There were many voices on the Left that oppposed Itamar Ben Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount this week. One of the more surprising voices, however, came from a completely different camp — the Israeli Rabbinate, which penned a letter against Ben Gvir’s visit. The letter is indicative of a disagreement between the ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist movements about the halachic permissibility of ascending the Temple Mount. For centuries, it was mainstream halachic opinion that doing so was forbidden, however, with the establishment of the State of Israel, many important halachic voices in the religious Zionist world have come out in favor of Jews going to the Temple Mount, viewing it as not only permissible, but perhaps, even praiseworthy. This is part of a larger debate between the two movements, about halacha’s ability to change in response to modern times, more generally, and the State of Israel’s establishment, more specifically.
But one halachic voice was often lacking in the discussion of Ben Gvir’s Temple Mount visit: The obligation to “not stand idly by your brother’s blood” (Vayikra 19:16). This commandment obligates Jews to not take acts that could knowingly endanger the lives of other Jews, and as religious Jews who believe that all human beings are created in God’s image, we have a religious-ethical obligation to not knowingly endanger the lives of other people, regardless of their religious, ethnic, or national identity.
Because we don’t live in an ideal world, sometimes these religious-ethical commandments can come into tension with other religious and ethical commandments, for example, in a case of self-defense -as we are, indeed, also enjoined by the Torah to protect ourselves and our health -”and you shall be very careful for your souls” (Devarim 4:15).
But when we are discussing what we think the ideal behavior of a political leader and Knesset should be, it is important for all of the different religious and ethical ideals to have a place in the conversation, even if they contradict each other, and even if we ultimately decide that one voice is more important to us than the others.
This means that an assessment of Ben Gvir’s visit’s potential impact on Israel’s national security must be part of the halachic discussion, because if one believes that it would endanger Israeli lives (or more generally: human lives) then the visit would be halachically problematic.
In this, the halachic debate on this topic doesn’t differ from many other topics, where different halachic opinions will all agree on what the halacha is in the abstract, but they will disagree on how to apply it, because they disagree about the reality it is being applied to.
This reality may be different from our ideal world. Many people have pointed out that it SHOULD not be a provocation for Itamar Ben Gvir to go up to the Temple Mount. However, even if we accept that it SHOULD not be a provocation, the question at hand is given the current reality of the world, whether or not it IS a provocation -even if in the ideal world it shouldn’t be.
Similarly, many have argued that it CAN’T be a provocation, because Palestinians will always hate Israelis, no matter what Israel/Israelis do. However, if, as a religious person, I accept that Palestinians a) were created in the image of God, like all humans and b) were given freedom of choice, like all humans -then I can’t assume that they were predestined to hate.
One can believe that Ben Gvir’s visit did not constitute a security threat to Israel, because it was coordinated with Israeli security forces, who wouldn’t have allowed the visit if it was a threat. One can believe it wasn’t a threat because thank God, in the days since his visit, things have been mostly quiet. Or one can believe that it was a threat, whose long-term consequences are yet to be felt, or decide that they are reserving judgment on the matter until a bit more time has passed.
But no matter what one’s beliefs are, it is important to recognize that an assessment of the visit’s impact on Israeli security -and whether or not it might endanger lives – is essential to making both a halachic and an ethical assessment of Ben Gvir’s visit, and deciding whether this is the type of behavior we want from our leaders.