Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Matos/Maasei: Proportional Responses

Last week I discussed a possible perspective on left-leaning Jews and Jewish organizations [counting Neturei Karta as “leftist”] who were ostensibly hostile to Jewish and Israeli concerns, and expressed their hostility as a genuine “Jewish” response to the issues, on their terms.

Is there such a thing as a “right-wing”response that would be equivalently deserving of opprobrium?

In nine of every ten cases, no. The major difference between left-wing and right wing “zealotry” is that, at least bi’techila, right-wing zealotry is about protecting Jews; left-wing zealotry is about protecting an idea of universalism while trying to force it into a perceived Jewish framework.

[However, the recent revelation that two Rabbanim from Yeshivas Od Yosef Chai have published a sefer extolling the virtues of killing non-Jewish children because they are potential rodfim indicates, at the very least, that there are some discussions that are not to be had outside the bes medrash, and that the right wing sometimes has a habit of squandering its ostensible monopoly on common sense and ability to handle the truth. Chachamim hizaharu be’divreichem, indeed.]

We learn in Matos that military revenge responses—even if they result in the death of civilians [as the women who seduced the Jews to Peor were, in a religious sense, knowing what the direct consequence would be]—are not necessarily out of bounds, and neither is despoiliation. No, selecting women and children nowadays would not be a legitimate response. [This means you, Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur.] But it was then; G-d was not about to force the Jews to abide by different rules of engagement than the enemy had [which, in the case of Avel Shittim, was tantamount to a form of enemy combatants out of uniform engaging in a religious terrorism. Again, unique to the time.]

There are, in classical Jewish history, probably four instances where an overly “Right” responses hurt more than it helped: the Ma’apilim, Yoshiyahu, the biryonim/zealots, and Bar Kochba.

The Ma’apilim were a reflexive, too-little-too-late reaction to the gezera following the chet hameraglim. Despite the manifestation of Divine presence even in this case—cf. Rashi on Devarim 1:44 “ka’asher ta’asena ha’devorim”—they smote you like bees, dying when they touched you—the ensuing rebellion of Korach and resulting plague from the accusation that “You have slaughtered the nation of G-d” [Bamidbar 17:6] was likely indicative of this "spiritual moment"’s staying power.

Yoshiyahu’s insistence of showing strength by not allowing passage to Pharaoh Necho despite is the first instance of what might have been, in a moment of spiritual hubris, an overly aggressive response from a religious perspective. As the gemara in Taanis 22 details, Pharaoh Necho had no designs on Israel, but Yoshiyahu thought he had been more successful at rooting out idolatry than he had really been. Yoshiyahu paid for the miscalculation with his life, which was tragic enough; but as we will see, there were graver miscalculations.

The biryonim--as detailed on what one might call the “Tisha B’Av” gemara in Gitin—actually may have been directly responsible for the starvation in the Jerusalem under siege from Vespasian and Titus, as they burnt all the extra stores of food to force the populace not to entertain any notions of a “peace process”. We all know what resulted. Even their leader—Abba Sikra—wanted to “defect” [and did, in a way, by helping sneak out Rabbi Yochanan], but as he said, he was in fear for his life from his own minions.

Finally, there’s Bar Kochba, who was charismatic and initially successful enough that Rabbi Akiva thought he was Mashiach. However, his spiritual makeup was probably not what the Tanna thought it was; his catchphrase klapei maa’la was believed to be “Don’t help me, don’t get in my way”. [Again, the times were definitely different, so any comparison to ostensibly similar attitudes among those responsible for protecting Jews nowadays would be a stretch, to say the least.]

[I would venture that Shapira and Elitzur’s responsa places them somewhere in between bar Kochba and the biryonim.]

The point is that its not WAR that isn’t the Jewish response. There is something in between Rav Aryeh Kaplan’s [misunderstood] notion that Judaism is essentially pacifist {from an essay in his “Encounters”] and Rav Shach’s assertion that “Wars are good…”. [Not to mention, again, Rabbis Shapira and Elitzur.] There also are—within limits—definite doctrines of just pre-emption and reprisal, even when civilians die. Its knowing the tenor of the time and the populace… and making sure we WIN.

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