Introspection And Yitzchak Trembled…


By Rabbi Mayer Twersky

      “And Yitzchak trembled very greatly.”  Rashi, quoting Chazal, explains that he shuddered because he saw Gehinom open beneath him.  I, too, shuddered when I first heard of the Rabin assassination.  And for the same reason — I sensed Gehinom opening.  When a Jew savagely murders a fellow Jew, Gehinom opens, and we are convulsed by an uncontrollable tremor; a chillul Hashem of the highest magnitude has transpired.

As the identity and biographical highlights of the assassin became known, the unspeakably horrifying chillul Hashem grew greater and greater.  The murder was perpetrated by an individual perceived to be an exemplary ben Torah and in the name of Torah.  To be sure, cries of condemnation were heard, but the condemnation was not universal.  Rabin’s death, at the hands of a fellow Jew, was publicly and ghoulishly celebrated by some and smugly condoned by others.  The fires of chillul Hashem raged uncontrollably.  And it is abundantly clear that the Rabin assassination and the subsequent reaction thereto reflect the tone and temper of our times and even our Torah society.  The pain is deep and searing, but the truth is unavoidable.  We must confront this terrible truth and issue a collective “aval ashamim anachnu.”  We must — both individually and collectively — introspect as never before, identify and diagnose the fatal flaws and enact profound corrective measures.

The vital, seminal issues that lie at the heart of the raging, destructive debate are, at once, both halachic and political.  Is it permissible to surrender land in Eretz Yisrael to save lives and secure peace?  There is no halachic consensus on this crucial issue.  The foremost twentieth century expositor and authority on halachah, Rav Soloveitchik, zt”l, opined that halachah permits (and, therefore, presumably mandates) surrendering land to secure peace.  Rav Ovadia Yosef, the preeminent contemporary Sefardi posek, concurs.  To be sure, halachists of stature demur and prohibit relinquishing any territories.  Moreover, according to the first school of thought, the military and political situation must be expertly assessed: will relinquishing territories, in fact, induce peace?  Here, too, no consensus exists.  The deadly and acutely painful increase in terrorism since the Oslo accords does not resolve any of the pertinent issues.  Hamas is at war with Israel.  Halachic guidelines for pikuach nefesh of a tzibur at a time of war are sui generis.  One cannot merely transpose pikuach nefesh data from dissimilar situations.  The overriding consideration in an ongoing war is not the pikuach nefesh of individuals, but of the tzibur.  As such, halachah mandates that the war effort must be conducted as effectively as possible.  Military history, common sense and experience all attest that, at times, the best strategy may tragically entail relatively heavier losses initially to heighten chances of ultimate triumph.  Such strategies, if sound, would receive an halachic imprimatur.  And so, the crucial prognostic question regarding the peace process remains unresolved.  Debate and disputation preponderate.

Chazal compare Torah scholars to warriors.  But what are the rules of engagement for Talmudic warfare?  What is appropriate?  What inappropriate?  How ought the halachic disputants to view and relate to each other?  What standing do the views of one’s halachic opponent have?  The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot cites the disputes between Shammai and Hillel as paradigms of a machloket le-shem shamayyim , a dispute for the sake of Heaven.  The Talmud in Masachet Yevamot elaborates further:  “…they treated each other with love and friendship, in fulfillment of the verse, ‘You shall love [both] truth and peace.'”

Neither Beit Shammai nor Beit Hillel advocated their respective halachic positions tentatively; they did not waiver or vacillate out of self-doubt.  Each school had listened attentively to the counter-arguments, and had definitively rejected them.  Each school spoke with conviction and relative certitude.  But their passionate truth in no way interfered with their equally passionate love of peace.  In Masechet Eruvin, the Talmud records the bat kol that, speaking of the myriad disputes between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, proclaimed, “elu ve-elu divrei Elokim chayyim” — “these and those are the words of the living God.”  Each opinion is legitimate; each position is valid.  Accordingly, no halachic disputant has a right to deny or invalidate the legitimate opinion of his halachic opponent, no matter how vital the issue, no matter his own degree of conviction and relative certitude.  Nor can any contemporary halachist claim the normative endorsement of a bat kol.  If an halachist has the credentials of yir’at shamayyim and Torah scholarship, his legitimate opinion may never be denied, dismissed or de-legitimized.

Let there be no misunderstanding.  We are not, God forbid, advocating religious relativism or (in contemporary jargon) pluralism.  The point is simply that Torah internally allows, at times, for varying interpretations and differing opinions.  These variances and differences lay equal claim to truth (elu ve-elu…), and accordingly must be tolerated and respected.

