A Rock To My Head Documenting A New Outpost: Can We Know What Is Torah? Nitzavim

My slight injury from the stone a settler threw at my head, a day and a half later. (courtesy)

It was just another rock to my head, and everybody knows that I am hard headed. It didn’t even bleed.  I suppose I fall into the same category as the two (or, some said three) settlers who were allegedly “lightly injured by stones (some said knives) thrown by a mob of Arabs (there is no such thing as “Palestinians” led by the anarchist Arik Ascherman (Do I need to apologize to those of my friends who really are anarchists for usurping the term? Can any of those who like to call us anarchists define the term? Or, for that matter, “radical leftist?”).  Since I wasn’t one of those who was down at the sheep pen where the new outpost apparently called “Khavat Micha”(Micha’s Farm) was apparently being set up under the cover of night, I asked everybody what had happened. It was dark, but nobody saw any stones thrown (down there), or anybody injured.  I asked the border police officer I later heard dictating a report if he actually knew of any who were injured (other than me, who he wasn’t interested in). He said, “no,” but I heard him adding the injured to the report.  It also seemed strange to me, as all the settlers gathered where I was, that if people had been injured, below, as they said to the soldiers furiously shouting at us at first, and then at those reporting injuries, that everybody had abandoned them.

Let me make it clear that if a settler was even lightly injured, I don’t condone it, and wish him/her well .  My cynicism is simply because I am the only one I know of who was actually hit by a stone. The soldiers and police didn’t seem to care too much when I told them I had been hit by a stone, but it is true that I didn’t appear to be injured. Maybe they were also a bit worried as some of the settlers masked their faces and seemed to be getting angrier and angrier with the soldiers, as well as with us. They kept shouting at us to move from place to place to protect us, but couldn’t make up their mind where, and kept on getting angry at us for being where they sent us.

Others were actually happy that I had been injured.  When I told one “well wisher” on facebook who was furious at me for having led a horde to attack Jews that I was the only one struck, as far as I knew, he said he was pleased to hear that I had been hit by a stone.

The other reason for my cynicism is that, with all the concern for those who were allegedly injured, none of the settlers answered when we asked why they were there to begin with.  The fact that the entire incident occurred only because settlers were setting up an outpost illegal according to Israel, let alone international law, didn’t seem to matter too much to the police or the soldiers either.  Maybe they blamed us for forcing the to come out in the middle of the night, rather than let the settlers quietly have their way. Literally tens of times I asked them to at least identify everybody who was there, including us. I reminded them that, despite the urban myth, soldiers have policing authority over Israelis not just over Palestinians. I should have brought one of the letters to that effect from the army’s legal advisior. “Everything is OK,” they said.  “We know what we are doing.” I told them, that with 25 years’ experience seeing soldiers and police officers at their best and at their worst, I unfortunately can’t assume that they know what they are doing. They eventually photographed our ID’s and those of the Palestinians. To the best of my knowedge, they just sent the settlers away.

I didn’t get an answer when I asked what would be done with the outpost and the sheep. The next day  Yesha Council spokesperson Elkhanan Zecharia tweetd a picture of some of the same settlers we saw the night before lounging in what is apparently a mobile trailer home that serves as the base for Khavat Micha. The translation of the text is “In Mikha’s farm at Kokhav HaShakhar.  After the hooliganism two nights ago of tens of Arabs led by the anarchist Arik Ascherman and his friends.  The folks on location are guarding this important area. I can’t be sure where the picture is taken, but he made it sound like it the security forces ultimately let them stay.

So, is there any Torah in this rant?  What about this week’s Torah portion. Some of my “well wishers” on facebook and elsewhere like to say that I don’t understand Torah. After Avikhai Ben Haim called me a traitor and a maniac, I responded, “Woe to us if one who upholds Torah values is considered a traitor.” “Eliyah Naveh responded, “This is not the way of the Torah…To plot against Jews and against your people. You go around with murderers for money. You call that values? You should be expelled from The Land.”

They don’t simply say “Shivim panim l’Torah” (there are at least 70 different ways to understand every word in the Torah), and they understand Torah differently. I don’t claim to be the world’s greatest Torah scholar, but I do believe my understanding is authentic.  Those of you who read my divrei Torah regularly know that sometimes I bring traditional sources, and sometimes not, But, I do try to bring interpretations supported by the text, and informed by my understanding of God.  I believe I do so with more self-awareness than many of our infinite human ability to delude ourselves, and overlook the biases we bring to our reading.

