The Massacre in Gaza

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Two thoughts compel me to write today. First, I believe that the worst evil to be committed is that done in the name of the good. Second, I believe that those who stand by and allow evil to be done in their names, and do not act to oppose it, are liable for the results. Today, I cannot be silent. I want you to know that men who claim to speak in my name, to represent my faith, do not speak for me.

In recent months, I’ve been drawing closer to my Jewish faith. I have begun to practice many observances, begun to study Judaism on a daily basis, formed relationships with two study partners with whom I meet weekly, and regularly stay over at my rabbi’s house. I now keep a kosher kitchen, keep Shabbat most weeks, and have committed to many other well-known observances.

Judaism is a legalistic, rabbinic religion. It relies heavily on the ability of rabbis to understand and interpret the laws of the Torah, applying them to new situations. So it is quite difficult for me, as a newcomer to the religion, but mindful of the importance of rabbinic authority, to claim that one of the leading rabbis in the world is wrong. So, this blog post gave me pause, and left me uncertain of how to respond.

First, let us not forget that God gave us the ability to reason, and specifically to reason about ethics and behavior. So, while situations do arise where we will find ourselves having difficulty knowing what is right and what is wrong, there are certain tests we can apply to most situations we face. One is "is the proposed action murdering thousands, hundreds, or even one innocent person?" If so, then most likely it’s not an appropriate action. Actions which shock the conscience tend to be unethical. Sure, there seem to extreme counterexamples from religion. Let’s look at one of the most famous. Surely, all intuition and ethics suggests that killing one’s own son, with no provocation, is wrong. Surely, such an action shocks the conscience. Yet, does not the Torah record that Abraham was prepared to do exactly that, on God’s command? Abraham is singled out for praise, and is richly praised and rewarded for this action itself, so isn’t the lesson that sometimes, acts which shock the conscience are appropriate? It seems that we should learn to rely on God’s word, not one’s own, possibly flawed, moral compass.

Consider, though, that Rabbi Eliyahu relies on Moses Maimonides, medieval rabbi, philosopher, and doctor, as the authoritative source for his ruling. Philosophically, the rabbi must also make the above justification for why the halacha (Jewish law) should be accepted despite shocking the conscience. Yet, what does Maimonides himself say about the binding of Isaac? He tells us that the story of the binding is included in the Torah to teach us about the clear nature of prophecy. In other words, we know from Abraham’s willingness to do as he was bidden that his prophecy from God must have been clear, distinct, and obvious. If he were able to write it off as a bad dream, a hallucination, or even a misheard prophecy, he would have done so. So, Maimonides tells us that the entire incident comes to teach us that prophecy cannot be confused for these other things.

Now, why does Maimonides assume that Abraham, founder of the monotheistic faiths, one of the greatest prophets and most committed Jews, would have looked for other explanations for what he heard? Certainly because the action he was about to undertake was so shocking to the conscience. That is, even Abraham (who the Talmud tells us obeyed the entire Torah before it was given, because he was able to reason from his knowledge of God to the halacha) could not have followed any path of reasoning bringing him to embrace clearly unconscionable acts. He could only undertake such acts on the strength of a prophecy. If Rabbi Eliyahu did not receive a prophecy telling him that carpet-bombing Gaza is appropriate, then, it seems he should pause and reconsider his halachic logic.

Now, let us look more closely at Rabbi Eliyahu’s reasoning. He refers us to Maimonides’ commentary on the story of the rape of Dinah. In Rashi’s understanding of the story, Shechem kidnaps and rapes Dinah, then desires to marry her. He asks his father, who asks Jacob for Dinah’s hand in marriage. Jacob discusses the situations with his sons, who reply that they will only consent to the marriage on the condition that the entire area (of which Shechem’s father Hamor is King) is circumcised. They never intended, though, to allow the marriage — instead, on the third day, when all the men of the area are in pain from their circumcision, Simeon and Levi attack the town and kill all the men. Upon hearing of this, Jacob rebukes his sons, saying that they have endangered the position of the family now that others will know that they deal with others in this manner.

