Daily Israel Report

Judaism: Value Clash: The "King's Torah"

We are not facing a book on outlook or ideology, but a halakhic legal exploration, akin to scientific research into the vast resources of Jewish Law. Distinction between Israel and its enemies is also between Jew and non-Jew.
Published: Monday, July 04, 2011 10:23 AM


The storm isn't over yet. Just as the demonstrations and the TV-interviews about Rabbi Dov Lior's arrest were fizzling out and calm returned to the land, the next suspect, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, got arrested and released after questioning. New demonstrations keep welling up.

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 ruled in. 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', that explores such politically incorrect topics as the Torah's approach to warfare and 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 on the religious extreme right? Of people who hate non-Jews for racist reasons and seek to bend Jewish law in order to eek out a permit for the killing of non-Jews?

A closer look reveals that we are not facing a book on outlook or ideology, which is, after all, often in the eye of the beholder. Rather, it is a halakhic legal exploration, akin to scientific research into the vast resources of Jewish Law, from the Gemara through the Rambam's Hilchot Melachim, the Shulchan Aruch and a vast gamut of other classic sources up to contemporary texts.

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 7 Noachide Laws which pertain to all human beings, and their transgression by non-Jews.

The third chapter relates to the question whether the obligation to die rather than to let oneself be forced to kill another person, which applies to Jews, 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 laws pertaining to times of war explained and the sixth and last chapter tackles harm to innocent people.

It becomes clear that the religious laws examined in the book mostly pertain to extraordinary circumstances of war, conflict and danger to life. Situations which pose extreme challenges to moral decision making in any event, whether from a halakhic or from a secular perspective.

The critics who accuse the authors of the book of condoning the killing of non-Jews would be well-advised to remember that in every war situations of life and death arise, of waging the lives of one's own soldiers and civilians against those of the enemy's fighters and civilians, and that in every war decisions on this have to be made, based on moral values which have to be grounded in some source.

Just to give an example, during “Operation Cast Lead” against the Hamas regime in Gaza in early 2009, according to some sources up to 1400 Arabs were killed, a majority of them combatants but, as in any war, also non-combatants. This was complicated by the use of civilians as human shields by the Arabs.

Would the outcome have changed if a halakhic approach, such as the one  laid down in 'The King's Torah', had been involved in the military and political decision making processes? We will never know.

But it becomes clear that the real controversy is not about ethics of warfare. Israel's modern history has been marked by wars, and they generally are not regarded as wars of choice. The conflict is ongoing, in varying intensity, with terror attacks against our own civilian population being part of the enemy's strategy and the ever-pending threat of a new all-out regional war looming over the Middle East.

It is certainly redundant to point out that in any war, people kill and get killed on both sides and that the ethics of warfare in any framework of values differ from those of peaceful times. Western ethics are no exception to this.

The real issue at stake is the distinction between Jews and non-Jews which is drawn by Halakha. 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.

The fear that the Western, non-Jewish world might take offense at this lack of “equality” and “enlightenment” materialized in the shape of a book on religious law and warfare. The fear of being accused of an even worse sin: racism.

In Halakha, Jewish religious law, the concept of race doesn't exist. Any non-Jew can become a Jew through proper conversion. Many, including myself, did. As a code of religious law, Halakha does however, draw a sharp distinction between the obligations and norms expected of Jews and non-Jews.

The most basic distinction is that Jews are subject to 613 mitzvot, whereas non-Jews, as “Bnei Noach” are obligated only in the 7 Noachide laws and their various applications. This has implications on the order of priorities and obligations also in life-threatening situations, which apply to both Jews and non-Jews.

This article is not the right framework to go into details, 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, 'The King's Torah' 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 any circumstances where a non-Jew may kill another non-Jew to save his life, a Jew may also kill a non-Jew for the same reason.

The modern policy imposed on the Israeli army, called “purity of arms” and essentially leading to the concept of endangering one's own soldiers or civilians in order to spare the enemy's fighters or civilians and save the lives of “human shields” used by the enemy is alien to Halakha. It is not assumed that anyone, Jew or non-Jew, would spare the other side at the cost of his own, soldier or civilian, in any conflict.

Ironically, for the terror groups that attack Israel, there is not even any question whether it is permitted to kill Jewish civilians, or any Jews – it is an integral part of their strategy. On our side, even a book investigating halakhic sources regarding the rules of warfare and treatment of enemy fighters and civilians triggers hysteria.

Maybe the almost two decades of “peace process” which transformed the enemy into a “peace partner” while at the same time the armed conflict carries on, have contributed to these absurdities. Relating to the enemy as just that, an enemy who kills and has to be killed in order to stop him, has become a thing unspeakable, because its very mention would testify to the lack of diplomatic and political success.

However, the charge that a halakhic approach towards warfare that examines the priorities in saving human lives is “racist” because it is based on the halakhic distinction between Jews and non-Jews, which is in our case identical by defintion with the distinction between our own side and the enemy, is absurd.

In the end, the discourse is not about racism and not about the ethics of warfare. It is about the clash of values between Halakha, Jewish religious law, on the one hand and Western secular concepts on the other hand.

It is a clash between two law systems and the two different cultures they embody.

It is a struggle about the future of Israel, and indeed, of Judaism itself, which has been smoldering below the surface ever since the modern State of Israel was founded.

As my own perspective is from the religious side, I appreciate the erupting public discussion around The King's Torah, which shows that finally the claim of Halakha as an alternative to the Western law is being taken seriously.

The frantic arrests of rabbis by the police testify to this and served to provide the spark that ignited – the 'Jewish Spring'? In any event, public discourse about the future face of Israeli society is long overdue.