I’ve always thought of myself as someone opposed to violence. Like any healthy person, I was raised to believe that violence is an absolute last resort, either in international politics, or in school yard disagreements. Well-adjusted humans deal with their problems by talking through them. We discuss our differences and try to come to some point of agreement, or we just agree to disagree and walk away.
All of that was more or less a baseline operating principle for me until January 21st of this year. That’s when a Neo-Nazi named Richard Spencer was being interviewed at the presidential inauguration. And as you probably saw, in the middle of this interview, some guy came out of nowhere and knocked the ever-living snot out of him with a haymaker punch.
And all of a suddenly, a moral dilemma was born, both for me as an individual and for me as an American. On the one hand, I’m a non-violent person and sucker punching people is wrong. And on the other hand, man I enjoyed watching that Nazi get dropped on his tuchus.
As a rabbi, when a difficult moral quandry arises, I have an immediate reaction: what does Judaism say about punching Nazis? So I looked at what our tradition teaches, and that’s what I’m going to share with you today.
First, it is worthwhile to understand exactly how we got to this point in America; how we are suddenly, 72 years after the defeat of the Third Reich in Germany, punching Nazis again.
Clearly, we are experiencing in America a revival of far-right sentiment that has always been there. There have always been xenophobic, anti-immigrant, and anti-semitic movements in this country since literally the first moment a Jew stepped off a boat onto American shores. The first Jews to arrive in what would become the United States were a group of Dutch refugees who had been cast out of Recife by the Portuguese conquest of that Brazilian city in 1654. Those 18 Jews sailed to New Amsterdam, known today as New York, and asked governour Pieter Stuyvesant if they could stay. His answer was: no. He told them, essentially, that New Amsterdam didn’t have any ethnic or religious strife, nor any skill-less impoverished freeloaders, and it did not wish to import any. The board of directors of the Dutch West Indies Company disagreed, and 363 years later, New York has 1.7 million Jews and is the spiritual center of culture, art, music, business, and trade for the entire Western world. That New York is very Jewish, and that it is also completely awesome, I think go hand in hand, and also prove that Stuyvesant was incontrovertibly and completely wrong.
Flash forward to the last few years, and clearly a strong anti-immigrant and anti-muslim sentiment has been aroused in this country. The main purveyors of these theories are a hodgepodge of folks that have been called the alt-right; groups of white supremacists and KKK members and European-identity proponents and conspiracy theorists believing that there is a global cabals of Jews controlling media, finance, and politics. As an aside, I feel I can discard that last theory right now: if I, rabbi goodman, am part of a secret society that controls all the world’s banks, why am I driving a 15 year old car with 87 dents dings and scratches in it. But I digress.
These groups, who, for brevity’s sake, I’m just going to call Nazis, got a boost from the internet, and it’s ability to spread conspiracies, create community, and provide anonymity. It got a further boost from the fragmentation and politicization of media - people now get their news through a much more slanted viewpoint, and more and more people moved further and further to the right. Some of those far right websites suddenly became more populist and popular. They were elevated and emboldened still by our last election. And then, finally, they were virtually normalized in Charlottesville, when our highest leaders proclaimed that problems created in Virginia by Nazis marching through the streets were to be blamed ‘on both sides’, and that some of those Nazis were ‘very fine people.’ During the march, those Nazis chanted ‘Jews will not replace us.’
There are lots and lots of people in America with views that you or I disagree with, and when we disagree with them, we can sit down and talk to them about our differences, as I mentioned before. I am a big proponent of pluralism - the view that many people can have many viewpoints that I can both disagree with and respect. I believe in tolerance - that although I might strongly disagree with someone’s viewpoint or personal practices, I will allow them to participate alongside me. But, there is a line.
Nazis are, without any doubt, over the line. For one thing, their chief ideology is that America would be better without the Jews, and they would accomplish those goals, depending on who you ask, the same way Hitler did in the 1930s and 40s. For another thing, to talk to someone involves the open exchange of ideas between two parties. Nazis don’t want to talk, and they don’t want to negotiate. They are intolerant to the extreme. And a bedrock principle of tolerance and pluralism is that all parties involved must be willing to consider tolerating the other. It becomes necessary, then, for right-minded people to become intolerant of intolerance.
Our religion believes fundamentally in argument and dialogue. In the Talmud in a section of wisdom literature called ‘Pirkei Avot’, we find the following statement:
כָּל מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, אֵין סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. אֵיזוֹ הִיא מַחֲלֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת הִלֵּל וְשַׁמַּאי. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלֹקֶת קֹרַח וְכָל עֲדָתוֹ:
Every argument that is for [the sake of] heaven's name, it is destined to endure. But if it is not for [the sake of] heaven's name -- it is not destined to endure. What is [an example of an argument] for [the sake of] heaven's name? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is [an example of an argument] not for [the sake of] heaven's name? The argument of Korach and all of his congregation.
An argument for the sake of heaven is, basically, one with respect and tolerance on both sides, and not just a series of ad hominem attacks or one-sided diatribes. Hillel and Shammai were rabbis, and although they disagreed, at the end of the day, they respected each other. Korach, on the other hand, was greedy and power-hungry, and wanted to overthrow Moses in a violent revolution because he liked the idea of being the head guy. Korach, in a famous story in the book of Numbers, gets sucked into the earth, along with all his family and his followers. By violence did he wish to rule, and he died a violent end.
So, from a Jewish moral perspective, it is first important to establish that we should be tolerant and respectful in our arguments and our disagreements with others, and not resort to violence, because we are instructed elsewhere in the Talmud to be ‘like the children of Aaron, lovers of peace and pursuers of peace.’
BUT, if someone wishes to overpower us, to dominate us, to plot our overthrow by violence, we are under no obligation to dialogue with them.
