New York – With due respect, I would like to take issue with Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter’s recent editorial (Ami Magazine p. 8 July 11, 2012) regarding religious vigilantism, Jewish history, and bloggers. Rabbi Frankfurter has distinguished himself as a highly intelligent thinker on the Jewish scene, with a sensitivity to the Torah’s values on some very important issues that have arisen in our community.
Nonetheless, it is my feeling that he has taken an incorrect position in this editorial on the issue of recent acts of religiously motivated vigilantism that have been highlighted in the media, primarily in Israel, but even here in New York.
Rabbi Frankfurter writes, “contrary to what some bloggers might think, religious vigilantism over Jewish history was not an altogether negative phenomenon.”
Perhaps I may be wrong, but my understanding of the term “vigilantism” involves three essential elements:
1] The taking of the law into one’s hands rather than that of the true enforcers of the law.
2] Doing so without due process to the vigilante’s target
3] Doing so according to one’s own, often limited, understanding of the law.
All three of these elements fit neither within the framework of secular law, nor l’havdil within the framework of Halacha. And all three set a very dangerous precedent.
The clear-cut Talmudic view of the inherent harm and danger of vigilantism can be seen from the Maharsha’s explanation of the Gemorah in Bava Kamma (117b), where Rav Kahana took vigilante action against an informer (Moser). The Gemorah describes it as an incorrect action that required Kaparah – atonement on his part. Why? The Maharsha explains, because he performed this action out of vigilantism. Other Achronim understand this Gemorah in the same fashion.
Vigilantism is wrong – period.
As far as the sources Rabbi Frankfurter cites, we will address them at the end of the essay.
Rabbi Frankfurter goes on state that “zealotry has played an important role in Jewish life, especially when the Jews were unable to maintain judicial autonomy..” and “When the political-legal reality made it impossible for the existence of an autonomous Jewish group with its own judicial autonomy, the Jewish community inevitably had to turn to a form of zealous vigilantism to implement its norms and dictates.”
Once again, one can differ strongly – this time from the point of view of Jewish history. Throughout the dark chapters of Jewish history in Europe, whenever the need arose, the Jewish community has always attempted to resolve such issues through the proper channel of Beis Din. A reading of the Takanos of the Vaad Arba Aratzos would show that, in fact, Jewish leaders never resorted to extra-legal vigilantism and never abdicated their role to zealots. The responsa literature is filled with halachic rulings rendered by Batei Dinim, and those rulings were implemented by Shluchei Beis Din, messengers of Beis Din. This was true in Sephardic countries as well.
Were there times that people resorted to other means? Of course. But these were not, by any standard, our finest moments. Jewish leaders have always decried a state of affairs where people take the law into their own hands. The Maharsha cited above lived in Europe and reflect the thinking of our leaders at this time.
Rabbi Frankfurter seems to buttress his last quote with a citation of Rabbi Shlomo Luria in his Yam Shel Shlomo (BK 3:9). To this, there are three responses.
Firstly, Rabbi Luria is not at all discussing a reality where there are constraints upon Jewish judicial autonomy. The Maharshal lived in Brisk and Lublin in the mid sixteenth century. Jewish self-autonomous rule was at its height. Therefore, there is no justification for this quote here.
Secondly, Rav Luria’s position in regard to administering corporeal punishment on one’s own is an opinion that has been dismissed by the Raavad (Hilchos Ishus Chapter 24), the Teshuvas Maharam MiRottenberg, and numerous halachic authorities throughout the centuries.
Thirdly, even Rabbi Luria qualifies his position in that very same section of the Yam Shel Shlomo with the following caveat, “And this is only for someone who is muchzak b’kashrus, and is known that he acts for the sake of heaven. And he is an important and well known individual. But a general person cannot do so. For if so, no creature would ever be able to live. For every empty person will go and strike his friend regarding a matter of reproach, for there is not a righteous man that lives who does not sin. And the Torah only gave permission for corporeal punishment to a judge or important person, whose words are worthy to be listened to.”
