In this article we will explain the factors that might lead to violence, both physical and verbal, on the part of religious Jews.
Violence on the part of an individual or society has many causes, including mental or economic distress, frustration, helplessness, etc.
We will deal only with the legal aspect, how the Jewish law courts and Halacha balance the individual’s rights and desires versus public order, and how Halacha deals with the individual’s desire for freedom of religion and faith versus the belief that the Jewish nation serves as the embodiment of G-d’s will.
All people who live as a group want to live quietly, with no interference in their daily life, yet bring to life shared ideas and ideals. For example: if a group of people choose to live together in order to realize democratic ideas, one who violates that principle will have to pay the price. So, too, for the Jewish people, a group with the mystical goal of “fulfilling Torah and the commandments.” One who violates this principle will have to pay the price.
To fulfill its commonly shared goal, the society must accept two principles:
Rules and regulations — which maintain the public order and lead to the embodiment of ideology.
Fear and respect for the rule of law — the human factors which enforce the rules and regulations.
These two principles are emphasized in the Mishna in tractate Avot:
Rules and regulations — “Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: On three things does the world stand. On the law, on truth, and on peace” (Avot 1:18). The Tur, Choshen Mishpat section one says of the law: “Because of the judges who judge between men does the world endure, for without law only strong would prevail.”
Fear and respect of authority: “Rabbi Chanina, who was in charge of the [Temple] priests, said: Pray for the sake of the government, for without fear of the authorities each person would try to destroy the other” (Avot 3:2). The Talmud explains: “Like fish in the sea, where the greater fish swallow the lesser, so people: were it not for the fear of authority, each person would try to destroy the other” (Avodah Zara 4a).
We will explain how these two principles are realized in the current religious and Charedi communities, both de jure (in Halacha) and de facto(given the laws of the secular State of Israel). We will not deal with the fixed laws relating to the beit din, like “death by the hands of the beit din,” “lashes,” etc., but only with laws relating to the individual and those laws which give the beit din room for judgment calls, as shall be explained below.
Rules and Regulations
The Jewish legal system (Halacha) tends to give the individual more leeway for vigilantism than do modern legal systems. Halacha allows the individual to punish others, within certain limits, as he pleases, which leads to an excess of violence when judging by modern legal criteria.
The Torah permits an individual to kill a person who has accidentally killed a member of the individual’s family. This individual is called by the Torah the blood avenger: “When he comes upon his fellow in the woods to hew wood…and the ax comes free of the handle and finds the other person, killing him, the [slayer] may flee to one of these cities and live, lest the blood avenger pursue him…and kill him. If he does so he shall not be liable to death, for he [the avenger] had not harbored hate [for the slayer]” (Deuteronomy 19:5).
The rabbis of the Mishna disagreed on whether the avenger is commanded to kill the accidental slayer or if he merely has permission to do so. “Rabbi Yossi the Galilean says it is a commandment for the blood avenger [to kill the accidental slayer] and everyone else has permission. Rabbi Akiva says the blood avenger has permission and others are not liable if they act” (Makot 2:7).
Thus Maimonides ruled in Laws of a Murderer 5:10, “[The accidental slayer] goes into the refuge city. If he then purposely goes out his blood is on his own head, and the blood avenger is permitted to kill him. If anyone else kills him, they are not liable for it.”
Jewish law permits the individual to take action, even on capital cases. It is clear that a legal system which permits blood vengeance will lead to chaos, and blood feuds between families which will cause a great loss of life.
It should be noted that the law of blood avenger is not currently practiced, and no religious or Charedi person thinks that this is how one should or must behave. We brought this law because it has indirect influence on the cheapening of human life by those who follow the “Divine” Torah.
“The Zealous Harm Him”
“The zealous” are those who are anxious and passionate about fulfilling G-d’s will. Jewish law permits them to determine the fate of a sinner and kill him if caught while committing the sin.
We learn this from the Torah’s story of Pinchas the priest. Pinchas killed Zimri, who had intercourse with a Midianite woman in public. In reward for his zealotry in the cause of G‑d, Pinchas was given the job of cohen for all generations. “And an Israelite man brought in the presence of his brothers the Midianite woman [he had intercourse with the Midianite woman] before Moses and all the congregation of Israel…And Pinchas the son of Elazar the son of Aaron the cohen saw this and rose up from amidst the congregation. He took a sword in his hand…and stabbed the two, the Israelite man and the woman” (Numbers 25:6-8).
In the Mishnah they expanded the permission to two further incidents:
One who steals a Temple vessel, who curses G-d in the name of idolatry, or who has intercourse with a Gentile woman may be harmed by the zealous (Sanhedrin 6:9).
