On Destroying Synagogues

The Israeli Government wanted to have the army destroy the synagogues of Azza, to spare us the shame, the Palestinian triumphalism and the chillul Hashem (not that the government would necessarily use that term) that greeted me upon checking the news this morning.However, the unanimous decision of Israel’s rabbis was that it is prohibited for a Jew to tear down a synagogue. Rav She’ar Yashuv haKohein Kook, with the support of R’ Eliashiv, went to Israel’s Supreme Court to plead the case:

Destruction of one synagogue is possible only after a new one has already been built. Even then, the destruction is allowed only when the community is interested in expanding the existing synagogue. But in the case of the Gaza expulsion, communities will either cease to exist as separate entities or will be greatly decreased in number.
There is no precedent for allowing Jews to destroy synagogues after the expulsion of the community.

As this is not a news blog, the question I wanted to raise was the flaw in the government’s thinking. Isn’t it a chilul Hashem to allow our enemies a party over the destruction of a beis medrash or beis keneses?

After all, at Masada and at York (1190) people comitted mass suicide rather than hand the enemy a victory. And in York, two of the people who died were Tosafists — the act had halachic sanction by the era’s highest authorities! If the motivation justifies death, surely it justifies the destruction of synagogues. Life, after all, is more sacred than buildings.

There was an evil man named Sheva ben Bichri … and he said, “I have no allegiance to David HaMelech” [i.e., he led a rebellion against King David]. Yoav’s men chased after him and they came to a town and laid siege to it. Yoav announced to the townspeople, “Sheva ben Bichri has raised his hand against David HaMelech. Send him out of your town, for he alone is the one that is guilty, and I will then withdraw my forces from the siege.” A woman responded to Yoav, “Behold, here is his head which I am throwing to you next to the walls of the city.”

- Sanhedrin 72b

It is prohibited to turn over one person so that all may save their lives. It is similarly prohibited for a group of women to turn over one of their number to rapists so that they spare the rest. There is a dispute whether the precedent of Sheva ben Bichri means that it is only when they name a particular person that turning him over is permitted (R’ Yochanan), or even then it’s only permitted when the person is also the one actually guilty (Reish Laqish). The Rambam (Yesodei haTorah 5:5) and Rama (YD 157) rule that the person named must be guilty of the death penalty in order to permit turning him over.

But in any other case, a group cannot choose one of their own number in order to save them all. Why? Wouldn’t the unlucky chosen person be a victim in either case? The problem is in making oneself the instrument of evil. It is better to witness greater evil than to be an actor in a smaller one. It’s one thing to commit suicide. It’s another to save oneself through murder — even the murder of someone slated for death.

And that’s the perspective on religion that the government lacks. When too many people think of religion, they think of houses of worship, of prayer, of retreat and respite from “the real world”. However, Yahadus is based on the notion of sanctifying one’s life, not saving oneself from it.

Their original plan would have saved the synagogue at the expense of G-d’s true sanctuary in this world, the Jewish soul.

May we be spared such decisions in the future.

And your thoughts...?