Rabin's Death Changes Everything

As printed, the program for the upcoming assembly of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations looks like business as usual.

Delegates to the Atlanta assembly will attend workshops on everything from cyberspace to ancient laws, from finances to rituals, from conception to life after death. Activists will focus on hot social issues, such as supporting gay rights and opposing the Religious Right. Vice President Al Gore will drop by.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was scheduled to be the final speaker in the Nov. 29-Dec. 3 meetings. Liberal Jewish leaders planned -- as usual -- to endorse the peace process.

Then everything changed.

Now Peres is acting prime minister. Now the finale will honor Yitzhak Rabin, whose death stunned those who shared his dream to change the face of Israel. Now Peres will have to speak via videotape.

Obviously, the mood will be "somber and reflective," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president-elect of the union, which represents 1.2 million Jews in 850 Reform congregations in North America. "But I'm sure there will also be a certain amount of anger. There is anger that we have seen this kind of extremism, even in our midst. There is anger that some people are distorting Jewish teachings to promote a narrow political agenda."

Within seconds of pulling the trigger, Yigal Amir turned up the heat in Israel's already fiery political and religious debates.

"I acted alone, on God's orders," he said. Later he told magistrates that "Halacha," a Jewish legal code, allows combatants to kill during a war. Many are quoting the 12th century rabbi Maimonides -- an unlikely source for sound bites -- who said that a "person who willfully, consciously hands over human bodies or human property or the wealth of the Jewish people to an alien people is guilty of sin for which the penalty is death."

Holy ground often inspires hellish acts. The gunman is claiming to have heard the same divine voice that told Joshua to cross the Jordan into the "land which I do give to ... the children of Israel. ... From the wilderness and this Lebanon even unto the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites and unto the Great Sea toward the going down of the sun."

Many who fought Rabin's efforts to trade land for promises of peace now find themselves in a risky position. They want to argue that God has given Israel the West Bank and Gaza, but they also must stress that some radicals have forgotten the biblical injunction, "Thou shalt not kill."

"Murder of a pagan is an abomination; murder of a non-Jew is an abomination; murder of a Jew is an abomination," Orthodox Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik said this week in New York City. "Murder is simply never acceptable to Torah Judaism in any context, much less as a way to settle political disputes."

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. Israeli troops continue to exit five West Bank towns, watched closely by Palestinians and 140,000 anguished settlers. Elections on Jan. 20 will establish a self-governing Palestinian authority in what more and more resembles a state. This vote is a step toward a more-than-symbolic act: removing calls for Israel's destruction from the PLO constitution. Explosive questions loom ahead: What happens if Orthodox rabbis were involved in Rabin's death? What happens if Jewish liberals attempt to surrender East Jerusalem?

But the most crucial issue is deeper than borders, ballots and bullets. Jewry faces an open debate about the role of faith in Israel and what it means to have a Jewish homeland.

The printed program in Atlanta may not include many references to this issue, but it cannot be avoided. Yoffie said that events swirling around Rabin's death have strengthened Reform Judaism's resolve to break Orthodoxy's legal grip on Israel.

"Our view is that this is fundamentally unhealthy," he said. "Obviously, Israel would benefit from a more open, honest approach to religious life. ... What we are seeing proves there is a desperate need for changes in the status quo in Israel."