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The Rabin Assassination

The Rabin Assassination

The Rabin Assassination - A Case of Halakhic Perversion
Louis Jacobs
Judaism Today 4 (Spring 1996)

The question religious Jews have had painfully to consider during the past few months since the murder of Yitzhak Rabin is not whether Amir's monstrous deed finds any support in Jewish teaching-it has been unreservedly condemned by every responsible Jewish teacher-but whether the perpetrator himself was able to draw, though hideously in error, on the classical Jewish sources. The plain fact is that, whether we like it or not, it is not too difficult to discover passages in the literature of Judaism in which extreme acts of violence are tolerated and, in some circumstances, even advocated. There is not, alas, too much room for religious triumphalism in this matter. On the theoretical level, at least, mediaeval Judaism, like Christianity and Islam, had no tolerance for heretics, unbelievers and other foes of the religion, since, as the argument goes, truth can have no truck with error.

Yet to acknowledge that, in theory, 'we' have been little better than 'them' is in no way even to appear to justify the application of such theoretical discussions on the contemporary scene. First, anyone with the slightest historical sense must recognize that whatever is stated in ancient and mediaeval sources arose out of the particular circumstances of the time in which these were compiled and which, in any event, is often in the nature of sheer hyperbole, never intended to be taken literally, as some of the ancient rabbis say with regard to the biblical law [1] that the stubborn and rebellious son should be stoned to death.

Secondly, religious tolerance and liberal values owe much to thinkers like Rousseau, John Stuart Mill and Thomas Paine, hardly otherwise guides for religious Jews, whose ideas, nonetheless, have now become part of the mental furniture of modern man whether or not they are found in the tradition. As even completely traditional thinkers like Rav Kook and the Hazon Ish have declared, rabbinic statements that an epikoros has to be lowered into a pit to die there have no application nowadays since present-day unbelievers are not really rebels against God but simply misguided; in point of fact, there is no evidence that such treatment was ever really carried out in ancient times.

To see the otherwise embarrassing violent declarations of the past as theoretical and even here as time-conditioned has long been the attitude adopted by the vast majority of Orthodox Jews. Why, then, did Amir, according to the reports, declare that God had perhaps told him to assassinate Prime Minister Rabin? By all accounts, Amir was not of the order of the unhinged who claim to hear God telling them what to do, no matter how monstrous the command. Amir's murderous fanaticism was coldly calculating. In his mind, so far as we can tell, the voice of God he claims 'perhaps' to have heard was conveyed through what he considered to be the halakhah.

Amir apparently felt himself obliged to obey the halakhah and it appears to have been dinned into him by some of his mentors that his foul act was halakhically legitimate. A halakhic and strictly qualified rule had been sloganized in the circles in which Amir moved to dub Rabin a rodef whose blood may and should be shed.

The law of the rodef [from the root radaf-to pursue] is discussed in tractate Sanhedrin. [2] The simple case of rodef is where A is running after B in order to kill him, say, with a sword in his hand which he clearly intends to use to kill B. The law in such a case is not only that B is allowed to kill A in self-defence but anyone who is able so to do must kill A in order to save B, A's would-be victim. The law that a rodef may be killed in order to save the life of his would-be victim applies not only where there is a direct attack but also where it is obvious that A has designs on B's life, although great circumspection is required in order to determine that it is really so, and the general tendency is not to treat A as a rodef in such circumstances unless the evidence of A's intent is beyond conjecture.

If A is seen aiming a loaded pistol, clearly intending to fire it at B, it would be right to shoot A in order to save B's life. But what if A is known to have bought a gun with the express intention of shooting and killing B? This case would be more questionable and, in our society, the police would be called in to restrain A. The law of rodef is qualified further in that where B can save himself or others can save B without actually killing A, by maiming him, for example, or simply over powering him, to kill A would then be treated as an act of murder since the act was not necessary for the saving of life. No special judicial process is required for the law of rodef to come into operation. Where A, in our example, is about to fire the gun at B it would be absurd to expect B or a bystander to call the police instead of taking the law into his own hands.

The talmudic passage deals with the case of an individual attacker and is largely theoretical since in the actual case where A intends to kill B it is hardly likely that either B or the bystander would reflect on what the law allows him to do even if he knew the law. In the heat of the moment he would, presumably, simply get on with it. After the event, the judicial process would come into operation, the court having to decide whether, in the particular circumstances, the killing of A was justified. What has the law to say about a person whose behaviour threatens the safety of the community? Can the court, acting on behalf of the community, declare that such a person is a rodef whose life therefore is to be forfeited? Now, strictly speaking, only a Sanhedrin can impose capital or corporal punishments and the Sanhedrin ceased to function at the beginning of the Common Era. Yet the statement is made [3] that, as an emergency measure, even an ordinary court [not a Sanhedrin] is empowered 'where the generation requires it' to inflict otherwise illegal punishments.

Many of the mediaeval authorities understood this legal right of the court to act illegally, so to speak, to be on the grounds that for notorious Jewish criminals to be allowed to pursue their nefarious acts without restraint could endanger the very survival of the Jewish community. It is well known that the courts in Spain did avail themselves of this right in the Middle Ages, their power to inflict such punishments being recognized by the Spanish rulers. In other words, the law of rodef was applied in a quasi-judicial sense, i.e. it was not left to the individual but to the court to decide whether, for example, a notorious informer, masur, should be executed in order to prevent him seriously harming the community as a whole. But the judicial process had to come into operation in these instances; no individual had the right to take the law into his own hands. As Rabbi Reuben Margaliot observes in the course of a comprehensive study of the subject, [4] the custom was widespread in mediaeval Spain to execute informers who were known definitely to be such.

