Rabbi Bradley Hirschfield, an Orthodox rabbi and vice president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, answers questions about what Jewish law and tradition have to say about issues arising from the Israeli government's military and civilian withdrawal from the Gaza Strip after 38 years of occupation. For Part II of the interview, click here.

How do you desacralize or de-Judaize a Jewish place if you are leaving it forever?

We talk about a Jewish place. I don't know if you mean in the widest sense, in regard to the entire territory of Gaza itself. There is nothing sacred about a town whose population is exclusively Jewish. The category that we're dealing with, of land itself, whether or not a Jew lives here, for many Jews, is Jewish land. And specific institutions, such as graves and synagogues. Towns that are marked by exclusively Jewish populations are no more sacred than towns in which a single Jew resides among thousands of non-Jews. Sacredness does not come from the number of Jews living in a place. That sounds perilously racist and happily does not appear anywhere in Jewish tradition.

How do you desacralize a synagogue? Are there required methods?

There are rituals that are recited, and they differ from community to community. The central issues that are usually in play are the removal of the Ark and the Torah scrolls, and oftentimes the reader's table, which in traditional terms is called the "bimah." Now we think of a bimah as a big stage, but really what it was was the table or stand from which the services were led and the Torah was read. Those-the symbolic foci of synagogue practice-are removed and carried out with the community.

To talk about desacralizing the building-there are in different communities, both Ashkenazic and Sephardic, a variety of recitations that are made as gestures of departure from the place. I think one of the things that's really interesting is what does it mean to "desacralize" a place. In America, so often, as Jews moved from place to place, old synagogues became new churches. I don't think of that as "desacralization." I think of that as new sacralization.

It's not desecration?

There are people who would argue that it is. You could talk with rabbis who would tell you that to sell a synagogue, certainly to a Catholic church, is highly problematic, because there are people who believe that Catholic churches, because of the imagistic nature of Catholic worship, actually border on places of idolatry. For me, that's not true, and for many, many Jews, going all the way back to Menachem Hameiri in the 15th century, that has not been true.

It's especially not true when dealing with Muslims. Because their tradition is as sharply monotheistic and de-imagistic as Jewish tradition is. In fact, the transfer of a synagogue into a mosque would be an easier halakhic move than the transfer of a synagogue into a church. Though in each case, what the community would really need to ask is not how do we desacralize this place, but how do we take the symbols of sacredness that are most unique to us and relocate them to a place that is comfortable for us, while leaving the space available for new forms of sacred practice.

For me, what desacralization would be, would be that where synagogues have stood in Gaza would become centers for the promotion of hatred and bomb-making. But I can think of nothing more sacred than for a mosque to occupy the space where a synagogue was, and be one of those rare mosques where peace was taught, one of those mosques where the full dignity of Jews and Christians was taught alongside the dignity of Muslims. One of those mosques where Palestinian nationalism did not come at the expense of Jewish nationalism. That would be a remarkable transition to make, and one fully consistent with Halakha [Jewish law], as I said, given the nature of Muslim worship.

So it wouldn't be a problem for Muslims to occupy a synagogue which contained artistic renderings of the Star of David?

There's no problem. They aren't icons for us. Holiness does not attach to them the way they do [to images] in the Eastern Orthodox Church. They are symbols, not icons, the primary difference being a symbol conveys a message and the message is holy. An icon itself is holy. So the things [in Judaism] that come closest to icons would be the Torah scroll itself, the Ark, the table from which it's read, and perhaps the eternal light [that hangs outside the Ark in synagogues].

Regarding homes, most of the houses in the Jewish settlements probably have mezuzot [boxes containing a parchment scroll with passages from Deuteronomy] on the doorways, as prescribed by Jewish law. When Jews move out, is it necessary to remove the mezuzot?

Yes, traditionally, one removes the mezuzot if the home is to be occupied by a non-Jew, and leaves the mezuzot if the house is to be occupied by a Jew.