That brings me to one of my favorite verses in this week’s double Torah portion (NitzavimVaYelekh).  I come back to it time after time, Surely this Instruction I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it. Neither is it beyond he sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it.’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14) I have always read this as an affirmation of the innate ability of each one of us to understand Torah. Just as it is not in the heavens or across the sea, neither are we dependent on rabbis or the oral Torah in theTalmud. I am not trying to put myself out of a job. The wisdom of those who sought to understand God’s Will throughout the ages can and ought to be our guide. Great evil has been done by those who, relying only on themselves, were convinced they were carrying out God’s Will.  But, great evil has also been done by those claiming to have the correct interpretation of the tradition. The tradition is not the absolute final word. Without ever being entirely sure of ourselves, we must use the wisdom of the ages and our own personal reaching for God, to find the way that can be found in our hearts.  Unlike those who say that the messiah will come when we all observe Torah the same way, I am also prepared to say that God does not necessarily want the same thing from each of us at all times.

But, this poses some huge challenges. Given what I just said about our ability to do evil in God’s name, are there any red lines? I would say yes. There are interpretations that are beyond the pale, and are simply unacceptable.  However, if I believe that the Torah is in each of our hearts, then I have nothing but the power of persuasion. There is the option simply not to engage, and to accept that we can only agree to disagree, but then we are complacent with evil.  No standard is a challenge as well, for we are talking about “life and prosperity, death and adversity.” (30:15), “blessing and curse” (30:19).

Until we all hear God’s Voice declaring the correct interpretations, we have no objective standard. Even were we to hear God’s Voice, the rabbis invoked “it is not in the heavens” in the famous story of “Akhnai’s oven” to overrule the heavenly voice declaring the law. (Baba Metzia 59b) The rabbis say that it is not in the heavens, but neither is it everybody’s hands. It is in the hands of the rabbis.

I have come to understand that a conservative outlook on the world fears chaos. The question is not necessarily what is God’s Will. Given the grave consequences of our actions, the question is what is an ordered way of knowing what to do. I do not necessarily like the idea that we don’t have absolute knowledge of how to act and to decide what is the correct interpretation, but accept that as reality. The question then becomes how do we live together, prevent evil, and strive for the good and to do God’s Will, when nobody can conclusively prove that they have the correct understanding of Torah.

In the story of Achnai’s oven we see that the rabbis give us a peak at chaos, and then close the window. They had some willingness to acknowledge that not everything they ruled was necessarily God’s Will, but give us a system for determining how to act. However, most of the traditional interpretations of these verses maintain that there is one correct way mandated by God, and that we humans have the ability to understand it when we use the proper tools.  Ibn Ezra says that we have it all the principles in our hearts, but we need the wisdom passed down from the elders. (Ibn Ezra to 30:10). Rashi says that both the written and oral Torah are referred to. Presumably this means that not every interpretation is correct, and we do need those who can master the entire oral Torah. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch says that “In your mouth is a reference to the oral Torah, but that there is no hidden and secret knowledge, and nothing is left in heaven. He goes a bit further then Rashi in saying that every human being is capable of understanding. We don’t need to rely on others.

Soforno and others take a different tack. Soforno says that there are commandments for which one needs rabbis and scholars, but, very appropriately, seeing as we always read this portion around the time of the High Holy Days, here the Torah is only referring to the commandment of teshuvah, (answering God’s call, turning and returning to our highest and truest selves). For this we need no prophet or scholar.

Lekakh Tov teaches that “It is not in the heavens” means it is not in those who think they are above everybody else. It is with those who work hard and humbly to understand.

This brings me to my Torah.  I hope that I do not put myself above others, although I know that I sometimes do.  But I will apply Lekakh Tov’s understanding not just to the interpreter, but to the interpretation.  While I cannot definitively prove that my understanding of Torah is correct, everything I believe to be true about God tells me that an interpretation that places some human beings above others is not correct.  Not race or religion or wealth or privilege or power.

Coming back to the settlers attempting to set up a new outpost in the middle of the night, and those who told me that I don’t understand Torah if I side with non-Jews to oppose this, I can only as humbly as possible say that we Jews are not above others. Even if the Torah teaches that God has given us the Land of Israel, it cannot be that this gives us the right to oppress and dispossess non-Jews. Neither do we have the right to mistreat Jews who are less well to do than we are, or come from a different background. I must faithfully ask that we develop the ability to see every human being as equal to us. We cannot just mouth the words that theoretically and technically all are created in God’s Image just as we are, but then continue to oppress. Because this is one of the deepest spiritual truths all human beings must therefore be truly treated equally.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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