In modern times it is unthinkable for a Jewish community to pronounce the death sentence even on the kind of informer whose activities really placed the life of the whole community in jeopardy. The rights given by the governmental authorities were limited to mediaeval Spain in any event. But were there any cases of individual members of a community taking a terrible initiative in the matter without obtaining rabbinic sanction? Rabbi Margaliot reports one such extremely rare incident told to him by his father:

'I heard in my childhood from my father, of blessed memory, of an incident that happened in his youth, in the city of his birth, Griedling, near Lvov [Lemberg]. Residing there was a certain masur, a powerful and brazen individual. On the eve of Yom Kippur, just before Kol Nidrei was recited, when this masur was standing, wrapped in his tallit at the eastern wall near to the rabbi of the town, the gaon Rabbi Joshua Kluger of blessed memory, a few men approached the masur and gagged him with the tallit which he had placed over his eyes until it reached his shoulders. They forcibly ejected him from the great beit hamidrash, which stood beside the river, and cast him into the river. When his body [5] was discovered during the day, on Yom Kippur, the rumour was put around that he had drowned himself and they buried him once Yom Kippur was out. As soon as the matter became known to the detection squad, they began an investigation. On the day of Simchat Torah they disinterred him in order to determine the cause of death and they then began to collect evidence from those who had prayed in the synagogue. The rabbi and those who occupied the seats near to him in the eastern wall took an oath, which happened to be true, that they had not seen who had taken him away. They had, indeed, heard that something was going on but they imagined that he was simply being taken away from his place [at the eastern wall] but had no wish to see what was happening and simply ignored it. Not a single tale-bearer was to be found among the large congregation to give the investigators any further details. The investigation lasted some time but, later, in the absence of evidence, the case was dropped.'

Granted that the whole of Rabbi Margaliot's testimony is hearsay-he heard it from his father when he was a child and the father is reported to have heard of it in his youth-and although embellishments have to be taken into account, this might still afford an extremely rare instance of illegal execution of a rodef by members of a Jewish community, though the rabbi and the communal leaders had no hand in it. The masur in the story was evidently so influential with the Polish authorities that the Jewish community was forced, out of fear, to let the scoundrel occupy a seat at the eastern wall of the synagogue, the place of honour, where he prayed, like the most devout, with his tallit over his head.

The Margaliot story has to do with a notorious enemy of the Jewish community which, in the precarious situation of the time, posed a real danger to the existence of the community. The only similar case on record is that of the moderate Reform rabbi in Lemberg, Abraham Kohn (1807-1848). A poor Jewish goldsmith, hired for the task, entered the Kohn kitchen and, unobserved, managed to put a large dose of arsenic into the family kitchen pot, from which Kohn and his youngest child died a few days later. The rumour that Kohn's enemies summoned an ad hoc Sanhedrin to condemn him has no substance in fact.

Such a thing would have been completely illegal in Jewish law. What is true is that Kohn had given a sermon on 'Thou shalt not murder' just a few days before he himself was murdered. When the police questioned Kohn as he lay dying, he is reported to have said 'Though I die of poison, no Jew has done it.'

It later became known that two of the people behind Kohn's murder were wealthy tax farmers who felt their livelihood at risk by Kohn's laudible attempt to convince the authorities to rescind the tax on the candles Jews needed for the Sabbath lights. It was this that constituted Kohn's 'sin' rather than his moderate reforms in connection with a few Jewish customs; a supreme example of financial advantage cloaked in the garment of supposedly religious zeal. [6]

Both the Margaliot story and the Kohn episode, telling of thoroughly un-Jewish and totally illegal acts, are mentioned here only to show how the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. It was left to Amir to make history by being the first religious Jew hideously to justify political assassination on imaginary halakhic grounds. It is surely superfluous to note that the political issue in the minds-both of those who were in favour of the peace process and those who were opposed to it-was which was the best way to save more Jewish (and Arab) lives. From the point of Rabin's opponents, his policies placed lives at risk, and from his supporters' point of view it was those who opposed Rabin who were placing lives at risk.

Therefore, the opponents of the peace process could also be held to come under the category of rodef. In this case, the only rodef here was, in fact, Amir himself. All this hardly needs stating and it would have been more than a little perverse to discuss the terrible question calmly on halakhic grounds, as if it were a question of whether a chicken is kosher, were it not for the view that it is halakhically feasible to take completely out of context a severely limited concept like that of rodef in order to justify murder. Leaving aside the distortion of Judaism that results from treating the halakhah in isolation from other Jewish values-pan-halakhism as Heschel calls it-this is not, in fact, the halakhah. The harm is done by people treating a halakhic view they favour-chiefly on political grounds-and then invoking the concept of the halakhah as the direct word of God to be obeyed unquestioningly, even when this involves the sacrifice of the most cherished moral convictions. The equation runs: the halakhah is the word of God. The halakhah states that a rodef's life must be forfeited. X is a rodef. Therefore it is the will of God that the life of X must be forfeited. It all goes to show the obscene lengths to which pan-halakhism can be stretched without the correctives of aggadah and sheer common sense and decency. What has happened in the circles from which an Amir emerged is perilous halakhic sloganizing wedded to political aims. There could be no more cogent example of the frightful consequences resulting from those who, in the words of the rabbis, megaleh panim batorah shelo kehalakhah-interpret the Torah in a manner that is contrary to the halakhah. Those who do this, say the rabbis, have no share in the World to Come. Let us hope that their views will have no share in future Jewish life.

  1. Deuteronomy 21: 18-21
  2. Sanhedrin 73a-74a
  3. Sanhedrin 46a
  4. Margaliot Hayam (Jerusalem, 1958), p. 182
  5. nivlato - literally 'his carcass'
  6. For details of this tragic event, see Michael A. Meyer's Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (Oxford, 1988) pp. 156-7.
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