A VIEW FROM THE LEFT: Rabbis ruling jeopardizes settlers, abuses halachah

People who value halachah (Jewish law), including many who oppose the government's political stance, are dismayed by the recent crass exploitation of halachic and pseudo-halachic concepts for political ends by diaspora and Israeli rabbis.

There are various opinions among halachic authorities on whether we should hold on to all the territory of Israel we now control, or return some parts in the context of a peace agreement. In fact, there are disputes over almost everything connected with the issue.

These halachic debates predate the state. They accompanied the political dispute over the 1948 Partition Plan. But they became much more intense after 1967's Six Day War.

This month's halachic ruling by a group of Israeli rabbis that Jewish West Bank settlers should resist army attempts to remove them is liable to have disastrous consequences. The ruling, made by a group representing the International Rabbinic Forum for Israel, including former Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira, attempts to remove sole responsibility for security decisions from the government and the Israeli army. It contradicts most previous halachic rulings on the subject.

It puts Orthodox soldiers in the unbearable position of being suspected a priori of disobeying army orders. It is also liable to make a small number of people feel justified in breaking the law by committing terrible actions that could lead to killing and destruction.

This "halachic ruling" harms the settlement movement, and settlers. It harms the Orthodox community, and it is detrimental to halachah. It is a mishmash of political stances, value systems and Jewish law, lacking any responsible examination of the possible ramifications.

The late Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, who headed the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, held that the commandment to conquer the land is binding today. Kook said holding on to all of Eretz Yisrael (the biblical Land of Israel) is thus an absolute imperative.

This ruling sparked a fascinating debate within the yeshiva between Kook and the late Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli, one of the most vigorous personalities of our generation.

Yisraeli opposed his mentor, arguing that the commandment to conquer the land has lapsed in the present age, and that holding on to every square meter of Eretz Israel is not an imperative. He said Kook's opinion on this matter was fundamentally mistaken.

Yisraeli added a remark that diaspora rabbis and their communities should note:

"Even if we view the commandment to conquer the land as being in force in our time, to be implemented even by means of war, it is clear that this is a commandment imposed on the entire nation — both those who are with us here and those who are not here, but living in the diaspora.

"For it is inconceivable that this commandment, which entails great effort and human sacrifice, should fall only on part of the nation because they happen to be living here.

"Since most of the nation is still in the diaspora, it is clear that we cannot obligate those who are living in Eretz Israel to assume the entire burden and risk involved.

"It follows, then, that there is no commandment to conquer [the land] by war.

"Furthermore, were the entire nation gathered together here — all who are physically capable of bearing arms (perhaps according to the age criteria set by Torah) — the outcome would be more secure, and the number of casualties fewer, since the very number of combatants would act as a deterrent.

"We find that imposing a commandment that applies to the entire nation on only a part of it results in much more grievous results for that part…"

Can anyone remember an outcry by diaspora rabbis, during any of Israel's wars, over the mortal danger the few faced from the many?

Have we ever heard them issuing a halachic ruling that their congregants must immediately make aliyah (immigrate to Israel) and enlist in the Israeli army to share the Israelis' onerous burden and increase Israel's deterrent power against its enemies? Is this what they are telling their communities today?

But perhaps what is going on here has nothing to do with halachah.

A halachic ruling is by nature addressed to an individual or group that relies on it to resolve its doubt and confusion.

But the majority of Jews both in Israel and the diaspora (including many Orthodox Jews) do not generally act in accordance with the instructions of the halachic authorities.

So what is the point of issuing a "halachic ruling" on a matter of supreme public importance to people whose conduct isn't determined by halachah? Surely it can only estrange people from the Torah and the commandments, and bring halachah into disrepute.

The real halachic dispute on the question of whether we should hold on to all the territory of Eretz Yisrael is far removed from the recent pronouncements.

It is complex, and deals with unprecedented situations. The opinions of Rabbis Kook, Shlomo Goren and Yisraeli, as well as those of former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv Haim David Halevy, merit careful study.

Noted Halevy: "The power of halachah is that it has never intervened in the details of statecraft, and that it teaches only basic principles."

The ostensible mobilization of halachah in the service of politics is harmful to halachic education. It does not serve the political ends of opponents of the government's policies.

The serious, educated, and responsible members of this sector are acquainted with the positions taken by Kook and his disciples, and have no need of additional declarations.

The only group likely to be swayed by the recent pronouncements comprises those who have no idea what halachah really is, and who will take the "halachic rulings" as religious sanction for violence and chaos.