[Two responsa from Sefer Rosh HaMemshalah (#6). With special thanks to Rabbi Mordechai Friedfertig of Kehillat Ohr Tzion in Buffalo, New York, for continuing to supply the Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva with wonderful translations of Rabbi Aviner's writings.]
Rabbi Shlomo AvinerRabbi Shlomo Aviner is dean of Ateret Kohanim yeshiva in Jerusalem and Chief Rabbi of Beit El, Israel.
When we see that [a] President merits greater honor and more immense reception than great and important rabbis, we are liable to get the impression that it is not so horrible to lack fear of Heaven. Are not yeshiva high-school students, who are in doubt as whether to continue in their path, in the face of a stance like this, capable of getting a distorted picture as to the greatness of the yeshivot, the importance of learning Torah and the pride in it, when they see that the honor the great Torah authorities merit is not like the honor of one who [may be] distanced from Torah and mitzvot? What about the honor of the Torah?
In light of what is written above, what is the ruling regarding hanging a picture of Theodor Herzl on the walls of a Talmud Torah for children?
The honor of the President of the State of Israel is not a personal honor related to his individual persona, rather it is because of his communal persona, as the President of the State. The honor of the President of the State is the honor of the State itself. Like the honor of the flag of the State is not an honor to the cloth and the image that appears on it. Rather, it is an honor to the State itself, and our joy regarding the State is expressed toward various matters related to the State.
Regarding your concern that young students will conclude from this a defense of the personal lifestyle of the President, which [may not be] defined by the mitzvot of the Torah, and they will take away a distorted picture in relation to the importance of learning Torah and fear of Heaven: any person of understanding, even if he is a child, will understand well the difference between a person and his office. If someone is mistaken, it does not free us from our obligation to him, and this is the obligation of the educator to explain to him these matters in their correct way, just as he explains to him many different matters, even more complex...
We learn this principle from the prophet Eliyahu, who honored King Achav with great honor and at the same time, criticized him with full force over the negative aspects that where within him.
Regarding the honor of the President in comparison with the honor of the Torah, certainly the great Torah authorities merit even greater honor without measure, but this is inner honor, related to the awe of holiness toward them and their teachings, even if it is not always so prominent in public. This is similar to the ruling that a prophet arises before the king in public, but in his house, the king arises before the prophet (Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 2:5), since one must distinguish between the external world and the internal world.
In relation to the picture of Herzl: this hung in the room of our rabbi, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda HaCohen Kook. Again, this is the distinction between an individual person, who was distanced from Torah, and his role within the entire Jewish People, that of raising the flag of the Jewish State.
[Responsa dated Av 5753 (1993)]