Parshat Masei: In God’s image

“When you cross the Jordan to the land of Canaan, you shall designate cities of refuge for yourself, and a murderer [‘rotzeah’] shall flee there – one who takes a life unintentionally...” (Numbers 35:10,11)

Beit Saida 311 (photo credit:
Beit Saida 311
(photo credit:
Last month a “sensation” occurred in Israel when Rabbi Dov Lior, chief rabbi of Kiryat Arba- Hebron, was summoned by the police for questioning.
Thousands of people – rabbis and laymen alike – demonstrated against what they considered disgraceful treatment of a respected religious leader.
What was the alleged “transgression” for which Rabbi Lior was being remanded? He had joined three other recognized Torah personalities in endorsing a halachic treatise called Torat Hamelech (Prescriptive Directives of the King), written by Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur. The suspicion was that the book, purportedly expressing a lenient attitude toward murdering gentiles, was inciting against minorities in Israel. Since a significant verse in Masei deals with an important subject of the book, I am dedicating this Torah commentary to the issue.
Let me state at the outset that at no time do the authors of Torat Hamelech permit the killing of innocent gentiles, except in the heat of battle and in order to save innocent Jews. This is no different than the American aerial bombings of Afghanistan; although in the Israeli army our soldiers go house to house in pursuit of terrorists and arms caches, despite the inevitable loss of our own young men as a consequence.
There is certainly room for an alternative moral decision.
What I did find disturbing in Torat Hamelech was an undue emphasis on what separates Jewish life from gentile life, rather than on the “image of God” which ought to connect the two. The book interprets Maimonides (Laws of Murder 1,1), “Whoever kills the soul of a human being of Israel transgresses the negative command ‘Thou shalt not murder,’ and if he kills purposely before witnesses, his death is by the sword” to mean that if a Jew kills a gentile, even a gentile who keeps the Seven Laws of Morality, his act does not even come under the rubric of “Thou shall not murder;” it is not even an act of retziha.
To be sure, Maimonides (the Rambam) does state specifically that a Jew who kills a gentile is not punished with death by a Jewish court ; but that doesn’t necessarily mean he is not a rotzeah (murderer). This Torah portion teaches that even one who only kills accidentally and has the privilege of asylum from family avengers by staying in a City of Refuge is still called a “rotzeah”! How different from Torat Hamelech is the view of the late Rabbi Yehuda Amital, who explained the absence of a death penalty for one who murders a gentile on the basis of a remarkable interpretation of the Maharsha (B.T. Sanhedrin 64b). The Talmud teaches that if an individual sacrifices one of his children to the god Molech, he is punished with death; but if he sacrifices all his children to Molech, there is no death penalty; since the death penalty brings forgiveness. Such a person’s sin is not worthy of forgiveness! Similarly, the desecration of God’s Name perpetrated by a Jew who kills a righteous gentile is not worthy of forgiveness! At the end of the day, Torat Hamelech does conclude that it is forbidden for a Jew to murder a gentile, but mainly because a gentile is prohibited from murdering his fellow gentile, and Jews are not permitted to do things that are prohibited to gentiles (p. 25-27).
What the authors overlook is the biblical axiom that “God created the human being [not only the Jew] in His image” (Genesis 1:27), and that therefore “whoever sheds the blood of a human being, by a human being shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God did He make the human being” (Gen. 9:6).
Because of this, the book constantly emphasizes the differences between gentile and Jewish lives. For example, it maintains that if a gentile orders a Jew to kill another gentile on pain of death, the Jew ought not allow himself to be killed to save the gentile. The reason for the law which teaches that a Jew dare not save himself by taking the life of a fellow Jew is the logical principle “who says your blood is redder than his?” (Sanhedrin 74), which harks back to Gen. 9:6, which denies any distinction between Jewish blood and gentile blood.
Torat Hamelech likewise argues that we can kill gentiles in order to save Jewish lives. After all, it says, we cannot even desecrate the Sabbath in order to save a gentile’s life, whereas we must desecrate the Sabbath to save a Jewish life. However, it completely overlooks Nahmanides, the Ramban (Strictures to Rambam, Book of Commandments, Positive Commandment 16): “We are commanded to preserve the lives of gentiles who keep the Seven Laws of Morality, and to save them from mishap; if they are drowning or if they have fallen beneath a great rubble of earth we must work with all our strength to save them; and if a gentile is sick, we must engage in healing him… our desecrating the Sabbath to save a human life applies to them.”
Despite my critique, there is nothing in Torat Hamelech which can be considered a message of incitement to harm Arab neighbors who are not in a war against us, and there was no justification for calling Rabbi Lior to a police station for questioning.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.