Many years ago I was a member of an interreligious affairs committee and believed that through dialogue, respect and understanding could be achieved. I had the good fortune to work with outstanding national leaders on matters concerning our people and future. Over the years I grew cynical about the ability to achieve the respect and parity within the Christian community. However, most disappointing was the Catholic Church which maintained an imperious, sanctimonious and judgmental posture towards the Jewish people in spite of all the years of dialogue. I could no longer understand the Jewish preoccupation bordering on obsessive, with courting the Vatican. Why concern ourselves with what the Vatican thinks about Israel and the Jews. Certainly there is a shadow hanging over the Vatican regarding their conduct and role and perhaps complicity in the destruction of European Jewry during World War II. They have about as much credibility as the U.N.
Recently, however, the current Pope, Pope Benedict has denounced Israel. On Friday, July 14, Cardinal Angela Sodano said Pope Benedict worried that developments in the Middle East would degenerate into a “conflict with international repercussions”. Most disturbing was when he continued to say “The right of defense on the part of the state does not exempt it from its responsibility to respect international law, particularly regarding the safeguarding of civilian populations”. While it shouldn’t matter to me what the pope thinks or says, in this case it does –it does because his point of criticism goes to the very heart of our existence as a free and independent people. Israel’s decision to take military action wasn’t arrived at easily as evidenced by their restraint, but based upon our right to survive freely as a people. The Jewish people share an ethic which demands of us to choose life above all else (except for three situations). Life to us is creativity, productivity and love-love of family and humanity. The radical Muslim ethic celebrates another ethic-an ethic of death and destruction which poses an existential threat to Israel. These two opposing ethics are irreconcilable. Our right to strike back at the enemy with deadly force isn’t a whimsical decision, but based upon a system of Jewish Ethics rooted in Jewish texts. Undoubtedly the Pope isn’t familiar with our body of Jewish ethics, so I’d like to take this opportunity and enlighten him.
Judaism has a strong ethic against killing and is based upon the concept of imago Dei. We aren’t allowed to murder or kill humans if it’s unjustified, because we are all created in the image of God. The story of Cain killing Abel carries a powerful message of God’s disapproval with murder. Our Midrash tells us that the Great Flood was a result of an evil world of murder and rape. However, as far back as the story of Abraham defeating the raiders from Mesopotamia and taking Lot hostage alters this picture and qualifies the message. Even while the defeated were fleeing, Abram relentlessly pursued them “until Hobah” (Genesis 14:15). Abram emerges as the model fighter: save the innocent and destroy the enemy. Does this sound familiar, Pope Benedict? Our soldiers, as Lot were kidnapped and as with Abram, it is incumbent upon us to return them to us. It isn’t by accident that the first time in the Bible the word “Hebrew” is used to describe Abram and his cohorts is in this story, Melchizedek blesses Abram for his victory, God, in the following chapter also does so. His blessing comes in the way of adding to Abram’s name the letter “H”, representing God in Abraham’s life.
There are other instances in the Bible where violence is condoned. Moses’ earlier life has incidents of violence and killing which if not condoned in the Bible are certainly not condemned: In the story of young Moses when he kills an Egyptian in defense of the Hebrew slave being beaten and after he leaves Egypt, he comes to the rescue of the seven Medianite daughters being threatened and abused by shepherds and violence is incurred.
The Exodus story carries an interesting, implied message, with regarding the use of deadly force. In Exodus 13:18 the Hebrews are described as armed when they left Egypt. Commentaries say that the point being made in the text was that when the Hebrews left Egypt they weren’t fleeing but departed in a para military formation. According to Rabeinu Bachya, a 14th century author and Ethicist, the Exodus story illustrates the appropriate Jewish attitude towards weapons: people must use every practical option, when threatened existentially, including self defense.
Evidence of Rabbeinu Bachya’s position is found again , Pope Benedict, in the Bible, when in the dessert the Hebrews were attacked by the Amalekites, a tribe of desert bandits, killing the weak and the stragglers (Deuteronomy 25:17-18). During the Battle, Moses stood atop a hill with his arm outstretched. As long as his arm was up we would prevail,but when his arm came down as a result of fatigue Amalek would prevail. Apparently, the message here is that there would always be enmity between Amalek and Israel. The Ethic of self defense comes into sharp focus with this chapter of our history. We are commanded to eradicate the enemy. Because we are under attack and our existence is threatened we are commanded by the Bible to strike back with deadly force. This isn’t presented to us as an option-it’s a commandment (Deuteronomy 25:19). The message Pope Benedict, for those who believe in the Bible is clear. It isn’t relevant whether or not Amalek is alive or can be identified by DNA as to whether this commandment is any longer valid. The point is that in principle, the Bible understood that force is necessary when it comes to defending oneself for survival of the individual or state.
This is reinforced in the Bible (Exodus 22:2) when the homeowner is absolved if he kills a burglar. Rashi clarifies this by saying that if it is clear that no bodily harm to the homeowner is intended than there is no excuse for killing the burglar. The Rambam disagrees however, in Hilchot Gineiva, Mishna Torah, and believes that the rationale for killing the burglar is the presumption of danger. If he tries to stop the burglar without force, than the burglar will try to kill the homeowner. Therefore, while he is only a thief he is considered a “rodef-pursuer seeking to kill”, and as such can use deadly force. Pichuach Nefesh also comes into the equation. Failure to use deadly force would be in violation of Pichuach Nefesh if you were under threat. Philo, a Jewish Scholar in Alexandria (20BC-50AD) argued that Mosaic Law conformed to Roman law, which viewed all forms of theft as an attack on society: a petty thief in principle was no different from a tyrant who stole the resources of his nation, or a nation plundering another nation. Pope Benedict does this sound familiar. What about the kidnapping of three soldiers?
The Talmud TB Sanhedrin 72a sums it up succinctly when it ruled: “Im Ba L’hargecha, Hashkem Laharog” If someone attempts to kill you, forestall and strike first. It is an act of self defense. There is no discretion here. It is a positive commandment and tempering and modifying the commandment to eradicate Amalek. It isn’t necessary to liquidate the enemy if you aren’t under threat. King Saul exercised this discretion even though he was severely criticized by Samuel.
Pope Benedict, our tradition doesn’t teach us to turn the other cheek. Don’t apply Christian standards to the Jewish People. It is patronizing and condescending. Our tradition teaches us the ethics of self defense and that our survival and freedom trumps, at all cost, the enemy’s will to prevail.