Give an opponent the benefit of the doubt

A. Leftists are not “against the Jews and for the Arabs”, but people who feel giving up land is necessary for peace B.Haredim vs. police.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed ,

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
PR photo

Q: “Rabbi, Shalom. I study your books “Peninei Halakha” as part of a group of graduates of a women’s seminary who have been studying a section daily for several years. It gives us a good sense of Torah study, and also helps us a lot to remember information and know what to do in situations of doubt, and so forth. So first, I want to thank you for making halakha accessible and for the content which is so pleasant and easy to read, something relatively rare thing in the world of books on halakha.

Since we wanted to learn the mitzvot between adam le’chaveiro (man and his fellow man), we are now studying the book Likutim II. I am writing because something was a little difficult for me today in the study, and I wanted to share with you my thoughts and feelings about it. We learned today in Chapter 1, Section 10, about the mitzvah le’doon le’kaf zechut (to give the benefit of the doubt), and Rabbi, this is what you wrote:

“In order for things to be understood, I will give an example from our political life here in Israel: one could say that the only thing the leftists want is to uproot settlements, and give parts of Eretz Yisrael to the Arabs – in brief, they are for the Arabs, and against the Jews. But it can also be said that they are interested in peace and security, and out of genuine concern for the State of Israel they have come to the conclusion that, for lack of any other option, we have to give up parts of Eretz Yisrael. Or, according to their understanding, Jews should not govern over other peoples against their will. Of course, their statements can be disputed, but since they are decent people, they should not be judged le’kaf chova (negatively), and their intentions should not be interpreted negatively.”

The example of “leftists” hurt my feelings, because I myself am relatively leftist in my political views, and it hurt me when I felt that you, Rabbi, was assuming that every one of your readers were all right-wingers who are liable to judge left-wingers le’kaf chova. Indeed, sadly, many times right-wingers judge leftists negatively, and leftists judge right-wingers negatively, and I hope, that with God’s help, we will all learn to judge all other Jews favorably. But being leftist or right-wing does not always match up with being religious or secular, and someone wishing to read a book of halakha is not necessarily right-wing. I felt a little pushed-off, as if, God forbid, because I have certain political views, as far as you are concerned, Rabbi, my mitzvot and emunah (faith) are not desirable or right in the eyes of Hashem, and it never occurred to you that there may be leftists who study halakha.

I know this is a very minute point, and Rabbi, you certainly have more urgent and important matters to deal with, but nevertheless, it hurt me, and we had just learned beforehand in some halakhot, that it’s good to tell a person we’ve been hurt by, instead of holding a grudge in our heart. In addition, I think the impression that halakha is only for right-wingers can, God forbid, distance people from religion, or strengthen the divisions among Am Yisrael, therefore I felt it was important to share my feelings with you Rabbi, so that you know there are also leftists among your readers, and I hope you want to bring us closer, and not distance us, God forbid.”

Why Did I Choose to Address the Right?

To her question, I replied with a question: Can you judge favorably, and explain why I wrote what I did?

Another question: would a person inclined to leftist views feel better had I gave the opposite example – that the leftists should judge right-wingers favorably?

This was her answer: “Thanks for your response! I assume you wrote that because most (or all) of your students in the yeshiva, and the audience you commonly speak to, are in fact right-wing, and sometimes there is a hatred in the community for the left, and it is really important to eradicate it, and remind them to judge favorably. And I am sure that your intention was to reduce the divisions and increase love amongst Jews. And I think it is appropriate, important, and correct to say so when addressing a very specific community, such as in the yeshiva, or people in the community of Har Bracha. But in a book that reaches all of Am Yisrael, and that has the potential to bring a lot of people close to halakha, I feel something else is needed, to make it relevant to all the readers, and not distance people on a political basis.

A person who is inclined to left-wing views would prefer that you give examples to both sides of how they should judge the other side favorably, which is truly very important, or that you avoid giving examples of political groups. But primarily, that you write in a way that relates to the fact people who study the book can be of all different types, and a book on halakha is intended for all of Am Yisrael, and not just for a specific group such as settlers or right-wingers. (I am, of course, aware that the majority of the National-Religious public or even the traditional public are in fact right-wing, but nevertheless, the majority is not everyone. And the observance of halakha is not conditional on political opinions).

Rabbi, I would be very happy to hear from you, about what your considerations really were, and how you view the issue. Thanks again for the response.”

The Style Will Be Adjusted in the Future

A: You explained my intention well.

