Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 10 January 2009 / 14 Tevet 5769

Jewish Self Defense

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Todd in Baltimore

Dear Rabbi,

Would you please share any ideas you might have about how the Torah might relate to the current situation with the war against Hamas. Perhaps more specifically, what is the Torah’s attitude toward retaliation in self defense?

Dear Todd,

Ideally, a Jew would rather have peace than war. However, not only history, but also the Torah, teaches us that a Jew has to be willing and able to fight - and win. Here are several examples:

1. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, was taken captive in a war between four powerful armies against five where the former prevailed (Gen. 14:13-16). Abraham gathered relatively few men in pursuit of such a strong army in order to free his kin from captivity. Against the odds, he fiercely and courageously felled the fleeing army and saved not only Lot, but all of the others who had been taken captive by the oppressors as well.

2. After the Jews escaped enslavement and persecution in Egypt, they were attacked, unprovoked, by the nation of Amalek (Ex. 17:8-13). Moses ordered Joshua to choose people for battle, which he did until “Joshua weakened Amalek and its people with the blade of the sword”.

3. There is even a precedent for a pre-emptive strike. The Talmud teaches, “If someone comes to kill you, arise [preempt him] and kill him first” (Sanhedrin 72a). The Shulchan Aruch affirms this Talmudic principle by ruling: “If one sees that someone is pursuing him with the intention to kill him, he is permitted to defend himself and take the life of he who is pursuing him” (Choshen Mishpat 125:1).

4. The Talmud (Eruvin 45a) discusses whether the residents of a city in Israel who come under siege on Shabbat are permitted to violate Shabbat and take up arms in order to defend themselves. The Talmud rules that if the siege is launched with the clear intention of killing the city’s residents, they must violate Shabbat in taking up arms to defend themselves. Maimonides (Laws of Shabbat 3:23) expands this ruling by stating: “It is a mitzvah for all Jews who are able to come and help defend their brethren to do so, and it is forbidden to delay their coming until after Shabbat.”

Given the fact that Israel has not militarily provoked Hamas, but rather Hamas has ruthlessly attacked Israel merely for existing, has taken hostages and captives, has every intention to murder not only individuals but also besiege entire cities with the intention of killing as many residents as possible, there is certainly a Torah basis even for preemptive action – all the more so for retaliatory self-defense.

There are two interesting and interrelated facets of the above-mentioned war with Amalek. The first is that the attack is attributed to the Jews’ own departure from G-d. This removed G-d’s protective providence such that Israel’s denial of G-d was immediately followed by, “And Amalek came to battle Israel in Refidim”. The second is that the military leader, Joshua, and the soldiers were chosen not just for their physical might, but also because they were G-d-fearing, thereby meriting Divine intervention on their behalf. This exemplifies Judaism’s two-pronged approach to warfare: military prowess and faith in G-d.

In Biblical times individual Jews simultaneously embodied both physical and spiritual strength. However, as a result of physical and spiritual exile, these traits rarely co-exist in individuals nowadays. Those with great physical strength and military prowess usually lack spirituality, while those of great spiritual stature usually lack bodily strength. The ideal can only be obtained, then, through the uniting of these different parts of Israel into one collective body of the Jewish People comprising both strengths.

Let us increase Torah study, prayer and the performance of mitzvot to stir Divine favor for the protection of all Jews in general, and in particular for those under siege and for the soldiers risking their lives to protect Israel and its inhabitants. In addition, each of us should think how we can help, either monetarily, politically, through solidarity or in any other way. And may the political and military leaders, as well as the soldiers, be inspired to factor G-d into the equation of success by merely reciting the shema or putting on tefillin, for example, or any other way of connecting to Judaism and to G-d.

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