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Parshas Chukas (5774)

Blood Libels, Kidnappings and the Jewish People

This Week's Dvar Torah is
Dedicated to the merit of the three kidnapped Israeli boys
Yaakov Naftali ben Rachel Devorah
Gilad Michael ben Bat Galim and
Eyal ben Iris Tesurah

May G-d return them home safely.

****

On March 20, 1911, the mutilated body of Andrei Yushchinsky, a 12-year-old boy, was discovered in a cave on the outskirts of Kiev. The monarchist rightist press immediately launched a vicious anti-Jewish campaign, accusing the Jews of using human blood for ritual purposes. At the funeral of Yushchinsky, leaflets circulating the blood libel were distributed by members of the reactionary "Black Hundred" organization. Meanwhile the police investigation traced the murder to a gang of thieves associated with a woman, Vera Cheberiak, notorious for criminal dealings. However, the reactionary anti-Semitic organizations led by the "Black Hundred" pressured the anti-Semitic minister of justice, I.G. Shcheglovitov, to conduct the investigation of the crime as a ritual murder. Accordingly, the chief district attorney of Kiev disregarded the police information and instead looked for a Jew on whom to blame the crime, through whom the entire Jewish people could be publicly indicted.

In July 1911, a lamplighter testified that on March 12, the day Yushchinsky disappeared, he had seen him playing with two other boys on the premises of the brick kiln owned by a Jew, Zaitsev. He also alleged that a Jew had suddenly appeared and kidnapped Yushchinsky, pulling him toward the brick kiln. On the strength of this testimony, Mendel Beilis, the superintendent of the brick kiln, was arrested on July 21, 1911, and sent to prison, where he remained for over two years. A report was submitted to Czar Nicholas II that Beilis was regarded by the judiciary as the murderer of Yushchinsky.

The case attracted universal attention. Protests and addresses by scientists, public and political leaders, artists, men of letters, clergymen, and other liberal-minded men were published in all the civilized countries of Europe and the United States affirming that the blood libel was baseless. The trial of Beilis took place in Kiev from September 25 through October 28, 1913.

The Beilis Affair shook the ground under those Jews who had thought that the modern world was a more rational one, a world in which outrageous accusations might be levied but would certainly not gain credence. When Mendel Beilis was brought to trial for a blood libel accusation, it seemed that the progress of a century would be completely wiped away in an instant.

Jews around the world were stirred to action. There was also an outpouring of sympathy from non-Jews who recognized the injustice and absurdity of the accusations. A progressive newspaper in Germany reported that libels that echo with the style and content of the darkest medieval times are being hurled against the Jewish minority in Russia. Diplomats, statesmen and other men of prominence urged the Russian government to retreat from this bizarre enterprise. But against this flood of outrage, the anti-Semites of the world only strengthened and increased their own accusations.

The Jewish world was in turmoil. In congregations around the globe, special daily prayers were instituted for the deliverance of Beilis and all the Jewish people. Community leaders, rabbis, chassidic rebbes and influential activists became involved. The Chazon Ish was an active participant in the fight, as were Rabbi Meir Shapiro, Chief Rabbi of Lublin, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the Chortkover Rebbe. The main thrust of their efforts was ambitious. They sought not only to clear Beilis of the unfounded charges but also to uproot the very idea of the blood libel.

The lawyer that headed the defense team was the legendary Oscar Gruzenberg. He knew that the prosecutions’ attack was going to be directed against the Talmud (the central text of Torah laws and teachings) and other works of Jewish scholarship and that the expertise in devising a defense would have to be provided by the rabbis. Rabbi Jacob Mazeh, Chief Rabbi of Moscow, was chosen to head the rabbinic advisory team for the defense.

On October 8, 1913, right after Yom Kippur, the trial opened. The long-awaited event was now under way. Jew and non-Jew in Russia and around the world awaited the outcome with breathless anticipation. The Beilis blood libel trial was one of the first great media spectacles, covered in Kiev by more than 200 newspapers from around the world, with many having to stand in the rear of the court, along with a film crew.

As the trial began, the indictment accused Menachem Mendel the son of Tuvia Beilis, 39, of having murdered together with other people, not discovered, under duress of mysterious religious obligations and rituals, one Andrei Yushchinsky.

The twelve jurors were carefully chosen; their identities and ideologies had been thoroughly prepared prior to the charade of the trial. The first witnesses testified to such blatant lies that the defense lawyer did not even feel compelled to discredit their testimonies. These preliminary stages were clearly a farce, and the audience, near and far, waited for the real trial to begin. At last, the parade of experts began. And the trial became an examination of the Talmud's view on various issues, and specifically how it views non-Jews.

Is it correct that the Talmud states that stealing from a gentile is permissible?
What does the Talmud say about what happens to non-Jews at the end of time?

The constant refrain was about the Talmud. There, in the depths of the main courthouse of Kiev, all one could hear was Talmud. The prosecutor was prepared with an avalanche of quotes from the Halachic (legal) and the Aggadic (homiletic) portions of the Talmud. Anti-Semites around the world had done their homework and had rallied to the cause of condemning the Jewish people and the Jewish religion in a court of law.

