Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Ignorance is Hardly Bliss: On Rabbis for Human Rights

This morning, the Israeli papers and radio reported that a group of rabbis had called on the government to be less concerned with collateral casualties in fighting terror. In that context, they invoked the principle of 'If someone comes to kill you, kill him first.' The impression was, that these rabbis wanted the army to indiscriminately bomb civilians, if it meant getting terrorists too. The impression was, apparently, confirmed by the signators who were cited. Chief among them was Rabbi Dov Lior of Qiryat Arba who once said that it was better to kill an Arab than allow a Jew to be scratched.

My first reaction was a stomach ache. Again, I thought, extremists have made us (and the Torah) look stupid. After I got off of my high horse, I read the full statement and saw that a) this statement was not made by 'the usual suspects' and b) it explicitly affirmed the quest for peace and for minimizing casualties among civilians. The poit that they wished to make was that if killing a teerorist will save human lives, then the mere possibility of civilian casualties should not be invoked to stop such an attack. Ok, I thoughy. That makes sense.

The statement was discussed on Reshet Bet this morning by Rabbi Yuval Sherlo, of Yeshivat Petah Tikva and Rabbi Arik Ascherman, from Rabbis for Human Rights. I was happy that the discussion did not degenerate into the usual Israeli scream-fest. Both acquitted themselves like gentlemen.

What really set me off, however, was Rabbi Ascherman's distortion of Jewish sources. He claimed that Rabbinic tradition has a consideration that balances the rule of 'kill him first.' That rule is 'Who says your blood is redder?' (Sanhedrin 74a). In other words, before killing you need to think that the other person is worth as much, if not more than you. Such a conclusion doesn't 'balance' self-defense, it delegitimizes it! Indeed, it would lead to the Christian position of 'turn the other cheek.' More importantly, Rabbi Ascherman is just plain wrong. There is absolutely no such rule in the present context! The words cited by Rabbi Ascherman are those of Rava. They refer to a situation in which a third party gives a person the choice between killing someone or being killed. It is in that case only that one is not allowed to save one's life at the expense of another. It has absolutely nothing at all to do with a situation in which a person must defend himself (even proactively).

I'm not sure what to make of this distortion. I am assuming that Rabbi ascherman either misunderstood the passage he cites, or that he lacks a basic background in rabbinic sources. I hope he's not simply using the Torah for his own ideological purposes. For, while he (and anyone else) has the right to his principled opinion, noone has the right to distort or misrepresent their sources. Such an action is both dishonest and deceptive. Understanding things honestly is also a human right.


At 10:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I am not going to defend Rabbi Ascherman's "read" of the story of R' Akiva (which is not even simple what the real story is, as it is different in the midrash and in the talmud), I will say that the corpus of the rabbinic literature does lend itself for one to be able to distort sources at whim. There are many contradictory remarks made by opposing parties, or in different books.

Therefore I question, when ever *anyone* chooses one midrash or talmudic argument over another, isn't he just using the rabbinic literature for his own ideological purposes? Weren't many of the taqanot of sorts of the early period, or the midrashim also created from an ideological need? While I agree fullheartedly that it is dangerous to misquote and misconstrue, I also must maintain that if he would have quoted something "more correctly" (that may very well be located in the mouth of some tanna or amora) regarding "human rights", according to your reasoning, you would need to accept what he was saying.

Perhaps because he relied on the oft-quoted "redder blood", thus showing his lack of a well-rounded knowledge of the talmudic corpus. Is he lacking true honesty, because in your eyes, he did not research his remarks well enough?


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