We can find many contemporary examples of this type of tolerance and respect — in both the halachic and hashkafic arenas.  Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, the pre-eminent posek in America, was asked about the halachic feasibility of constructing an eruv in Manhattan.  The question was submitted time and time again, and each time he steadfastly ruled that it was halachically untenable.  Then a variant of the original question was submitted:  are those halachic authorities who disagree with your ruling permitted to rule differently and sanction an eruv around Manhattan?  Since Rav Feinstein had argued his position clearly and forcefully, one would have anticipated a negative ruling.  But the responsum that saintly gaon penned stated that any qualified halachist who felt that an eruv was halachically feasible may rule and act accordingly.  His differing opinion is equally legitimate and valid, Rev Feinstein’s relative certitude and conviction regarding his own position notwithstanding.

On a visit to Eretz Yisrael several years ago, I had the privilege of spending some time with Rav Meir Schlesinger, shlita, the now-retired (but then active) Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivat Sha’alvim.  He told me that when he needed guidance, he consulted his illustrious Rebbe, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l.  He would present the issue at hand and outline his proposed course of action.  Occasionally, Rav Auerbach disagreed, discouraged him from that course of action, and advocated an alternative.  At times, Rav Auerbach simply concurred.  But most often he would reply, “I see things differently, but if this is how you see things, you should be guided by your vision.”

The first annual Chinuch Atzmai dinner, held on January 11, 1956, honored Rav Aharon Kotler, zt”l.  The Rav, acceding to Rav Kotler’s personal request, served as honorary chairman and delivered the keynote address.  The Rav’s immortal words resonate powerfully [translated from the Yiddish]:

“I am most proud this evening.  First, because many active members of Mizrachi are present.  It is a sign it can rise above narrow political thinking.  I am proud to see members and leaders of the Histadrus Horobbonim; I am also proud that sitting at the dais, I see my own baalei battim from the Moriah shul, and I would like you to know that I never flatter my baalei battim.  But despite the fact that seventy-five to eighty percent of this shul is officially bound to Mizrachi ideology, their presence here this evening is testimony that Jews can rise above all political ideologies and extend a hand when it comes to Torah.  And I am especially proud that I myself came — though I strongly feared that the yetzer hora would subvert my intentions.”

Rav Soloveitchik was not one to indulge in self-approbation.  Nevertheless, he did so on this one occasion to teach us a crucial lesson: above all, one must take pride in tolerating legitimate disagreement and transcending politics in order to unite under the banner of Torah.

Rav Soloveitchik proceeded to laud Rav Kotler as the Gadol HaDor.  He added that when he looked upon Rav Kotler, he was reminded of his paternal grandfather, Rav Chayyim Brisker.  No greater compliment existed in the Rav’s lexicon.  But Rav Aharon was very outspoken in his criticism of Yeshiva University and firmly allied with the Agudas Yisrael movement.  Still, the Rav recognized and respected his legitimate opinions, and paid homage to him.  “They treated each other with love and friendship…”  Alas for those who have departed, and are no longer present!

The arrogant sense of omniscience and absolute certitude that have plagued the debate concerning the peace process are antithetical to Torah.  Neither Rav Feinstein nor Rav Auerbach nor Rav Soloveitchik ever taught us to deny or de-legitimize the views of halachic opponents.  A fortiori that complex military and political analysis — at best inexact sciences — do not allow for absolute certitude.  Prime Minister Rabin’s actions in advancing the peace process were (and remain) halachically justifiable.  Not halachically indisputable, but certainly halachically justifiable.  No one amongst us — be he on the left, right, or center, in Eretz Yisrael or in chutz la-aretz, a minister in the government or a settler in Yehudah veShomron — may arrogantly presume the absolute certitude that is the exclusive domain of He who is omniscient, and deny the legitimacy of our opponents’ opinions.

No one amongst us, regardless of his location on the political or religious or ideological spectrum, should point a finger of blame at others.  Human nature tempts us to assign guilt to others and thereby exonerate ourselves.  When the Almighty confronted Chavah, she insisted that “the serpent beguiled me and I ate.”  Her defense was factually correct.  (Accordingly, Hashem did not invite the serpent to defend himself because “we do not look to justify an instigator.”)  Factually correct, but Divinely rejected as entirely irrelevant.  Implicating others, albeit justly, does not exonerate or improve ourselves.  “Keshot atzmecha techilah” — first, perfect yourself!  Each of us ought to be so preoccupied with self-indictment that we simply cannot find the time to indict others.  Those of us who stand on the political left should question, “how could we tolerate the incessant verbal attacks on the settlers?  How could we allow them to be equated with Hamas or Khomeini?  How much poison was released into the political environment by police brutality at anti-government demonstrations?”  Those of us on the right should query, “How could we call him a traitor simply because his vision for the security of the State of Israel differed from ours?  His policies were halachically valid — how could we remain silent when extremists pronounced him a rodef?  And if our ambivalence about the peace process places us in the political center, how could we not intervene and condemn the inflammatory, intolerable invective from both ends of the political spectrum?  Claims of passivity are not a defense; the prohibition of “lo ta’amod al dam re’echa” precludes such injurious inaction.

