Religious Affairs: Caught in the crossfire

Mercaz Harav rabbis hastened to rule out vigilante-style revenge, following reports of an extremist response to last week's bloodbath.

pigua 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
pigua 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
People familiar with Mercaz Harav expressed extreme skepticism this week when Channel 1 reported that a rabbi at the yeshiva had condoned a revenge killing in retaliation for a terrorist attack in which eight students were murdered. "I laughed when I heard the report," said Itamar Ben-Gvir, a radical right-wing activist from Hebron. "It made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Mercaz Harav's rabbis are way too pro-state [mamlachti] to even consider taking the law into their own hands." According to Ben-Gvir, when demonstrators standing outside the yeshiva Thursday night after the terrorist attack started chanting "revenge," Rabbi Ya'acov Shapira, Head of Mercaz Harav, personally came outside and asked them to stop. Friday morning, in his eulogy, Shapira reminded the thousands who had gathered that it was God who took revenge, quoting from Psalms (94, 1): "Oh Lord God, to whom vengeance belongs." In other words, God's providence over the Jewish people works through the embodiment of the Jewish collective - the state of Israel. The message was repeated this week by numerous rabbis, including Rabbi Elyakim Levanon of Elon Moreh. Levanon attacked the present government for failing to take actions against terrorists who "for the past seven years have been lobbing Kassam rockets at Sderot." But Levanon stressed that only through official state institutions could Jews take revenge for the massacre. THE IDEA that military retaliation is reserved for state institutions, and must not be a vigilante act, has its roots in the theology taught at Mercaz Harav. Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, the founder of the yeshiva, saw a Jewish state as both a political and a spiritual vehicle for redemption. In 1920, Kook wrote that the future "state of Israel is a divine entity, our holy and exalted state" - the state would be ideal in essence, "the pedestal of God's throne in this world whose aim is that the Lord be acknowledged as one and his His name as one." In other words, Kook sanctified Israel as an expression of the Jewish nation's will and destiny. Kook died a full 12 years before the establishment of the state. But, in the years after Jewish sovereignty became a reality, his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda, continued to develop his father's concept of state. He distilled the abstract ideas into a political-theological approach that turned seemingly mundane national endeavors into holy injunctions. According to him, the acts of the Jewish state could not be reduced to concrete human needs limited to a sociopolitical context. Rather, they were part of a divine plan of theological progression that began with the ingathering of exiles after the Holocaust, and continued through to the establishment of the state and its expansion to Judea, Samaria and Gaza. The same was true of the military. Kook the son saw in the IDF not only a means of national defense but also a mighty, sacred tool that struggled to uproot evil, purify the land, and bring about universal tikkun [making the world a better place]. Soldiers, in his view, were taking part in the redemption process. But this was true only insofar as the IDF represented the earthly embodiment of the national will and destiny. As Shapira, Levanon and other Mercaz Harav rabbis pointed out to their students, individuals acting alone did not have the right to perform tasks that were reserved for the state, such as launching a reprisal attack against Palestinians. Yet this was precisely the message sent out Wednesday by a group of extreme, Right-wing rabbis. In notices posted around Jerusalem's Kiryat Moshe neighborhood, where Mercaz Harav is located, these rabbis called on "each and every person to imagine what our enemy is plotting to do to us and perform a measure-for-measure act." The initial response of the news media was that the rabbis were calling to murder Arabs. But many rabbis claim that this was a misreading of the notices. The rabbis, many of whom are themselves Mercaz Harav alumni - such as Rabbi Shmuel Yaniv, Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira and others heavily influenced by the teachings of the two Kooks, such as Rabbi Gadi Ben-Zimra - are calling to replace the present government with a leadership inspired by the Torah. Such a leadership, they believe, would know how to fight the enemies of the Jewish people, and would also know how to take revenge. "When the Jewish people goes out to battle," write the rabbis in the notice, "the holy priest who is anointed for war notifies the soldiers that the opposing forces are arch-enemies, not brothers. Therefore, no compassion should be felt whatsoever. Rather, soldiers should fight out of a holy conviction to wipe out the evil in the world." The notice then calls "to be selflessly devoted to helping realize the ideal of a truly Jewish nation, which is the real way to bring about healing." In the meantime, until an ideal Jewish leadership is established, the rabbis recommend "local activities," such as "setting up new settlements," "providing security," and "refraining from employing or do business with the Arab enemies." Taken at face value, these rabbis are praying for a Jewish leadership that knows how to wage a ruthless religious war against our enemies, a leadership that will put an end once and for all to Palestinian terrorism. Nowhere do these rabbis hint that it is legitimate to take the law into one's own hands and commit an act of revenge. Perhaps they were remaining faithful to Mercaz Harav's opposition to vigilante activity. Yossi Peli'i, a resident of Yitzhar who served as a secretary to the rabbis, did not help clarify their position. "I don't know what the individual rabbis' positions are on taking revenge," said Peli'i. "We did not deal with that question." THE HILLTOPS of Judea and Samaria are far removed from the Mercaz Harav study hall, not just geographically. The two Kooks' philosophies might be very influential, but there are other winds blowing, other ideas being exchanged. In some circles, revenge against Arabs has not been ruled out altogether, at least not in the past. For instance, one of the rabbi signatories, a relative of Rabbi Moshe Levinger of Hebron, was a member of the Jewish underground. In 1985, he was sentenced to life imprisonment, along with two others, for the 1984 murder of four Palestinians in Hebron, and was later pardoned. Meanwhile, a form of revenge was being offered by Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, who directed police to demolish the east Jerusalem home of Abu Ala Dheim, the terrorist who killed the eight yeshiva students.