Must Jewish cemeteries be moved?
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  • Settlers have buried their dead in cemeteries in the settlements. Is there a requirement that the dead be disinterred when all Jews leave an area?

    No, there is no such requirement, although in this case, that is going to happen, certainly with most of the people who have dead family that would otherwise be left behind. They are going to be disinterred; they will be reburied in Jewish cemeteries. Once a Jewish cemetery is consecrated as such and declared to be a Jewish cemetery, there is no problem with leaving those graves in place and hoping that the non-Jews who come in would respect that place and care for it. Here, what's really going on is that there is concern-some of it legitimate-that Jewish cemeteries would not be properly respected when Jews leave. So unfortunately, people have to go through the very painful act of disinterring their loved ones and reburying them inside the land of Israel. It's a very traumatic thing.

    Does each Jewish denomination have its own rituals and requirements about disinterment and reburial?

    Certainly, in the Orthodox community, and in the Conservative movement as well, Jewish burial means in a Jewish cemetery, and that is ground that has been purchased by the community and dedicated for such purposes. That is the exclusive burial of Jews in that ground for which the community has taken responsibility and guarantees its upkeep.

    And is there a prescribed time for reburial?

    It must be done as quickly as possible. Within a 24-hour period. I am sure if there were exigencies, it could be extended, but that would be a very unfortunate thing. The idea is to disinter the body and bring it directly to the place of new interment for burial of the remains.

    Is there a ceremony that is required at the time of the disinterment?

    Beyond the recitation of Psalms, not that I know. The tradition, however, is that at the point of reinterment, there is a ceremony that looks strikingly like a funeral. And there are even some [rabbinic] authorities who argue that Halakha requires that a person sit shiva again, when the remains are reinterred. It's not universal, but there are many authorities who believe that at least the rituals of shiva and shiloshim, the seven-day and 30-day mourning periods, are reenacted. Not the full year of saying kaddish [the mourner's prayer], which is required for parents, but the seven- and 30-day mourning periods which are required of all close relatives.

    So there will be families in this evacuation who will be sitting shiva and observing the shiloshim a second time?

    There will certainly be some of them.

    There are reports that humane organizations are concerned about the fate of animals abandoned by the settlers as they leave. Are there Jewish obligations in this regard?

    There certainly are. In fact, cruelty to animals is a prohibition in the Torah. And once you own an animal, you have an absolute obligation to care for its upkeep and to maintain its wellbeing.

    Would you then argue that the Israeli government has an obligation to care for these animals, since some of the settlers may be relocated to urban areas where they can't keep farm animals or many pets?

    Because I believe in separation of church and state, even in Israel, I wouldn't answer it in that way. I would certainly hope that in keeping with the highest ethical traditions of the Jewish people, when everyone is evacuated, attention will be paid to all living beings, including animals, both domestic pets and livestock.

    Settlers are burning their houses, cars, other belongings, and their fields of food crops. What does Jewish law say about the deliberate destruction of objects that could be of value to another person, especially food?

    First, it's not clear to me that many people are doing it, and I hope and think that it is a very marked minority of people who are engaging in that sort of behavior. As to objects that you own, it is certainly your right to destroy them-your house, your car, whatever else. Although it should be clear that anyone who would rather see an object destroyed than used and enjoyed by someone else, has got a very problematic worldview. When my hatred of you outstrips my enjoyment of my own life, I'm a very damaged person.

    Clearly, for someone who believes that the person who would get it is truly a sworn enemy, and would use it to destroy me, then it's a legitimate strategic act. Here's there's a real disagreement. Some of us believe this is a genuine opportunity for peace, and there are some people who believe that anything that falls into the hands of any Palestinian is by definition is falling into the hands of someone who wants to destroy the Jewish people. I couldn't disagree with them more. I think there is plenty of evidence that they are wrong. But I think, the question has to be asked, given what they assume, is what they are doing crazy? No. What I think is crazy is their assumption that anyone who doesn't agree with them is out to get them.

