Assaulting an Elderly Rabbi: When Heated Rhetoric Gets Too Hot

When I was in yeshiva in Israel, (that would be the mid-90s), I remember a controversy that brewed over the building of a new road from French Hill to Pisgat Ze’ev. While doing construction human bones were uncovered. According to halakha, it would be forbidden to build a road through a Jewish cemetery and since halakha is generally factored into Israel’s decision-making process, even for roads, the government decided to consult with a rabbinic authority to get his opinion whether what they found would qualify to designate the spot a Jewish cemetery. The authority they consulted with was Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, z”l.

Upon inspecting the area and the findings, Rabbi Elyashiv decided that he did not think there was sufficient evidence to warrant a halakhic prohibition on building the road and told the government officials that there should be no impediment to continuing their work.

All’s well that ends well? Not exactly. A number of Rabbi Elyashiv’s fellow Ḥaredim believed that he had “caved” into government pressure and were incensed. As the elderly rabbi’s driver was taking him home from the inspection, these disgruntled followers stoned his car.

I was eighteen when this incident occurred and I remember distinctly thinking that each stone cast at the gadol (great Torah scholar) represented the person’s casting away of his ḥeleq be-olam ha-ba, his share in the world to come. Another thing that struck me about the incident back then was the eerie “tail wagging the dog” phenomenon. The same community that held Rav Elyashiv up as one of their gedolim was the same one that turned on him with violence when they did not agree with what he said.

This incident came to mind today when I read about the disturbing attack on Rabbi Aharon Yehudah Leib Shteinman, the 99-year-old litvishe (non-Ḥasidic) Torah scholar, Wednesday morning. Rabbi Shteinman was assaulted in his home while he was giving a lecture. The 28 year old assailant—a married kollel student living in Modin Ilit—got up during the lecture, screamed, “change your religious outlook and return to the correct path,” and ran at the elderly man, striking him (once) and threatening to kill him. The assailant was pinned by some of the students and held down until the police arrived to take him into custody.

The attack on Rav Shteinman is upsetting on many levels. Firstly, the idea of a 28 year old man attacking a 99 year old man is outrageous. Judaism talks about standing up for the elderly, making sure they have a place to sit. It goes without saying that perpetrating violence against a helpless old man is absolutely forbidden. Secondly, the attack on a gadol be-Torah is something that one would think to be unimaginable to a religious person… and yet, it happens. Rav Elyashiv’s car was stoned; Rabbi David Stav was assaulted at a wedding and now Rav Shteinman was attacked in his own house. All of these attacks were perpetrated by religious Jews.

Now, it has been reported that Rav Shteinman’s assailant is mentally unstable. This is not surprising, and, it must be admitted, attacks by deranged individuals are difficult to predict. Just two years ago, Rabbi Eleazer Abuhatzeira, the Baba Eliezer, was stabbed to death  by a deranged individual in public view, while he was offering blessings to his followers! Can this attack on Rav Shteinman be “written off” the same way as the unpredictable outburst of a deranged young man? I don’t think so. The matter is more complicated than that.

Upon Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, there were many in the dati leumi (Religious Zionist) community that felt that they had to look inward, to do a cheshbon ha-nefesh. With all the bilious rhetoric against the government and the Prime Minister regarding the Oslo accords, was it possible that the community created such a hostile environment that it unwittingly sent a message to an unstable individual that assassinating Rabin may be justified? Although it is impossible to know what the assassin would have done if the discourse in the dati leumi community had been different, nevertheless, it felt to many that lines had been crossed with the rhetoric.

I believe that the same cheshbon ha-nefesh is needed in the Ḥaredi community today, considering the rhetoric that has been in place since the death of Rav Elyashiv and especially surrounding the recent elections. To explain, recently Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, the son of the renowned scholar Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, formed a break off Ḥaredi party called Bnei Torah. This party has challenged (successfully) the hegemony of Rav Shteinman’s party, Degel ha-Torah. The competition between these two parties was anything but in the spirit of “let the best man win.”

In fact, the rivalry between the two groups has been brutal. Just a few months ago, a follower of Rav Shteinman pleaded guilty  to an assault charge. He physically attacked (and wounded) a newspaper editor, Nati Grossman, because the latter supported R. Auerbach and his new party. During the elections, R. Shteinman announced that it was forbidden to vote for Bnei Torah, because that party was formed to trick the people, not to do God’s work. More egregiously, the second most important person in Degel HaTorah, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, announced that anyone voting for the other party would be liable to the death penalty and (theoretically, I assume) should be stoned to death. Bnei Torah’s founder, R. Auerbach, actually found a message on his car a few days ago stating, “Close down your party or your blood be on your head!”

To his credit, Rav Auerbach’s party, although more extreme in its politics, was the more subdued in its rhetoric. As Rav Auerbach (correctly) stated, his party was poised to win the elections and this was fueling a panic-driven attack of venomous rhetoric.

The climate of hatred and mutual recriminations, fueled by an attitude approaching religious infallibility taken by party leaders, especially Degel HaTorah leaders, was (is!) toxic.

To be clear, I am certain that none of the religious leaders of either party, not R. Shteinman, not R. Kanievsky and not R. Auerbach, had any intention of leading their followers to violence. I am just as convinced that none of the right wing Religious Zionist leaders had intended for the Prime Minister to be assassinated and I am sure that R. Ovadiah Yosef, z”l, did not intend for R. Stav to be assaulted when he (Yosef) called him a “wicked person.” And yet, the climate created by this kind of rhetoric is fraught with raw aggression. Such a climate can, has, and will always increase the chances of violence from among the throng of followers. The violence expresses itself in incidents like those described in this post, whether stoning cars, assaulting innocent and unsuspecting leaders (even if they are elderly!) or even, r”l, assassinating a perceived “rebellious elder.”

In short, the assault on Rav Shteinman is a horrifying and deeply troubling event, and I am sure that Rav Auerbach is as troubled as the rest of us, probably even more so. Luckily, the rabbi does not seem to have suffered serious damage, but time will tell. Although the shock is mitigated by the fact that the assailant is unstable, it is really only partially mitigated. This young deluded avreich is, in many ways, a piece of TNT accidentally lit by the fires of heated rhetoric spewing forth from the religious leaders themselves. May God grant our leaders the courage and wisdom to tone it down and offer each other the mutual respect that we will like to see each accorded.

Zev Farber

Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber is a fellow for Project and the founder of AITZIM. 

About the Author
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the editor of and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.