Prominent settler rabbi, Shlomo Aviner, ruled today (Tuesday) that burning churches outside of the Land of Yisrael “isn’t our job for now”, but as for the Holy Land, “the issue is more complicated”. Aviner seemed to leave the question of burning churches in the Holy Land to the questioner.
Aviner, who draws a public salary as the rabbi of the major settlement Beit El and is also the rabbi of a prestigious yeshiva (Ateret Yerushaliam, formerly Ateret Cohanim), is considered to be one most important rabbis of the religious nationalist sector. He is a prolific writer, having published more than 200 books in several languages. Aviner is also considered a pioneer of the SHUT-SMS phenomenon, by which fans send the rabbi a question via SMS message (and more recently, Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp), and Aviner gives back a short reply. Aviner is one of the more popular SHUT-SMS rabbis because he tends to answer every question, even trollish ones (I’m speaking from experience here).
Today, after the fire in Notre Dame Cathedral, Aviner was asked the following question:
“The great Christian Church in Paris is on fire. Should we feel sorry for that, or should we rejoice, as it [the cathedral] is idolatry, which is a mitzvah to burn?”
The questioner is here referring to the Halachic ruling that churches are considered idolatry, and should be destroyed.
Aviner replied as follows:
“This isn’t our job for now. There is no mitzvah to seek out churches abroad and burn them down. In our holy land, however, the issue is more complicated. Indeed, the Satmar Rabbi noted one of his arguments against immigrating to Israel, that here it is indeed a mitzvah to burn churches; and by not doing so, those [immigrating to Israel] are committing a sin. Yet Rabbi Menachem Mendel Kasher, in his book ‘The Great Period’, rejected the Satmar Rabbi’s words, citing a midrash, forbidding burning [churches], since if we burn, we’ll have to rebuild, and it’s a greater sin to rebuild [a church] than leave it standing. [Here Aviner cites his own book vs. the Satmar Rabbi] That church in Paris, too, will surely be rebuilt.”
(Oh, yes: American Jewish readers, I probably need to stress this – this is not a parody or a satire. This is actual rabbinical discourse in 2019 Israel.)
Aviner is touching here gingerly on a hot issue (pardon the pun) in his sector: Should churches be burned? Several churches have been burnt in Israel in the last few years, and the police have been spectacularly useless in capturing the arsonists. In several cases, the arson was accompanied by slogans familiar from ‘price tag’ attacks in the West Bank (mostly along the lines of Jewish vengeance). Four years ago, Lehava leader Benzi Gopstein, asked whether he supported church burnings, said “of course, what’s the question?” His words caused uproar. Later Gopstein was indicted on incitement to violence charges, but church burning wasn’t one of them.
Aviner, and other Orthodox rabbis, are in a bind here. Several immensely important rabbinic rulers, most prominent among them Maimonides, ruled that churches are places of idolatry and ought to be destroyed. The rulings are very clear. However, to support those rulings today would lead to violence, probably to a rise in anti-Semitism, and will jeopardize the alliance between the settler movement and the evangelical movement. There is also a chance of getting prosecuted for incitement for hatred, which is a crime in Israel – but then again, the law has a special exemption for “religious studies”, and the prosecution has been very leery of prosecuting rabbis for hate speech, making “religious discussions” the prime way of legally-protected incitement.
Note that Aviner is walking a very tight rope here. He is dismissing out hand the burning of churches abroad, but when it comes to burning churches in Israel, he quotes two sources, not giving his own ruling. The fact that he has to walk this tightrope says volumes about the discourse among his followers and students.