    As to the destruction of food: You would need very good halakhic proof that the food was falling into the hands of someone who presented an immediate threat to your survival to justify its destruction. And short of that, under no circumstances is the wasting of food-which was always seen as much a blessing of God as the efforts of your hard work-permissible. In fact, it goes all the way back to the Torah. The destruction of trees, when you make war on a village, was absolutely prohibited, except insofar as if the presence of those trees would cost human lives. And since no one could argue in the immediate sense that feeding people, no matter how much you may hate them, is going to cost you your life, it is absolutely wrong to destroy ready food stocks which could be used for a population that you know to be malnourished.

    What about reports that rabbis are promoting violence?
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  • There are also reports that settlers protesting the evacuation and people coming into Gaza to support the settlers are throwing urine and acid at rabbis, soldiers, and police. There are other reports about demonstrators harassing settlers trying to evacuate in accordance with the government's mandate. Today a woman in Gaza set herself on fire in protest, and in the West Bank, a settler opened fire on Palestinians, killing several people. What can be said, from a Jewish perspective, about these actions?

    The person who shot Palestinians is a murderer, pure and simple. There is absolutely no other language to be used. He should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law of the state of Israel. The woman who set herself on fire: Obviously, this was a form of attempted suicide. And suicide represents a kind of contempt, not only for one's life but for life in general, and that is why it is prohibited by Jewish tradition. At the same time we know that suicide is an act of incredible pain and desperation. So I would hope that the first response would not be to castigate this woman as a lunatic, but to have a certain amount of sympathy for the extreme pain that someone is in. Not because therefore she's right and disengagement should stop, and we should all rethink this policy. But because the suffering human being, no matter what her politics, ought to evoke our pity and our sympathy. And if it doesn't then we are just as dogmatic as she is when she set herself on fire. That's the critical issue here. If we can't be sympathetic to her, then we have elevated our ideology to the same place of sickness that I believe her ideology rests.

    The others who have attacked rabbis, soldiers and police are criminals, and they need to be prosecuted.

    Civil unrest is a part of every democratic tradition. It is actually a very sacred tradition in a democracy. Violent disobedience is a very serious problem, and the police and military have to be called upon to arrest them and to stop them. What I find disturbing is that these are people who for the best of motivations, because of their love of the land, are sacrificing their love of the people. They so love Jewish land that they don't stop and think about how much harm they're doing to these wonderful young men and women who are sent there to carry out these orders. The real issue here is the toxicity of love of land that trumps love of human beings.

    Is that an interpretation that would be consonant with traditional rabbinic interpretation?

    Absolutely. Even those people who are adamantly opposed to the disengagement, even those who have told soldiers to disobey orders, would be the first to say that acts of violence of Jews upon Jews, because of so-called commitment to the land of Israel, violates the Torah of Israel.

    Is that how you would interpret reports that ultra-Orthodox young people coming in from the West Bank settlements to block the evacuation, often violently, say they were instructed by their rabbis to do so?

    They are not Ultra-Orthodox, known as haredi. The haredi world, by and large, with the exception of the Chabad community, does not get involved in this stuff. The ultra-Orthodox are largely apolitical. These are the ultra-nationalist religious Zionist camp. They are Orthodox, but not haredi. Those who have gone as citizens of the state and committed acts of passive resistance, are well within their rights. To equate someone laying down in front of a soldier and saying you're going to have to drag me out with someone who picks up a bag of excrement and throws it at a soldier is outrageous.

    Having been through this personally, as one of the ones who was at the time living in Israel, and was part of the opposition to disengagement in Sinai in 1982, it is a very different thing to lay passively on the ground with tears in your eyes and ask a soldier to carry you out, which even those soldiers appreciate-it's very different from a vicious human being throwing excrement or God forbid, shooting, at soldiers who are carrying out their duty under a democratically elected government.

