Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Day After

The morning after Yitzhak Rabin was killed, I woke up in my bed in Tel Aviv, three blocks from the site of the assassination, looked at my infant daughter and remembered that the world is still a place of hope and then deliberated whether I wanted the newspaper to tell me that the assassin was Jewish or Arab.
If the assassin were Arab, it could be chalked up to an anomaly in the otherwise peaceful trend that we were experiencing and celebrating the night before. If it were a Jew, I would have to face the grim reality that, as always, Jews have a tradition of zealotry that places La’shem Shamayim, for the sake of heaven, over humanism and peace.
The tradition is that La’shem Shamayim is a good thing. In the Mishna we read, “Every machloket that is for the sake of heaven is destined to survive; every machloket that is not for the sake of heaven is not destined to survive.”
The Mishna goes on to give examples. “What is a machloket for the sake of heaven? Like the machloket of Hillel and Shammai. What is a machloket not for the sake of heaven? Like the machloket of Korach and his congregation. (5:17)”
The obvious questions after reading this are, what does it mean to “survive” and what distinguishes between these two quarrels. About Hillel and Shammai, the Talmud tells us through the Bat Kol, a divine voice, “These and these are the words of the living God. ((Elu va-elu divrei Elohim chayim, BT Eruvin 13b). Thus both sides of the disagreement are equals and assumed good. In the Torah, it is understood that Moses is the good guy and Korach bad. They are not equals and Korach is destroyed. What then is the message in Pirkei Avot (5:17)? This depends on how you understand truth.
After R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus is discredited and removed from the Sanhendrin in the case of Achnai's Oven (bava metsia 59b), we also encounter the idea of La’shem Shamayim. Here, the head of the Sanhedrin, R. Gamliel, is on a boat, which is about to sink, an assumed heavenly punishment for the treatment of Eliezer. Just as he is about to meet his fate, Gamliel claims, “You should know that I didn't act for the sake of my own honor, neither for the sake of the honor of my father's house, but for your honor, so as not to proliferate disputes within the nation (shelo yirbu machlokot b'Yisrael).” In other words, Gamliel says he acted on God’s behalf. The problem with this is that Gamliel assumes he understands God’s truth, and the problem with the tradition is that it is assumed that God favors people who act La’shem Shamayim, on His behalf.
The assassin of my prime minister thinks he acted for a higher purpose, La’Shem Shamayim, but he really should have looked at the continuation of Eruvin 13b because, all things being equal, we follow Hillel’s ways because he was humble. Having a higher purpose is not the answer.

To be humble does not mean to have no opinions. Hillel examined both sides of an argument and was able to present the other side before his own. He found a balance between, “These and these are the words of the living God - Elu va-elu divrei Elohim chayim,” and having a position that was his own. Presenting the other side is not what the assassin did on November 4th, 1995. He removed it in the most zealous and undemocratic way possible. He spit in the eye of all of Israel, and his self righteousness and lawlessness, in so many ways, is worse than Korach since Korach never claimed the mantle of La’Shem Shamayim.

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