Just as the demonstrations and TV interviews about Rabbi Dov Lior’s arrest were petering out, another suspect, Rabbi Ya’acov Yosef, got arrested and released after questioning.
The feeling on the Left, in the political echelon and in wide parts of the mainstream media is that those recalcitrant rabbis and their unruly supporters have to be subdued.
After all, nobody is above the law. Not even renowned rabbis who think they can get away with writing an endorsement for a book like Torat Hamelech (The King’s Torah), which explores such politically irresponsible topics as the Torah’s approach to warfare and the treatment of enemy populations. After all, for this we have the Geneva Convention.
Who needs more? But can it really be dismissed as a fringe phenomenon of the extreme Right? As people who hate non-Jews for racist reasons and seek to bend Jewish law in order to eke out permission to kill them? A closer look reveals that we are not facing a book on hashkafa – outlook or ideology – which is often in the eye of the beholder. Rather, it is an exploration of the vast resources of Jewish law, from the Gemara through the Rambam’s Hilchot Melachim, the Shulhan Aruch and a gamut of other sources.
To give a general overview of the contents: The first chapter, as if in
defiance of all those who cry out that the book condones the killing of
non-Jews, deals with situations in which it is forbidden to kill a
non-Jew. The second chapter examines the role of the Seven Noahide Laws,
which pertain to all human beings.
The third chapter relates to whether the obligation to die rather than
be forced to kill another person also applies to non-Jews. The fourth
chapter deals with situations in which there is a conflict between
saving the life of a Jew versus saving the life of a non-Jew. In the
fifth chapter, we find explanations of laws pertaining to times of war,
and the sixth and last chapter tackles harm to innocent people. It
becomes clear that the religious laws examined mostly pertain to
extraordinary circumstances of conflict involving danger to life.
The critics who accuse the authors of condoning the killing of non-Jews
would be well advised to remember that in every war, situations of life
and death arise, of weighing the lives of one’s own soldiers and
civilians against those of the enemy’s fighters and civilians.
Just to give an example, during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in early
2009, according to some sources, up to 1,400 Arabs were killed – a
majority of them combatants, but, as in any war, also non-combatants.
This was complicated by the use of Arab civilians as human shields.
Would the outcome have changed if a halachic approach, such as the one
laid down in Torat Hamelech, had been employed in the decision- making
processes? We will never know.
But the real controversy is not about the ethics of warfare.
Israel’s modern history has been marked by wars, generally not wars of choice.
The conflict is ongoing, with terror attacks against our civilian
population being part of the enemy’s strategy, and the ever-pending
threat of a new, all-out regional war. It is certainly redundant to
point out that the ethics of warfare differ from those of peaceful
The real issue is the distinction Halacha draws between Jews and
non-Jews. This is grossly at odds with political correctness, which
outlaws any reference to differences of ethnic origin or faith. This is
also what causes the panic in the secular, left-wing sector and the
political echelon. It’s the fear that the Western, non- Jewish world
might take offense at this lack of “equality” and “enlightenment” as
reflected in a book on religious law and warfare.
In Jewish religious law, the concept of race doesn’t exist.
Any non-Jew can become a Jew through conversion. Many, including myself, have.
Halacha does, however, draw a sharp distinction between the obligations
of Jews and those of non-Jews. The most basic distinction is that Jews
are subject to 613 mitzvot, whereas non-Jews, as bnei noah, are
obligated only by the Seven Noahide Laws and their various applications.
This has implications when it comes to priorities and obligations in
This article is not the place to go into detail, but to give just one
example: In examining the circumstances in which a Jew may kill a
non-Jew in order to save his own life or that of other Jews,Torat
Hamelech starts out from situations in which, under religious law, a
non-Jew may kill another non- Jew in order to save his own life. Under
such circumstances, a Jew may also kill a non-Jew for the same reason.
The policy imposed on the Israeli army, called “purity of arms” –
essentially leading to the concept of endangering one’s own soldiers and
civilians to spare the enemy’s fighters or civilians and save the lives
of “human shields” – is alien to Halacha. It is not assumed that
anyone, Jew or non-Jew, would spare the other side at the cost of his
own in any conflict.
Ironically, for the terror groups that attack Israel, there is no
question whether it is permitted to kill Jewish civilians; it is an
integral part of their strategy. On our side, even a book investigating
halachic sources regarding the treatment of enemy fighters and civilians
Maybe the almost two decades of “peace process,” which have transformed
an implacable enemy into a “peace partner” while the armed conflict
carries on, have contributed to such absurdities.
Relating to the enemy as just that, an enemy who has to be killed to
stop him from killing, has become unspeakable, because its very mention
would testify to the failure of diplomacy.
However, the charge that a halachic approach that examines the
priorities in saving human lives is “racist” because it is based on the
halachic distinction between Jews and non-Jews (which is, in our case,
identical to the distinction between our side and the enemy) is absurd.
In the end, the discourse is about the clash of values between Halacha
on the one hand and Western secular concepts on the other. It is a clash
between two systems and the two cultures they reflect. It is a struggle
about the future of Israel, and indeed, of Judaism itself, which has
been smoldering ever since modern Israel was founded. As my own
perspective is from the religious side, I appreciate the erupting public
discussion around Torat Hamelech, which shows that finally Halacha as
an alternative to Western law is being taken seriously. The frantic
arrests of rabbis testify to this, and have provided the spark to
the Jewish spring? The writer is a doctor who made aliya in 2008, served
as a medical officer in the IDF and lives in Kfar Tapuah in Samaria.
This article was first published on www.israelnationalnews.com