Tuesday, August 27, 2002
I've liked Rabbi Jonathan Sacks for a long time. The conventional rap on him is that he's a purveyor of plattitudes - that he won't take a position on anything that anyone can definitively disagree with. I don't necessarily reject this view of him. I just think that religious leaders are not politicians. A preeminent part of a religious leader's job is to safeguard the continuity of tradition, and it's not obvious to me that this job is best discharged by taking firm stands on controversial issues.
So I'm neither shocked nor appalled by the recent interview in the Guardian in which Rabbi Sacks says that Israel's rule over the Palestinians in the territories is "tragic" and "incompatible in the long run" with core Jewish principles. Indeed, I would agree with him in this. He does not, however, go further, and argue for a particular policy prescription, because he knows he is not a general. His job is to say the following.
One, keeping the land is not commanded; it can be traded for peace. This is mainstream Jewish opinion; most of the halachic authorities in Israel and the diaspora have ruled similarly. Only the most radical interpreters of Rav Kook's legacy - who are, admittedly, dominant in the religious Zionist camp and increasingly influential in non-haredi Orthodoxy generally - argue that such trades are impermissable.
Two, saving life is a paramount value, and therefore it is not only permissable but commanded to withdraw from territory if that will bring peace. This is also uncontroversial. The key question is in the if: if Rabbi Sacks' father is right, and the other side does not want peace, and withdrawal will cost lives, then it is impermissable to withdraw. The religious opinion hinges on a realistic evaluation of the facts. That's how it should be.
Three, rule by force over another people is unethical in Judaism. You'd think this was a no-brainer, but it isn't - not because Judaism would indeed countenance such a thing but because very few rabbis are willing to opine on what Jewish law says about the general conduct of the Jewish state. The haredi rabbis by and large take the position that the state is not really Jewish; a Jewish state will only exist in the Messianic age. What Israel is is a state that governs a lot of Jews. As such, they seek to bend the state to the interests of those Jews - specifically, the Jewish communities they represent, the ultra-Orthodox communities. In addition to trying to get more resources out of the state directed to their communities, they often seek to have various halachic rules enacted in law - not because they extract some set of principles from halacha for how a sovereign Jewish state should be run but because they govern their own communities by halachic rules and enacting those rules in law would make that governance easier and allow for the further extension of their communities and their norms. The failure of most Jewish authorities to grasp the nettle of sovereign Jewish self-government is a major failure of the rabbinate of this generation, and one whose persistence poses real risks for both Judaism and the Jewish state. Therefore, I take it as a very positive thing for an authority like Rabbi Sacks to opine in this way. I will note, however, that once again we are talking about a religious ruling against the behavior of the government of Israel. What Rabbi Sacks is saying, in effect, is that withdrawal from the territories would be good from a Jewish perspective even if it did not bring peace, because forcible rule over another people is ethically wrong. Who can disagree? But if withdrawal would cause war, and not peace, that would still trump in Rabbi Sacks' view, since the saving of life is paramount.
Rabbi Sacks does go on to say that, in his opinion, Israel will need to give up all or virtually all the territories to achieve peace. This is his opinion, not a religious ruling, but it is an opinion to be respected, given its source, even though I think he's dead wrong. I also think he is right to talk with fundamentalists on the other side who explicitly reject the existence of the state of Israel (with his important caveat that these not be individuals who kill their opponents, which rather narrows the field). After all, we need to convince some of these people and their followers if peace is ever to be possible. But I would add an additional qualifier: these interlocutors must be acting in good faith. There is no point in meeting with someone for whom religion is politics by other means, which in turn is war by other means. There are religious extremists who are sincere, but there are many for whom power is their god, and there is no point in talking to such people. I don't know the particular Ayatollah he met with, but the scale of corruption of the Iranian regime does make it important to know with whom one is dealing. It is one thing to talk to a Taheri, another to talk to a Khamenei.
The Guardian is going to make much of this interview, but I don't think it means much. I don't think it represents a change of view by Rabbi Sacks, and I don't think he's taking any different view from, say, Rabbi Michael Melchior, Chief Rabbi of Denmark and a member of the current Israeli government and a dove. Moreover, I don't think he's taking a different religious position on the territories than that taken by Rav Ovadiah Yosef, spiritual leader of Israel's Shas party, or most other non-Kook-ite halachic authorities.