    Do you doubt reports that rabbis are inciting people to take violent action in blocking the evacuation?

    I don't doubt it at all. Just because they have the word "rabbi" in front of their name doesn't make them legitimate representatives of the teachings of the Torah. There are certainly authorities who I assume with the best of intentions, are warped. They are beyond control, beyond conversation with any opposing views, and they have absolutized their commitment to the land in a way that has turned them into fanatics. And that kind of fanaticism always bears bad fruit.

    What should the Jewish community do about such people who incite violence?

    There is no single "Jewish community." They'll be heroes to some and villains to others.

    In this post-9/11 world, Jews and Christians have been saying to Muslims, "you've got to self-police your community. Those who incite violence should know that your specifically religious opprobrium is going to fall on them. There has to be a religious, communal way to make that known." Here you have a direct parallel. You have Jewish leaders inciting Jewish young people to take violent action in the name of a cause.

    They have already been overwhelmingly condemned by the majority of their colleagues, and unlike the Muslim community, many of these rabbis have actually gone to prison for saying these things. Though, in fact, the state of Israel has done a remarkably good job of policing this problem, and has even begun to arrest kids who are doing this violent incitement. They have converted prisons into relatively safe places for minors to be incarcerated, because there is zero tolerance for people who are using religion to incite violence in a democratic state.

    Would you say that this is a very troubling time for Jews-and Judaism-to be living through?

    The people who know that such behavior is wrong are not crying today about the disengagement, because they don't care so much about Gaza. And the people who are crying today because they care about Gaza-too many of them are actually sympathetic to the criminal behavior.

    The real challenge would be to raise up a generation of people who so passionately love the land of Israel that they are crying today-I want to be clear, these are very sad days for me. But when one's love of land or any other object outstrips their love of a fellow human being, then that love is toxic. The trick is to raise people up who understand that over the course of our lives, we love many things, and many people. And the trick is not to love only one, or love them all equally. It is to develop the right checks and balances in our thinking to allow us to love as many things as possible and never love one so absolutely that it causes us to devalue everything else.

    Why did the Israeli government choose this time of the "Three Weeks" between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av-the period of intense mourning for Jews, culminating in Tisha B'Av, a fast day marking the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and many other calamities in Jewish history-for this wrenching process? It is a period already so resonant with sadness for the Jews.

    I'll give you three answers. The first: The people who made the decisions [about when to conduct the disengagement] are so secular that it didn't matter to them. They were looking at August, not Tammuz and Av.

    Number two, I actually think that in its own weird way, it's quite appropriate. Because it is a sad time; it is unfortunate that we have to walk away [from Gaza] this way. It is unfortunate that in walking away, no Jews can be left behind because we all know that they would be slaughtered. And that's why it's appropriate to mourn this. It's OK to say I'm very sad about this.

    It's also appropriate to understand that the rabbis in their genius collapsed all Jewish historic mourning into a three-week period, which for a people who've spent 2,000 years doing a lot of suffering, was a very brave thing. By collapsing all of that historic suffering into three weeks, they opened up the other 49 weeks to joy and building. And so, in its own way, God is having a little joke right now, because this trauma-which is a historic trauma-is also just one of those weeks, and the majority of the year should still be committed to the affirmation of life, the creation of peace, and the building of humanity. And in that sense, this is in the best tradition of the three weeks of mourning.

    How dare we not [be optimistic]. We still have a state. When the rabbis [created the three weeks of mourning], they were utterly stateless. They knew exactly what they were doing. The tablets [of the Commandments] were destroyed; the first Temple was destroyed; the Second Temple was destroyed; the Spanish Inquisition happened; and on and on. And what did they do? They said, Of course there are times to mourn. Park it all here and pull yourself together and ask, what do you really want to do with the rest of the year?

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