The events of the past few weeks in Israel have been horrific, to say the least. There was the kidnapping of three Israeli Yeshiva boys, followed by a heart wrenching search that went on for two weeks and fading hopes that the boys would be found alive, the discovery of their bodies, and then the funerals. The poise and dignity of the boys’ parents during a time of searing pain and loss has been uplifting. It seems that this terrifying and tragic incident unified the Jewish world in protest against an attack on innocent boys on their way home.
Then came the murder of Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, a 16-year old Arab boy who was abducted, burned alive and murdered in what we now know was a revenge killing carried out by six Jewish extremists in retaliation for the killing of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shayar and Eyal Yifrach. In recent days there have been appropriate and necessary condemnations and expressions of horror by Israeli officials and Jewish leaders around the world. Prime Minister Netanyahu called the boy’s parents to express sorrow and to promise that the perpetrators would be brought to justice. Ministers in the Israeli cabinet and Knesset members condemned the attack, rejecting any form of revenge killing. Good and decent people everywhere have expressed horror not only at the killing of another teenage boy, but at the very idea that such a thing could have been by Jews who claim to be observant of Jewish law and faithful upholders God’s Torah. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that is “Jewish” about killing an innocent human being to avenge outrage or suffering or to settle a score. Such acts, like the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin or the murder of 29 Palestinians in Hebron by Baruch Goldstein, must be rejected and repudiated completely.
It’s shocking, of course, that not everyone is absolute in their rejection of the murder of Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir. It’s been unsettling to read certain Facebook posts by people who would not normally be defined as “extremist” but who, while condemning the crime, found ways to justify it. One such post read, “The act should be condemned…but at least there was a reason it was carried out. There was no reason for the killing of the three Israeli Yeshiva boys.” What would make someone say something like that? What part of the Jewish soul gives rise to a justification for the murder of an innocent teenager?
Such expressions, and others like it, remind us that there is such a thing as Jewish extremism. It’s difficult to admit an ugly truth, but it’s there. It’s true that we live by a high moral code, that we strive to act only in self-defense, that we’re civilized and only do things that uphold human dignity, that Israeli society is based on laws and justice. But it’s also true that Jewish extremists are out there, ready and willing to do abhorrent things. We can’t ignore their existence in an effort to persuade ourselves that Jews don’t do such things. To be sure, they are a minority. But in order to live up to the high standards Judaism demands of us, such people must be completely eradicated from our midst and shunned. There is no place for extremists who are willing to commit violence in the name of Jewish values.
Sometimes such extremists look to the Torah itself to justify their way of thinking and behaving. In fact, in this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, who had committed murder by taking a spear and killing an Israelite and the Midianite woman with whom he had been intimate, was awarded “Brit Shalom,” a pact of peace and friendship, from God. Some of the early commentators defend Pinchas and welcome his zealotry. But most of the post-Talmudic commentators condemn him and his fanaticism. And so they should, for we cannot claim to have a moral society based on justice while entitling ourselves to kill those whose behavior we deem unacceptable.
In the Torah scroll, the Hebrew letter “yud” in the name of Pinchas and the Hebrew letter “vav” in the word Shalom, two of the letters in God’s Holy name, are written to appear diminished and broken. The scribal tradition of writing these two letters in such a fashion should be a lesson to us that committing violence diminishes the light of God in each of us, and that random killing, out of rage or revenge, may very well extinguish that light. It’s up to us to keep God’s light aglow and to see the Divine spark in every human being we encounter.