Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • Understanding Circumstances
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Tzvi Yoel Ben Moshe HaLevi

The Rabbis' Obligation to Speak Up

Is it even conceivable that Torah leaders be told not to voice their opinion on questions which effect so significantly the future of the nation? Not only are rabbis permitted to voice the opinion of the Torah, they are obligated.


Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed

4th Shvat, 5763
1. No Rabbis Allowed
2. "In all your ways..."
3. Torah Rulings, Torah Opinions
4. Just who is to blame?
5. Expert Mistakes and Wise Advice

No Rabbis Allowed
When Israel's previous defense minister decided to forcibly evacuate Jewish outpost settlements - among them the Gilad Farm Outpost established in memory of Gilad Zar hy"d who was killed on that sight, and the Asaf Outpost established in memory of Asaf and Aryeh Hirshkowitz hy"d at the junction between Beit-El and Ofra - the Council of the Rabbis of Yesha (Judeah, Samariah, and Gaza) assembled in order to decide upon an appropriate response to the government's decision. Among other things, it was made clear that Torah law prohibits uprooting such outpost settlements; therefore, every soldier should approach his commanding officer and request to be excused from participating in any such activity. I personally suggested that such a soldier make clear to his commanding officer the reason for his request - that the Torah forbids such action - but conceded to the opinion of my colleagues who felt that a more unassuming-styled request was preferable. The implications, of course, remained the same.

The position taken by the rabbis, especially my suggestion, caused a public commotion. The media denounced the decision, and there were even rabbis among the heads of Mechinot (religious pre-military preparatory institutes) who came out against it. Yet, it is not rabbinic discrepancy that I wish to address here, but an article written by Professor Yedidya Stern that was circulated by the Israel Institute for Democracy. The essence of the article: that rabbis should not get involved in political issues. Professor Stern claims that Halakha (Jewish law) does not concern itself with political issues. The kings of Israel did not seek the approval of Halakhic authorities before going out to war. In addition, the professor claims that important Torah personalities have expressed the opinion that when it comes to politics the masses must be allowed to decide for themselves. Furthermore, he continues, the absence of relevant Torah sources makes it exceedingly difficult for a rabbi to reach any sort of true Halakhic stance concerning political issues.

"In all your ways..."
I wish to pause for a moment in order to respond to the above accusations. That the Torah guides the Jew in his personal life alone, in matters between himself and his Creator or between himself and his fellow man, is a misconception. This is simply not the case. There is no arena in life, personal or public, that the Torah does not enter, guiding man and lighting up his way. The Torah instructs us regarding the appointment of kings and concerning both obligatory and voluntary wars; the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Maimonides) included a chapter entitled "The Laws of Kings and their Wars" in his comprehensive code of Jewish law, "Mishneh Torah." There are commandments incumbent upon the community as a community: the Halakha demands that a king of Israel receive the permission of the Sanhedrin (Supreme Court of religious scholars) before the people go to war, and the prophet is also involved in this decision.

Torah teaches the Jew that each and every act he performs should be carried out for the sake of Heaven; in the words of King Solomon: "In all your ways, acknowledge Him." In every small step one takes in life - what more so in every large step - acknowledge God's being and act on His behalf. Such an attitude calls for looking into the Torah in an attempt to reveal God's will. Yet, because the Divine reasoning is of an altogether different nature than ours, the Torah, rather than allowing us to discern God's will on our own, lays it out for us in the form of 613 commandments, the majority of which are commandments which apply to the community, the state, and the Sanctuary.
Our beloved mentor, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook zt"l, points to this as the reason that the Torah commands a king of Israel to possesses two Torah scrolls rather than just one like every other Jew. The additional scroll is needed for administering over the kingdom. Rabbi Kook further explains that the laws which relate to the community as a whole are of a different nature than the laws of the individual - as the Rambam himself makes clear in his "Laws of Kings" - and that each one of these laws has a source in the Torah. (Cf. Mishpat Cohen, responsa nos.124 and 142)

