On the attack at the Capitol | Adath Israel

Dear friends,

As more and more information becomes available about the storming of the Capitol on Wednesday, not just about the violence, the victims and participants but also about the details of those harrowing hours, I would like to share a few thoughts.

The first one has to do with the images of observant Jews, some in kippot and tzitzit, some in skirts and snoods, participating in this. They were engaging in a demonstration to overturn the government’s basic institutions, a demonstration that had violent ends, proven by the presence of a noose erected outside. One of the most important principles in Jewish Law is Dina DeMalchuta Dina – which means literally, the rule of the land is the rule[1]. We obey the laws of the land. Examples abound: paying taxes, speeding or using banned substances – Jews should obey all those laws, and every other law enacted by the government. All the more so this principle applies to violence.

Dina DeMalchuta Dina is only supposed to be crossed if the government is forcing Jews to stop observing Jewish law. One example would be if the government forbade circumcision – then we keep doing circumcision, even if it means travelling with the infant to a nearby country that permits circumcision, as it is the case with our Kenyan brothers and sisters, who travel to Uganda[2]. But even such a case does not give permission to try to overthrow a government using violence.

The noose outside also hinted at executions, without what we would call a due process, of those considered enemies by the leaders of this mob. In more stark terms, lynching was not outside of the imaginary of those perpetrating loudly the storming the capital, or those supporting it silently. Again, there is no such a thing in Jewish law: even murderers get their day in court. Eichmann did. There was a process, witnesses, defense and prosecution. Lynching has never ever been condoned in Jewish thought and Jewish law.

Let’s talk about violence. And destruction. Destruction of public property has no place in Jewish thought. Cutting fruit trees in times of war is forbidden. Even destruction of your personal property is forbidden, unless there is a higher purpose[3] – an upcycling of the materials: you can dismantle a table to make chairs, or reform a building, or building something. But not as an expression of rage, anger and violence. In the Jewish ethos, even necessary violence, ie, war, has its constraints.

For starters, wars of aggression, which are began to conquer territory, are not permitted nowadays given the lack of a king in Israel, and the fact that the Sanhedrin is not in existence[4]. We are supposed to engage in defensive wars only. Moreover, even in secular terms, the Israeli army in its code of ethics, called “Ruach Tzahal”, affirms the values of human dignity for all humans, purity of arms and democracy[5].

It deeply disturbed me, and I am sure that some of you saw the pictures too: it appears that there were people wearing t-shirts with an acronym 6MWE which stands for ‘6 million wasn’t enough’, it is certain that there were people wearing t-shirts with “Camp Auschwitz.” It strikes me as profoundly naïve that Jews, observant or secular, were hand in hand with people sporting those, as they storm or support storming the seat of the government. Our history has shown that antisemitism finds its breeding ground in extremism, and for those sporting those shirts there are no “good Jews.”

The pictures of an Israeli flag and a confederate flag flying side by side were also upsetting for a similar, complementary reason. Degel Israel, the Israeli flag, was based on a tallit, the symbol of God’s presence. That is the same God that affirms, in Genesis, “let’s make humans in Our image.” Not Jews, not Whites, not Blacks, Asians or Natives. But “humans.” All humans. And the confederate flag stands for the right of reducing certain humans to chattel. The Israeli flag reminds us of our own 2,000-year landlessness. It reminds us of our being vulnerable, of our longing for freedom. It should be a modern articulation of a prophetic promise: that we, all Jews, rose from slavery, exclusion and oppression to champion the values of justice and compassion articulated by the prophets to the entire world.

The attack in the Capitol has been called many names by many people. One that I have not seen yet is desecration, which I think it fits in many levels. The institutions that are “the pride and glory of our country[6]” were desecrated, symbolically, in this attack. Many of the values that we hold dear, because they are the connections between Judaism and America, were desecrated. But above all, core values of Judaism: respect for the rule of law, human dignity, due process, limits to violence, not destroying wantonly, were desecrated, together with our common destiny, were desecrated.  Jews, religious or secular, have no place in a destructive and violent mob trying to overthrow seated government.


Rabbi Nelly Altenburger

[1] Nedarim 28a, Gittin 10b, Baba Kamma 113a-b and other places in the Talmud.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Jews_in_Kenya

[3] Maimonides, Sefer Hamitzvot, Negative Commandment 57

[4] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 5:1-2. Even if Maimonides accepts the possibility of a war of aggression, notice that he envisions that only in the context of a King being able to convince the 71 judges of the Sanhedrin that this is warranted.

[5] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/ruach-tzahal-idf-code-of-ethics

[6] Prayer for Our Country