Regarding your other question: I wrote these halakhot about thirty years ago, in the framework of the ‘Pinat Ha’Halakha’ on Arutz Sheva, and to this day I have not had a chance to go over and re-write them completely, and in detail. That is why they are called ‘Likutim’ (collections). Indeed, at that time, almost all of my listening audience and readers were right-wing. In the meantime, with God’s help, the number of people studying my books has grown, and not everything that was suitable for the limited audience of that time, is suitable for the general public today. I hope in the coming years to dedicate myself to writing all the halakhot bein adam le’chaveiro in their entirety. I may devote two volumes to this, and then I hope the examples will be more varied in this area as well.

B. A Policeman’s Question

“For about three weeks I was assigned with maintaining public order in demonstrations held against the Prime Minister on Balfour Street. It was one of my toughest roles in the police force. There were anarchists there. We were insulted and cursed at. The demonstrators broke the rules, and did not coordinate the demonstration with the police as required, and were constantly looking for cops to lose control.

Even when if Haredim think they are right, is there no limit to permissible behavior!? Are police allowed to be called Nazis?!
When there were no demonstrations, we dealt with enforcing the Corona laws. The shifts were long. Twelve hours a day, with masks on all the time. I came home at two or three o’clock in the morning after my wife and children were already asleep.

After about three weeks, I was sent to one of the Haredi neighborhoods. They threw dirty diapers, bottles, cans, and garbage bags at me, cursed me and called me a rasha (an evil person), a traitor to Israel, and in particular, a Nazi. I felt that in one day I had experienced more violence and insults than I had endured for three weeks at the Balfour demonstrations.

Rabbis, how do you explain this?! After all, Jews who engage in Torah and keep the mitzvot are supposed to behave with derech eretz (good manners), to understand that the police came to maintain order and law for the sake of the citizens. Even if they think we’re mistaken, is this the right thing to do?!

The Haredim film it, and then show policemen who lose their patience and control, and illegally strike protesters. This is indeed wrong. But even when if Haredim think they are right, is there no limit to permissible behavior!? Are police allowed to be called Nazis?! Is someone allowed to behave in such a way according to halakha?!

Responsibility Lies with Public Officials

The conduct you described is completely unacceptable and involves numerous offenses from the Torah, including publically embarrassing someone, slander by using the term ‘Nazis’, the prohibition against causing grief to others, and harming the public, and individuals, in violation of the obligation to observe public regulations (“dina de’malchuta dina“).

Indeed, it must be emphasized that the vast majority of the Haredi public does not behave in this way, and is even disgusted and suffers from this evil behavior. However, the heads of the Haredi public and its rabbis cannot remove responsibility from themselves, since they do not protest strongly and publicly against this behavior.

The Role of the Police

This is an opportunity to emphasize the important role of the police. Our Sages said: “Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear it inspires, every man would swallow his neighbor alive” (Avot 3: 2). They said this even about Rome, an evil empire, in that it set laws and enforced them, thus allowing the public to live in peace and security. For even in a civilized society, by nature, there are thieves and robbers, and without police they would terrorize all the law-abiding citizens, to the point where anyone wishing to guard his possessions would have to join one of the mobs and pay them protection money, wars between the mobs would increase, numerous people would be killed, the economy would collapse, and society would be destroyed. In addition, despite the good basic will of human beings, in practice, in the event of a clash between neighbors or groups, without the law, disputes are liable to lead to violence, robbery and murder.

Therefore, even in an ideal situation of Am Yisrael living in their land, and the Beit HaMikdash built, there is a mitzvah to appoint judges and policemen – and without policemen, judges are of no importance.

An Example from Dealing with Corona

The police are not only helpful in preventing chaos, but with its assistance, the public is able to face various challenges, such as the Coronavirus. Here is an example. The number of residents of the State of Israel is about the same as that of the large city of New York, but the number of deaths from Corona in New York, is five times higher than in Israel. Even the number of Jews who have died from Corona in New York is higher than the number of deaths in the State of Israel. The main reason for the relatively good situation of the State of Israel is that the police enforce the law, policemen check whether Corona patients, or even those meant to be in isolation, are walking around the streets, and when necessary, punish and fine the offenders.

Public Assistance

It is important to note that the ability of the police to enforce the law effectively depends on public support. In a place where people phone to complain about a neighbor breaking the law, the police will arrive and enforce the law, and there, life runs smoothly. But in a place where the law is disregarded, if a neighbor dares to call, the police know that in order to enforce the law they will have to recruit a company of policemen, and as long as it is not a serious crime, they probably have previous missions to attend to. But in the meantime – kol de’alim gavar (the one who is more violent, prevails).

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.