Appreciating Rabbi Meir
By Michael Dallen
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[Looking back to an encounter from long ago. . .] No one wanted him here. His friends in the area had to dig into their pockets to rent a hall in a cheap hotel because no Jewish community venue would have him. That's one of the reasons why I wanted to hear him. I thought, "Any rabbi that unpopular with Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and unaffiliated can't be all bad."
Years before, the Jewish Community Council of Metro Detroit had all-but unanimously denounced him as an "extremist." He'd been leading demonstations and using violent language against the Soviets' refusal to let the Jews of Russia emigrate. One of the few votes for him on the Council was from my late uncle, of blessed memory: he hated violence, as a war veteran, but he appreciated the rabbi's argument that the Soviets needed firm convincing to let the Jews of Russia go.
We had to go through tight security to get into the hall - in those days that was unusual - because of recurrent threats against the rabbi's life, and also, so we heard a little later, threats against the meeting. About 35 people had come to hear him, not counting the security people, volunteers, in a room like a small lecture hall. We were a mix of young and old, religious and non-religious, male and female. We sat in fixed seats looking down at the rabbi, who stood behind a lectern on a low, shallow stage in the front.
By the time I got through security he was already speaking. He made a powerful impression on me, right off the bat - a bad one! He was tiny, "like Napoleon," I thought - and the viewing angle didn't flatter him. He wore a traditional-looking black suit, all black. His hair was coarse and plentiful and mostly black. He had a handsome, rugged face with a beard trimmed to a point. He struck me as someone who'd be vain about his looks. His eyes were remarkable. They were small, almost black and very bright - burning bright - under heavy eyebrows.
He looked and sounded angry. He gestured a lot. His hands looked like what I've always called "rabbi's hands" -small and soft, with long, tapered fingers, like they'd never done anything like work.
"He's the best they've got?" I wondered. He reminded me of a client of mine from years ago, who, sitting in a courtroom with his flaring mustache and Southern-colonel beard, seemed to get more and more devilish-looking as I spoke on his behalf. "He even looks evil." I thought.
That was all in the first few minutes. After five minutes, he had me. Everything he said made sense. No one else that I'd ever even heard of was saying anything remotely like it.
Someone who gave me a blurb for my book, Rainbow Covenant, called me "a superb teacher." That was nice, but Rabbi Meir Dovid Kahane was the teacher. He was certainly my teacher.
He wasn't a spellbinder. He wasn't a cheerleader. He didn't use any kind of special language. As close as I could come to figuring it out, he just told you, with powerful common sense, what he thought about what mattered most to him, what ought to matter most to every Jew, he taught us: God and Israel and Torah.
He left a complex legacy. He had his faults, like any man. He wasn't always right, and sometimes he was real off-base. I hated his position on America's Vietnam war - he was all for it - and his support for Richard Nixon, which I considered weird. Some - not all - of his followers believed in violence, and he himself was known at times to speak too fondly of it. He had organized the Jewish Defense League in New York, and the people who joined up would say that he'd taught them that "a Jew can be tough" - which, if you know anything about Jews (or history), is like saying that water can be wet. He frequently referred to Israel's Arab enemies as "dogs"; he sometimes counseled law-breaking for a "higher cause." But, along with that stuff, which I generally deplored, he taught us us to see the cause of Israel - of the people of Israel and the Land of Israel, the Torah of Israel and, above all, the God of Israel - in context. When Israel suffers, so does the cause of God on earth, he said. He taught us that you can't be "a light to the nations" from the position of a doormat.
A little of that went a long way with what he called the Jewish establishment, the big-money Jews, the Jews whose sons hated the religion of their ancestors. It embarrassed them "in front of their Gentile friends," he'd say - and it was true. His Judaism didn't shrink from calling a spade a spade; it didn't go along to get along; it was never, ever, ashamed of being Jewish.
His books, to me, are his greatest legacy. Everybody ought to read Why Be Jewish? Everybody who cares about Israel or the Arabs (who will benefit more than anyone, probably, when they stop obsessing on Israel) should read They Must Go - which recommends a solution, if not the only solution (in its main thrust, in its general drift), to bring peace to the Middle East.
Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, said this about the rabbi as he gave his approbation to his book, The Jewish Idea. (It's an amazing book on several levels, a work of profound Torah scholarship, most of which was written when Rabbi Kahane was employed full-time - so it seemed - in politics, as one of the most active and certainly the most colorful member of Israel's parliament, the Knesset.)
"One is amazed at this enormous endeavor - the depth of thought, the clarity of the presentation, and the breadth of knowledge, all based on the words of our sages. . . It makes one wonder, "When did he have time for this?"
"Having known Rabbi Kahana, the answer is that he was totally immersed in Torah. All of his thoughts and time he devoted to Torah, and the rest of his activities and strength derived from this . . . ."
We can't pronounce a blessing, after the fact, over everything he did or said. But we can truly testify to this effect: that he was a better man, a more brilliant man, a more decent, loving, holy man than most people today - having been subjected to so much slander against him - would ever guess.
We came upon an old videotape of the rabbi recently. It's from 1990, the last year of his life. He had very kindly agreed to speak to the Noahides gathered in Fort Worth - on the spur of the movement, by the way, with no preparation, and no expectation of receiving any kind of material payment for his trouble. It shows him as he was, I believe, as a man of Torah, a rabbi of Israel. Go to Videos.
[About the rabbi's end. . . If you don't know this already, Rabbi Kahane was murdered - by an Arab enemy of God and Israel, I'd say, a Sirhan Sirhan, living illegally in the United States. The killer was apprehended after a shootout, after he'd shot the rabbi in an auditorium where he'd been speaking. But he was defended at trial by a famous attorney, a Jewish left-wing radical, a man "opposed to everything that Rabbi Kahane stood for." He pulled the wool over the eyes of a jury - that's how the trial judge saw it - that he managed to turn against the victim: the allegedly racist, violent, white Jewish rabbi.
Only later, as part of the prosecution for the first, 1993, World Trade Center bombing, was the killer convicted - for participating in a conspiracy which included the murder of the rabbi, as well as the Trade Center bombing. He went up along with the "Blind Sheik" - an allegedly charismatic Muslim imam, an Egyptian, who preached in a mosque above a storefront in New Jersey.
Today they both are serving life sentences in "the Alcatraz of the Rockies," the federal "supermax" prison in Florence, Colorada - in the same maximum security unit as the Unibomber, Ted Kaczynski, and all of the surviving 9/11 hijackers. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ADX_Florence
5 June 2009
13 Sivan 5769