It is true that because of our two thousand year exile we are today unversed in such laws and possess no coherent tradition of them. Yet, this unfortunate fact does not free us of the obligation to draw upon our existing sources for Torah guidance in dealing with modern Israel's constantly changing public issues. There are national issues regarding which the Torah provides clear instruction: the obligation to conquer the Land of Israel, to settle the land, to acknowledge the land's sanctity, and to rule over all of it. Yet, there exists no organized body of laws telling us what to do under more complex circumstances - what to do when faced with difficulties in fulfilling such commandments, how adamant one must be, and to just how much danger one must be willing to expose himself. However, the spirit of things is clear, and, after receiving a sound assessment of the situation by political and military experts, rabbis are clearly obligated to voice their own Halakhic opinion regarding how to act in the spirit of the Torah.

Differences in Israeli public opinion as to how to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict do not result solely from discordant assessments of the situation. They are undoubtedly influenced to a large degree by personal worldview and conviction. Furthermore, assessments of the situation are significantly shaped, if not completely decided, by a person's position regarding the value of the Land of Israel and the content of Israel's national aspirations and destiny. Is it even conceivable that Torah leaders be told not to voice their opinion on questions which effect so significantly the future of the nation? It goes without saying that religious leaders must approach such issues armed with the sort of broad perspective which takes into consideration the opinions of military experts. Yet, after hearing these opinions, not only are rabbis permitted to voice the opinion of the Torah, they are obligated.

Torah Rulings, Torah Opinions
Professor Stern continues, asserting that if a rabbi were merely to outline his fundamental position in a conjectural article, democracy would be able to shoulder it as it does countless other opinions driven by personal systems of belief. But when a rabbi lays down a Halakhic ruling it becomes binding, and one who goes against it makes himself liable to harsh and explicit legal repercussions. Such rulings are presented as objective truths which leave no room for debate. They are viewed by the masses as expressions of the Divine will. This, in Professor Stern's eyes, delegitimizes Halakhic decisions from a democratic perspective. The professor then expresses astonishment at the fact that while rabbis object to the judicial activism of the Israeli secular courts, they remain strangely silent when the Halakha pries into places that even the secular courts refrain from entering.

I, though, am astonished by the words of Professor Stern. To begin with, I fail to see the difference between a Torah "ruling" and a Torah "opinion." Each of us desires nothing more than to fulfill the will of God as expressed in the Torah, and when we believe that something is the desire of God we carry it out, regardless of whether it reaches us in the form of a Halakhic ruling or a rabbi's personal opinion. Were we to possess a Sanhedrin, its decisions would be binding upon all of us, but at present no such body exists, and therefore no Halakhic ruling is truly binding. There exist a variety of opinions and an assortment of authorities, and each community chooses its own path. There is no "force" that makes rabbinic decisions obligatory. Their strength stems from the agreement of the recipient and not from some coercive power of rabbinic command.
Secondly, I fail to understand the professor's comparison between secular court decisions and Halakhic positions. The courts impose their opinion in areas which they have received no authority to do so, while the only thing which obligates a Jew to follow a rabbinic ruling his own free will.

