Israeli Police intend to arrest settler leader, Rabbi Dov Lior, if he continues to ignore requests to interview him about his support of the controversial book, Torat HaMelekh (The King’s Torah). The book preaches rules of military engagement which run contrary to the laws of Israel, including a wide variety of circumstances in which it would be acceptable to kill non-Jews. Rabbi Lior has consistently refused to cooperate with Israeli police in this matter and claims that the government’s concern with the book in question is an act of contempt against the Bible and that he would not be a part of such contempt.
Generally, I support the notion that the response to bad speech is more speech, hopefully of a better kind. But I wonder if the potential cost of free speech cannot get so steep as to demand that we limit it. I think that this may be one such instance.
I appreciate that it is easy for me to say this in a case where I am not at all sympathetic with the ideas whose free spread I question. And I hope that in a case where the ideas were more palatable to me, I would apply the same standard – one that has nothing to do with the quality of the ideas, but with the use of Jewish tradition in a state which is not simply a liberal democracy, but one which also calls itself a Jewish state.
If Israel wants to be a Jewish state, and for all the complexity inherent in that claim, I hope that it does, then Israel must enforce more stringent limits on the uses of Jewish religious tradition than would be necessary in a purely secular State. When biblical verses and motifs are used to animate civic events, as they regularly are in Israel, then the teachings of rabbis, even those have nothing to do with the government, have a potential power which must be deployed with special caution. With the special place of pride granted to Jewish tradition and its teachers in the modern State of Israel, come special obligations regarding how those teachers teach.
I am not suggesting that only religious teaching which accords with the government be allowed. That would be horrible. I am simply suggesting that when a particular religious tradition is given special weight in the culture and politics of a country, those who represent that tradition bear a mighty public responsibility – one that extends beyond their pulpits and pews.
It’s an insight as old as Jewish tradition itself – with increased power and privilege, come increased obligations, limitations and responsibility to those with less power and privilege. And for those preferring an American formulation of the same ethic, think – to whom much is given, much is demanded.
Rabbi Dov Lior and his colleagues should publish pretty much whatever they want — that is their right. But, they must also be accountable for what they publish. Freedom of speech is a human right, and like all such rights, it carries obligations. It’s time for Rabbi Lior to remember that. And if he doesn’t remember it on his own, then the police will have to remind him.