Anyone who doubts the importance of protecting freedom of speech should watch the farce unfolding in Jerusalem over that despicable book Torat Hamelech, which misreads Jewish texts to justify killing non- Jews during wartime. By summoning the leading rabbis who vouched for the book to deny allegations of incitement, the police gave the volume a publicity bonanza. Hundreds of young yeshiva hooligans protested – sometimes violently.
The media confused this defense of the rabbis with a defense of that hateful book, further publicizing it. Meanwhile, rightists wondered why their rabbis get interrogated while leftists advocating terrorism are undisturbed.
The police should ignore them all.
Freedom of speech reflects faith in the people, along with distrust of the authorities. I trust the people – and the free marketplace of ideas – to reject the book’s ugly lies. And I doubt the Israeli police’s ability to handle this complex halachic argument effectively.
Silly me. I want the police to prevent burglaries, solve murders,
untangle traffic and crush the underworld – while avoiding politics and
Especially considering the fact that officers felt compelled to
interrogate Avigdor Lieberman the day after he became foreign minister,
yet 27 months later the case remains open. I confess to trustissues with
the Israeli police – or any police force – regarding delicate political
or intellectual matters.
We should remember Natan Sharansky’s “public square test” for healthy
democracies, asking if citizens can denounce their government publicly –
and even say hateful things – without fearing arrest or bodily harm. We
also should remember that in today’s mediaocracy, conflict rules,
making this hysterical media circus predictable – and best avoided.
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Israel – led by religious Zionists – needs a strong chorus refuting the book.
Professor Menachem Kellner of the University of Haifa – a renowned
Maimonides scholar who learned at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva – is one of
many - disgusted by the book. Claiming the authors spend more than 200
pages “misusing Maimonides” to support their “twisted conclusions,”
Kellner calls the book biased, “intellectually dishonest,” “seriously
anti-Zionist,” guilty of “conceptual confusion” in failing to
“distinguish among gentiles, Noachides and idolaters.” The book makes
“the “astounding (and wholly unsupported in the halachic tradition)
assumption that the lives of gentiles who are not ‘resident aliens’ have
no meaning and no legitimacy.” The authors, Kellner concludes, are
“either evil or idiots, or both.”
Rabbi Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, urged Orthodox rabbis
worldwide, especially Israel’s chief rabbis, to denounce the text “as a
perversion of Judaism, cloaking itself as an authoritative
interpretation of Jewish biblical law.” And the “Twelfth of Heshvan” – a
coalition of religious Zionist organizations recalling the day of
Yitzhak Rabin’s murder – petitioned the Supreme Court to confiscate the
work and arrest the authors. While rejecting these methods, I am glad to
see religious forces fighting this evil.
Fortunately, one of the world’s leading philosophers and rabbinic
authorities, Rabbi David Hartman, has just published a powerful book
criticizing the culture which spawned these perversions.
Hartman’s concerns are tamer – issues of conversion, women in Judaism,
and the need for haredi and religious Jews to embrace Israel’s great
moral potential as a modern Jewish state. But his vision of what he
calls a “God-intoxicated halacha” – Jewish law consecrated by God and
tradition yet responsive to the developing wonders of the world God
created – implicitly counters the petty, insular, immoral, ideological
cesspools where distorted readings of Jewish tradition fester.
RABBI HARTMAN’S “meta-halachic” approach spurns modern Orthodoxy’s
rigidity, as articulated by Hartman’s beloved mentor, Rav Joseph
Soloveitchik. Hartman rejects Soloveitchik’s “theology of halachic
permanence” for freezing Jewish law “permanently and uniformly in
place,” ignoring “the passing of time,” neglecting “the shifting of
culture,” and sometimes snubbing Jews the rabbis originally discounted,
especially women and converts. Hartman believes that The God Who Hates
Lies – the book’s title – would never want halacha taken “out of history
and out of human experience.”
Instead, Hartman builds his “theology of response” on the Talmudic teaching not to “ascribe false things to God.”
Having created humans in His own image, God wants us to “incorporate”
experiences, moral imperatives and new insights “into our spiritual and
ritual lives.” Mixing human needs and moral development into the
midrash’s “living waters” of tradition will create a more vital, humane
and authentic halacha.
Hartman seeks this individually and collectively, excited as he is by
the theological possibilities offered by the political revolution of
re-establishing Jewish sovereignty in Israel. He wants to explore the
“religious significance of Israel’s experiment in building a total
Jewish society.” And he wants an “Israel where we could witness the
ethical spirit of Torah manifested in a sovereign Jewish society.”
Hartman’s relationship to God is intense and personal. His book brims with passion embedded in substance.
Religious and non-religious Jews should answer his call. This is one
formidable Jew whose Judaism throbs with the sensuality of Yehudah
HaLevi, the rigor of Maimonides, the depth of the Vilna Gaon, the wisdom
of the Ba’al Shem Tov, and the moral “musar” of Israel Salanter –
leavened and actually more fully realized by the liberalism of John
Stuart Mill, the idealism of Martin Luther King and the humanism of
Betty Friedan – many of whose ideas, of course, stemmed from the Bible.
Alas, this important, challenging, spiritually- stretching and rich text
is not making headlines. I would prefer to see Israelis debating Rabbi
Hartman’s grand ideas than those of the hateful little rabbis.
I would prefer to see Israel, Zionism and Judaism judged by Hartman’s
pluralism and openness than by the provincial yeshiva hooligans swarming
the Supreme Court. While I am sure his publisher and the Shalom Hartman
Institute he founded – where I have a research fellowship – have a
publicity plan, maybe someone knows an overzealous police captain who
wants to ban the book, and thus help it sell? The writer is professor of
history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. The
author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges
of Today, his latest book is The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short
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