Shocked By Rise of Jewish Extremism in Israel, Maverick Rabbi Denounces Discriminatory Laws
Rabbis from a liberal stream of Judaism issued this month a blanket disavowal of religious rulings that discriminate against non-Jews. The repudiation comes in response to racist rulings by state-funded Israeli clerics and terror attacks by their followers. In early May, the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the theological adjudication body of Conservative Jews, voted unanimously to accept the 28-page anti-racist “tshuvah”, or religious responsum, of American-Israeli Rabbi Reuven Hammer.
At his home in Jerusalem, Hammer told AlterNet that he felt compelled to write the responsum because in recent years, many leading Israeli rabbis - including chief rabbis whose salaries are paid by Israeli taxpayers - have issued religious edicts calling upon their constituents to actively discriminate against non-Jews. Hammer says that he was particularly bothered by hundreds of local chief rabbis forbidding Jews from renting flats to non-Jews and by Israeli Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef forbidding non-Jews from living in Israel at all.
Hammer says he was also aggravated by the frequent racist statements of Yosef’s father Ovadia, a former national chief rabbi himself. In 2010, Yosef said in a speech: “Goyim [non-Jewish people] were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world.” The funeral of the immensely popular and powerful elder Yosef was the largest-ever in Israel’s history, drawing a whopping 800,000 attendees.
Hammer told Alternet that he was spurred to action after a top rabbi of Chabad, the largest and most powerful Jewish religious sect in the world, backed a book called Torat Hamelech that argued that Jewish law permits Jews to kill non-Jews, even infants, under the pretext that they may one day grow up to be enemies.
Outside of Israel, Chabad is considered to be a benign organization that labors to increase religious observance among secular Jews worldwide. On the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, many cities and towns across the world feature massive Chabad menorahs in their municipal squares. Movement leaders have had the ear of American presidents for at least the last four decades.
In 2011, in this presence of government ministers, Israel’s current Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon told a gathering of Chabad rabbis, “You are the commandos of the Jewish people… I see Chabad emissaries as the tip of the spear of the State of Israel.”
Six months ago, Chabad celebrated a major occasion by hosting a speech by one of their own, Yitzhak Ginsburgh -- the rabbi who authored the genocidal text Torat HaMelech -- at the largest concert hall in Tel Aviv. The book unequivocally states: “There is justification for killing babies, if it is clear that they will grow up to harm us.”
What’s worse, Hammer lamented, is that some Israeli Jews are now following the murderous instructions of Ginsburgh’s Torat HaMelech and attacking Palestinian civilians, torching even their children to death. Two years ago, religious Jews burned a Palestinian teen to death in East Jerusalem, and last year, another group of religious Jews burned a Palestinian father, mother and one-year-old baby to death in the West Bank. In the latter instance, the perpetrators sprayed graffiti on the home of the victims reading, “Long live the king, the messiah” - the Chabad motto.
But the racist rhetoric peddled by xenophobic rabbis is incongruent with the Bible’s creation myths, Hammer insists.
“The way in which human beings were created, as the Torah presents it in the first chapter of Genesis, is very clear, in presenting that there is only one human being that is created, or only one human pair that is created,” he explained. “So then differentiating between Aryans and non-Aryans, or Jews and non-Jews, is not in accordance with the way in which the Torah looks at it.”
By mentioning “Aryans and non-Aryans”, Hammer condemns the racist theories of Nazi Germany in the same breath as he criticizes racist rulings in the Jewish religion - a controversial juxtaposition by some standards, and especially so in Israel. While Zionist leaders frequently compare Israel’s geo-political rivals to Nazis, many bristle at the suggestion that any Jews could be capable of racist hatred towards others. Bucking these social conventions, Hammer doesn’t avoid Holocaust talk; rather, he insists that it is precisely because of their experience with Nazism that Jews must root out racism at home.
“Especially today - and this period of Holocaust Remembrance Day strengthens it very much - especially after what we went through as a people in the Shoah [Holocaust], there’s no way that we can possibly feel that it is proper to say that one race or one group is superior to another,” he declared. “We know what it leads to. We’ve suffered. And therefore, especially in our time, we have a duty of making sure that we don’t fall into that same trap.”
Hammer traces the roots of religious racism to kabbalists whom he says perverted the true meaning of the Torah term “Chosen People”. While he argues that this designation simply means that the Bible tasks Jews with following rules laid out in the Torah, others interpret this phrase to mean that Jews are qualitatively different from non-Jews -- that they are superior to them.
“Some Jewish philosophers look at it differently,” said Hammer. “And especially Jewish mysticism looks at it somewhat differently. And they take the idea of the chosen people as if it means that there’s some inherent supremacy in Judaism, that the Jews are different than non-Jews, we are created different than they are, we are higher than they are, we have a soul and they don’t have a soul, or they don’t have the same kind of a soul, we have a good soul, they have a bad soul. We have to reject that.”
