In the midst of President Donald Trump’s inauguration three years ago, well-groomed white supremacist spokesman and coiner of the term “alt-right” Richard Spencer was standing on a street corner explaining to a skeptical detractor that he is not a Nazi when an anonymous hero ran up and punched Spencer in the face.
Video of the incident went viral after it was shared on Twitter, and a still-ongoing debate between delighted leftists and scandalized centrists was born: Is it OK to punch a Nazi in the face? Naturally, the Jews got in on it, and things got positively Talmudic.
Earlier this month, the debate continued in the well-appointed conference room of a downtown San Francisco law firm during a lunchtime study session organized by Rabbi Dan Ain of Congregation Beth Sholom.
Ain brought to the Jan. 8 session copies of a study sheet titled “Is One Permitted to Punch a White Supremacist in the Face?” This collection of texts can be found on Sefaria, a free, user-friendly online compendium of any Jewish text you could want: Torah, Talmud, liturgy, Kabbalah and so on.
Click on a verse or passage and a sidebar appears, providing links to relevant classical commentaries, midrash, philosophical texts and more. I’m not exaggerating when I say it is the most important Jewish resource on the internet.
Sefaria also provides a truly transformational tool: the ability to build and share “source sheets.” Users can build a clickable, printable collection of pieces of any text on Sefaria and add their own commentary. These sheets have become ubiquitous in Jewish study sessions; you may have already used one without knowing it. The source sheets can be made public so that anyone may look at them on Sefaria and add more texts.
“Like the Talmud, the source sheet is a living, breathing document, with people adding and finding new sources as they go,” Ain told the seven attendees.
The sheet on which Ain based the session was created three years ago by Rabbi Josh Bolton (currently at Hillel at Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design), but people have continued adding relevant texts since then.
It begins with an excerpt from a 2005 post on jewschool.com, which recounts the story of an Orthodox rabbi who threw a cup of coffee at and then punched a belligerent anti-Semite who confronted him in an airport. “It’s never okay to throw the first punch … unless yer schoolin’ a Nazi scumf*ck. Amen,” the post concluded.
Our little gathering immediately got to dissecting the incident. Some held that the punch was unjustified, while others (myself included) felt that the Nazi scumf*ck had been asking for it by initiating the verbally aggressive encounter.
Asked the lawyer whose firm we met at: “What does it accomplish?”
To which I replied: “It reinforces that there are consequences to bringing the Nazi scumf*ck’s hate into the public sphere.”
Ain’s wife, writer Alana Joblin Ain, offered: “It can boost morale. Maybe an individual act of resistance doesn’t matter on its own, but it creates an atmosphere that leads to more action.”
Said another attendee who had seemed on the fence at the beginning of the session, “It wasn’t out of the blue. It came after an exchange of hateful words. So I think it’s OK.”
Asked another person: “What was gained?” Me: “What was lost?”
While one attendee was avidly anti-punch, most in the room were conflicted. I was the only person unequivocally on the side of punching Nazis.
As we talked, a record of the still-ongoing online discussion played out on the printout in front of us: Bolton discussing the texts with the Jews of the internet who were freely adding texts to his sheet.
A rabbi contributed a passage from Pirkei Avot 4:1: “Who is the mighty one? He who overpowers his inclination … slowness to anger is better than a mighty person.”
When queried by Bolton, the rabbi explains: “I think this text represents the stance of ‘What I WANT to do is sock this guy in the face. But what I’m GOING to do is respond nonviolently, protest, and elect officials that see to it that scumbags like him never become a legitimate threat.’”
An elderly Russian at the study session mentioned the example of Esther: “She solved the problem peacefully, convinced the king to stop Haman.” But that ended in the murder of Haman, Ain pointed out. She shrugged.
Then she said, “What if Russia didn’t stand up [during World War II]? Like Eastern Europe, we wouldn’t have had peace.”
But a Jew in the throes of text study can hold multiple opinions.
The woman then told the story of a Jewish boss she had at a Soviet-era factory. He once refused to shake the hand of an anti-Semitic Communist official. “We never saw him again,” she said. “Was it worth it?” Ain asked. “No,” she said. “He didn’t do any good for himself or anyone.”
You can’t make peace with someone who wants to kill you.
Throughout the session, Ain remained conflicted, acknowledging that true violence can’t be countered by sitting on our hands — but he also said, “We are Beth Sholom — beit shalom, a house of peace. How do we set the example of making peace? Is it impossible to dialog with these people?”
To which I responded, “You can’t make peace with someone who wants to kill you. Consider the rodef law.” Rodef means pursuer; in Jewish law, if someone is coming after you with the intention of killing you, you are required to attempt to kill them first.
As in so many Jewish debates, there was no resolution to be had, though I remained resolute in my convictions. Ain and I have continued the conversation in recent days over email and in person.
Beyond the subject matter, I was struck by the technology that facilitated it. Once upon a time, the Talmud was a real-life discussion. Then it was written down. Its distinctive style was standardized after the invention of the printing press, and a codified set of commentators was added to the margins of the pages.
Now, with tools like Sefaria, we’re dealing once again with a living Talmud.
Whether you agree or disagree with me about punching Nazis, you have to admit that Sefaria, with its unprecedented ease of access to Jewish text study and new tools for collaborative commentary, is good for the Jews.