The Tur wrote in Even HaEzer 16: “If he had intercourse with [the Gentile woman] in public, before ten Jews, the zealous harm him, meaning that any who hurry to kill him are praiseworthy.”
This Halachic permission is in principle valid even in our times, as the Rama ruled in Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 425:4, “One who has intercourse with an idolatrous woman in public, before ten Jews, is harmed by the zealous, who may kill him.”
The Jewish legal system gives the individual zealot dangerous Halachic permission which may cause the individual to take the Halachic law into his own hands, even in our days.
The Killing of Heretics and Apostates
The killing of heretics and apostates is a sweeping Halachic permission for the individual to take the law into his own hands and kill heretics without a trial. From this Halachic ruling we can deduce a ruling for other matters; one may hit, curse, mock, and slander him. This ruling is the source of the Halachic evil which awaits those who accept the values of freedom of religion and conscience. As long as this Halacha is not clearly repudiated by religious people, they cannot defend themselves in case of murder and say “Our hands did not spill this blood.” One who wishes to look in detail at the relationship to apostates should read our essay The Secular Jew’s Place in Halacha. We will only quote one law from Maimonides:
“It is a commandment to kill Jewish apostates — those who worship idols or who transgress for spite, even those who eat unkosher meat or wear sha’atnez for spite — and heretics who reject the Torah and Jewish prophecy. If one has power to kill them with a foil he does so in public, and if not, he should act against them with cunning, until he causes them to be killed. If he sees one [of them] fall into a well and the ladder is in the well, first he should remove the ladder and say, ‘I must take my son down off the roof, I’ll bring it back’ or some such thing” (Laws of a Murderer 4:10).
There is great leeway in Jewish law for the individual to take the law into his own hands in order to protect his property, even allowing the use of violence. In contrast, modern law forbids the individual using physical violence against others.
The Talmud ruled that in specific circumstances of conflict between those involved in a suit over the ownership of a certain property, if the court makes no decision, the two sides duke it out. The one who overpowers the other, through strength and violence, wins, or as the Talmud puts it, “The strong prevail.”
“[Property for which there is no proof of ownership, and] this one says ‘it belonged to my fathers’ and the other says, ‘it belonged to my fathers’ — Rav Nachman says: the strong prevail” (Bava Batra 34b).
The Rashbam explained: “The strong prevail — be it through argument or force.” The Rosh ruled: “It would be more appropriate to say that the one who prevails, through force or argument, will win. For we suppose that the one who is in the right has better chances to produce the arguments [necessary to validate his claim] and that the one who is in the right will make more effort [to win the contest] than the other one will” (Bava Metzia, chapter 1, paragraph 1). Jewish law leaves the decision on property rights to the litigants themselves, and it is clear that in these cases the stronger and more violent will prevail.
When property damage is made by one person to another, the damaged one may hit the damager in order to protect his property:
“There was a water hole belonging to two partners, each of whom drew water on a specific day. One came and drew water on a day which was not his. The other complained: ‘That’s my day’, but the other did not heed to him. So he took the handle of a hoe and hit him. [Rav Nachman] said: he might as well hit him a hundred times” (Bava Qama 27b).
The Beit Din Has Excessive Authority to Enforce Laws
The beit din gave itself great leeway in punishing, killing, striking, cursing, and slandering based on its own discretion, even beyond the limits of the laws and decrees fixed by the Halacha. Not only in inter-personal cases, but also in cases between man and G-d do they take this right, in opposition to the democratic values of freedom of religion and conscience.
It is brought in the Talmud: “R’ Elazar the son of Jacob said, ‘I have heard that the beit din hits and punishes beyond what is written in the Torah, not to transgress what is written in the Torah but to make a fence around the Torah. There was a case, during the Greek rule, of a person who rode a horse on the Sabbath. They brought him to the beit din and he was stoned to death, not because that was what he deserved, but because the times demanded that. [A person who rides a horse on the Sabbath — not a violation serious enough to carry the death penalty — the beit din stoned him to death so that others would take care not to disdain the keeping of Sabbath.]
In another case a man who had intercourse with his wife under a fig tree was brought to the beit din and given lashes, not because that was what he deserved, but because the times demanded that. [Though the law does not require lashes, the beit din gave him lashes so that licentiousness would not be increased.]” (Yevamot 90b).
See what the Baal HaTurim wrote in permitting the beit din to hit and humiliate, to pull out the hair and to jail, based on their own judgment, in order to magnify the glory of the Heavens. There is explicit permission to crush the individual’s honor to realize Jewish mystical ideology in the name of “the glory of the Heavens.”
