Responding to Another Rabbi’s Hateful Speech

Categories: Jewish Identity

When I first read Rabbi Manis Friedman’s published words in Moment Magazine addressing the question, “How should Jews treat their Arab neighbors?” I quickly deleted the e-mail.   He wrote, “I don’t believe in Western morality, i.e. don’t kill civilians or children, don’t destroy holy sites, don’t fight during holiday seasons, don’t bomb cemeteries, don’t shoot until they shoot first because it is immoral.  The only way to fight a moral war is the Jewish way: Destroy their holy sites.  Kill men, women and children (and cattle).”

I dismissed his remarks as extremist and therefore not worthy of more attention. How could anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of Jewish tradition – much less a renowned Torah scholar such as Rabbi Manis Friedman – describe Jewish teachings on warfare in this way?  What of Torah’s teachings, “When you approach a town to attack it, you shall offer it terms of peace”?  (Deuteronomy 20:10)  And, “When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them.  You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down,”  (Deuteronomy 20:19) to name just the two most obvious foundation points of Jewish law on just rules of war.  What of the Jewish people’s long-standing commitment to serving as an “or lagoyim,” a “light unto the nations,” and to see ourselves as “rachmanim b’nei rachmanim,” “compassionate people, heirs of a legacy of compassion”?

Perhaps, in fact, I deleted the e-mail because it is unbearable to me to read of another Jew – much less another rabbi –  expressing such things.  This is hate speech, utterly antithetical to the teachings of Jewish tradition.  The e-mail sat in my “Trash” box for days, forgotten.

Until my Muslim colleagues began to write to me: first, respectfully asking for clarification, and then, asking me to stand with them in condemning the rabbi’s hateful speech.  Then I took a deep breath and read Rabbi Friedman’s words carefully, along with the clarification issued in his name, indicating that he had meant to answer the question, “How should we Jews react in times of war?” rather than the question, “How are we to treat our Arab neighbors?”  As if this made his words any less horrifying.

I stand with my Muslim colleagues and conversation partners in condemning Rabbi Friedman’s verbal violence and justification of slaughter.  And I want my own community to hear unequivocally that the great majority of rabbis and Jewish communal leaders (including our own local Jewish Community Relations Council, which has already issued a resounding condemnation) find his version of Torah disgraceful and utterly unacceptable.  In fact, of the nine rabbis who responded to the magazine’s original questions, seven spoke resoundingly of Torah’s teachings on compassion, justice and human dignity for all people.  Yet it is heart-breaking that even one desecrated the name of Judaism and the very name of our God with words of enmity.

And still, I am working with other rabbis to initiate a face-to-face dialogue with Rabbi Friedman.  I hope to God that we have all misunderstood his remarks, that he will turn out to have a very different belief than his words communicated.  I would love to learn that he, too, is a person who lives and thinks according to the highest teachings of the tradition that he and I both love.  And somehow, I hope that this dreadful episode may somehow serve to strengthen and unify moderate, peace-loving people of every faith and of every land.

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