Home > Gaza, Israel, Palestinian Authority, Rabbi Dow Marmur, West Bank > If left-wing Israelis should answer to a higher law, how about right-wing rabbis?

If left-wing Israelis should answer to a higher law, how about right-wing rabbis?

By Rabbi Dow Marmur

JERUSALEM–Professor David Shulman of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, commenting on the by now almost notorious Goldstone report – and sort-of agreeing with much of it – writes nostalgically in the December 17 issue of The New York Review of Books:

            I remember a time when charges of war crimes were not simply sloughed off by   Israel’s leaders, when military mistakes that cost innocent civilian lives were acknowledged as such and elicited expressions of sorrow, and when Israeli courts clearly articulated the principle that a soldier has not only the right but  indeed the duty not to carry out an order that is at odds with his conscience as a human being or with basic human values.

 These are noble words by a liberal Israeli intellectual concerned about the soul of his people and his country. The trouble is that, applying the same criteria, ultra-nationalist rabbis may have a strong case, too. Some of them openly urge Israeli soldiers to disobey orders if sent to help remove illegal outposts in the West Bank and perhaps soon (we pray) help evacuate Israelis from established settlements as part of a peace agreement.  They, too, espouse higher values that in their view should supersede military orders.

 I surmise that this professor of humanistic studies, whether or not burdened by secularist prejudice, doesn’t look forward to a time when Halakhah (Jewish law) will supersede any law that Israel’s democratically elected parliament will pass on the grounds that God’s commandments must come before human legislation.  What he identifies as human conscience and human values, these rabbis regard as having infinitely higher authority, which for them is embodied in Jewish law. They understand this law to say that every bit of the Land of Israel is a God-given Jewish possession and that no Jew has the right to move another Jew from it. Disobedience in their scheme of things isn’t just a human value but a sacred duty. How is their stance intellectually inferior to his?

There’s indeed a strong case for Israel to investigate accusations of abuses by soldiers during the Gaza war, as listed in the Goldstone report. But do such possible abuses warrant disobedience of military orders and halakhic considerations don’t?

As a liberal I’d like to side with Shulman and condemn the rabbis. However, I find it impossible to do so without being inconsistent and hypocritical, and thus fundamentally wrong. As much as I disagree with the settler rabbis and fear for the consequences of their campaign, I don’t know how to refute their argument when they ask why, when professors encourage disobedience the elites laud them, but when rabbis do so the same elites condemn them.

With this dilemma constantly on my mind I can no longer choose between the liberal left, where I’d like to belong, and the militant right, which at times I fear more than the known enemies of Israel. Like so many others nowadays, I’m not in a position to label myself politically, for if you free yourself from ideological and political blinkers, all you can hope for is that those entrusted to lead the country will be sufficiently inconsistent and pragmatic to try to be many things to a lot of people. It’s not pretty and not comfortable, but I know of no other viable and honest option.      

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Rabbi Marmur is spiritual leader emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto.  He now divides his year between Israel and Canada.

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