Time and time again, “zealots” have been proven not to rise to Rav Luria’s idyllic description, have not had the greatest Yiras Shamayim, and more times than not, have had personal agendas. The majority of modern-day zealots are unlearned and often are at the lowest standards of decency. Thus, we find that the greatest of our Poskim have had Domino’s pizza delivered to their doors at 2:00 AM by the actions of these “zealots” and Kanayim, and have had lies and pamphlets distributed surreptitiously about them. I recall once reading a fake newspaper distributed at a prominent Minyan factory in Borough Park where one of our Gedolei HaPoskim had “tried to commit suicide” but failed.
Rabbi Frankfurter continues his essay by decrying the loss of “the protective shield that vigilantism once provided.”
It must be clearly understood that “vigilantism” was never a protective shield. It has always undermined the notion of law and order and is antithetical to one of the principal notions of the seven Noachide laws – the establishment of a legal system. Indeed, even the killing of Zimri by Pinchas, as Rabbi Frankfurter paradoxically points out, was not an act of vigilantism – the Halacha itself clearly dictates that Kanaim Pogim Bo is part of the Torah’s system of jurisprudence.
Vigilantism is wrong because the Torah gave specific instructions to judges on how to judge. “Shamoah Bain Acheichem” – listen amongst your brethren (Dvarim 1:16). Judges are adjured to make sure that both parties dress equally – if one side is too poor to afford the clothing, we dress him accordingly. Why? So that the Torah’s sense of fairness will reign supreme and that no judge show a bias to one side because of his inability to dress properly. When a vigilante applies his own sense of justice, without due process, these Torah laws and ideals are undermined.
Although the Charles Bronsons and Clint Eastwoods of the world may have fashioned and shaped an appeal to vigilantism among American culture, these notions are entirely foreign to Torah thought. As Rav Elyashiv has consistently pointed out, we Torah Jews do things in a Beis Din and not on our own (Shiur on BM 113a). The verse in Dvarim (17:11) states quite clearly, “Al pi haTorah asher yorucha – according to the Torah that they shall teach” – this refers to the Beis Din – not to one’s own individual feelings about how things ought to be. This is what we must follow and we must sway “neither to the right nor to the left.”
The type of thinking that encourages vigilantism has allowed for things to happen in Torah communities r”l – that should never have happened. The near killing of a man and his family in New Square happened because such an attitude toward vigilantism was tolerated. The incidents that happened on Herzog Street in Beit Shemesh, the beating up of individuals in Meah Shearim, the kidnapping and threat of murder in New Jersey to a husband who has not given a get, all of these horrific things happen because of the warped and incorrect attitude that exists toward vigilantism.
Rabbi Frankfurter ends his piece with the statement that, “Nonetheless, then as now there was a schism between the Torah’s view of the zealot’s action and those of the people.”
With the words “as now” Rabbi Frankfurter would have us believe that those who look askance at the tragedy that happened in New Square, at the violence in Meah Shearim, and at the extreme fanaticism in Beit Shemesh against an eight year old girl and her mother, are on par with those individuals that initially found fault with Pinchas.
Not only is this type of thinking incorrect, but, the truth is that we should all be looking at such vigilantism with a sense of disgust and anathema.
Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler zt”l (in Michtav M’Eliyahu Vol. II p. 548) explains that in the time of Yehoshua, all of Israel was punished with the loss at the battle of Ai, even though it was only one member of the entire nation of Israel that had actually sinned. Why then was the entire nation punished? Rav Dessler explains that it was because they did not look with anathema at anyone who might violate the command of Yehoshua not to touch the spoils of war.
This all proves that attitudes do matter. They matter greatly.
It is somewhat ironic that Rabbi Frankfurter, whose own Ami magazine has unfairly suffered from a form of vigilantism in the banning of Ami Magazine in Williamsburg, has advocated and applauded the taking of the law into one’s own hands.
An op-ed that lauds vigilantism as a positive ideal is, at best, grossly irresponsible. At worst, it can and has been the cause of some very serious devastation. In the past, Ami Magazine and its editorial staff have been brave enough to admit error and have retracted articles, even in the recent past, a front cover. This is something courageous and almost unprecedented by news magazines. I hope that Hashem will give them the strength to do so once again.
The author can be reached at [email protected]
Rabbi Yair Hoffman, is an an Orthodox Rabbi and educator, author of several Seforim on Halachah and a former Morah Desarah of a Shul in Long Island, Rav Hoffman is a well respected Torah figure with close contacts with many leading halachic authorities.