Thus wrote the Tur in Choshen Mishpat, section two: “The beit din may hit those who do not have to be hit, and may kill those who are not liable to the death penalty, not to transgress the words of the Torah, [but] to make a fence [around the Torah]. If the beit din sees that the people breached a matter, they have the power to make a fence and strengthen the issue as seems necessary at that time, yet this may not be fixed as a law for generations. They also have [the authority, in all times and places] to hit a man who has a bad reputation and who is reported by the people to transgress the laws of sexual behavior…They may sequester owned property and destroy it as they see fit to fence off the licentiousness of the generation, to fine, isolate, excommunicate, curse, and hit him, pull his hair, jail him in prison, make him swear on G-d’s name against his will that he has not and will not do all these things. The judges shall only do these things because it is necessary, given the times; their actions must always be for the sake of Heavens, and the honor of people should not be negligible to them, for [the honor of people] supersedes a negative [Rabbinic] commandment. They should be careful of the honor of the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who follow the true Torah, and not harm their honor. They should only add to the honor of G-d.”
Rabbi Eliezer Judah Waldenberg (b. 1917) maintains that the beit din should even now punish based on its own judgment, and even permits putting pressure on the fingers of one suspected of robbery, to get him to confess [Our thanks go to the Ashkenazi rabbi of the Old City, R’ Avigdor Navnatzel, for showing us that sharuf in Lithuanian Yiddish means screw. Therefore the citation means that one is permitted to put pressure on the finger, not to burn it]:
“What is said about the beit din hitting and punishing with all manner of punishments, even now, is based on the necessity of the times, to make a fence around the Torah. It is not only when we see the people is becoming licentious in matters between G‑d and man, fear of murder or incest, or of bodily harm, but is also in financial matters if the times require it… For we find in the responsa Panim Me’irot, part 2 (paragraph 155)… [the author] ending his discussion with the following incident: ‘I have heard from my uncle that it happened… that the gaon the Shach entrusted the gaon with a golden chain, and it was stolen by the gaon Rabbi Heshil’s servant. They decided to put [the servant’s] finger into the ash on a burning-stand… yet he did not confess. After three years they found the chain in the servant’s possession’…This is the source for meting out bodily punishments and imprisonment over financial matters like robbery and the like if the beit din saw a need to build a fence [around the Torah]” (Responsa Tzitz Eliezer part 19, section 51).
In conclusion: The Jewish legal system permits the individual to act violently — to kill, to hit, and to slander — in cases where such actions are considered to lead to glorification of the Heavens, to uphold the social order, to protect property, and even for the sake of revenge (blood vengeance). There is no doubt that this broad permission can directly and indirectly contribute to the individual’s excessive violence, and this legal system leads to a situation of “every man for himself”; the strong and violent prevail.
Fear and Respect for the Rule of Law
The Charedi/religious community does not currently possess a status of “sovereign” which would enable it to instill fear on its members, nor an authority to incarcerate transgressors or levy fines. It is clear that no contemporary beit din will now rule based on its own judgment and take advantage of what the times require. No beit din will “hit and punish beyond what is written in the Torah” and cut off the nose of an adulteress, as written in the Shulchan Aruch: “The beit din is permitted to fine the whores, to make a fence. One woman whored with an idolater and her nose was cut off to make her repulsive” (Even HaEzer 177:5). The modern beit dins follow the manner of the times and punish based on secular laws.
All that currently remains as a stick to punish with and enforce the Torah’s laws is punishments suitable to life in a small, closed community — boycotts, isolation, removal — which cannot be used effectively in a large society (current Charedi society numbers some 700,000 people).
To keep people from harming each other they must fear the rule of the secular government and pray for its welfare, “for without fear of the authorities, only the strong would prevail.”
But since the country’s laws are based on “gentile” laws and since the government of Israel is secular, rabbis and leaders of the religious/Charedi community instruct their followers not to accept “Israeli law.” We will cite some of the rabbis’ pronouncements. In May of 2002 Rabbi Chaim Saul Karelitz OBM, of the Council of Torah Sages, wrote in the Yated Neeman newspaper: “The members of Knesset are our lobbyists, to prevent harm to the sacred things of Israel…that does not imply any recognition of the institution named ‘the legislative house’.”
On the Yeshiva site Rabbi Zalman Melamed (Head of the Beit El yeshiva and yishuv, and head of the Yesha Rabbis Council): “If a command is given to transgress a Torah commandment (such as a command to uproot an outpost), there is no permission to follow it, even if this would incur a penalty.”
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed answered the question: “Is there an obligation to obey the country’s laws” with “As a rule, the country’s laws must be obeyed. There are two reasons for this: (a) dina d’malchuta dina, and (b) this is how the public acts, and the whole public has agreed and accepted to follow the crowd…Only when the laws contradict the laws of the Torah are they nullified and should not be fulfilled.”
Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef answered the question “Since it is known that according to Torah law daughters do not inherit from their fathers if there are sons, and this contradicts the country’s laws, according to whose secular courts women may demand their equal share of the inheritance in a secular court and win a judgment in accord with the law, do we rely upon Chazal’s saying dina d’malchuta dina?…In conclusion: According to Halacha, based on our holy Torah which is our life and our longevity, and whose words are a light to our feet and on our path, it is utterly forbidden to judge on inheritances and monetary issues except according to the Torah, which is eternal and unchanging…Therefore there is a strict prohibition against being judged by any of these laws, appealing to judging instances that judge according to gentile laws; of them is it said ‘they do not know the laws’ (Psalms 147:20). There is no difference between this and gentile judges who judge according to gentile laws, not the laws of the Torah” (Responsa Yichaveh Daat, part four, section 65).
In this social reality of a community whose legal systems permit the individual, in more than a few cases, to take the law into his own hands, to kill, hit, and curse, and which at the same time does not fully accept the country’s laws and its fear of “sovereignty” is not complete, it is no wonder that this community reacts violently when it feels threatened and its beliefs are challenged, or when it is demanded that they follow the country’s laws instead of the Torah’s.
It is no surprise that the leaders of Orthodoxy steer their students and followers to violence, with no fear of the Israeli authorities. A telling example of man’s honor being pushed aside for the glory of the Heavens is that the pamphlets issued by Daat Emet were distributed in Kfar Chabad and caused violent reaction on the part of Chabadniks. About his violent reaction the Slonim Rebbe, Rabbi Abraham Weinberg, wrote: “The Torah said concerning the inciter, ‘Do not heed him and do not listen to him, let your eye not pity him’ (Deuteronomy 13:9). Rashi wrote: ‘Do not love him, though it is written “love your fellow as yourself’ — but this one do not love”…There is no doubt that about inciters and agitators like this did the sweet singer of Israel write in his book of Psalms, ‘O Lord, do I not hate those who hate You?’ [according to the Charedi, those who are apostates and heretics hate G‑d, and it is a commandment to hate them] and I will quarrel with those who quarrel with You; I have utterly hated them, they are my enemies’ (Psalms 139:21). What shall a reasonable and honest man do when poisonous snakes penetrate his home and seek to destroy the members of his household? Must he accept it with equanimity or should he stand and fight for his soul and the souls of his household? Therefore those [Chabadniks] who responded as they did are not hot-heads and their actions are not violent nor rash. Their response is that of a healthy person whose most precious thing has been threatened…” (Kfar Chabad weekly, issue 870).
The same goes for slandering others (as the head of the Birchei Yosef Yeshiva, Rabbi Yaakov Segal, did in his counter-pamphlet to Daat Emet, “Remember your Shame from a Villain,” distributed to anyone who wanted it) — it is permitted. He removes any restraints from his words and permits himself to speak ill of Daat Emet: “We have merited, thank G‑d, to publish what one of the rabbis, may he be blessed with longevity, wrote to a young yeshiva student, to shatter the heads of the low vipers who come to destroy the walls of Torah with deplorable deceits, as shall be shown in the letter, lead by one who is twisted and mad…He is known as corrupt even in his personal life. The rabbi permitted us to publish his letter by editing and copying it for the benefit of all who need it. It is being published in his own words, despite the sharp expressions used in what was a personal letter, to show the seriousness of the villainy of that inciter and agitator…Pages speaking against the Torah, marked Daat Emet, were sent to religious homes by a sick Jew whom Satan found suitable to be his messenger, to try to incite and influence the weak-minded against the Divine Torah, G‑d forbid, and with his treachery to chill all he can! That pitiful one does not understand that he is naught but a tool of the Devil, trying in this generation before Redemption to destroy and kill anyone caught in his filthy nets. As he had found Hitler (may his name perish) suitable to be a tool to destroy bodies, so he has found this miserable sick man suitable for his attempt to destroy souls. Indeed, one who causes another to sin is worse than one who kills him, for he [who causes another to sin] removes him from both worlds!”
In summary: It is clear that the religious and Charedi community learns in its educational institutions the above Halachic rulings. Students read their rabbis’ Halachic decisions permitting the breaking of Israeli law when the latter contradicts the Torah and Halacha. No reasonable person would doubt that the legal system permits violence without any necessary counters, and inculcates into young children’s hearts that all Halachic laws are “the words of the living G‑d.” It is no wonder that we often hear in the media about Charedi who throw stones at those who drive on the Sabbath.
In light of the above, as long as the Ministry of Education leaves moral education in the hands of religious leaders (both religious and Charedi) and does not force them to conform to the values of democracy and equality, they will not be taught to internalize the sovereignty of Israeli law. Two publics will arise in our land: one which accepts Israeli law and the other which accepts Halachic law, whose outgrowths it is hard to imagine.