11/03/2009

The Responsibility of Leadership and the Teitel Arrest

Egla arufa, recorded in Deuteronomy 21:1-9 is one of the Torah’s more obscure mitzvot. If a corpse is found in the vicinity of a town, that entire town, represented by its elders, must expiate itself of the murder by performing an atoning ritual (breaking the neck of a calf at a dry riverbed) and declaring that they did not perpetrate the murder. The Talmudic Rabbis nevertheless attribute some guilt to the town and its elders: perhaps they could have provided the unfortunate victim with an escort, or perhaps they neglected to offer hospitality to the victim or the perpetrator (see Sifrei and Malbim to Deut. 21:7), thereby indirectly causing the crime. Similarly, the Rabbis assigned some indirect responsibility for accidental homicides to the High Priest (see Num. 35:25 and Rashi ad. loc.).

Opinion pieces and editorials covering the arrest of Jack Teitel (colorfully and creatively now known as “the Jewish terrorist”) have largely either assigned blame to the national religious/ far right/ West Bank/ American religious immigrant community for creating a context for this type of crime to flourish, or sought to deflect or deny the responsibility of those communities (while, of course, condemning the acts).

Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein, a board member of the Tzohar Rabbinic Organization, published an op-ed in which he calls on the rabbis to publicly condemn (but not apologize for) the act, because otherwise silence will be construed as acquiescence. R. Feuerstein comes very close to hitting the nail on the head: He acknowledges that the role of the rabbi – as well as the teacher, leader, or any other public figure – is to keep an open eye on those marginal individuals from whom despicable acts may emerge, specifically, to prevent those elements from hearing messages that would enable them to draw frightening conclusions.

Alas, this is where R. Feuerstein misses the mark in a fashion that is typical of Israeli rabbis. Israeli rabbis – even those on the moderate to left end of the Religious-Zionist spectrum such as R. Feuerstein and other Tzohar rabbis – cast themselves first and foremost as ideologues and thinkers (I have not yet seen the Coen’s Brothers’ new film “A Serious Man”, but I did see the trailer snippet about how one of the rabbis that the main character seeks out has no time for an audience because he is “busy thinking”; though a caricature, there is some truth to it, especially with regard to the Israeli rabbinate). As such, R. Feuerstein sees as his primary goal to make sure that the ideological pronouncements made by himself and his colleagues are articulated in a manner that does not allow them to be construed by those on the margins as agreement or encouragement of criminal behavior. He even goes further – the rabbis should make an ideological pronouncement clarifying that the values they espouse conflict with the actions of this “lone wolf”, lest silence at this time be construed as acquiescence.

Had R. Feuerstein adopted a different image of the role of the rabbi – one that I believe has a stronger historical tradition and is more in line with the needs of the present Jewish community – his message might have been somewhat different. The rabbi indeed has a duty toward the margins of society: not an indirect duty to make sure that such elements do not become monsters, but a direct duty to engage and address the needs of that constituency as any other member of the rabbi’s flock. A rabbi is a pastor, not a policeman and not a public intellectual.

In that sense, R. Feuerstein should have called for the rabbis to accept some blame in the manner of the town elders during the egla arufa ceremony: denial of any active wrongdoing, but acknowledgment that perhaps they could and should have been more attuned to the needs and thoughts of their constituents – even the most marginal of them. I am not so naïve to think that the rabbis are responsible for gauging the mental state of every affiliated Jew everywhere in the world. Yet, like the town elders of the egla arufa or the High Priest of the accidental killer, they do bear some guilt for failing to notice and address someone who needed help. In fact, closer attention to the individual, even at the expense of demagoguery, may have helped prevent the crimes in question.

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