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Arik Ascherman

Who Is Naive? On Terror, The Ten Commandments And The Altar

Today another murderous terror attack in Jerusalem.

The TV was on in the local grocery store when I went down for last minute pre-Shabbat purchases. I simply couldn’t keep my mouth shut when somebody shouted out that we need to burn the neighborhood of the terrorist to the ground.  (Like almost all attacks in the last ten years or more, the attacker was one of the tens of thousands of Palestinians living on the “Israeli side” of the separation barrier.  Because of the rings of neighborhood/settlements we built around Jerusalem, it truly is “indivisible.” We truly can’t separate between Israelis and Palestinians without eliminating Israeli and/or Palestinian neighborhoods or building bridges and tunnels.)  I don’t think that anybody will actually try to burn the neighborhood to the ground, but those sentiments will likely ensure that the 2005 army study indicating that demolishing the homes of terrorists often instigates more terrorism than it inhibits will again be ignored.

Obviously, people’s blood was boiling, and people were also in pain. Our tradition teaches us to keep our mouths shut when somebody’s dead is laid out in front of him/her. We are commanded to rebuke, but in a constructive way that people can hear.  However, especially with the demagogues in power today, there is also the real danger that  these feelings will translate into violence. Preventing violence is also an obligation.

I didn’t directly rebuke this person, but rather said, “That will just bring more blood and terror.” I made similar comments to all who called for violence, revenge and mass expulsion.  I had a heated but civil and respectful derekh eretz conversation with the grocery store owner.  His question, and that of several others, was “What do you suggest?” Many were under the illusion that we have been beneficent to Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, but that hasn’t stopped terror.  I said that of course we need a strong army and police force, but that countless times Palestinian parents have insisted their children meet us because everything that has been done to them and their family makes them want to grow up to be terrorists. Justice is the one solution we haven’t tried. I told the listeners that I had just returned from conducting a tour for a U.S. rabbi and his family to one of the areas where settler flocks wreak havoc on fields, vineyards and olive groves the State recognizes as Palestinian owned.  My grocery store owner said that these were isolated statistics. I told him of the hundred of cases I have personally documented only in Taibe, Dir Jarir and Ramoun….

We read the Ten Commandments this Shabbat.  My summary to my colleague upon our return was that we steal the land we covet because we commit the idolatry of worshiping the land at the expense of human beings created in God’s Image.

I also spoke of the Negev Israeli Bedouin who not so many years ago were secular Likud supports serving in the army. Today they are largely religious supporters of the Israeli Islamic party Ra’am (entirely legitimate) and the numbers serving in the army has plummeted. The Bedouin soldier who comes home to find his tin home demolished because his village that existed before the State isn’t recognized is not motivated to continue to serve. The store owner countered with the high Bedouin crime rates. I made it clear that I am outraged by terror and don’t justify violence or criminality by anybody, but that two wrongs don’t make a right.  In fact, “aveira gorret aveira” Just as we are taught that performing one mitzvah leads us to perform the next mitzvah, one crime often instigates the next crime. Our sages referred to our crimes leading us to our next crime, but it is also true that the crime we commit against others often leads the victims to commit crimes against us.  This is not justification, but reality.

What is the solution? Justice. While many believe that we have been wonderful to the Palestinians and it is only they who have rejected peace, justice is the one solution we have never truly tried. We must empower the Palestinian parent that wants their child to know that not all Jews come to steal, destroy and act violently. I am not naïve. Justice doesn’t end all evil or hate. Injustice committed against us or against Palestinians doesn’t justify violence.  But those who actually think that more and more injustice and force will stop Palestinian violence are the ones who are incredibly naïve.

Stepping outside the grocery store, the conversation was not quite as polite.  I am not a Jew. I should take my kippah off. I am a traitor. We receive millions of dollars to undermine the State. My Palestinian friends will murder me. It doesn’t matter that even Israeli maps recognize much land as Palestinian owned, how much land the pre-State Zionist movement documented as belonging to Negev or that many halakhic authorities through the generations recognized the property rights of non-Jews in the Land of Israel. God gave it to us. It’s ours.  A soldier advocated for violence and expulsion. I acknowledged our right and responsibility to defend ourselves against those seeking to kill us, but that we are taught that violence must be the minimum necessary and it must be effective. Again, injustice not only inherently wrong, but ultimately endangers us.  Justice is no guarantee of security, but minimum necessary force combined with justice has a much better chance of succeeding than power, force and injustice. And, it is the right thing to do.

Our Torah portion ends with the prohibition against building God an altar of rocks hewn by the sword/iron tools.

Rashi comments “Thus you may learn that if thou liftest up thy iron tool above it thou profanest it. The reason of this it, because the altar is created (its purpose is) to lengthen man’s days and iron has been created (one of its purposes is) to shorten man’s days, it is not right that an object which shortens man’s life should be lifted up above that which lengthens it (Mekhilta, Middoth 3:4). And a further reason it: because the altar makes peace between Israel and their Father in Heaven, and therefore there should not come upon it anything that cuts and destroys. Now, the following statement follows logically, à fortiori: How is it in the case of stones which cannot see nor hear nor speak? Because that they promote peace Scripture ordains, “Thou shalt not lift up against them any iron tool!” Then in the case of one who makes peace between a man and his wife, between family and family, between a man and his fellow, how much more certain is it that punishment will not come upon him (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 20:22:2).”

Ramban comments in a similar vein, but doesn’t limit the prohibition to the altar: “But I say that the reason for the commandment is that a sword is made out of iron and is the destroyer of the world. In fact, this is why it is called cherev (sword) [which is of the same root as churban (destruction)]…. It is this reason which Scripture mentions expressly: ‘You should not build [the altar] of hewn stones, for in lifting up any iron to make them, you have lifted up your murderous sword, and increased victims; and thus you have profaned it.”  He goes on to note that while the Torah only prohibits the use of iron in building the altar, King Solomon kept iron tools entirely out of the Temple when building it.

Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch goes even further. The prohibition on using the sword or metal tools to build the altar is a metaphor for the society we are to build: “The purpose of the altar is not the destruction of life but its construction, AND NOT THE SWORD – the instrument of brute force and violence – is not sanctified at all on the Jewish altar. The building of the altar is completed by justice and humanity, and it is their rule—not the rule of the sword—that will come out of it. Next to the altar of stones lies the Chamber of the Gazit (the stones), the eternal fortress of Torah law (the seat of the Sanhedrin). It is not the sword but the altar that is the symbol of justice and forthrightedness in Israel.

Just as justice and humanity come forth from the altar, and they will be the vision of the society that glorifies God, so will go forth from the altar ethics and modesty that are the basis for godliness in the human being, and without them society will seek justice and humanity in vain.”

Even as we seethe in anger and seek to protect ourselves against those seeking to kill us, let us remember that our Torah portion teaches us that we are to be a “kingdom of priests,” dedicated to a higher purpose.  Both that higher purpose and our security are served when we recognize the One God rather than worship land or power or the sword. Both are served when make our lives, our society, and our country an altar based on and dedicated to and completed by justice and humanity.

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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