Do not desecrate the image of God

The debate over 'Torat Hamelech' is a clash over the soul of Judaism.

Rabbi Lior speaking at yeshiva (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Rabbi Lior speaking at yeshiva
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Hamas says it’s OK to kill Jewish babies because they might grow up to be Israeli soldiers.
The authors of Torat Hamelech say it’s OK to kill Muslim babies if you think they will grow up to be terrorists.
If one statement qualifies as “incitement,” so does the other.
Torat Hamelech (Laws of the King) is a book by two rabbis from the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar, Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur, that came out in Hebrew last September.
The book has been in the news again recently because rabbis Dov Lior and Yakov Yosef were called in for police questioning due to their letters of approbation for the book.
The book’s stated purpose is to provide guidance on how Jewish soldiers should conduct themselves. In Mishnah Torat Hamelech, a commentary on and summary of the book, the authors say an Israeli army should fight according to the rules of the Torah. In a section entitled “The Impure Concept of Purity of Arms,” they note that they are not talking about modesty, kashrut and assimilation (which may also be problematic), but rather about how the army is called on to expel Jews from their homes in the settlements, how non-Jews are appointed to leadership roles (e.g., Russians who are not halachically Jewish, or Druse and Beduin who serve in the IDF), and, (in their eyes worst of all), Tohar Neshek, “Purity of Arms,” the IDF’s famous code of ethics.
They cite as an example the 13 soldiers killed in Jenin in 2002 because the IDF sent them in on foot instead of using heavy artillery to flatten a Palestinian neighborhood.
The authors feel that heavy artillery should have been used, with no regard given to what would have been a massacre of non-combatant Palestinians.
I’M NOT going to address the question of whether Torat Hamelech meets the Israeli legal standard of incitement. As a human rights activist, I support free speech – even speech that is ugly. However, I also acknowledge that society has a right to put limits on speech. Whether or not Torat Hamelech violates Israeli standards of free speech is a matter for the police and the courts to decide.
However, as a rabbi, I strenuously condemn this hate-filled book and its distorted view of halacha. I admit that the authors have no shortage of traditional sources for their teachings, including: Any citizen in a “kingdom” that is against us and who supports war against us is a rodef (pursuer) and can be killed. Any non-Jew who violates one of the Seven Noachide laws (laws considered binding on all human beings) is subject to the death penalty. Many extremist settlers claim that all Palestinians are in violation of the Noachide prohibition against theft because the Palestinians want to steal “our” land.
While the authors bring traditional sources there are other traditional sources that refute each of them.
Underlying Torat Hamelech is a philosophy that demeans the value of the non-Jew as a human being. Yes, there are sources in the Torah that support this approach, but they are all referring to idol worshipers. This clearly does not apply to monotheists such as Christians and Muslims.
A source commonly cited for treating the non-Jew the same as the Jew is in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Gitin 61a: “We support the poor of the heathen along with the poor of Israel, and visit the sick of the heathen along with the sick of Israel, and bury the poor of the heathen along with the dead of Israel, for these are the ways of peace.”
While I support the end result, it is better to focus on one of the most fundamental teachings in the Torah: that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.
Rabbi Eliezer ben Nathan (a.k.a. the Ra’aban, an 11th century commentator), clearly states that the commandment “do not murder” includes non-Jews.  The Kli Yakar, a 16th century commentator, brings a good explanation for why.  He explains that the five commandments that are bein adam l’chavero, between people, correspond to the five commandments that are bein adam l’makom, between God and Man.  “Do not murder” then corresponds to “I am the Lord your God.”  Kli Yakar says “anyone who spills blood is as if he has reduced the image and likeness of God, as it says [in the Torah] ‘Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God he made man.’  There is no need for this explanation except to tell you that even if someone says ‘please kill me and forgive the murderer,’ nonetheless he may not give forgiveness for the ‘Godly portion’ that is within him [and the murder is still prohibited], and this is also the case if someone wants to kill himself.”.
Clearly, all of us – Jew and gentile, man and woman – are created in the image of God. How did this teaching come to be ignored by many rabbis from the Talmudic period down to the present day? Halacha is always decided in the context of the community and the times. In times when Jews were persecuted and had no nation-state of their own, it is understandable, if regrettable, that some rabbis would reciprocate by judging non-Jewish lives to be of little or no value.
But we live in an age when the vast majority of non-Jewish nations fully accept Jews as citizens, with Jews rising to the highest political levels. Now that we have our own state, darchei shalom, the ways of peace, are more important than ever, for we have even more to lose then when we were members of isolated communities in the diaspora. For Israel to thrive, we must be an accepted member of the community of nations. If Israel were to adopt a code of conduct like the one suggested in Torat Hamelech– a code completely against international law and recognized standards of morality – it would be a horrible desecration of God’s name. The international community would judge us immoral, racist and barbaric. Instead of bringing the nations to praise God and Israel, adopting such a code would bring the world to denounce us. It could lead to international censure, boycotts, and a crippling of Israel’s economy. To seriously propose such a code of conduct is not only immoral, it is irresponsible.
This is not a clash between halacha and secular Western values. It is not a clash between the different Jewish denominations – there are Reform and Conservative rabbis who think “Purity of Arms” is too strict, and there are Orthodox halachic authorities, like R. Ovadiah Yosef, who have criticized Torat Hamelech. This is a clash for the soul of Judaism. Do we want Judaism equated with the most backward elements of Islam? Or are we going to celebrate our universal values and have Israel take its place as a “light unto the nations?” The choice is ours.
The writer is a business executive and rabbi. He serves as Chairman of the Board of Directors of Rabbis for Human Rights. Opinions expressed here are his own.