Two important legal opinions have shaken the political landscape in Israel.
First, 200 prominent rabbis ruled this month that it is prohibited to relinquish control of land in the West Bank to the Palestine Liberation Organization because it will endanger Israel.
A smaller group headed by Israel's previous chief rabbis calls on Israeli army soldiers to refuse any orders to evacuate bases or settlements. It also asks the government not to place the soldiers in a moral dilemma by making requests that are contrary to their religious beliefs.
The fury of the government's response to these rulings of halachah (Jewish law) indicates that these rulings are having a great impact.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has declared the halachic opinions illegal, and even labeled the rabbis "ayatollahs" in a recent interview in The New York Times. Government ministers such as Labor's Moshe Shahal and Yossi Sarid said the rabbis have no right to express such views.
Israel is not like the United States, where there is separation of religion and state. The government there supports two legal systems, one based on modern law, the other on Jewish law. Issues of marriage and divorce are the domain of the religious courts. Litigants can choose to try civil cases in either system.
On one hand, many of the rabbis are Israeli government officials serving judges on legally constituted rabbinic courts or are state-appointed municipal rabbis. Despite their status as state officials they are still rabbis and have a duty to uphold halachah — even through halachah may conflict with a particular Israeli administration.
Some of the rabbis have been threatened by the Ministry of Religious Affairs because of their halachic ruling. Government officials have called for cutting educational funding to those yeshivas whose students serve in the army while studying Torah. Many more rabbis want to sign the rabbinic opinions but feel intimidated by the government pressure.
Rabbis, in particular those who serve as judges in rabbinic courts, have the right to issue opinions. The government, however, does not have the right to use the organs of the state to stifle their freedom of speech or religion.
Would Rabin degrade the judges of Israel's Supreme Court in the media if they ruled against his policies? Would the judges be called by the Ministry of Justice and told that if they do not step back from this legal decision they would be removed from their positions? So too in this case, the rabbis were only meeting their spiritual responsibilities by making this difficult ruling.
In czarist Russia, and later during communism, when the government appointed rabbis called MeTaam ("a rabbi on behalf"), the Jewish community knew that the rabbi MeTaam was beholden to the one who paid his salary. Commonly, the rabbi sided with the government against Jewish interests, even though some stood up to the government and many times faced dire consequences. Israel needs rabbis of courage and convictions. They must issue rulings according to the principles of Jewish law, not according to whims of public officials.
This is not the first dissent in Israeli politics. For years certain leftists refused to serve in the territories. During the Lebanon War, there were many conscientious objectors.
Here in the United States, religious leaders have set the tone in difficult times. It was Martin Luther King Jr., joined by prominent Jewish leaders, whose moral voice led the country away from discrimination. During the Vietnam War, religious leaders stood on the forefront against a war many saw as immoral.
In expressing a halachic opinion of the peace process, the rabbis have reached a difficult decision. They have taken halachic notice of a difficult state of affairs: a peace agreement that does not seem to be working, a peace partner who promises to take Jerusalem, a serious increase in murder and terrorism. These highly detailed legal decisions came after great deliberation and discussion.
Ever since the signing of the Oslo agreement, many rabbis have felt that Jewish law prohibits the government from giving the PLO control over the land. For close to two years they were silent, hoping that things would improve. However, with the situation deteriorating daily, they felt that their silence could be viewed as support to a policy that endangers the security of Israel. They had no choice but to issue a halachic ruling.
Instead of attacking the rabbis, Rabin should deal with the real issues. Even he said the security situation might not improve if Israel leaves the West Bank. Many of Israel's military leaders have been much more blunt, forecasting greater terrorism and danger to Israel with the PLO takeover of the West Bank.
The rabbis have ruled that human life and the security of the Jewish people are paramount. They have said the government peace policy endangers the Jewish people and is prohibited by Jewish law. The rabbis' voice is important. Their ruling should cause us to pause and ponder. If the ancient wisdom of the Torah views the present policy of Israel as putting the lives of Jews in danger and the security of the state at risk, maybe it is time to reconsider it.
Rabin has performed great service to the Jewish people for decades, but he is not divinely inspired. Maybe the time has come for him to take a cue from those who seek inspiration and direction from our tradition.