On November 4, we will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the tragic assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, murdered by Yigal Amir while speaking at a rally in Tel Aviv in favor of peace and reconciliation. Although Amir pulled the trigger, the arsenal he employed included the edict of various rabbis who provided a cloak of halachic legitimacy to his infamous act. The moral cowardice of a variety of so-called religious leaders who called on others to assassinate Rabin caused Amir to become, in the words of Nachmanides, a naval birshut haTorah — a scoundrel with Torah license.
The passage of time has not stilled the ways in which this saga continues to haunt us. While there have been commissions of inquiry, isolated examples of courage in seeking to fully come to terms with this singular event in Jewish history, for the most part we resist perceiving the connective tissue linking Rabin’s assassination with teachings embedded in our own religious tradition. It is far easier to ascribe Rabin’s murder to the acts of isolated extremists than to take this inquiry in a direction that would bring us to ask a haunting question: Does Jewish law condone murder committed in the name of religion?
Two weeks before the assassination, Victor Cygielman, a French journalist, sat down at his computer in Tel Aviv to sum up the developments of the past months. He began by describing the eerie ceremony in which a small group of religious fanatics had stood before Rabin’s house on the eve of Yom Kippur and intoned the mystical pulsa da-nura, a Kabbalistic curse of death. He wrote of the explicit “contract” put out on Rabin’s life by Rabbis who invoke the concept of rodef, the sentence pronounced on a Jewish traitor. This concept was developed by Maimonides, who held that an individual has an absolute right to kill another person who is clearly pursuing him/her with the intent of committing murder. It has been understood to also include a Jew who is considered a traitor to his/her own people, for example by being willing to give up territory deemed by God to belong to the Jewish people.
As a result of pursuing a peace treaty predicated on territorial compromise, Rabin was viewed as having become a traitor to his own people. Numerous rabbis in both Israel and the United States invoked the halachic concept of rodef to advocate his assassination.
The stage was set. A handbill was distributed at a mass demonstration in Jerusalem on October 5, weeks prior to his assassination, depicting Rabin in an SS uniform. On November 4, 1995, Rabin was dead. Among the right-wing Israeli politicians who attend such rallies, and were silent in the face of the palpable ugliness bubbling on the surface of Israeli politics, was the man who is now Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
On October 31 of this year, the Torah portion that will be read in synagogues on Shabbat morning includes the narrative of the binding of Isaac. This text is traditionally read as an affirmation of the desirability of perfect faith and as a vindication of Abraham’s willingness to submit completely to God’s will. I, however, have come to view this haunting text as a meditation on the importance of individual conscience and as a warning of the need to provide the voice that advocates for the inherent worth of every human life and that refuses to allow any human being to be sacrificed on the altar of another’s agenda or cause.
In the biblical account, Isaac’s sacrifice is averted by the last-minute intervention of an angel. Tragically, there was no such intervention in the case of Yitzhak Rabin. He was offered as a sacrifice on the altar of blind obedience and religious rage.
So today, the questions remain: How could this have happened? What role did our silence play? Do the teachings of our tradition lead the religiously misguided to commit murder?
In the name of preventing even one more sacrifice on the altar of religious fanaticism, it is essential that we turn to those questions with urgency and courage.
Rabbi Simeon Kolko is a rabbi and educator living in Rochester, New York.