In a disturbing Q&A session, a 17-year-old Jerusalem yeshiva student asked a rabbi in an online forum whether it’s permissible under Jewish law to shoot and kill members of the liberal prayer group Women of the Wall when they gather at the Kotel. The boy was arrested today after Rabbi Baruch Efrati alerted police to the question—which, true to the rabbinic tradition of she’elot u-teshuvot (responsa literature, literally “questions and answers”), he nonetheless deigned to answer.
To give you an idea of the exchange, I’ll translate a bit of the conversation originally posted in Hebrew on the religious Jewish website Kippah:
Q: When I (or anyone else) is at the Western Wall, and the Women of the Wall are there in immodest attire, wearing tallit and tefillin and playing with the Torah scrolls and desecrating God’s name, should I prevent this by shooting at the relevant people, if it cannot be prevented any other way?
A: You must repent for entertaining the notion of killing a person, especially as a means of resolving a dispute. That is not the way of the Torah […] Such questions are presumably designed to ignite a fire [i.e. stir up controversy] in our camp, and don’t come from a pure heart and sincere seeking after God, and I wonder who is behind them and who wants to bloody the debate over the Jewish identity of our precious state. Therefore I debated whether to respond to your question at all, but since somebody someplace may be entertaining similar notions of killing another person, and maybe you are actually asking in earnest, I’ve decided to answer your question, emphasizing that it is not legitimate.
Note the rabbi’s initial suspicion: is this question even being asked sincerely, or is it just a fake-out, a sly attempt to trick the Orthodox establishment into saying something embarrassing that’ll serve to increase resentment toward Israel’s religious population? The speed with which the rabbi jumped to this suspicion is a sign of how heated the debate around religious pluralism—especially as incarnated in Women of the Wall—has grown in recent months.
But in case his interlocutor is actually seriously considering murder, the rabbi goes on to explain that Jewish law does not permit you to take matters into your own hands and kill other people willy-nilly: only a qualified tribunal can order the death of a fellow Jew, and that option doesn’t even exist today, given that the ancient Temple and its judiciary body (Sanhedrin) and the priestly breastplate once used to make such decisions (choshen mishpat) are no longer at Jews’ disposal.
He adds that the best response to a group like Women of the Wall is not violence, but a “strengthening of the alternative,” which he takes to be faithful adherence to the Torah and distancing from the group in question. He recommends that his interlocutor turn his energy to “studying Torah and educating the next generation toward holiness and influencing others from a place of love.” Finally, the rabbi notes that he’s asked the Israeli police to investigate the issue and to find and stop his interlocutor before it’s too late.
That the boy in question was apprehended by police today is encouraging, then, not only because it means Women of the Wall will be safer when they meet for their next prayer gathering this Sunday, but because an Orthodox rabbi stepped up and did the right thing by alerting the authorities to the potential threat represented by a member of the fold.
It should be noted that Rabbi Baruch Efrati is not the sort of figure who typically inspires gratitude in Israeli and Jewish liberals: a well-known yeshiva and community leader in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, he’s perhaps best known for his 2012 statement that Jews should “rejoice at the fact that Europe is paying for what it did to us for hundreds of years by losing its identity [to Islamization].” In this case, though, he responded in a way that should make liberals feel quite grateful, if not actually surprised (I mean, “don’t murder” is—or should be—a no-brainer; it’s, you know, in the Ten Commandments and all.)
Efrati’s response is also encouraging because it’s not an isolated event; it comes on the heels of an ultra-Orthodox admonition against violence directed at Women of the Wall. As the Forward reported:
Women of the Wall announced plans to read from a Torah scroll at its upcoming service at the Western Wall. Also leading up to Sunday’s service, several leading haredi Orthodox rabbis called on thousands of haredi men to gather for a mass prayer opposite Women of the Wall.
[...] The call for thousands of men to mass for this month’s service, according to haredi news site Kikar Hashabbat, included an admonition against violence.
Let’s hope the thousands of ultra-Orthodox Israelis who show up at the Kotel to oppose Women of the Wall on Sunday will heed that admonition. And, if any of them fail to do so—as, sadly, they failed last month—let’s hope their leaders continue to call them out on it.