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Bamidbar 5784  | Rabbi David Wolkenfeld

06/18/2024 09:33:09 AM


Thou Shalt Not Kill

Decades ago the Israeli novelist Amos Oz visited Sweden and, as a famous novelist, received an audience with Olof Palme, the prime minister of Sweden. Palme was an outspoken critic of both the Soviet Union and the United States and supported the PLO when it was nearly universally designated as a terror organization. Palme served as Prime Minister of Sweden from 1969 - 1976 and then again from 1982 until his assassination in 1986. 

This visit took place in the immediate aftermath of an Israeli military operation and Palme took advantage of his audience with the famous Israeli writer to confront him about the Israeli operation. “How can you Jews engage in behavior like this? You are the ones who gave us the Ten Commandments where it says ‘thou shalt not kill.’” 

Amos Oz, did not miss a beat and responded to the Prime Minister, “it does not say ‘thou shalt not kill’ in the Hebrew original. It says ‘lo tirzah’ which means ‘do not murder.’”

That is an extremely significant difference! The English version of the Bible, or perhaps the Swedish version, claims that Scripture contains a blanket prohibition against killing when in fact the Torah prohibits murder, a heinous crime that nonetheless implies the existence of justifiable loss of human life. Swedish armies terrorized Europe during the 30 Years War, one of the most brutal wars in human history with close to 8 million casualties. But in the safety of post-war peace and stability, a Swedish prime minister could present our Torah as if it objected to all killing and not just to murder. 

Years later Amos Oz told this story to Rabbi Yoel bin Nun from whom I heard about the exchange. Amos Oz, a secular Jew and a founding member of Peace Now, told Rav Yoel bin Nun, a Torah scholar and a pioneer of the West Bank settlement movement, that one day, Israel would resolve its longstanding disputes with the Arab Muslim world. And when that day came, it would be additional generations before we had worked out our differences with Christianity. There is something very admirable about the pacifism of the Christian Bible. There is nothing admirable about soaking a continent in blood for a thousand years and then quoting a pacifist bible to criticize Jewish behavior.

About two weeks ago a member of this community who works at the State Department was targeted by a small but very loud group of demonstrators who gathered outside her home and accused her of murder and genocide for her role in the Ameican government's military support of Israel. I went to the house to show support for her and her family and met a few others from the community who gathered behind an Israeli flag in a mostly silent act of witness.

Over the course of the hour or so that I was watching the protest I felt a lot of emotions. They chanted things that enraged me. They chanted things that frightened me. There was one chant for which I had the perfect one-line response that I could have yelled back at them, but which I didn’t think of until hours later. But there was one chant which I think was very significant. Knowing that they were gathered outside of a Jewish home, having mentioned that explicitly, the protesters began to chant “thou shalt not kill.” Olof Palme had, politely, quoted scripture inaccurately in order to condemn the action of Jews, these protestors did the same without any civility or politeness. 

The chant exposes something about this moment which may have been obvious to some of you, but which  I had not understood or appreciated before I heard the chanting from just a few steps from where I stood. For many of the most vocal critics of Israel, there is no possibility that Israel could conduct a just war because there is no form of death or destruction, something which every war entails, which they would not condemn. They see the ante-bellum status quo as being so fundamentally unjust that Israeli lives must be forfeit rather than endorse any violence undertaken to defend them. It is as if scripture stated “thou shalt not kill.”

And, we see an echo of this binary, manichean worldview among too many in our own community who seem to imply that Judaism’s rejection of pure pacifism means that we are meant to exult in the use of force. Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein, a rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Har Etzion, spoke this past week at the yeshiva about the danger of a form of Judaism, increasingly dominant within Religious Zionism. “We have moved,” he said, “from the Judaism of Moshe and Aharon, to the Judaism of Yiftach and Bar Kokhba. To a place where power becomes a fundamental principle for its own sake….we have a very serious problem.” 

אנחנו בבעיה קשה ביותר.                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Almost one hundred years ago, the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael confronted the so-called Great Arab Revolt of 1936-1939 and struggled to formulate a response.  In time, the ascendant leadership of the Jewish community embraced a policy of “havlagah” which means “self restraint.” Even as the Haganah grew in numbers and strength during this period, they restrained themselves from any actions of revenge or hostility against Palestinian civilians. David Ben Gurion explained the benefits of Havlagah as being consistent with the very necessary cooperation with the British.