Nazis don’t want to take part in the political process. They don’t want to negotiate or be part of a civil society. They want violence, and they want violence against you and me. Even if they claim, like Richard Spencer does, to want to achieve their goals through politics, in the end, they want violence. Remember that Hitler, before overthrowing the government through a series of illegal steps, was first elected to the Reichstag.
If we can establish that we can’t talk to Nazis, then does that mean we punch them? Should I have flown to Charlottesville to join the antifa protest against the Nazis, and to get violent with them? If I see a guy walking down the street wearing a red swastika arm band, am I allowed under Jewish law to straight up punch him in the mouth? For this discussion, we are going to set aside the question of whether you’d go to jail under civil law in America. Whether we end up deciding that you can or cannot punch Nazis under Jewish law, know that, if you punch a Nazi and get tossed in jail, I promise to start a gofundme page to pay your legal fees.
Judaism has a baseline principle against using violence, except in the case of self defense, a principle in Torah law referred to as a ׳רודף׳ a pursuer. In the Torah in Exodus 22 we are told:
If the thief is seized while tunneling,and he is beaten to death, there is no bloodguilt - אין לו דמים - in his case.
The medieval commentator Rashi explains that there is a presumption that the thief might be about to cause you imminent harm, and the Talmud states a line in regards to this:
אם בא להרגך, השכם להרגו
If someone comes to kill you, get up and kill him first.
The question becomes: is a Nazi that I see in the street, by extension of the philosophy they espouse and the symbols that they wear, intending my imminent harm? If I do something, will it change anything in the balance of power, or the dynamic of fear, that has been created by the fact that this person feels comfortable in 21st century America wearing the clothes of genocide and hate? If I do nothing, does this evil grow? Could this brainless fascist scumbag become emboldened in the face of my inaction?
The Torah tells us that the Israelites had been victimized by an evil aggressor, bent on their destruction, in the book of Exodus. While trudging through the desert on their way to the promised land, a tribe called Amalek attacked their rear flank, their stragglers, their women and children. In Exodus, we are told to destroy them, and then in Deuteronomy, we are told to blot out their memory. Later rabbinic commentators assigned to Amalek the qualities of pure hatred and evil. It is either a physical entity, bent on destruction, for whom we are to give no mercy and no consideration, or it is a spiritual entity, the quality of hatred in the hearts of women and men that overpower all over emotions and drive us to sin and wrong doing.
This question, then, is critical in understanding whether we can or should punch Nazis.
If Amalek is a physical entity, as some say, and some have said that the Nazis of Germany are Amalek, then they and all of their ideological descendants can expect nothing less than physical violence in response to their overtures and their public assemblies. To this mind, if an alt-right march is planned for your town, then you call all your Jewish friends at the krav maga gym and the local college rugby team and that six foot six jewish kid you remember from high school, and you show up to punch some Nazis.
If, however, Amalek is a spiritual evil, if it is an idea that must be extinguished, and not an actual person, then we must take a different tact. As Israel’s first Chief Rabbi Rav Avraham Kook once said “If we are to destroy, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred - sinat chinam - then we will rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — ahavat chinam.” These people have an idea - that Jews, and immigrants, and Muslims, and non-whites, are bad. That idea is pernicious and stupid. It is not accepted and not to be tolerated. Everywhere that idea is presented or on display, it should be combated and ridiculed. Nothing is more exemplary of that act than the pictures of the alt-right rally the week after Charlottesville held in Boston. You might remember the pictures taken CNN. They showed about 15 Nazis huddled together in a gazebo, protected by hundreds of police officers, while 15,000 demonstrators absolutely dwarfed them. The story from Charlottesville is about how there is a resurgence of anti-semitism and hate in America. The story from Boston is that there isn’t: there are a few cranks and trolls in America that think their ideas of hate are legitimate, and hundreds of millions of Americans who believe in self-evident truths about all men being created equal. The love dwarfs the hate.
We live in anxious times, where acts of hatred are on the rise. In just the past six months we’ve seen a synagogue in Colorado Springs vandalized, and a mosque in Ft. Collins attacked. We are not even immune here in Steamboat Springs.
Nazis and Nazism and the racist hatred they spread are Amalek - the dark evil that, if allowed to spread, are a threat not only to the Jewish people, but America and even civil society at large. But, as much as it might be morally and legally permissable in Jewish law to punch a Nazi, it is not a solution or a strategy. The only place where punching Nazis solves problems is in comic books, and although I love comic books, they aren’t reality. Heres how we do solve that problem.
Just yesterday in response to racial slurs at Air Force Academy Prep in Colorado Springs, Lt. General Jay Silveria gave a brilliant and impassioned speech, and one of things he said was this: "The appropriate response for horrible ideas... is a better idea."
A great example of this is the community of Whitefish, Montana, the hometown of Richard Spencer. The people of whitefish, when threatened with a white nationalist march on their town this year, organized their own march the week before, through an organization called “Loves Lives Here”. To do it, they formed coalitions between churches and synagogues and refugee advocacy groups and more. In the end, 500 people marched through the town this past January. Cowed by public sentiment and unpopularity, the Nazis cancelled their march, and never rescheduled it.
So just as Abraham relied upon his non-Jewish colleague Eliezer, just as Moses needed the help of his non-Jewish father in law Yitro, we as a community must forge alliances and build bridges. We need to be ambassadors for coexistence and diversity. We need to be our brothers and our sisters keepers, and they will be keepers for us. We must stand up to bigotry and injustice against anyone, not only so that they will stand up for us, but also because it is simply the right thing to do.
In our liturgy for Yom Kippur, we apologize for our fear and our anger, our inaction and complacency, and we ask God to replace those sentiments with bravery, with patience, with compassion, with understanding, and with action. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Shanah tova.