Let us be quite explicit.  The fatal flaw of intolerance and de-legitimization pervades our community.  In Eretz Yisrael, the peace process provided an issue that is so vital and emotionally charged that the flaw of intolerance manifested itself in the form of murder.  Here in America, we are afflicted with the same contemptuous intolerance; we merely lack an equally provocative issue.

But there are other fatal flaws that were manifest in the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin.  The Almighty implanted within us a powerful instinct that inhibits us from committing murder.  As a result, under normal circumstances, no Jew, or for that matter any civilized person, is capable of committing cold-blooded murder.  One of two extreme conditions must be satisfied before this instinct can be overcome.  The first possible condition is that the perpetrator is so evil and has corrupted himself so thoroughly that the voice of his conscience is inaudible, buried beneath multiple layers of evil.  The perpetrator is himself a monster, his tzelem Elokim virtually unrecognizable.  But this condition was not satisfied in the Rabin assassination; Yigal Amir is not a monster.  There is, however, a second possible condition: if we perceive the victim as a monster.  In such a case, the voice of our divinely bestowed conscience is silenced, and we become capable of cold-blooded murder, even in the name of Torah.

Yitzchak Rabin was dehumanized and demonized by his political opponents.  His murder became possible.  Character assassination culminated in actual assassination.

But why was he so dehumanized and demonized?  Partially because of the arrogant omniscience that de-legitimized his personal opinions and political beliefs.  There were other contributing factors, as well.  He was scorned and hated (I use the term advisedly) because he was a secular Jew who headed an anti-religious government.

In such a situation, what attitude and approach does the Torah prescribe?  Certainly, we do not speak of legitimate disagreement here.  We speak not with relative certitude, but absolute certitude.  The nightclubs and mixed beaches of Tel Aviv do not constitute a legitimate alternate lifestyle, and chillul Shabbat is not a legitimate alternative to shemirat Shabbat.  And so the question beckons, how do observant Jews relate to their secular brethren?

The Chazon Ish formulated the answer boldly and authoritatively.  In his discussion of moridin ve-en ma’alin (the halachah that certain grievous sinners are to be thrown into deep pits, and left there to their certain fate), the Chazon Ish penned the following:  “it would appear that this halachah is only operative when Divine providence is clearly evident as it was when miracles were commonplace and the bat kol was functional, and the righteous individuals of the generation were under special Divine providence discernible to all.  In those times, heretics perversely provoked themselves to the pursuit of pleasure and anarchy, and in those times excising evil people constituted protection of the world because all knew that inciting the people of the generation would bring calamity to the world; it would bring pestilence and war and famine.  But now in an era during which God’s providence is concealed, and the masses are bereft of faith, orchestrating the death of sinners does not repair the breach in the wall of religion, but enlarges it because the masses will view such actions as destructive and violent, God forbid, and since our sole purpose is to be constructive, this halachah [of moridin] is not operative at a time when it does not yield constructive results, and it is incumbent upon us to attract the masses to Torah through love and to position them so that they can experience the radiance of Torah, to the best of our ability.”  How profoundly insightful, how eerily prophetic.  The proscription of the Chazon Ish did not allow for dehumanizing or demonizing Prime Minister Rabin.  If we had only heeded the wise Torah counsel of the Chazon Ish, our hands would not be stained with Yitzchak Rabin’s blood.

Moreover, the Torah provides very precise counsel as to how we should relate to a secular head of state, even an anti-religious one.  In Sefer Shemot, God charges Moshe and Aharon with the mission of speaking to Pharaoh.  Rashi, ad locum, quotes Chazal, “He [God] commanded them [Moshe and Aharon] to accord Pharaoh respect.”  How stunning!  Who was Pharaoh that his dignity had to be maintained?  Rambam writes that in extreme, extraordinary cases a person may sin so grievously and commit such unspeakable treachery and become so evil that, in response, God decrees that he forfeit his free will and be denied any further opportunity to repent, thus ensuring his punishment and ultimate destruction.  Tanach (encompassing better than half of the history of the world) records very few instances of such incredible evil.  And who is the first and foremost example?  Pharaoh!  And yet, it is God’s will that Moshe and Aharon address Pharaoh respectfully because he is a head of state.  In a courageous article penned and published some 40 years ago, Rav Henkin chastised those who spoke derisively and contemptuously to and of the then heads of state.  Think what you may, say what you wish, David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, and Golda Meir are not worse than Pharaoh.  They too must be accorded respect and addressed respectfully.  So, with considerable understatement, said Rav Henkin.  And so, too, must we say regarding Yitzchak Rabin and his successor Shimon Peres.  No matter how vehemently we oppose their political policies and personal religious orientations, the Torah decrees that, as heads of state, they be accorded respect.  The Torah does not allow us to brand them ‘traitors.’

