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Reform Jewish Leaders Accuse Chief Rabbi of Inciting Violence

Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi made remarks this week that have been interpreted as calling for the murder of Reform Jews, sparking a sharp response from the leaders of the Reform movement.

They are concerned, said Rabbi Lennard Thal, vice president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, that the chief rabbi’s sermon could be viewed by someone as license to kill Reform Jews much the same way the convicted assassin of Yitzhak Rabin cited justification in Jewish law for his violent act.

“We don’t know what kind of madman might see this as license to act out,” Thal said in an interview.

The head of Shvil Hazahav, an organization which represents Orthodox Jews who support the peace process, expressed similar concerns.

“If what was reported to have been said by the rabbi is true, it could be viewed as incitement similar to those words which were reported to have precipitated the action by an extremist `religious’ Jew last November,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, chair of Shvil Hazahav, or The Golden Path.

At the same time, a spokesman for an organization representing the interests of fervently Orthodox Jews has accused Reform leaders of overreacting to the chief rabbi’s remarks, interpreting them to further their “self-serving interests.”

In a sermon Saturday night at Jerusalem’s Tifereth Yerushalayim synagogue, Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi Doron compared the biblical figure Zimri to Reform Jews, and praised Pinchas, the man who murdered Zimri for having sexual relations with a non-Jewish woman.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, has called upon Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to repudiate the chief rabbi’s remarks.

Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, has called upon Israel’s attorney general and the head of the police investigation department to investigate the chief rabbi.

And representatives of the Reform movement asked for the attorney general to terminate Bakshi Doron’s position and to prosecute him on charges of sedition, incitement for murder and religious offense, according to the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv.

Reform officials in New York and Washington were unable to confirm that report, and Regev was not available for comment. In his sermon, Bakshi Doron described Zimri as “the first Reform Jew” and commended Pinchas’ deed.

The Torah portion says God spared the children of Israel from being destroyed by a plague because Pinchas atoned for their sins by murdering Zimri.

It also says Pinchas killed Zimri and his Midianite lover by running them through with a sword, thrusting the blade into “the woman through her belly.”

The Sephardi chief rabbi said during his sermon that killing is prohibited “without witnesses, without warning, without a Sanhedrin,” the supreme religious court that cannot be convened in the absence of the Jewish temple standing in Jerusalem.

“But with this evil inclination, with this great danger, when we know how zealots hurt him, here the halachah says that in truth something needs to be done that would shake things up,” said Bakshi Doron, according to a translation of his sermon by the Reform movement’s Regev.

“There is sometimes a plague in the Jewish people. It needs to be stopped,” Bakshi Doron said. “There is a need to go outside of the ordinary and do a zealot act, but of course, this belongs only to zealot people.

“One needs to be careful — bloodshed, even if it is necessary at one time, is still bloodshed, but then the Torah comes and says Pinchas’ reward was `the covenant of an everlasting priesthood.’

“Why? Because Pinchas saved the Jewish people. The Torah says that Pinchas by killing an Israelite prince stopped the plague by his action, and for that he was rewarded with the covenant of peace,” said the chief rabbi, according to Regev’s translation.

The chief rabbi expanded on his remarks in an interview with Israel Radio on Tuesday morning and compared the murder of Zimri to “an operation to save the life of a patient.”

“This is described in the Torah. It is a fact, it is about extremist behavior, and the Torah praises that extremism,” Bakshi Doron told Israel Radio.

According to a statement released by the Reform movement, “The inference is plain: Extreme actions and even violence are, in Rabbi Bakshi Doron’s words, legitimate if their purpose is to save the Jewish people from the plague of Reform.”

The chief rabbi has failed to disassociate himself “from the endorsement of extreme action against Reform Jewry and to deny that the murder of Zimri, as described in the Bible, is a warrant for the murder of Reform Jews in our own time.”

When asked whether he thinks that the chief rabbi’s remarks indicate a new level of polarization in religious and civil discourse in the Jewish state, the UAHC’s Thal said, “It is not necessarily indicative of any new development.

“I would like to think this is the idiosyncratic ranting of someone who is completely thoughtless.”

But he said, “You have to take words spoken publicly seriously and when they are spoken by Israel’s chief rabbi all the more so.”

A spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, an organization that represents the interests of the fervently Orthodox community, accused the Reform movement of “basically making a mountain out of a molehill.”

In a prepared statement, Rabbi Avi Shafran described the Reform movement’s interpretation of Bakshi Doron’s sermon as a “self-serving misreading.”

“Rabbis Regev and Yoffie know full well that no responsible Orthodox rabbi condones violence of any sort against Reform leaders, and it is irresponsible for them to imply otherwise,” Shafran said.

“What Rabbi Bakshi Doron was apparently trying to convey is the unfortunately proven danger to innocent Jews presented by movements claiming the mantle of `Judaism’ but rejective of the Jewish faith’s very essence.”

It is a danger, he said, “that has already resulted in a largely and tragically assimilated, fragmented and intermarried American Jewish community.”

NOTE TO EDITORS: The following updates the story appearing in the July 10 JTA Daily Dispatch about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, and should be added:

Replace graph #12 with the following:

Netanyahu, who addressed a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday, has allies on Capitol Hill who share his view that the PLO has not fulfilled the obligations set forth in its accords with Israel.

Add the following after graph #15:

Declaring “we want peace,” Netanyahu addressed enthusiastic members of the House and Senate, who gathered in a joint meeting Wednesday morning to hear the Israeli premier.

“It is time to demand a peace based on norms and standards; it is not enough to talk about peace in abstraction,” Netanyahu said in an apparent swipe at his predecessor, Shimon Peres.

In a blunt message to the Palestinian Authority and Israel’s Arab neighbors, Netanyahu said they “must make a strategic choice: Either follow the option of terror as an instrument of diplomacy or follow the option of peace. They cannot have it both ways.”

Agreements between Israel and the Palestinians “must be kept by both sides,” he said.

Members of Congress and Clinton’s Cabinet reserved their loudest applause during the speech for Netanyahu’s comments about Jerusalem.

Ironically, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Vice President Al Gore, who serves as president of the Senate, stood and applauded when Netanyahu declared that “there will never be a redivision of Jerusalem.”

Christopher bitterly opposed Congress when it passed a law recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Clinton eventually allowed the measure to become law without his signature. The law calls for moving the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by 1999, but the administration has not yet certified that planning the move has begun as the law mandates.

Meanwhile, the Saudi Arabian ambassador, who is the dean of the Washington diplomatic corps, did not attend Netanyahu’s address to Congress.

Add the following to the end of the story, before the final graph:

But Netanyahu told Congress that “in the next four years we will begin the long term process of gradually reducing the level of your generous economic assistance.”

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