Just who is to blame?
Professor Stern opens his article by saying that any Halakhic ruling which forbids the evacuation of outpost settlements is bound to have grave consequences. The students of the rabbi are called upon to decide between breaking the law or violating the Torah. The religious-Zionist community is forced to choose between the two essential ingredients of its identity: "Am I religious or am I a Zionist?" The professor sees the rabbis as to blame for bringing about this uncomfortable situation, while in fact the blame deserves to be placed upon the one who gave orders to violate a Mitzvah (Torah commandment). The religious community will be forced to face this dilemma every time an order is given which contradicts the Halakha. But it has always been clear that in the IDF no order is given which contradicts Jewish law, for the religious public can have it no other way. No Torah-observant Jew can agree to fulfill a government law which forces him to transgress a Torah commandment. No religious soldier can carry out order which calls upon him to violate the Sabbath, dietary laws, or any other Torah commandment. The Mitzvah to settle the land of Israel is no less important than any other Torah commandment; to the contrary, it is even more important, for, in the words of the Sages, it is "equivalent in value to all of the rest of the commandments combined." The Mitzvah to settle the Land of Israel includes any act which strengthens our hold on the land, while any act which leads to a loosening of our grip on any part of the land is forbidden. And because the unquestionable intention behind dismantling outpost settlements is to make possible the handing over of land to Arabs, it is forbidden. This holds true even though the sight in question is not going to be handed directly over to Arabs, for the very act of uprooting a Jewish settlement in the land of Israel is part of a forbidden chain of events - and even a small violation remains a violation. What's more, any forbidden act connected to the Land of Israel is by nature not "small." Yet, even if we find differences of opinion between rabbis as to the severity of such a violation, this does not concern us at present, for we are discussing the principle that says that it is forbidden to follow any order that violates the Torah, and this includes settling the Land of Israel.

Incidentally, I am of the opinion that soldiers who refuse to carry out an order because of their loyalty to the Land of Israel are not weakening the army but strengthening it, but this is not the subject of our discussion either. One of the fundamental principles of democracy is that no individual is forced to act in a manner that runs counter to his conscience unless his conscience constitutes a danger to the state. But to force an individual to violate his conscience simply for the purpose of keeping law and order - especially where the true intention is to exploit him in carrying out a narrow political objective - is undemocratic. The order to uproot outpost settlements clearly runs counter to the fundamental beliefs of religious-Zionism, and it does not constitute a national security interest which demands forcing people to behave in a manner that strikes at the very foundations of their beliefs.

Expert Mistakes and Wise Advice
Professor Stern claims that Halakhic rulings addressing the question of Israeli land concessions have continued to appear in the same basic formula for a number of years now. The position has been neither revised nor replaced in keeping with the changing times and the changing political and military situation. The rabbis who oppose the Clinton accords continue to base themselves upon the Halakhic rulings of Rabbi Goren who passed away years ago. Professor Stern, though, should not have chosen to use an example that can be so easily turn around. The fact that this ruling continues to be relevant merely proves how right the rabbis have turned out to be and how mistaken the politicians were who supported the tragic Oslo agreements. The rabbis were the true wise men who foresaw the grave future. They cautioned against giving weapons to the Arabs claiming they will be used against us. To our great distress, the rabbis were right: With the weapons which we gave them, the Arabs murdered hundreds of innocent Jews; in the cities and towns that we handed over to then, they built up weapon production factories; the money that we gave them was used against us. Apparently, the rabbis possess greater common sense and greater breadth of political understanding than the political experts themselves. Would that in the future political experts consult with the rabbis.

Political experts were mistaken and continue to make mistakes regarding the reason for the Arab-Israeli conflict. The experts approach the conflict from a secular-Western point of view and therefore fail to understand that at its source lies a struggle between two faiths, a religious-spiritual struggle, and it is impossible to solve such a struggle by material or financial concessions - i.e., through land or money. The experts did not believe that there would be so many suicide-bombers; they did not believe that Muslim religious faith runs so deep and is no dear to the Arabs - more dear than life itself. Although the Arabs state their goals quite clearly: Throw the People of Israel out of the Land of Israel and destroy the State of Israel - the political experts refuse to believe them. Every agreement the Arabs have made with us they have signed with the intention of destroying us. They do not see peace as a goal to strive for. They see it as a means for weakening us, a means for establishing themselves on the territories that they receive from us, a means for arming themselves in order to destroy us. The visions of our political experts which announce that when the Arabs receive a fair portion of the Land of Israel they will be satisfied, are completely without foundation. The only thing that can be done is to wipe out terrorism by sheer force, and to create the sort of constant threat that will bring the Arabs to the realization that they do not have the power to dislodge us from our land. When they finally get this into their head they will become weary of their ambitions to destroy us and will give up. This, then, is what we must do. And, at the same time, we must constantly act to advance our long-awaited redemption.

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