Ask the Rabbi: May war-worn soldiers serve as spiritual leaders?

The case of spiritual leaders who serve as warriors highlights the Torah’s consent to justified warfare, even as it recognizes the spiritual dilemmas that warfare presents.

IDF soldiers (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
IDF soldiers
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Given that the Torah endorses warfare as a mitzva under some circumstances, it is not surprising that it also provides spiritual guides for soldiers.
When Israelite soldiers went to war, they were led by a kohen who was specially appointed to guide them. Beforehand, he helped remove the fearful from their ranks while inspiring the rest to remain bold and courageous because they were members of God’s army. Clearly, the Torah enjoins warfare and therefore ordains certain priests to give divine consent to this mitzva.
Although kohanim were primarily seen as spiritual leaders, this apparently did not prevent them from also serving as warriors themselves. The Talmud discusses how wartime laws of eshet yefat to’ar (referring to women captured in war) might apply to kohanim, which indicates that they did go to war as well.
Some biblical commentators also believe that a few of King David’s generals were kohanim, but were nonetheless allowed to kill in battle because of the mitzva to destroy our enemies and protect our land.
Moreover, in the Bible the tribe of Levi became distinguished for helping Moses kill 3,000 people who participated in building the Golden Calf, while Moses’s nephew Phinehas joined the ranks of kohanim after zealously spearing Zimri and Cozbi for public fornication. Most famously, the Hasmoneans – who were priests – led the Jews in battle against the Hellenists, showing that there is no inherent contradiction between priesthood and warfare.
Yet what happens when a person has killed another human being, in warfare or elsewhere? Can he remain a spiritual leader? The Torah seems to make clear that it does not like the conjoining of blood-soiled hands or objects with the Sanctuary.
Accordingly, it prohibits use of metal tools to build the altar and doesn’t allow a killer to hold on to the altar’s horns and take sanctuary there. Additionally, while the Book of Kings indicates that it was because of the unsettled political climate that David did not build the Temple, the Book of Chronicles states that God did not desire His house of worship to be built by a warrior with bloodstained hands.
Does this sentiment preclude the continued service of kohanim or other spiritual leaders who kill in warfare? The talmudic sages debate whether a communal figure who accidentally kills (beshogeg) can ultimately return to his leadership position. Some medieval commentators assert that everyone would agree that an accidental killer, even after repenting, would not be appointed for the first time to a leadership post, since his tainted past would taint his office and weaken his ability to provide moral leadership. Others disagree with this ruling, and in any case, such a ban would seemingly not apply to a leader who killed in the course of warfare or while fulfilling another mitzva (like executing a convicted murderer).
The status of a kohen who has killed, however, gets unique treatment in Jewish law.
The Prophet Isaiah harshly condemns the people for their iniquities and hypocrisy.
“When you spread your hands [in prayer]... I will not listen – your hands are replete with blood.” The Sages understand the verse to prohibit a kohen who has killed from raising his hands (nesiat kapayim) in the priestly blessing.
This prohibition is given two explanations by medieval commentators. Some believe that we are extra strict with the priestly blessing because it’s a benediction of peace. Others employ the Talmudic metaphor that “an accuser cannot also be an advocate” (“ein kategor na’aseh sanegor”). Just as we don’t beseech God for rain with a stolen lulav (palm branch) that highlights our iniquities, so, too, a kohen can’t bless the people through hands that have been awash in blood.
Medieval decisors debate the scope of this prohibition.
Some assert that it applies only if the killing is well known, seemingly highlighting the disrepute such a kohen would bring to his field. Others, like Rabbi Moshe Isserles, assert that the prohibition applies only if the kohen has not repented.
Yet Maimonides, followed by Rabbi Yosef Karo, asserts that the prohibition remains absolute, even following repentance.
Later decisors continue to debate this topic, with some asserting that it might depend on whether the killing was purposeful or out of negligence. Most, however, are lenient in cases in which the killing was under duress or due to loss of control.
This issue tragically arises in contemporary times when kohanim are responsible for car accidents, with decisors divided over what measures of repentance would be sufficient (if at all), depending on the circumstances of the accident.
A more poignant dilemma emerged in modern times when Jews served in European armies. Could a kohen who killed in war continue to recite the priestly blessing? While some decisors argue that he was responsible for his actions, most assert that since the kohen was compelled to serve by the law of the land, his killing was done under duress and therefore did not impact his status.
The question has become more acute in the contemporary State of Israel, in which many kohanim, scholars and other spiritual figures willfully serve in the army with great distinction. A nearly universal consensus asserts that killing enemies in the army fulfills a regrettable but necessary mitzva. Accordingly, observant kohanim who are war veterans continue to recite the priestly blessing, including after cases of tragic friendly-fire casualties.
The case of spiritual leaders who serve as warriors highlights the Torah’s consent to justified warfare, even as it recognizes the spiritual dilemmas that warfare presents.
■ The writer, author of A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates, directs the Tikvah Overseas Students Institute and is a presidential scholar at Bar-Ilan University Law School.