The following is a re-post of an article I wrote for Ha’Am – UCLA’s Jewish newspaper – responding to a follower of Rav Kahane and his appearance on campus:
Rabbi Meir Kahane was an American-Israeli rabbi and politician, with extremist views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While I do not wish to go into his exact views, which include kicking out all Christians and Muslims from Israel and destroying their places of worship, I do want to talk about where he derives his views from and why they are incorrect.
Today, in the year 2015, even the most religious of people must admit that with religion comes great danger. Ancient religious texts were written in completely different societies with completely different morals than we have today in America. When people hold fundamentalist beliefs that holy books are The Objective Truth for all time and that their laws are static, things can get nasty.
First off, I love the Torah. I believe that the Torah contains some of the greatest messages of all time, along with profound stories that allow us to reflect on ourselves and society. I believe that the Torah represents a quantum leap in morality in terms of its view on women, slaves, business ethics, and the value of human life. That said, the Torah contains many dangerous messages. The Torah talks about executing anyone who breaks the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14; 32:5; Numbers 15:32-36). The Torah talks about stoning a minor for stealing from his parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). How do we deal with these differences?
Some, like Rabbi Meir Kahane, believe that the Torah is static: whatever the Torah says must be done! To be honest, the Torah does talk about killing the nations living in Israel (unless they adopted very specific and complex laws) when Joshua was conquering the land. Does this make me view the Torah with any less respect? No. What else would you expect from a book produced in an ancient war-filled society? One may conclude that Rabbi Kahane may actually be correct according to the Torah’s standards. He and his followers bring in a plethora of verses supporting their opinions. One might think, who are we to argue with the text of the Torah?
Well, it’s a good thing that Judaism never really attached much value to the literal reading of the Torah. Already in the Talmudic age, rabbis reinterpreted many morally questionable verses to make them align closer to what they felt was morally okay at that time. They argued, for example, that the law about stoning a minor was never meant to be implemented. The case is actually a theoretical one to begin a conversation about how to deal with misbehavior, they say (Sanhedrin 71a). “The Jewish court never killed anyone,” (Makkot mishnah 1:10) some Rabbis claim, even though well over 20 verses in the Torah demand capital punishment for various sins.
Since the Torah has been written, scholars have realized that society evolves and the interpretation of the Torah must evolve at the same rate. The beauty of the Torah is that it forces us to face difficult moral questions and spend our lives debating and discussing how to better ourselves in this world. That is, as the Midrash states, the only reason why the Commandments were even given!
When people like Rabbi Kahane argue that the Torah demands killing and deporting foreigners, he is not only being unpragmatic, immoral, stupid and extreme, but he is also going against the thousands of years of the way Jews have read and interpreted the Torah.
While I do not think that many people will be enticed by Rabbi Kahane’s political solutions, I could see the cognitive dissonance that some Jews might have when reading his arguments and how they stem from primary Jewish sources. My advice to you: come to Hillel, grab a coffee, open a Talmud and see how rabbis throughout the last two thousand years have already answered your questions.