Maimonides argues that the slaughter is halachically proper. It is this example which Rabbi Eliyahu wishes us to refer to. The argument is as follows: the Torah commands all people to follow the 7 laws of Noah, included among which are prohibitions against murder and rape. It follows from this that all communities are obligated to set up mechanisms to prevent and punish violations of these laws. The people of Shechem had no such mechanisms — thus, the entire community was liable for the neglect of this obligation. Similarly, Rabbi Eliyahu would argue, the Palestinian community in Gaza has set up no mechanism to apprehend those who launch rockets into Israel, and so are equally liable.

Maimonides’ approach, though, has a major difficulty — why does Jacob criticize his sons? Rabbi Michael Rosensweig comments that we can understand Jacob’s position within Maimonides’ position as referring to the duplicitous manner in which the sons acted. Not only must the law be upheld, Jacob is telling his sons, but we must also behave in an upright, morally unquestionable manner. In fact, as Rosensweig puts it: "Yaakov, according to Rambam’s scheme, projects the principle that halachic conformity alone is not always sufficient to justify radical conduct when other halachic principles and values are at risk." So, even if the laws justify this action (as Maimonides holds), Jacob is still critical of choosing to do this particular permissible action because it conflicted with the responsibility to demonstrate morally upright behavior, and with the necessity of honesty in dealings with others. Should not similar concerns apply to the Gaza bombings?

In fact, I personally would take this kind of analysis a step further than Rabbi Rosenweig does (perhaps unjustifiably). Not only does Jacob seem, in my eyes, to be critical of the dishonesty and duplicity, but perhaps he is also reminding us of the sanctity of life. After all, while the Torah includes a good number of offenses for which one is liable to the death penalty (adultery, murder, Sabbath desecration, certain types of non-kosher eating, idolatry, the son who is wayward and rebellious, and so on) the Talmud explains, through the Oral Tradition received by Moses at Sinai, that the court is to seek any means available to not assign the death penalty. Indeed, the Talmud says that a High Court which sentenced a man to death every 7 years was considered a murderous court — and records a dissenting opinion that this applied to a court which sentenced a man to death every 70 years! Clearly, the sanctity of life, even of those who have done wrong, is an essential element in Jewish tradition, and affects many areas of halacha. In many places in the Jewish liturgy, we refer to God desiring repentence, not the death of even the most wicked — the longer a man lives, the longer his opportunity to repent of his ways, no matter how evil. Certainly this understanding, together with the command to “be Holy, as I am Holy” suggest that Jewish law, too, must respect life above almost all else.

In support of my interpretation of Jacob’s anger, I would point out that it is much in the vein of Rabbi Rosenweig’s, giving me what to rely on, and does not contradict his understanding. Additionally, consider Jacob’s remarks when he blessed his sons before his death:

“Simeon and Levi are brothers — their swords are weapons of violence. Let me not enter their council, let me not join their assembly, for they have killed men in their anger and hamstrung oxen as they please. (The attack also included the livestock of the area.) Cursed be their anger, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel.”

It seems that no comment is necessary here to suggest that Jacob is horrified, not just as the practical results of their action, but at their violence and bloodshed, their failure to respect life. The passage almost speaks for itself.

A more radical reading of Maimonides would suggest that Jacob’s criticism is only for tactical purposes. One can go further and suggest that Jacob is just wrong, that he didn’t see as far as his sons. This reading would provide the strongest evidence for Rabbi Eliyahu’s position. Even on this position, though, there’s reason to think that Rabbi Eliyahu went too far. After all, he didn’t just say that the bombing was permissible — he specifically called for carpet-bombing Gaza. On what grounds does he claim expertise on the tactical question?

