Death threat or overreaction? That’s the question at the core of a dispute between a former chasidic student now advocating for more secular education at yeshivas like his and the editor of a major daily newspaper for Orthodox Jews.
The debate is over the use of the term “rodef” and its plural, “rodfim,” which, in rabbinical law, refers to a person intent on murder who must be stopped.
In an op-ed published in Hamodia and headline “Not When It Comes To Our Children!”, columnist Rabbi Abraham Y. Heschel cited Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (1839-1933), the influential ethicist better known as the Chofetz Chaim, as saying that when Jews “seek to harm the chinuch [Jewish education] system … [T]hey are considered to be rodfim! When they seek to thrust a knife into the children, we are obligated to be moser nefesh [self-sacrificing] to save them!”
Although he didn’t name the group in his essay, Rabbi Heschel made clear that the rodfim in question are supporters of the secular education advocacy group Young Advocates For Fair Education. Naftuli Moster, founding director of Yaffed, sees the article as a clear incitement to violence. His prime example: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was deemed a rodef by several rabbis just weeks before Israeli extremist Yigal Amir assassinated him.
Noting the “graphic imagery of us coming at their children with a knife,” Moster said, “I am actually afraid.” He added that his status as an opponent to the chasidic education system has already garnered him vague threats that concern him. One was a voicemail that said: “Do you think we’re going to let this go on much longer?” He said he thinks twice before giving out his address on public meeting sign-in sheets. At one presentation he gave, he was asked “How are you not dead?”
Moster’s group maintains that a number of boys’ yeshivas do not comply with New York State law in providing the required hours of secular education.
Several Orthodox rabbis told The Jewish Week that Hamodia readers would not take the term “rodef” literally.
“It tends to be an expression,” said Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard, who teaches religion and law at Fordham University. “It’s a negative expression but if somebody told me somebody is a rodef, I would not think he was trying to tell me that I was entitled to take physical force against them.”
Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel, the charedi umbrella organization, agreed. “In some contexts it [use of the term rodef] is serious, I suppose, but in this context it’s not,” he said.
The threat of violence is to be expected “when you get involved in issues and you take positions,” Rabbi Zwiebel said. “I’ve received threats that I take more seriously” than being called a rodef, he said. While there may be animosity toward Yaffed, he added, “nothing that Rabbi Heschel wrote will contribute to an atmosphere that will encourage people to physical violence.”
Moster said that may be true for most people but “all it takes is one.”
He cited the 15-year-old girl in Pakistan who was shot in the head by a member of the Taliban for her advocacy for girls’ education. He also noted the 2011 incident in New Square in which a man was set on fire for not praying at the shul with the rest of his community.
“We’ve seen extreme elements take matters into their own hands,” he said.
While all the rabbis consulted by The Jewish Week confirmed that calling someone a “rodef” is not always to be taken literally, one, Rabbi Yair Hoffman, whom Moster describes as a frequent critic of Yaffed, called out Rabbi Heschel for using the term. Rabbi Hoffman wrote an op-ed titled “Words Matter: Rabbi Makes Serious Usage Error” on the Orthodox website Vos Iz Neias (Yiddish for What’s News?) The article said Rabbi Heschel was right to criticize Yaffed but that it was careless of him to use the term “rodfim,” which, he said, Moster will no doubt use to “falsely portray” Rabbi Heschel’s intentions.
But to Moster the meaning was clear. He said he “immediately understood what it meant” when he read Rabbi Heschel’s essay and began “shaking.” He filed a police report charging harassment with the 18th Precinct in Manhattan, where Yaffed’s office is. He then asked Jackson Heights Councilman Daniel Dromm to write a letter to NYPD Commissioner James P. O’Neill asking him to investigate the threat, which Dromm did.
Hamodia executive editor Ruth Lichtenstein responded by having the paper’s attorney send Commissioner O’Neill a letter asking him to investigate Dromm’s misuse of city resources and unlawful attempt to try to impinge on the paper’s free speech.
Commissioner O’Neill did not respond to a request for comment.