Some Orthodox Jews were wondering this week what it would take for Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a prominent rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school, to be relieved of his duties for making offensive statements — the latest of which has proved to be the most shocking of all.
At the same time defenders of the rabbi were questioning when the community would come to recognize the stature of the Talmudic scholar they revere and show more respect toward him.
The divide is not a new one in a Modern Orthodox community whose young men and women tend to show more obedience toward rabbinic sages and leaders than their parents do. And Rabbi Schachter has a history of making politically incorrect statements — but none
as seemingly egregious as the one made last week to a group of students in Israel in which he appeared to advocate shooting the prime minister of Israel if the government “gives away Jerusalem.”
The statement, part of a 39-second clip posted on YouTube last Thursday, was from a discussion Rabbi Schachter had in Israel earlier in the week with American post-high school young men studying at Yeshivat HaKotel in Jerusalem. (The clip was removed from the Web site within a day.)
The rabbi, a leading decisor in the Orthodox community, appeared to be responding to a question about serving in the Israeli army. He said: “First you have to know what the army is going to do. If the army is going to destroy Gush Katif, there’s no mitzvah to destroy Eretz Yisrael.
“If the army is going to give away Yerushalyim [Jerusalem], then I would tell everyone to resign from the army — I’d tell them to shoot the rosh hamemshalah [prime minister],” which prompted laughter from his audience.
“No one should go to the army if they [the army] are doing aveirus [sins],” the rabbi continued. “We’re talking if the army is seeing to it that the country is secure, if they’re doing the right thing.
“I’m not sure if the army is doing the right thing,” he added, “we have to look into that.”
Rabbi Schachter cut his visit to Israel short, returning home before the weekend. Some believe one reason was to avoid arrest, since his remarks may have violated a law in Israel that makes calls for violence against the leaders of the government a criminal offense.
When contacted by The Jewish Week last Thursday, Yeshiva University issued the following statement from Rabbi Schachter:
“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.”
Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University, said: “Rav Schacter has apologized for his off-the-cuff statements that certainly do not represent his views. Let me make it clear that Yeshiva University repudiates any such statements or any such sentiments.”
End Of Story?
Yeshiva University would prefer that it be, and Joel said this week that the school’s response to Rabbi Schachter’s remarks was handled “appropriately and strongly.”
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.”