We can go further than all this, though. Nachmanides, another medieval rabbi, directly responded to Maimonides on this question. In his commentary, Nachmanides argues Jacob was critical of Simeon and Levi because they violated halacha in their action. He advances the position that failing to punish others who engage in rape and murder is not itself a capital offense. Nachmanides explains that Jacob’s anger demonstrates the importance of refraining from vengeance even when we feel that our personal honor is at stake.

It seems that Nachmanides can more easily explain the common-sense reading of the passages. Jacob’s rebuke certainly implies that the action under discussion was incorrect. Further, before his death, Jacob once again rebukes Simeon and Levi, suggesting a relationship between this action and their later instigation of the attack on, and sale of, Joseph. All authorities agree that this latter action was incorrect, and is treated harshly by Torah. Why, then, does Jacob connect the two actions, if the first was correct? Furthermore, it seems to me that there are compelling reasons to rely on Nachmanides here. Taking as a given that we wish to do as God desires, we learn from even a casual study of the Torah that no men have ever perfectly understood and carried out God’s will without fail. We would do well, then, to consider that we may be, in any particular instance, incorrect. We need rules for acting, then, in the face of such uncertainty. In situations, such as keeping kosher, where the only consequence of strictness in our approach is having less variety in eating choices — that is, where I bear the cost of my strictness — strictness may well be appropriate. We have no right, though, to impose our understanding in a strict way on others, certainly not violently.

There is, though, a yet stronger reason for rejecting Rabbi Eliyahu’s argument here. I know that no God I will worship could order the outright massacre of thousands of innocents. Such behavior is called evil for a reason. It’s not just our intuition and emotions that cry out at the thought, but our reason, our intellect — every bit of moral fiber we possess. If God could order such a massacre, then such a God would be impossible to worship or serve. If Rabbi Eliyahu could somehow prove that such slaughter is God’s will, a further question would remain — why, in that case, should I carry out that will? To threaten me with eternal damnation would not at all answer the question — if ordered to harm others, at the threat of suffering myself if I do not, I would choose to suffer myself before harming others. How can a man morally choose otherwise? I believe that this is not the case, and that this is not our actual concern. If it were, though, I see no reason that would change our answer here. Even in the face of uncertainty, there are some attributes which must be possessed by any moral code worthy of the name. Banning mass murder of innocents is one — and if God can order otherwise, then how could we worship Him as "just, merciful, and loving?"

In short, what message do I wish to send? I want to make clear that Rabbi Eliyahu does not speak for, at least, this Jew. I want to point out that there are authorities who responded to Maimonides and on whom one can, and should, rely, for an understanding of Jewish law which expresses righteous horror at the thought of carpet-bombing a region, home to thousands, because of the actions of a handful. I have not dealt with the question of the existence of Israel, of the plight of the Palestinians — why the UN held that the massacre of Jews in Europe at the hands of the German government required the removal of Palestinians from their homeland in order to allow Jews to settle there, and so on. Such points, while important, are not necessary for this discussion. One need only look in a basic way at Jewish understandings of ethics — the Jewish tradition puts solid rules of ethical decision-making far ahead of "listening for God’s voice" precisely because that voice is hard to hear, and easy to manipulate. God endows man, in the Jewish understanding, with reason, and the ability to understand the moral dimensions of man’s relationship with man. A conclusion which flies in the face of our moral sense might be interesting intellectually but, I believe, should not be acted upon in a violent manner against innocents. This position is tenable, in fact, even on Maimonide’s understanding of the law. On the argument of Nachmanides, the argument for genocide is nonsensical. One who wishes to argue for genocide must cherry-pick, while one who argues against it is supported by the full weight of Jewish tradition and ethics, has amply rabbinic sources to rely on, and manages not to construct an argument which flies in the face of nearly all conceptions of humane ethics. The choice is not difficult.

Joshua Katz, NREMT-P [send him mail], is the Legislative Director of the Libertarian Party of Connecticut. A member of the faculty of Oxford Academy in Westbrook, Connecticut, his areas of interest include mathematics, philosophy of mind, and the use of the synthetic a priori.

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