Zealotry: A Jewish View

Sermon delivered June 5, 2009, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block


Last Sunday, Dr. George Tiller was murdered in the foyer of his Church. Dr. Tiller was serving as an usher that morning, while his wife sang in the choir. Sunday morning was one of the rare times when he was not protected by security. He ought to have been safe in church.

Ironically, Dr. Tiller’s murder was an act of religious zealotry. You see, Dr. Tiller was a surgeon who provided of abortions. To some, he was infamous. Under very rare circumstances, the law permits abortions late in pregnancy. The law doesn’t allow pregnancies to be terminated so close to birth, unless the life or health of the mother is severely threatened or the baby has no chance of survival after birth.

Because Dr. Tiller was one of only three physicians in the United States who would perform such surgery, and because he spoke publicly of his willingness to provide that medical care to women, he was infamous among those who oppose abortion. Most often, he was characterized as a “baby killer.”

And so, last Sunday, a person imbued with zeal against abortion walked into a regular Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas, the place where Dr. Tiller had worshiped with his family for many years, and killed the doctor in cold blood.

As it happens, Jewish law permits many of the late-term abortions that Dr. Tiller performed, even requiring some of them. In the Mishnah, we are taught to destroy a fetus, medically or surgery, if the life of the mother is threatened. The Mishnah is clear that we must do so, even to the very end of pregnancy. But Jewish law isn’t relevant in this case. Anti-abortion forces had tried every legal avenue to stop Dr. Tiller. Courts had found him not guilty when he was charged with skirting the law to provide these late abortions.

A few weeks ago, a well-known abortion rights supporter, President Barack Obama spoke during Commencement at Notre Dame University. He urged all of us to be understanding of other points of view, whether we favor abortion rights or oppose them. We do not yet know much about the zealot who murdered Dr. Tiller, but he clearly was not interested in the doctor’s point of view. We may assume that, having heard Dr. Tiller called a murderer by talking heads and pastors, he believed he was doing God’s will when he walked into that Church. By killing Dr. Tiller, the murderer doubtless sees himself as having prevented other murders. He took the law into his own hands and executed what he believed to be God’s judgment.

Some in our society have blamed legal anti-abortion forces for Dr. Tiller’s murder. Indeed, much of the language used against Dr. Tiller has been incendiary. And yet, if we blame the murder on Pat O’Reilly or Focus on the Family, we are suggesting that one may not utilize strong terms in advocating a point of view. If we believe in America, we support the rights of others to take strongly worded positions, whether we agree with them or we do not. If an abortion foe were to speculate about how many lives would be saved if a particular physician were murdered, that would be incitement to violence, not an exercise of free speech. Short of that, we ought to hold sacred the right to advocate the end of a legal activity that one considers to be murder, even if we disagree.

Dr. Tiller, by the way, wasn’t shy about sharing his own very strong point of view. As one would expect from the decorated veteran he was, Dr. Tiller was a man of conviction. He could dish it out as well as he could take it. He saw his own work as missionary. He risked, and ultimately gave, his life to help women at the darkest moments of their lives. His memory is a blessing.

Even Jews who do not support abortion rights do not tend to be leaders in the anti-abortion movement or to utilize incendiary language. Oh, yes, Jews, can be strong-willed and strong-worded on plenty of topics. And there is a legitimate Jewish point of view that the rate of abortion in America diminishes the value our society places on life. And yet, no Jew can claim that our tradition understands a fetus to be a person, so no Jew can rightly argue that abortion is murder. Anti-abortion zealots, therefore, do not tend to be Jewish.

And yet, we are not without our own examples of murderous zealotry.

Later this summer, we will read the story of Pinhas, great-nephew of Moses. Pinhas observes that one of the Israelite men is consorting with a Midianite woman. This illicit liaison has apparently elicited a plague from God. Imbued with zeal to end the plague, and to wipe out evil in Israel, Pinhas enters the tent and thrusts his spear through both the Israelite man and the Midianite woman, killing both.

Pinhas is honored in our tradition. Zealotry in pursuit of God’s will would seem to be preferred.

Later, when the Romans laid siege to the Temple in Jerusalem, the Jews were divided. Some, who may be termed more zealous, thought they should fight to the death. Others, led by Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, planned a stealthy escape. Yohanan lay down in a coffin, and had several of his students carry him outside the city as pallbearers. Instead of going to the cemetery, as soon as they were out of the sight of the Romans, Yohanan jumped out of the coffin and escaped with his students. Eventually, Yohanan negotiated with the Emperor’s representative, to be allowed to establish a rabbinical academy at the town of Yavneh, on the coast. The Temple was destroyed. The zealots were defeated, and most of them were killed; but Judaism survived because of the scholars who escaped the battle.

Much has been made of the zealots who died at Masada. They committed suicide rather than becoming slaves to the Romans. But how can we be certain they did the right thing? Today, rather than simply honoring the suicides, scholars and historians debate the question. Would survivors of Masada not have been able to give rise to future generations of our Jewish people? What, really, did they accomplish by their deaths?

65 years after the fall of the Jerusalem Temple, Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues supported the zealous rebellion led by the warrior Bar-Kochba. But Bar-Kochba and his legions were slaughtered by the thousands. From that moment, in the year 135, some 1800 years passed before Rabbis again sanctioned any large-scale armed uprising. Even the successful guerilla warfare of the Maccabees is ignored when Hanukkah is described in the Talmud, written in the centuries following the Bar-Kochba rebellion.

David Ben-Gurion was nobody’s pacifist. He led Israel’s Defense Forces before there was a Jewish State. And yet, he opposed zealotry. Ben-Gurion staunchly opposed his younger contemporary and fellow Zionist warrior, Menachem Begin, along with Begin’s organization, the Irgun. Both Ben-Gurion and Begin fought the British, who controlled Palestine when the Zionists were trying to bring Jews into the land to escape the Holocaust, or as refugees after the War had ended. Only the Irgun, though, went to the extreme of bombing the King David Hotel, where the British had military headquarters. Ben-Gurion strongly opposed and fought that kind of zealotry.

Murderous zealotry by extremist Jews has been a menace to Israel during the last couple of decades. An American-born physician, by the name of Baruch Goldstein, murdered scores of Muslims at prayer in a mosque in Hebron. His grave is kept as a shrine by some in the Occupied Territories. When Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, of blessed memory, had negotiated the Oslo Peace Accords, some ultra-Orthodox Rabbis branded him a rodef. Rodef is the Hebrew term for a person who is pursuing an innocent victim, seeking to murder. These so-called Rabbis believed that Rabin’s proposals would lead to the deaths of Jews. Calling him a rodef, they incited Yigal Amir, who murdered the Prime Minister.

A knife may be utilized to create a meal to feed a family. It may also be a murder weapon. Fire can forge products that fuel economies and feed families. It can also destroy a home or a city. Zealotry, too, can be a force for good or it can be most destructive.

Zeal imbued Civil Rights crusaders, who were willing to go to jail, rather than see injustice continue.

Zeal of another kind inspired our people to hold fast to Torah, even at the price of persecution, and in some places in some times, at the cost of their lives.

Last Sunday in Kansas, though, zeal led one man to murder another. Perhaps the murder will reduce abortion, thus achieving the assassin’s goal. Murder, though, is murder, and abortion opponents ought to continue their advocacy appropriately, joining the rest of the nation in condemning this cowardly act of zealotry and in mourning the death of a brave veteran, as many of them have. Then may their zeal, like that of David Ben-Gurion and Martin Luther King, be pleasing in the sight of God.

Amen.