Sh'mot: A "Shameful and Foolish" Policy?

D’var Torah; Shabbat Sh’mot

Rabbi Art Levine, Ph.D., J.D.  
January 13-14, 2012 – 18 Tevet 5772

A “Shameful and Foolish” Policy?

This week the world’s news media has reported the assassination of another Iranian nuclear scientist. Many have speculated that Israeli agents were responsible. The Los Angeles Times editorialized that “although Iran’s development of nuclear weapons poses a grave threat to world stability and possibly an existential threat to (Israel)” and “economic sanctions don’t appear to be doing much to slow Iran’s nuclear progress,” “slaughtering scientists on the streets of Tehran” is “a serious violation of international law” with a car bomb being “a tactic little different from the methods used by terrorists.” The editorial called the act “morally bankrupt” and concluded: “If Israel is involved, it’s a shameful and foolish policy.”

But, if Israel was involved, is it? Since, Baruch Hashem, Israel is a Jewish state, we should want and expect it to act in concert with traditional Jewish values. Judaism places an extremely high value upon peace, but acting to save life, even taking it when the circumstances necessitate – is an even higher value. According to the Torah, one may kill a night-time intruder without incurring bloodguilt (Exodus 22:1). Nor may one stand idly by the blood of one’s neighbor (Leviticus 19:16). The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 73A, make it clear that this verse imposes an affirmative obligation to act to stop a rodef -- a “pursuer” -- intent on violence, even killing him, if necessary.

We see a clear example of this in this week’s Torah portion. It states: 

וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל־אֶחָיו וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי מַכֶּה אִישׁ־עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו: וַיִּפֶן כֹּה וָכֹה וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ וַיַּךְ אֶת־הַמִּצְרִי וַיִּטְמְנֵהוּ בַּחוֹל: 

Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. (Exodus 2:11-12, JPS translation). 

The Torah does not criticize Moses for this killing; in fact, our tradition praises Moses for risking his life and forgoing the high privilege of his upbringing in Pharaoh’s court in order to stop injustice. Much later in life, Moses is denied entry to the Promised Land, but not because he killed the slavemaster. Rather it is because, in striking a rock to obtain water rather than speaking to it as G-d had instructed, he demonstrated lack of faith in those instructions. (Numbers 20:8-12)

The United States and its allies applauded when American forces entered Pakistan and killed Osama Bin Laden. Bin Laden had orchestrated the attacks of 9/11. Iran’s leaders have not actually attacked the West nor Israel, but have maintained a vituperative campaign against Israel, including expressly calling for it to be “wiped off the map.” (See, Islamic Republic of Iran’s Presidency Website: http://www.president.ir/en/10114 ) They are spending billions to build the capability to carry out their threats. Not acting to impede them would be the “shameful and foolish policy” -- and utterly unJewish. (Judaism is certainly not alone in supporting lethal force to defend life.)

In traditional and conservative (but, regrettably, not reform) Jewish liturgy, we acknowledge our history as we sing Numbers 10:35 when opening the Ark to remove the Torah:

וַיְהִי בִּנְסֽוֹעַ הָאָרֹן וַיֹּֽאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, קוּמָה, יְיָ, וְיָפֻֽצוּ אֹיְבֶֽיךָ, וְיָנֻֽסוּ מְשַׂנְאֶֽיךָ מִפָּנֶֽיךָ.

When the Ark would travel, Moses would say: “Arise, Hashem, and let Your foes be scattered; let those who hate You flee from before You!”

Does this give every Jew a biblical mandate/free license to kill anyone he or she considers to be an “enemy of G-d?” Heaven forbid! This would indeed be “morally bankrupt,” as were the assassins of Yitzhak Rabin and their supporters, who considered him a “foe” for proposing land relinquishment to gain peace (although he was supported in his policy by the majority of Jews in Israel). But when the leaders of a nation with a powerful military openly avow the destruction of the Jewish state, stopping them is an entirely different matter; it is a mandatory act of justice as well as of defense.

Jews who lived during the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Chelminski Massacres, the Pogroms, the Arab riots, the Holocaust, and many other similar events could do little or nothing more than pray Arise, Hashem, and let Your foes be scattered! and have faith that it would happen. They lacked the political and military power to stop evil men from carrying out their open and credible threats of mass murder. Thank G-d, we in the West, and in Israel, need not stand by helplessly and watch it happen again.

Shabbat shalom!
R. Art Levine

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3