Monday, March 16, 2009

Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Legacy

I am told that the most recent issue of the magazine Jewish Action has published an article on Rabbi Meir Kahane. I do not subscribe to Jewish Action and did not read the article. So I cannot comment on it specifically. But I do have some thoughts about this man who was in many ways an inspirational figure.

Meir Kahane was a very unique individual. There were few Jews in the world who were as passionately committed to the Jewish people as he was. He was all heart and soul when it came to his brethren. His experiences as a young Jewish child living in America during the Holocaust - having no ability to do anything about it haunted him all of his life and I believe helped shape his character. I believe that this over-whelming guilt haunted him all the days of his life. And it motivated much if his activity.

Yeshiva educated and holding a law degree - he began his adult career as a pulpit rabbi. But his calling was elsewhere. When he saw elderly Jews in poor Jewish neighborhoods in the New York area regularly being attacked or mugged, he decided to form a group of Jewish ‘toughs’ to protect them. He called it the Jewish Defense League (JDL). I will never forget when I heard him speak about it in the late 1960s in a Catskill Mountains summer resort.

He was there to raise funds for his organization. He told the crowd there that the JDL was about protecting Jews and using Jewish ‘Shkatzim’ to do it. These were rough edged non religious young Jews on their way towards juvenile delinquency that had no interest in following the Torah. He felt that he could turn that energy into a positive force. And thus JDL was born. But violence is not the Jewish way and the JDL was later referred to by the FBI as a "violent extremist Jewish organization".

I heard him speak one other time when he came to Chicago. This was after he made Aliyah and had won a seat in the Israeli Knesset as the leader of his newly formed party, Kach.

His message was inspiring. He spoke of his goal of making a Jewish State where Halacha ruled and where non Jews could live only if they agreed to being a Ger Toshav – a citizen with full civil rights but non voting rights that acknowledged Jewish rule and abided by it.

He was also a brilliant writer. I used to read his column in The Jewish Press every week and found it almost impossible to disagree with his philosophy. The man was completely L’Shma. He loved the Torah and he loved the Jewish people.

Nowhere was this demonstrated better than his activities surrounding the plight of Soviet Jewry. He was one of the first to speak out and protest publicly on this issue – way before it became popular to do so. And I believe it was Rabbi Kahane who coined the phrase ‘Never Again’ in reference to the Holocaust.

Unfortunately he had a down side that was not so positive. And because of it he had virtually no rabbinic support from any circle. He was all alone in his ‘fight’ with no other religious segments of Jewry joining him. His passion and zeal got in the way of his better judgment.

The polices he preached when he was in the Knesset were actually dangerous to the existence of the Jewish people and threatened the very existence of the State. The State of Israel called them racist and his political party, Kach was outlawed. One can debate whether they were actually racist but they were certainly inflaming. They bordered on violence - calling for the forced removal against Arabs living in Israel who refused to accept his terms for staying in the country.

Many of his statements about Arabs in general were extremely negative calling them a ‘cancer in our midst’ that had to be cut out. Of course he wasn’t referring to all Arabs. He even counted some of them amongst his friends. But his many statements like that were all too easy to take out of context and they were stated in such anger that it made him look like a madman.

And it was Rabbi Kahane that was the inspiration for people like Dr. Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Arabs while they were in prayer at Maaras HaMachpelah – the Cave of the Patriarchs. Though I seriously doubt that Rabbi Kahane would have ever done or condoned that - he most certainly was very likely the inspiration behind such acts. And there were more than one like it perpetrated by his admirers.

My Rebbe, Rav Ahron Soloveichik was vehemently opposed to him. I will never forget when in the middle of a Shiur he went off on a tangent about Rabbi Kahane and angrily condemned him. At the time I was a bit taken aback by the stridency of Rav Ahron’s position. But after reflecting on my Rebbe’s words I understood him and agreed with him. Rabbi Kahane’s ways were not the ways of the Torah. They were the ways of his ‘Jewish Shkatzim’ of the JDL - later transferred into his political party, Kach. That is why he was not supported by any rabbinic leaders of stature on the right or the left.

That said, Rabbi Kahane’s death at the hands of a Muslim assassin in New York makes him a martyr and a Kadosh. He died Al Kiddush HaShem – being murdered because he was a Jew. Rav Ahron said as much upon hearing of his death.

But that does not make him a role model. Far from it. We don’t need any more Baruch Goldsteins.

Update: My thanks to Mr. Baruch Pelta who provided this link. I was thus able to read the Jewish Action article by Rabbi Rakeffet. It is a review of Mrs. Libby Kahane's biography of her husband, Meir. As always Rabbi Rakeffet who is a brilliant writer does a magnificent job reviewing the book. Nor do I think that we necessarily disagree all that much. The point is that it does it not diminish my message about Rabbi Kahane at all.