Challenging the only strain of Judaism recognized by the state of Israel
The decision to invalidate Jewish laws that discriminate against non-Jews could only have been taken by Hammer’s particular brand of Judaism, Conservative. Other liberal streams of Judaism, such as Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal, do not consider ancient religious laws to be binding in this day and age, so it is not incumbent upon them to disavow archaic racist rulings.
The new ruling is a challenge to Orthodox Judaism, the only stream of Judaism that is officially recognized by the Israeli state. While Conservative Judaism holds that old religious rulings are still binding upon Jews today, it also holds that those rules may be changed if modern rabbis see fit to alter them. Orthodox Judaism holds that not only are all old rulings still in effect, but they are also immutable.
Still, to justify the theological shift to traditionalists - and to reassure progressive Jews that their religious traditions include anti-racist arguments as well - Hammer cites Toranic and Talmudic commentaries that vouch for the humanity of non-Jews and condemn their maltreatment. “For all the negative things that we’ve got, we’ve got some very prominent authorities who are opposed to that kind of thing. So it’s obvious that there are within the Jewish tradition two different streams,” Hammer said.
Truly, rabbinic literature does contain legal loopholes that can be used, and have been used, to blunt some of the most racist religious rulings in the Talmud.
Hammer explained: “Way back in Talmudic times already, rabbis used two different concepts in order to overcome those discriminatory laws. One was the concept of Darkei Shalom, the Ways of Peace. Because of the Ways of Peace, even if it seems that the Torah doesn’t say to you that you have to do this and that for the non-Jew, in order for there to be peace in the world, you have to do it.”
“That’s one of the things,” said Hammer. “And the other is the concept of Hillul Hashem [desecrating God’s name] and Kidush Hashem [sanctifying God’s name]. If it says that by doing this you are bringing disgrace upon Judaism and upon the name of God, then you can’t do it. Hillul Hashem is forbidden.”
Unfortunately, Hammer’s bold edict is unlikely to provoke a similar outcry against racist rulings from the Orthodox camp. Conservative Jews amount to approximately 18% of all Jews in the United States, where most of the movement’s members reside. In Israel, they only account for about a third of that figure -- around 6%. Orthodox leaders in Israel are unimpressed by the innovations of Conservative and Reform Judaism, frequently deriding them publicly as “not Jewish” and “enemies”. Orthodox youth have even attacked Conservative and Reform Synagogues throughout the country.
While the Israeli government, under the sway of the Orthodox sectors of society, mostly dismisses the concerns of Jews affiliated with the liberal streams of Judaism, it is a bit more sensitive to the complaints of their American cousins, on account of their financial and political support for the state. But American leaders of the Conservative movement are likely to use whatever leverage they wield to lobby for their own group interests - liberal access to Jewish holy sites - not an end to funding for racist rabbis.
Hammer’s rabbinical reply may also disappoint more ambitious anti-racists; some of the legal arguments he cites for rejecting racism are framed in purely practical terms that eschew humanistic moralizing. Racism, he contended, is dangerous mainly because it could lead to unwanted consequences, or because the ostensible objects of some of the religion’s most racist passages no longer exist.
According to the premise of Hillul Hashem, Jews should not discriminate against non-Jews because were if those outside the religion learn that Jewish law is discriminatory, it could reflect badly on the Jewish deity. Similarly, the premise of Darkei Shalom holds that Jews should not discriminate against non-Jews because were it to be known that Jewish law is discriminatory, non-Jews could grow angry with Jews, and bitter conflict would ensue.
The problem with these legal definitions is that they themselves can contain loopholes that allow racist rabbis to further justify discrimination against non-Jews on the basis of the Bible.
A case in point arrived after the Israeli Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef’s comments calling for non-Jews to be ethnically cleansed inspired a national furor. Rather than recant, Yosef simply clarified that the process of ethnic cleansing would take place in the distant future. According to his religious response to Darkei Shalom, called “Yad Yisrael T’kefah” [When Israel is mighty], when Jews increase in power, they will not need to fear non-Jewish anger over laws that discriminate against them, because the Gentiles will not be in a position to do anything about it. In that case, the original racist ruling is to be observed in its most fundamental form.
For all its faults, Hammer’s rabbinical reply represents a major theological shift for one of the world’s more substantial Jewish movements. The near-silence that has greeted his pioneering proclamation - almost no news coverage either within Israel or without - may reflect the waning influence of the Conservative Movement on Judaism as a whole. But it is also symptomatic of the hesitance to acknowledge that behind Hammer’s criticism lies an epidemic of extremism overwhelming Israel and consuming a Jewish world that has linked itself to the country’s political fate.