Last Wednesday, Rabbi Herschel Schachter, a Rosh Yeshiva at YU, was giving a class to young Americans at Yeshivat HaKotel in Jerusalem. At some point, the class was opened up to questions, and in response to a question regarding service in the army, he said that your decision to serve in the army should be based on what the army was doing. Well, that’s not so bad. Yes, doubting the army is taboo in Israel, but I’m alright with that. Here’s the kicker. He went on to say, “If the army is going to give away Yerushalayim [Jerusalem] then I would tell everyone to resign from the army – I’d tell them to shoot the rosh hamemshala [prime minister].”
Yes, yes, yes, that’s what he said. Unfortunately, the YouTube video of this unfortunate quote was removed, but the Jewish Week wrote down a transcript. That’s called incitement folks, it’s bad. Here in Israel, we’ve already had one prime minister murdered after Rabbis couldn’t keep their mouths shut, and apparently this Rabbi thinks the world would be better if it were to happen again.
In all fairness, I should also report the apology that Rabbi Schachter issued recently,
Statements I made informally have been publicly excerpted this week. I deeply regret such statements and apologize for them. They were uttered spontaneously, off the cuff, and were not meant seriously. And they do not, God forbid, represent my views. Jewish law demands respect for representatives of the Jewish government and the State of Israel.
OK. It’s something of an apology. However, it seems difficult to accept. Rabbi Schachter apologized for speaking off the cuff and for not respecting representatives of the Jewish government. Where’s the concern for human life? Where is the apology for saying the same things that have already resulted in one murder? Rabbi Schachter is an important public figure and a rabbinic leader. His words are received hungrily by thousands of students, and even among other Rabbis he calls the shots. He is the halakhic decisor for the Orthodox Union and for dozens of rabbis across the country. The Mishna (Avot 1:11) tells us, “Sages, be careful with you words!” We know in our own recent history how important a principle that is. Rabbi Schachter needs to know it too.
Several prominent Orthodox rabbinical leaders this week chose not to speak for the record of their deep disappointment over Rabbi Schachter’s remarks, which one said seemed to delegitimize the Israeli government.
But Rabbi Saul Berman, a longtime associate professor of Jewish studies at YU’s Stern College for Women, called for disciplinary action against Rabbi Schachter.
He told The Jewish Week that “if Rabbi Schachter understood the import of his besmirching the reputation of Yeshiva University and his once again raising the question of whether the Orthodox community is loyal to the State of Israel or only to its own understanding of what God wants, he would resign — or at least take a leave of absence to do penance someplace.”
Rabbi Berman, who is also director of continuing rabbinic education at Yeshiva Chovevei Torah, said Rabbi Schachter has every right to express his views “but not necessarily to manipulate the minds of adolescents.” He said the president and board of Yeshiva “should be the ones to take action” and determine if the university is “fulfilling its responsibility to its students.”
Rabbi Berman added that “we have an unfortunate history of not holding people accountable for their words, and seeing the consequences.”
He noted that this incident follows the Rabbinical Council of America’s choice of Rabbi Schachter as one of three American rabbis to oversee the conversion process in the U.S., with the approval of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.
Rabbi Basil Herring, executive director of the RCA, described Rabbi Schachter recently as “representative of where Modern Orthodoxy is today.”
Rabbi Herring said this week that “the RCA, as all Jews who abide by Torah law, rejects the suggestion, even in jest, of committing harm to the prime minister of Israel.” But he also noted that “as far as the RCA is concerned, nothing has changed” regarding Rabbi Schachter’s status.
That’s the problem, according to Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, who said that after the murder of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, “we’ve passed the point of no return,” noting that “we’ve seen people invoke Torah to justify murder. It’s not a theoretical issue anymore.”
He recalled being an 18-year-old devotee of Rabbi Moshe Levinger, a fiery right-wing rabbi in Hebron and empathized with yeshiva students who love and defend their rabbi. But he said that Rabbi Schachter’s apology “was no apology — he can’t just say he didn’t mean it.”
Rabbi Hirschfield called on Rabbi Schachter’s followers to invoke the ethic of rebuke, out of love. Otherwise, he warned, “when personal allegiance trumps ethical awareness, your rebbe becomes your idol.”
Rabbi Schachter has been known to make blunt, politically incorrect statements in the past. In 2004, his remarks seemed to compare women to animals in expounding on the issue of whether women can read from a ketubah at a marriage ceremony. Technically yes, he said, adding that the marriage would be valid “even if a parrot or a monkey would read the ketubah.”
Prior to that incident, the rabbi described Jews as superior to other people, noting that Jews and non-Jews “have different genes, DNA and instincts.”
In 1995, Rabbi Schachter accused the Rabin government of committing “national suicide,” and of hating God and the Torah.
His defenders say he is naïve, not mean-spirited, in part because he has little dealing with the community at large, cloistered within the study halls of Yeshiva. They say he speaks casually in class, unaware of the larger ramifications of his remarks.
Critics agree, but note that such a person, despite his brilliance, should not be in a position of prominence.
Rabbi Berman asserted this week that it is “duplicitous” for Rabbi Schachter’s defenders to say he is more comfortable in the beit midrash and doesn’t fully understand the community and yet seek him out to make vital public policy decisions on sensitive communal issues like conversion.
“If you assume communal responsibility,” he said, “you have to be responsible for yourself.”