Did top Israeli rabbi advocate attacks on Reform Jews

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NEW YORK — Israel's Sephardi chief rabbi made remarks this week interpreted as calling for the murder of Reform Jews, sparking a sharp response from Reform leaders.

In a sermon Saturday night at Jerusalem's Tifereth Yerushalayim synagogue, Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi Doron compared the biblical figure Zimri to Reform Jews, and praised Pinchas, the man who murdered Zimri for having sexual relations with a non-Jewish woman.

Bakshi Doron called Zimri the "first Reform Jew" and compared the murder to a doctor operating on a sick patient.

The murder was not "a matter of revenge, but this is about the salvation of the people of Israel, as when a doctor operates and cuts," he told Israel Radio.

Rabbi Lennard Thal, vice president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said the chief rabbi's sermon could be viewed by someone as license to kill Reform Jews much the same way the convicted assassin of Yitzhak Rabin cited justification in Jewish law for his violent act.

"We don't know what kind of madman might see this as license to act out," Thal said.

The head of Shvil Hazahav, an organization representing Orthodox Jews who support the peace process, expressed similar concerns.

"If what was reported to have been said by the rabbi is true, it could be viewed as incitement similar to those words which were reported to have precipitated the action by an extremist `religious' Jew last November," said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, chair of Shvil Hazahav, or The Golden Path.

At the same time, a spokesman for an organization representing the interests of ultrareligious Jews has accused Reform leaders of overreacting to the chief rabbi's remarks, interpreting them to further their "self-serving interests."

In a sermon Saturday night at Jerusalem's Tifereth Yerushalayim synagogue, Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi Doron compared the biblical figure Zimri to Reform Jews, and praised Pinchas, the man who murdered Zimri for having sexual relations with a non-Jewish woman.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, has called upon Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to repudiate the chief rabbi's remarks.

Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement's Israel Religious Action Center, has also urged Israel's attorney general and the head of the police investigation department to investigate the chief rabbi.

Regev said the rabbi's words constitute incitement to murder. "People ask me if whether I have my bullet-proof vest on," Regev said.

Reform leaders asked for the attorney general to terminate Bakshi Doron's position and to prosecute him on charges of sedition, incitement for murder and religious offense, according to the Israeli daily newspaper Ma'ariv.

In his sermon, Bakshi Doron commended Pinchas' deed, saying the Torah portion says God spared the children of Israel from being destroyed by a plague because Pinchas atoned for their sins by murdering Zimri.

It also says Pinchas killed Zimri and his Midianite lover by running them through with a sword, thrusting the blade into "the woman through her belly."

The Sephardi chief rabbi said during his sermon that killing is prohibited "without witnesses, without warning, without a Sanhedrin," the supreme religious court that cannot be convened in the absence of the Jewish temple standing in Jerusalem.

"But with this evil inclination, with this great danger, when we know how zealots hurt him, here the halachah says that in truth something needs to be done that would shake things up," said Bakshi Doron, according to a translation of his sermon by Regev.

"There is sometimes a plague in the Jewish people. It needs to be stopped," Bakshi Doron said. "There is a need to go outside of the ordinary and do a zealot act, but of course, this belongs only to zealot people.

"One needs to be careful — bloodshed, even if it is necessary at one time, is still bloodshed, but then the Torah comes and says Pinchas' reward was `the covenant of an everlasting priesthood.'

"Why? Because Pinchas saved the Jewish people. The Torah says that Pinchas, by killing an Israelite prince, stopped the plague by his action, and for that he was rewarded with the covenant of peace," said the chief rabbi, according to Regev's translation.

The chief rabbi expanded on his remarks in an interview with Israel Radio on Tuesday, saying the Torah portion "is about extremist behavior, and the Torah praises that extremism."

According to a statement released by the Reform movement, "The inference is plain: Extreme actions and even violence are, in Rabbi Bakshi Doron's words, legitimate if their purpose is to save the Jewish people from the plague of Reform."

The chief rabbi has failed to disassociate himself "from the endorsement of extreme action against Reform Jewry and to deny that the murder of Zimri, as described in the Bible, is a warrant for the murder of Reform Jews in our own time."

Asked if the chief rabbi's remarks signal a new level of religious-secular polarization in Israel, the UAHC's Thal said, "I would like to think this is the idiosyncratic ranting of someone who is completely thoughtless."

But he said, "You have to take words spoken publicly seriously and when they are spoken by Israel's chief rabbi all the more so."

A spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, an organization that represents the interests of the ultrareligious community, accused the Reform movement of "basically making a mountain out of a molehill."

In a prepared statement, Rabbi Avi Shafran described the Reform movement's interpretation of Bakshi Doron's sermon as a "self-serving misreading."

"Rabbis Regev and Yoffie know full well that no responsible Orthodox rabbi condones violence of any sort against Reform leaders, and it is irresponsible for them to imply otherwise," Shafran said.

"What Rabbi Bakshi Doron was apparently trying to convey is the unfortunately proven danger to innocent Jews presented by movements claiming the mantle of `Judaism' but rejective of the Jewish faith's very essence."

It is a danger, he said, "that has already resulted in a largely and tragically assimilated, fragmented and intermarried American Jewish community."

The sermon comes at a time of growing Orthodox-Reform tensions in Israel. Regev said his office had received "threatening phone calls and faxes," some of which said, "We will take care of you, you will die."

Regev said police have traced the calls to a Jerusalem yeshiva.