Questions Raised by Rabin Slaying Still Shake Rabbis : Israel: Assassin’s claim of religious justification causes a crisis of accusations, doubts and self-examination.


On the way to evening prayers during a visit to this religious camp in the Galilee, Israel’s chief rabbi is stopped by a middle-aged army reservist wearing fatigues and the skullcap of an observant Jew.

The soldier, clearly worried about the religious motivation behind the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, wants to discuss the obscure religious terms rodef and moser that the murderer apparently dug out of Jewish Halakhic law to justify killing the head of the Jewish state.

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, an imposing figure in his fitted black frock coat and black brim hat, pokes his finger at the soldier’s chest.

“Don’t fall into the trap of discussing these issues,” Lau warns. “I refuse to be led into this argument.”


The issue, according to Rabbi Lau, is not how confessed killer Yigal Amir sought to wrap a political assassination in a cloak of religion, but how religious Jews in Israel are being branded by Amir’s horrible deed.

“I cannot bear it that because one man made it to Rabin, a whole sector is going to be blamed. That is exactly what the anti-Semites did in the dark times,” Lau said in an interview that day. “In a tradition of thousands of years, half of the population here finds itself on the bench of the accused.”

This time, however, many of the accusers are rabbis and religious Jews themselves. The assassination of Rabin by a student of Jewish law and religion, by an activist in the nationalist religious camp who asserted in court that God and Jewish law sanctioned the killing, has caused a deep rift in Israel’s Orthodox rabbinical community and thrown it into a crisis of recriminations, denials and painful self-examination.

At root is the question Lau will not entertain--whether Israel’s rabbinical and religious community bears any direct or indirect responsibility for the assassination. Were Amir and any accomplice a product of Israel’s religious Zionist education or a perversion of it?

The first rabbi to raise this publicly was Yoel Ben-Nun from Ofra, a West Bank Jewish settlement. At a meeting of religious Zionist leaders four days after the murder, Ben-Nun asserted that certain rabbis and authorities on Halakhic law--"members of our camp,” he called them--had branded Rabin a rodef , or a pursuer of Jews, for exposing Israel to Palestinian attacks through the peace process.

A rodef , according to the 12th-Century scholar Maimonides, may be killed by someone trying to halt an act of pursuit, an attack. The most common interpretation of this, however, is that the commandment against killing may be overruled and the life of a pursuer may be taken only as a defensive act during a murderous assault.

Ben-Nun charged that “respected authorities” were continuing to apply the term rodef to then-acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres, and he threatened to reveal their names if they did not resign before the end of the weeklong period of mourning for Rabin.

The rabbi reminded his colleagues that they had failed to speak out with him in the early 1980s, when a Jewish terror underground group under the spiritual guidance of some rabbis began to set bombs against Palestinians, murdering and maiming several Arabs before the Jews were caught.

“We must stand up as one, together with heads of yeshivot [religious schools],” Ben-Nun urged, “and demand that these people resign from every Torah position they presently hold, and if they refuse we must see that they be denounced and cut off from us.”

No rabbi resigned, and the community did not stand up as one. Instead, Ben-Nun began receiving telephoned death threats. He put on a bulletproof vest and accepted round-the-clock protection from government bodyguards.

Ben-Nun went to Rabbi Lau with two or three names. Although Ben-Nun never stated the names publicly, Israeli media said he mentioned two West Bank rabbis, Dov Lior of Kiryat Arba and Nahum Rabinovich of Maaleh Adumim. Both adamantly denied that they had ever sanctioned murder. Lior said he felt “betrayed” by Ben-Nun, and Rabinovich threatened to sue for libel.

The accuser became the accused. Ben-Nun was called a fink and a stool pigeon, parents threatened to pull their girls out of the school where he teaches, and his community threatened “ex-communication.” Moreover, Lau said Ben-Nun had provided him with “confused,” thirdhand hearsay about two rabbis who “spoke out against the peace process” in their public speeches.

After a long session at his home with rabbis and the leaders of West Bank settlers, Ben-Nun publicly apologized “to any person--any rabbi--who was offended and did no wrong. I apologize, as I have been told that many people were offended.” Then he spoke no more.

But others are speaking up. Rabbi Zvi Wolf of the moderate nationalist religious movement Meimad said, “We identify with the content of what Ben-Nun said. It is not up to us to decide whether there was enough evidence for him to go public.”

Rabbi David Hartman, a scholar and philosopher at his Hartman Institute, said the issue is not Ben-Nun or whether rabbis ever made a ruling against Rabin.

The problem, Hartman said, is that rabbis and leaders of the nationalist religious camp encouraged the view that Rabin was a traitor and an enemy of Judaism for relinquishing West Bank land.

These religious people preached that the land, which they call by the biblical name of Judea and Samaria, was given to Jews by God and that the messiah would not come unless all of Eretz Israel--Greater Israel--was in Jewish hands.

In that climate, religious people, especially students such as Amir and his friends, began to discuss whether Rabin was a rodef or a moser , a traitor for relinquishing Jewish property to Gentiles.

Last summer, a group of influential rabbis led by Rabinovich and former Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira issued a ruling that Jewish soldiers should disobey any government order to vacate West Bank army bases that would be turned over to the Palestinians. The rabbis said that the Torah prohibits giving the land to Gentiles and that dismantling the bases would endanger the lives of Jews.

Rabinovich suggested on the radio at the time that Rabin was a moser , although he explicitly stated this did not mean the prime minister should be killed.

Amir, however, decided on a death sentence. He said in court that he killed Rabin because the prime minister was relinquishing Jewish land to the Palestinians.

“If you make the land what Judaism is about, then giving up the land is seen as heresy. . . . God won’t come if you don’t own all the rooms in the house,” Hartman said. “Religious Zionist education emphasized sovereignty of the land more than other values. . . . It failed to create a revulsion against acts of murder.”

Rabbi Beni Elon from the Jewish settlement Beit El is a firm believer that Israel must not give up the West Bank. He organized demonstrations against Rabin’s peace policy. But clearly shaken by the murder, he says now that the challenge for religious Zionists is to teach their students the right mix of morality, Torah and nationalism.

“The question is how many pounds of this, how many pounds of that,” he said. “We have to be very careful in educating our students. Twenty-six generations before the Torah, human beings had a morality. We are not killing because it says so in the Bible. We are not killing because we are human beings.”

Religious Jews must learn to reconcile laws of the Torah and laws of the land of Israel, he said.

To this end, a group of 50 rabbis from both sides of the Green Line that divides the West Bank and pre-1967 Israel--most of them young practicing rabbis who have served in Israel’s army--have formed a council to look at the application of Halakhic law to modern social and political issues.

Rabbi Yehuda Amital, the leader of Meimad, said he agreed to join Peres’ new Cabinet as a minister without portfolio to facilitate debate within the religious community and to bridge the gap between the secular and religious worlds.

Lau--who is Israel’s chief rabbi among the Ashkenazi, or European Jews--maintains that this public mea culpa and self-examination are inappropriate, however. He is touring the country with the message that Jews must not absorb Amir’s guilt, but continue to be proud of their religion and heritage.

There is nothing wrong with Israel’s Zionist educational system, Lau says.

But of course, the difficult questions keep coming up. At Kadoori, a young girl asked Lau what is more holy, the land of Israel or the people of Israel?

“This is like asking someone if he loves his mother or his father,” Lau said with a wince. But clear that he must take a stand here, he answered in no uncertain terms: “The sanctity of life is the highest value of anything on Earth.”

* PLOT DOUBTED: Israel’s top cop says there was no conspiracy to kill Rabin. A37