Had we embraced Yitzchak Rabin lovingly and accorded him the respect due a head of state, he could never have been demonized and dehumanized.  Had these processes been prevented, our hands would not be stained with the blood of Yitzchak Rabin.

Let there be no misunderstanding:  no one was obligated to abandon his principles or political convictions.  Moreover, no one was allowed to abdicate his responsibility to advocate what seemed best for the people of Israel.  But the passionate pursuit of emet should have been coupled with the equally passionate pursuit of civility and love.  Instead we felt and acted out of sin’ah.

Perhaps you will ask: how do I know that sin’ah was a driving force?  The answer is simple: for a brief moment, view the Rabin assassination with tunnel vision.  Cast aside halachic, moral and religious considerations.  Reflect upon this watershed event from a purely political prospective.  Even from that drastically limited perspective, the assassination was the height of political recklessness and foolishness.  As even the most casual observer of modern history (to say nothing of the astute student of political history) knows, nothing energizes and re-vitalizes a cause as martyrdom does.  Case in point: when the Marcos government in the Philippines assassinated Benito Aquino on his return from exile, its fate was sealed.  The revolutionary cause was so energized that its momentum became unstoppable and irresistible.  (Perhaps the downfall of the government was already inevitable, but it was certainly accelerated by Aquino’s martyrdom.)  The renewed momentum of the peace process in the wake of the Rabin assassination could easily have been predicted.  Now, it has become virtually impossible to legitimately oppose the peace process without appearing to condone murder.

Moreover, Yitzchak Rabin was not a charismatic leader whose stirring Churchill-like oratory was sweeping the country into frenzied support for his idiosyncratic policies.  He was not indispensable to the advancement of the peace process.  Whether a statistical majority or minority, it is undeniable that large segments of the population support the peace process.  There was no reason to imagine that Rabin’s assassination would impede the peace process.  Quite the contrary.  And precisely because this was abundantly clear, the question beckons, why was Rabin assassinated?

For the answer, we need not look any further than Rashi’s commentary on the Torah.  Bil’am, as he embarks on his journey to curse Bnei Yisrael, saddles his own donkey.  He deviates from the norm and does not relegate this menial task to his servants or attendants: mikan she-sin’ah mekalkelet et ha-shurah… from this we derive that hatred overturns norm and convention and knows no bounds.

The Rabin assassination, politically reckless, foolish and counterproductive, is a perfect example.  The hatred was bred of arrogant omniscience and contemptuous rejection of his secular outlook.  And now we know that hatred knows no bounds whatsoever.

Chazal teach that:  “echod shogeg ve-echod mezid be-chillul Hashem” — in relation to the profaning of God’s name, no distinction is drawn between willful and unintentional violations.  This is highly unusual: in virtually all cases, an unintentional violation is considered less severe.  And the few exceptions to this rule seem to be instances wherein the willful violation is dealt with equally leniently, while in the instance of chillul Hashem the clear implication is that the unintentional violation is dealt with equally harshly.  Why is this so?

This week, one level of meaning of the Mishnah became painfully clear to me.  If a Jewish brute murders a fellow Jew, undoubtedly a colossal chillul Hashem has occurred.  How could a Jew become so corrupted?  God’s name has been profaned.  But, at least, it is self-evident that this murderous Jew has betrayed Torah and his actions were antithetical to Torah.  But when a ben Torah murders a fellow Jew be-shogeg, convinced that he is executing the will of God, how much greater the chillul Hashem is!  Measured subjectively, it is less severe.  But measured objectively, it is more severe.  In the latter case, Torah is not merely betrayed, but perverted and distorted beyond recognition.

