The Jewish Week, April 26, 1996, pp. 12, 31.
Are Jewish lives really more valuable than non-Jewish ones?
Radical rabbi just freed from an Israeli prison thinks so.
The triumphal cheers of some 500 Lubavitch chasidim shook the hall on Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights Sunday night as a tall, white-haired rabbi basked in their toasts to his recent victory over the government of Israel’s effort to silence him.
A sea of men in black hats and women in long dresses hailed Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh from separate sides of the ballroom of the Oholei Menachem Yeshiva. And amid round wood tables stacked high with challah, herring and rounds of vodka, Rabbi Ginsburgh joined them heartily as glasses rose to his long life.
But ask Lubavitch leader Rabbi Shmuel Butman about Rabbi Ginsburgh’s view that the Torah would “probably permit” seizing an innocent non-Jew for a liver transplant to save the life of a Jew, and Rabbi Butman, who helped organize the welcome, politely demurs.
“That is a purely halachic question,” he says, using the Hebrew adjective for matters pertaining to traditional Jewish law. We don’t get into that.”
“In general, he’s a very pious individual,” said Rabbi Butman, director of the Lubavitch Youth Organization. “And we’re sure he carries responsibility for what he says.”
Not everyone is so sanguine.
Rabbi Walter Wurzburger, a professor of philosophy at Yeshiva University and former president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the Orthodox Zionist rabbinic body, noted, “Even the devil can quote Scripture.”
The government of Israel’s attempt to stifle Rabbi Ginsburgh’s teaching and lecturing to his followers – including some in the West Bank, where he is dean of a yeshiva in the Palestinian town of Nablus – crashed in failure late last month. After he was jailed for three weeks without charge or trial, a member of Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the government had insufficient evidence to justify holding Rabbi Ginsburgh under Israel’s administrative detention laws.
It marked the first time that administrative detention, which until recently has been applied overwhelmingly to Arabs, had ever been successfully challenged. And among many Lubavitchers, the government’s precedent-setting defeat was greeted as a miraculous, classically Judaic victory of the weak over the strong. It was this feeling, which makes daily news headlines a source of faith for so many of them, that permeated the hall Sunday night.
But Rabbi Ginsburgh, an intense but soft-spoken 52-year-old with a long white beard, looks far from the image of tousle-haired David facing the behemoth Goliath. At the same time, his quiet demeanor clashes sharply with the image of a dangerous, demagogic extremist of the sort that Israeli officials have invoked.
Still, no one doubts that his pronouncements and teachings have been controversial.
Regarded as one of the Lubavitch sect’s leading authorities on Jewish mysticism, the St. Louis-born rabbi, who also has a graduate degree in mathematics, speaks freely of Jews’ genetic-based spiritual superiority over non-Jews. It is a superiority that he asserts invests Jewish life with greater value in the eyes of Torah.
“If you have two people drowning, a Jew and a non-Jew, the Torah says you save the Jewish life first,” Rabbi Ginsburgh told The Jewish Week. ”If every single cell in a Jewish body entails divinity, is a part of God, then every strand of DNA is a part of God. Therefore, something is special about Jewish DNA.”
Later, Rabbi Ginsburgh asked rhetorically, “If a Jew needs a liver, can you take the liver of an innocent non-Jew passing by to save him? The Torah would probably permit that.
“Jewish life has infinite value,” explained. “There is something infinitely more holy and unique about Jewish life than non-Jewish life.”
Notwithstanding this, Rabbi Ginsburgh hastened to add that nothing in this view undermines the holiness of non-Jewish lives.
“Just the opposite,” he insisted. ”…Ultimately the light they recognize from Jews will make their lives more valuable. Jews are essentially a giver nation. And non-Jews are receivers.”
Rabbi Ginsburgh is also an ardent sympathizer of Baruch Goldstein, the Brooklyn-born physician who massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer in a Hebron mosque in February 1994. While stopping short of endorsing Goldstein’s act outright, Rabbi Ginsburgh described him unambivalently as “a Jew who gave up his life for his people.” In a recent book devoted to Goldstein he called the massacre “an act of bravery whose source was divine grace.”
Citing explicit instructions he says he received from the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Ginsburgh has also strongly defended Jewish revenge attacks on Arabs, at least after-the-fact. Whether he would tell a Jew to engage in such a random attack beforehand “is a different story,” Rabbi Ginsburgh said. But after such an attack took place in response to an Arab provocation, “You can’t even hint it was a bad thing.”
Among other things, he explained, the jurisdiction of an Israeli court in such a case is illegitimate because “Legally, if a Jew does kill a non-Jew, he’s not called a murderer. He didn’t transgress the Sixth Commandment: Thou shalt not murder. This applies only to Jews killing Jews. Therefore [in a Jewish state], his punishment is given over to heaven” rather than to a secular court.