One of the most serious challenges brought by the anti-Semites against the Talmud at the Beilis trial was a quote from the Sages in the Talmud in Yevamos 60b regarding the laws of Tumah (spiritual contamination) as discussed in the beginning of Parshas Chukas:

“Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught: "The graves of idolaters do not transmit tumah by way of a roof. [Any person, utensil, article of clothing or foodstuff located under the same roof as a human corpse contracts tumah. This type of tumah is called ‘tumas ohel’, tumah by way of a roof, and only applies to Jewish corpses.] For it says [in Ezekiel 34:31]: “Now, you are My sheep, the sheep of My pasture, you are Man…” You [the Jewish people] are called ‘Man’ and the idolaters are not called ‘Man’ [and in its discussion of the laws of ‘tumas ohel’, the Torah states: “This is the teaching regarding a Man who would die in a tent…” (see Numbers 19:14), we thus infer that the laws apply only to Jews who are called ‘man’ and not to non-Jews who are not called ‘Man’].

The crucial question was posed: How dare the Jewish sages claim that the Jewish people are called Man, while the idol worshippers are not called Man?

The illustrious Rabbi Meir Shapiro was then the Rabbi of Galina. [Later, he would establish and serve as the Rosh Yeshiva and Dean of the famous Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin, and he would also institute the Daf Yomi, a cycle of a daily folio of Talmud studied by Jews everywhere.] When Rabbi Shapiro heard about attacks against the Talmud, he understood that the Talmud was being accused of inciting Jew against non-Jew. Rabbi Shapiro sent off a very clear letter to Rabbi Mazeh dealing with this accusation. He told him to explain to the court that a very important insight into the nature of the Jewish people is revealed in this Talmudic quote, and that it was not derogatory against non-Jews at all.

The Torah teaches, he wrote, that ‘Kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh - all Jews are responsible for each other’ (see the Talmud in Shevuos 39a). According to this principle, it stands to reason that the fate of Mendel Beilis, for example, which is in essence the fate of one single Jew, nevertheless touches the entire Jewish people. The Jewish people tremble for his welfare and would do everything in their power to remove the prisoner's collar from him. See how Jews the world over have banded together to pray for Mendel Beilis. And how about all the Rabbis from as far away as Western Europe and North America who sent in responses to be used at the trial in defense of Beilis and the Talmud? And none of them ever heard of this one Jew in Russia named Beilis!

What would have been the reaction of the gentile world if one specific gentile had been accused of a similar crime and was standing trial in a faraway country? Clearly, no more than the people of his own town would show any interest in the libel. Perhaps, at most, people in other parts of his own country would criticize the proceedings. But people in other countries and across the world? They certainly wouldn't take a personal interest in him.

This, therefore, is the difference between the Jewish people and all other peoples. The Jews are considered ‘Man’, i.e. they are considered as ‘one man’, an indication of the extreme solidarity of the Jewish people. For us, when one Mendel Beilis is put on trial, the entire Jewish world stands at his side like one man. Not so the other peoples of the world. They are certainly considered men, i.e. human beings, and the Torah teaches that they are created in the image of G-d just as Jews are, but they cannot be considered ‘Man’, a nation that stands together as a single man.

In his closing address, the chief prosecutor A.I. Vipper made anti-Jewish statements and defended the Cheberiak gang against the charge of Yushchinsky's murder. The lamplighter and his wife, on whose testimony the indictment of Beilis rested, when questioned by the presiding judge, answered, "We know nothing at all." They confessed that both had been confused by the secret police and made to answer questions they did not comprehend. "Scientific" foundation for the blood libel was supplied at the trial by a Catholic priest with a criminal record, Justin Pranaitis, who stated that the murder of Yushchinsky had all the characteristics of ritual murder enjoined by the Jewish religion. His arguments were refuted by the rabbi of Moscow, Jacob Mazeh, who proved that Pranaitis was ignorant of the talmudic texts cited. Two Russian professors of high standing, Troitsky and Kokovtzoff, also spoke on behalf of the defense in praise of Jewish values and exposed the falsity of the ritual murder hypothesis. The jury, composed of simple Russian peasants, after several hours of deliberation unanimously declared Beilis "not guilty."

History repeats itself, doesn’t it? 100 years later and here we go again … only this time it’s not blood libels but kidnapping. Three young boys in Israel are kidnapped by Hamas, and once again Jews all around the world are pounding the gates of Heaven, praying to G-d for the boy’s release from captivity. Mass e-mails with titles like “Bring Our Boys Home” are being sent out to Jewish people all around the world with everyone trying to do all they can for three kids they will likely never meet!

This is the amazing power and uniqueness of the Jewish people – we are one Man, one single unit – and we stand together as one in good times and bad times. In the merit of our banding together at this critical time, may G-d protect our three boys in captivity and return them home safely. Amen!

[Ed. Note: The Mendel Beilis blood libel story was excerpted in part from http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/ and from http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/ ]

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