Parshat Vayera presents us with an enigma.  The behavior of Lot seemingly defies understanding.  On the one hand, he risks life and limb to extend hospitality to two strangers.  Such self-sacrifice, such virtue!  And yet when his house is encircled by the evil-scheming citizens of Sodom, Lot volunteers to sacrifice his own daughters.  He is ready to allow them to be violated and possibly killed.  “Do unto them [my daughters] as you see fit, but do not harm these men [the wayfarers].”  Such unspeakable betrayal, such debauchery!  And in the name of morality!

Indeed it seemingly defies explanation.  And yet we are all too familiar with this phenomenon.  We know of animal rights advocates who will recklessly bomb scientific laboratories risking human life!  Self-described compassionate doctors who regularly abort unborn children out of empathy with the mother!  Are these not instances of “Lot morality?”  Surely, they are.

Misplaced or misinterpreted morality or Torah is very dangerous.  Lot, as a member of Avraham Avinu’s household, learned that gedolah hachnasat orchin mikabalat pnei haShechinah.  He did not understand the context of the halachah.  He did not begin to fathom when, where, and how this halachah was to be implemented.  He took a phrase of Torah, and divorced it from the totality of Torah.  As a result, the Torah value became so perverted and distorted as to become unrecognizable.  In place of Torah morality, a new creed arose, Lot morality.  Similarly, one hears of the halachah of rodef.  One learns that it is a mitzvah to kill a rodef.  But one is woefully ignorant of the true definition of the term rodef, and dangerously deficient in knowing where, when, and how it is to be implemented.  The halachah becomes perverted and distorted beyond recognition.  It is no longer a part of Torah morality; it has been transformed into Lot morality.

Lot morality is uniquely and exceedingly dangerous.  Distorted Torah morality is far more dangerous than secular morality because it presumes to have a Divine mandate.

Yitzchak Rabin was a victim of Lot morality!

What is the halachic imperative at this most depressing moment in history?  No one can simply maintain his routine.  No matter how crowded our schedules, no matter how precious our time, all of us must condemn the chillul Hashem that has been and continues to be perpetrated.  We must broadcast to the world in every available forum that we, as Torah-observant and dedicated Jews, deplore and condemn the Rabin assassination.  It was the ultimate distortion and perversion of Torah morality.  If no forum is available, we must create one.  Regardless of how large or small the audience, we must prevent the ongoing distortion of Torah and chillul Hashem.  If we succeed in reaching but one person, the chillul Hashem will be that much smaller.  That modest achievement will be infinitely valuable.  How much more so if we reach larger numbers of people — friends, family, co-workers, acquaintances; we must try to the best of our ability to reach one and all.

We dare not remain silent at this critical hour.  If we do not decry the distortion of Torah, contain the raging chillul Hashem and begin to heal the rift between secular and religious, the potential consequences are simply catastrophic.  The year 1948 marked the birth of the modern Jewish state.  We had a sovereign state previously, almost two millennia ago.  How did we lose the Hasmonean state?  Its decay and dissolution were due to internal strife, civil war.  And prior to the Hasmonean state, the last Jewish governorship was held by Gedaliah ben Achikam.  That too we lost.  Gedaliah was assassinated by a fellow Jew!  God forbid, we must not allow history to repeat itself.

The internal strife, intensified a thousand-fold by the Rabin assassination, poses the greatest threat to Israel’s security in her history.  Greater than Nasser’s Arab Federation, who boasted that they would drive Israel into the sea.  Greater than Saddam Hussein, who vowed to inundate Israel with chemical warheads.  The reason is simple:  God will not allow the resha’im to implement their evil schemes.  We cannot be complacent and take for granted God’s mercy.  And yet we know where God stands.  He stands in front of His children.  But if, God forbid, His children fight with each other… We must act now.

And, finally, we must cleanse our hearts and souls.  We must scrub them clean of arrogant omniscience and intolerance.  We must uproot hatred, and in its place, cultivate love and respect.  And these critical values must be transmitted to our children as well.  At home and in Yeshivah.  Teaching them about Shabbat, kashrut, and taharat hamishpachah will not suffice; we must teach them legitimate tolerance and love as well.  Surely, tolerance and love are no substitutes for Shabbat observance.  But then, Shabbat observance is no substitute for tolerance.  We must transmit the totality of Torah, or risk it becoming perverted and distorted into Lot morality.  Lot morality cannot save us from the current crisis in Eretz Yisrael or the diaspora.  Nor can secularism.  Immediate relief and ultimate redemption can be attained only through the eternal values of Torah, faithfully taught and projected to all segments of the Jewish people.  May Hashem grant us the strength and wisdom to do His will!

The original version of this article was written in the days immediately following the assassination and appeared in Hamevaser.

Rabbi Mayer Twersky is a Rosh Yeshivah in Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

This article was featured in the Spring 1996 issue of Jewish Action.