In 1989, Rabbi Ginsburgh was personally involved in the events that led to such a killing when he led a large group of his yeshiva students on an armed West Bank “walking tour” that slipped around Israeli Army restrictions and assertively through a Palestinian village. The tour ended in a melee that saw the rabbi stoned by angry villagers, the yeshiva boys rampaging through the village setting fires and vandalizing, and a 13-year-old Palestinian girl who was sitting in her house shot by one of the yeshiva tourists.
At the trial of the yeshiva boy charged with the killing, Rabbi Ginsburgh said bluntly, “The people of Israel must rise and declare in public that a Jew and goy are not, God forbid, the same. Any trial that assumes that Jews and goyim are equal is a travesty of justice.”
In an interview at The Jewish Week, Rabbi Ginsburgh delivered his comments in a soft, unassuming voice with no sign of bitterness or hate.
In fact, he said, one reason the court ultimately felt compelled to free him was because his most controversial statements came not as personal opinions but always as citations from scripture, Kabbalah or recognized rabbinic authority.
Rabbi Ginsburgh also defended many of his statements as more musings and reflections in a struggle towards conclusions, rather than conclusions themselves.
“Torah is a complex matter,” he said he told the judge, “especially Kabbalah. You must consider many factors.” But in the course of working through this, he said, there is “a thinking-aloud process.”
“Even when you understand there is a justification for doing certain things,” said Rabbi Ginsburgh, ”studying Kabbalah sweetens the mentality.” The process usually calms, rather than inflames, his students, Rabbi Ginsburgh said.
“In class I’m teaching them not to act on these things, not because they are wrong, but because our way to influence the situation is completely different. If they think the thing to do is to get up and act violently, I teach them that that’s wrong.”
But to Israeli authorities, Rabbi Ginsburgh’s citations and outloud thinking were the stuff of incitement. They viewed many of his talks as incendiary and tried – unsuccessfully – to stifle his lectures to his students in the Nablus yeshiva in particular.
Finally, just hours after the devastating suicide bombing in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Circle last March, amid a wrathful national mood, Rabbi Ginsburgh gave a Purim lecture on a long letter by the Lubavitcher Rebbe about “the mitzvahs of war for the sake of revenge and war for the sake of conquering the Land of Israel,” said Rabbi Ginsburgh.
“The rebbe explained that war for the sake of revenge was a much higher mitzvah,” said Rabbi Ginsburgh, recalling his talk to the crowd.
It was soon after this that Prime Minister Shimon Peres signed a 60-day administrative detention order against him “to prevent Rabbi Ginsburgh from continuing his incendiary preaching of revenge.”
The public outcry that followed came mostly from the right. But some civil libertarians also protested his jailings as beyond the pale, even for Israel’s administrative detention law. That law empowers the authorities to jail without charge individuals who threaten public security. But unlike most other detainees, they noted, Rabbi Ginsburgh was jailed explicitly for his speech rather than his acts.
Still, when the court finally ordered him released, citing insufficient evidence that his statements had incited or would incite anyone, many Lubavitchers had no doubt it was their effort that turned the tide.
Rabbi Ginsburgh himself told the Crown Heights audience Sunday night, “The most important thing I want to convey is that the claim against me is a claim against the Torah, a claim against chassidus, a claim against the Lubavitcher rebbe.”
But not everyone agrees with how Rabbi Ginsburgh uses these sources, of course.
“It’s the greatest tragedy to take isolated texts and use them without tradition,” Rabbi Wurzburger said. ”[Rabbi Meir] Kahane did this, too. You can always take statements out of context.”
Even within Lubavitch, there are critics: Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, the former administrator of the rebbe’s secretariat and current head of the sect’s international operations, termed Rabbi Ginsburgh’s views, as related to him in a phone interview, ”totally outrageous.”
But Rabbi Moshe Greenberg, a professor of Bible at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, called for radically revising Jewish thinking about some Jewish texts on the grounds that scholars such as Rabbi Ginsburgh are far from aberrant in their use of them.
Rabbi Greenberg, who has written extensively about Jewish scriptural views on racism and ethnic chauvinism, said, “The sad thing is, these statements are in our books.”
“There’ll be a statement in Talmud… made in circumstances where it’s purely theoretical, because Jews then never had the power to do it,” he explained. And now, he said, “It’s carried over into circumstances where Jews have a state and are empowered. [These statements] are brought forward by people who themselves have no social responsibility and have not been elected to represent the Jewish people. But they’re called Torah scholars. And not having responsibility, they can say such things. Their self-confidence and self-righteousness is part of their total divorcement from consequences.”
But Rabbi Ginsburgh’s own thoughts were far from that this week. Preparing to go on to Los Angeles as part of the fund-raising tour his supporters had planned, he exulted that his bout with repression had gained him “thousands” of more listeners.
“Even my prosecutors got a lesson in chasidic thinking,” he said, smiling, ”because they had to study my thinking for their prosecution.”
Contributing editor Jon Kalish contributed to this article.