Orthodox community continues its collective soul-searching

NEW YORK — Orthodox leaders are continuing to call for collective soul-searching in the wake of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

At a service to mark the 30th day of mourning for Rabin at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun Monday, Yeshiva University president Rabbi Norman Lamm said the Orthodox community had been too tolerant of reckless and arrogant rhetoric from rabbis before the killing.

"The Amirs and the Goldsteins did not invent their justifications" for their murderous deeds, said Lamm, referring to Rabin's confessed killer, Yigal Amir, and Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Muslims at prayer in the Tomb of the Patriarchs last year. Both men were products of Orthodox Zionist education.

"Yes, they were weeds in the garden, but it was our garden," Lamm said, where rabbis "took it upon themselves to speculate" on halachic responses to Israel's political dilemmas "without traditional disclaimers of humility."

"Is it any wonder that young people, barely out of adolescence, extrapolated" from their teachings and "acted out the consequences?" asked Lamm, who qualified his remarks by saying they had "nothing to do with how one stands on the peace process."

"I am not taking sides on political issues," he said.

Lamm's speech came about a week after the board of Brooklyn's Orthodox Congregation Shaare Zion voted to suspend Rabbi Abraham Hecht, who in June proclaimed Jewish law permitted the assassination of Israeli leaders who made territorial concessions in the peace process.

An informed source said that since the vote, the board has been "trying to negotiate a resignation" by the rabbi and thereby avert action by synagogue members. New York State law puts the power to fire rabbis in the hands of congregations.

Hecht, who could not be reached for comment, has reportedly said that after five decades of serving Shaare Zion, he would not accept the suspension.

Meanwhile, at the Orthodox memorial service, a call was issued to support the rally scheduled for Dec. 10 at Madison Square Garden to demonstrate solidarity with the government and people of Israel and "the pursuit of peace."

Organizers have cast the event as a nonpartisan one to attract the broadest-range attendance possible. But snags in its planning have highlighted how divided the community is.

Some Orthodox and other groups have protested the failure to feature speakers from Israeli opposition parties or other critics of the peace process, and some have threatened not to attend.

One such group, the National Council of Young Israel, announced Tuesday that it had decided to boycott the event.

The rally's current program "is likely to only further widen the divisions within the Jewish people" that Rabin's death triggered, said the group, which participated in Tuesday's memorial to the prime minister.

Slated to speak are Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, U.S. Vice President Al Gore, Israel's Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau and Leah Rabin, widow of the slain prime minister.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, has said his organization would not participate unless someone "with a different view on peace" is on the program, such as Israeli President Ezer Weizman, politician Natan Sharansky or a prominent member of the Likud Party.

Colette Avital, Israeli consul general in New York, issued a plea to the Orthodox gathering at Kehilath Jeshurun to come to the rally "without mixed feelings" and to work for Jewish unity "despite our differences."

"Together we must build bridges of understanding and avoid a rift" among the Jewish people, she said. "Let us stand together as one nation."

She said the Orthodox were uniquely positioned to help delegitimize intolerance and extremism.

"Please help us heal the wounds," she added. "Help us stop the finger-pointing."

For his part, Lamm pledged to incorporate lessons at Yeshiva University that he said were especially critical after the assassination — lessons on tolerance, extremism, love of Israel and the relationship between Torah and democracy.

He said religious Zionists must also pose a number of serious questions for which there are no easy answers:

Is Israel's territorial integrity one of the mitzvot for which all else must be sacrificed? Who specifically has the right to decide halachic (Jewish law) questions that involve all Jewish people and does the halachic material exist upon which to base such judgments? Is religious Zionism inextricably tied to messianic assumptions that the founding of Israel in 1948 was the beginning of redemption?

Meanwhile, Hecht recently issued a statement as head of the Rabbinical Alliance of America, calling upon world Jewry to observe Tuesday as the end of the 30-day mourning period for Rabin.

"We pray that there be an end to all violence," the statement said.

Hecht had written a letter of apology to Rabin in late October. Then, after Rabin's death, he issued a statement saying his initial remarks had been taken out of context.

"I quoted Jewish law as codified in Maimonides that conveys the seriousness of taking action that endangers human life," he wrote. "I never said or meant that Maimonides' ruling was to be applied, heaven forfend, against Rabin or any other person."

His synagogue's president, Morris Franco, did not return telephone calls.

Last month Franco penned a letter to Prime Minister Shimon Peres saying the congregation rejects "all messages of hate and condemn[s] all acts of violence."