In contrast, the right-wing Jewish militant group, the Irgun, adopted a policy they called “active defense” and in November 1937 began indiscriminate deadly attacks on Palestinian civilians.

Interestingly, and surprisingly, one of the fierce critics of the policy of Havlagah was none other than Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel, the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv. Rav Amiel published several important essays in the religious newspaper HaTzofeh during the months when the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael was debating havlagah. 

Rav Amiel claimed that havlagah was deficient in two ways: restraining ourselves from full throated expressions of grief and outrage at Jewish suffering was not noble and was not mature. It was callous. Jewish tradition demands that we cry out, to God and to humanity, whenever we are in distress and danger. Havlagah as an embrace of “restraint” and self-control was therefore a betrayal of an authentic Jewish position that demands that we deeply sympathize with the suffering of others and that we give voice to our suffering. 

And, on the other side of the coin, the policy of havlagah suggests that pragmatic considerations were the reason we were holding ourselves back from revenge against innocent civilians. The authentic Jewish reason why we do not harm innocent civilians is written on the Aron Kodesh behind me: Lo Tirzach – you shall not murder.  Jewish ethics is built on a foundation of a categorical prohibition against murder and against intentionally harming innocent people. The discourse of Havlagah suggested that the policy against indiscriminate killing of innocent people was rooted in pragmatism rather than a core principle of justice and ethics.

Rav Amiel argued that the policy of Havlagah reflected a fear that if we were to actually give voice to our own pain and suffering and outrage when our Jewish brothers and sisters are killed in a violent struggle, our response would lead us to copy the tactics of our enemies. But Rav Amiel reminded us that if we embrace and reinforce our Jewish commitments, we can avoid becoming callous at the same time as we avoid crossing ethical redlines or blacklines.

How many commandments are in the Ten Commandments?  This is not a trick question. Christians speak about the “Ten Commandments” but if you read the Asseret haDibrot carefully and count mitzvot  it is obvious that there are more than ten of them (or possibly fewer than ten depending on how you count). More importantly, Jews affirm 613 mitzvot in the Torah and do not single out any of them for special devotion. This observation begs the question: Why are there ten statements in the asseret hadibrot?

Rav Hutner, in his writings about Shavuot, draws our attention to three sets of ten in the Torah which together form a story. God created the world through ten utterances, by which the laws of physics and chemistry and biology and psychology were established forever. God intervened into the world through the ten plagues to signify that having created the world, God had not “retired” but remained acutely aware of human affairs and invested in our welfare. And having made that investment and taken us out of Egypt, God was empowered, as it were, to augment the laws of nature, with mitzvot. There are ten “dibrot” so that we understand the connection between these three moments in God’s relationship with the world. 

Lo Tirtzach, thou shall not murder, is therefore more than just one mitzvah out of 613, it is a moral law, akin to a law of nature that serves as a foundation for existence. At challenging times we can remember this. The Jewish people, whether in America or in Israel should not feel bound to a Christian mistranslation that is contradicted by 2,000 years of Christian history. But we should also understand that while our own tradition endorses the just use of violence to protect innocent people, our tradition only justifies the just use of violence to protect innocent people.  

It is hard to break away from binary and manichean ways of seeing things. If a message can fit on a bumper sticker or a t-shirt, or can be chanted at a rally it is probably not an authentic Jewish message. There is no room for Rashi and Tosafot on a bumper sticker. In an age of slogans and extremes, we need to affirm again and again the necessity of dialogue and debate and discernment in order to distinguish right from wrong. On Shavuot we commemorate standing at Sinai and receiving the Torah. The moral law that the Torah introduced to the world did not obviate the need for judgment and discretion. The Torah obligates us to engage in judgment and discretion and that is the task that we can rededicate ourselves to on Shavuot and on every day.  

The metaphors that we use on Shavuot for “receiving the Torah” or the “revelation” of the Torah obscure the loving and covenantal relationship that was formed at Sinai. That relationship is not one in which, having passively accepted a gift, we can live out the rest of our lives in ease knowing we have simple answers to every dilemma that comes our way. At Sinai we committed to a process of study and discovery and the hard work needed to live our lives and orient our communities around the demands of the Torah. The answer is in there, but we have to find it.

Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784