenant of the Seven Noahide Commandments and decreed – in the name of such prominent authorities as Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Akiva – that mistreatment of the non-Jew was forbidden and even more serious than mistreatment of a Jew because of the resulting hillul Hashem, desecration of God’s name. Thus they decreed that the rules of civil law applied to all humans.
Akiva went further and claimed that some matters such as proper judgment and the prohibition of theft were actually based on verses of the Torah. The Tannaim further ruled that non-Jews were to benefit from tzedakah (charity) and gmilut hasadim (loving-kindness) because of the principle of darkei shalom, the ways of peace. These rules applied even to pagans, that being the status of non- Jews at that time with few exceptions.
It is disgraceful that Rabbi Karim has chosen to side with the opponents of human equality and fair treatment for all and not with all those such as Rabbi Akiva who support it.
The responsum concerning non- Jews, which was unanimously adopted by the law committee of the Rabbinical Assembly, concluded that following the example of Rabban Gamliel II and invoking the principles of kiddush Hashem – sanctifying God’s name – and darkei shalom, any rulings concerning matters of financial or civil law in the Mishnah and Talmud that discriminate against gentiles are not to be considered official Jewish Law in our day.
Thus in regard to such matters as permission to violate Shabbat for purposes of saving lives, the Jew and the gentile are to be treated alike. Similarly killing, stealing and other moral and ethical offenses prohibited by the Torah and Jewish Law apply to both Jews and non-Jews. It is forbidden to murder, rob, cheat, deceive or otherwise harm a non-Jew. Only those rulings regarding ritual differences between Jews and non-Jews remain in effect. It is a positive commandment – mitzvat aseh – to treat a non-Jew lovingly and to perform acts of tzedakah and gmilut hasadim for gentiles.
We specifically reject any ideas found in Jewish writings, be they ancient, medieval or modern, that consider Jews to be inherently superior to gentiles or the soul of non- Jews to be somehow inferior to that of Jews. The belief in the superiority of Jews (or Jewish souls) over non- Jews contradicts the basic laws or teachings of the Torah and of rabbinic Judaism as found in the Mishna, Talmud and Tannaitic Midrashim.
These concepts are contrary to the Torah’s basic teaching that all human beings are created in the divine image and should not be considered part of accepted Jewish belief. In view of the fact that the 20th century was the time when Jews in particular suffered and were murdered as a result of doctrines of racial superiority, we must be especially careful regarding anything that can lend credence to such ideas.
If there is any Israeli group for which it is crucial that such ideas be rejected and that the Torah’s concept of the equality of humanity be reinforced, it is the Israel Defense Forces.
To appoint as its supreme religious authority a man who does not represent this point of few is to undermine the very basis of morality upon which our army and its codes of conduct are founded. Surely there must be some rabbi in Israel who is better suited to this position and of whose understanding of Torah and Judaism’s teachings we can be proud. It is not too late to insist that the IDF institute a search for such a person to fill this important position.
The writer, a Jerusalem resident, is a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and a member of its Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.