Taming the Beast of Extremism

Pekudei Shabbat Hahodesh | Purim By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Mar 12, 1994 / 5754 | Torah Commentary | Holidays Israel

Bred in the hothouse of militant Orthodox Zionism, Dr. Baruch Goldstein knew the sacred texts of Judaism. His premeditated murder of dozens of Palestinian men kneeling in prayer in the Hebron mosque on the Friday of Purim was clearly triggered by the scriptural readings of the festival. On the sabbath before, Shabbat Zakhor, he had heard in the synagogue once again the ancient injunction never to forget what Amalek did to Israel in the wilderness (Deut. 25:17-19). The haftarah for the day (I Sam. 15) vividly recalls the failure of Saul, Israel’s first king, to follow up his victory over Amalek with total destruction. His indecision in the face of popular demand for the spoils of war cost him God’s confidence and eventually his throne. The imprecation of the prophet Samuel as he belatedly executed Agag, Amalek’s captured king, must have continued to ring in Goldstein’s ear: “As your sword has bereaved women, so shall your mother be bereaved among women (15:33).”

No doubt the reading of the scroll of Esther the night before the massacre deepened Goldstein’s schematic and demented thinking. Its author records yet another round in the interminable struggle between Israel and Amalek. Mordecai and Haman are portrayed as descendants of Saul and Agag. In self-defense, the Jewish subjects of Ahasuerus kill nearly four score thousand of their enemy without, this time, laying hands on any spoils. With chilling literalness, religion’s greatest enemy, Goldstein applied these ancient categories to the population of the West Bank.

Entirely lost on him was the talmudic debate on whether Esther should even be included in the canon. The rabbis imagine Esther demanding of the religious leadership of her day that Jews should annually celebrate the rescue of Persian Jewry which she effected. For political reasons they were less than eager: “You will arouse envy toward us among the gentiles.” They also did not want to clutter the Bible with too many references to Amalek. From the text (Megillah 7a), it is evident that resistance to Esther and Purim persisted for generations, only to be resolved in the end from the bottom up by popular acceptance.

But by then the day had become one of “licit levity” to match the “mock serious vein” of the book, a minor holiday without benefit of Hallel (H.L. Ginsberg). And yet, according to Maimonides, the supreme mitzvah of the day is not feasting or sending gifts to friends but giving to the poor, “for there is no greater of more splendid joy than uplifting the hearts of poor people, orphans, widows and strangers. Indeed, to do that is to resemble God.” Nor is there any indication that Maimonides restricts such generosity of spirit to Jews only.

The weekly Torah portion should also have tempered Goldstein’s feverish mind. If Purim held the foreground, the building of the tabernacle hovered steadily in the background. Like us, the Torah stays with what it deems to be important, no less than five weeks on the sanctuary. With this week’s parasha we finally bring the construction to an end. God’s presence, as symbolized by a cloud during daylight and a fire at night, transforms the Tabernacle into sacred space. Moses enters its Tent of Meeting only when called and Aaron, but once a year on Yom Kippur. Strangers who encroach pay with their lives, while suppliants generally gain asylum.

And so it has always been with places rendered holy by an awareness of God’s presence. A sanctuary, whether pagan or Israelite, Muslim or Jewish, is protected by the ancient norms of refuge and sacrilege. No matter how many exceptions history may show, civilized men respect the inviolability of sacred space. According to Josephus, the Roman general Titus struggled to spare the temple in Jerusalem during his siege of the city in the year 70 C.E. Similarly when the Vandals under Gaiseric sacked Rome in 455, they stopped short of plundering the churches. And when their modern namesakes despoil a house of worship, Americans of all stripes react with chagrin.

As if mass murder were not reprehensible enough, Goldstein carried it out in the midst of a mosque. Fanaticism brooks no constraints. Almost ten years ago Israeli courts convicted a cluster of Orthodox Jewish terrorists for conspiring to blow up the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, one of Islam’s holiest shrines. By affronting tenets of faith such incendiary acts kindle passions that burn without end.

How quickly are the dark lessons of recent Jewish history expunged from memory. The Holocaust began with the destruction of nearly 300 synagogues in Germany on the single night of November 9, 1938. The event revealed to all who cared to see the deadly extremism of the Nazi revolution. A political system ready to torch synagogues would be undeterred by genocide. The desecration of sacred space was but a prelude to decimating human life.

To violate the sanctuaries of German Jewry gave notice to the world that morality would never inhibit the Nazis in their fanatical quest to cleanse their land of Jews. That night the fire brigades stood by only to prevent the flames from incinerating nearby Aryan property while the police patrolled to ensure a semblance of order. But Jews and their synagogues were free game. The unbridled sovereignty of the modern state had turned to madness and the international community gawked in silence. In the words of the British historian Ian Kershaw: “The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference.”

The Talmud records the well-known story of a curious gentile who offered to convert to Judaism if Hillel could teach him the entire Torah while he listened on one foot. In an instant born of much reflection, Hillel responded: “What is hateful to you do not do unto your neighbor.” Among the casualties in the Hebron massacre was that still unsurpassed moral principle. The purpose of Torah is to distinguish us from our enemies, to tame the beast within us, not unleash it.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on P’kudey are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.