I. Military Ethics
Torat HaMelech, a book published last year by two rabbis in Israel, has been lambasted by Israeli media and government as racist and an incitement to violence. Confident that most if not all commentators on the book failed to understand, and probably even to read, the book, I set out to discover for myself the truth about its contents. While the media got a lot wrong about the book and failed entirely to explain its creative thesis, they were right about the book being racist. But before we get to that, I’d like to discuss the book’s goals and methods.
Contrary to media reports, Torat HaMelech is not about when or how Jews may kill gentiles. The book is about military ethics — when and how a soldier may kill. The underlying question of military ethics has long attracted the attention of thinkers because of its perplexing nature: What could possibly justify the killing of another person? If war is ever ethically allowed — admittedly a big “if” but one that the majority of humanity has historically accepted — there must be some coherent distinction between the circumstances in which killing is and is not allowed.
Jewish thinkers have struggled to build military ethics based on Jewish sources. Some, such as R. Shaul Yisraeli (Amud Ha-Yemini, no. 16, ch. 5), contend that international convention — not what largely ignored laws say but what standing armies do — obtains halakhic sanction. Others, such as R. Menachem Shach (cited by R. Broyde, below n. 1), attempt to construct an ethic based on Torah laws. (R. Michael Broyde’s wonderfully concise survey of Jewish military ethics can be found here: link, p. 19 in the PDF.) Torat HaMelech follows R. Shach’s path of considering war to be a generalized scenario of the Talmudic scenario of an encounter with a dangerous foe but with a twist, one that will be a lasting contribution to the literature if the book can survive its other significant flaws.
II. Universal Military Ethics
In their search for a Jewish military ethic, the authors of Torat HaMelech first set out to build a universal military ethic based on the seven Noahide commandments. Analyzing at length the Noahide prohibition of murder, the authors unveil a comprehensive delineation of when a gentile may kill in a time of war and other duress. They write dispassionately, which can be understood as callousness but could equally be interpreted as a thoughtful commitment to textual argumentation rather than emotion. I would have compromised somewhat and allowed my emotions to poke through on occasion. I cannot, however, fault the authors for deciding differently.
After building a universal ethic, the authors argue that when Jews battle gentiles, Jews are subject to the Noahide, rather than the later Torah, prohibition of murder. This bold move, based on a debatable but defensible Talmudic interpretation, allows them to level the playing field so that the Torah permits Jews and gentiles to fight on equal terms. This is all clever and worthy of discussion. However, the universal military ethic the authors construct is horrifically liberal when it comes to killing civilians — both Jews and gentiles.
III. Targeting Civilians
A Jews is obligated to sanctify God’s name and suffer martyrdom rather than violate certain prohibitions including murder. This obligation does not apply to gentiles but, despite that, authorities debate whether a gentile may kill an innocent bystander in order to save his own life. The authors discuss this debate but conclude that all agree that if the bystander is not entirely innocent, if he even offers some kind of moral support to the enemy, then all authorities allow a gentile to kill such a person in order to save his own life. Translating this into the terms of modern warfare, the authors allow soldiers or anyone in danger to kill any enemy civilian who supports the enemy war effort. This is not an issue of Jew or gentile but a universal military ethic that permits killing civilians. The authors offer a list of target priorities (p. 216), with enemy soldiers at the top, but they justify targeting innocent civilians if it will tangibly help the war effort. This is not just a matter of collateral damage, a topic of much debate in contemporary military ethics, but specifically targeting civilians.
I saw one defender of the book state that it is a compilation of different views. This is only partially correct. The authors suggest multiple paths to reach their destination allowing the targeting of enemy civilians. In addition to the above approach, they “kitchen sink” the issue. They do not, however, quote mainstream views that are more restrictive regarding civilians. While they quote R. Shaul Yisraeli’s essay on this subject multiple times, they only utilize him regarding specific points and not his advocacy of international military conventions. This is quite suprising because, as R. Michael Broyde states, “I can find no other serious halakhic authority who assumes that the halakhot of war are identical to the rules of personal self-defense.”
The authors’ “kitchen sink” views range from the extremely permissive to the horrifically bloodthirsty. I found only one parenthetical mention (p. 182) in the entire book of the concept that you may only kill a rodef, a pursuer, if you cannot stop him with lesser means. Surely that concept is relevant in discussing civilian supporters of a war. Aside from non-military means of stopping the efforts, what about capture?
One of the most bizarre “kitchen sink” arguments goes as follows (p. 115): A government — Jewish or gentile — can kill its citizens because otherwise how can it force them to serve as soldiers. Therefore, an army can kill enemy civilians because if those civilians support the enemy, they are dangerous. And if they support us, then they count as our civilians whom we are allowed to kill. Understandably, the authors bring no Torah source for such a disturbing argument.
Another difficult argument is based on the idea that anyone may serve as witness, judge and executioner to a gentile who violates severe prohibitions. This flies in the face of Tosafos (Avodah Zarah 26b), according to whom the Chazon Ish (Bava Kamma 10:15) rules, that a gentile must be judged in court. If a soldier witnesses a gentile committing a religious crime, the authors argue, he may shoot to kill regardless of the circumstances. The practical implications of such a liberal policy are troublingly broad.
The book is an uneven mix of textual and logical argumentation. In some sections, the authors quote a plethora of post-Talmudic commentaries and codes who continue the Talmudic discussion. However, in many other sections — perhaps the majority of the book — the authors quote few if any authorities and rely entirely on Talmudic sources when available and otherwise logical arguments. I noticed that they do this even when post-Talmudic sources on the subject abound. And sometimes the authors fail to cite crucial authorities who disagree with their basic point.
The authors’ primary military ethic is interesting and deserving of consideration. However, not only is their adoption of a minority view while omitting mention of more mainstream views clumsy, their extreme application and additional arguments are simply shocking.
The media and courts have accused the authors of writing a racist book. As I began to read the book, I was hoping to find that they are wrong. However, despite my attempt at a generous reading, I am forced to conclude that they are correct, even if some of their examples miss the mark. It is important to note that the authors emphasize and reiterate that a Jew is absolutely forbidden to kill a gentile. The first chapter is devoted to explaining why, but is preceded with a chapter summary (as are all chapters) unequivocally stating that a Jew may not kill a gentile. In general, it need not even be said but the authors’ construction of a universal military ethic requires them to first place Jews and gentiles within the same Noahide prohibition.
As an addendum to this chapter, the authors offer a kabbalistic interpretation of the Talmudic concept that anything prohibited to a gentile must also be prohibited to a Jew. While the authors use kabbalistic distinctions between Jewish and gentile souls, they do much to bridge that gap in a spirit that is surprisingly lacking in racism (e.g. pp. 42-44).
However, chapter four provides incontrovertible evidence of racism. In this chapter, the authors argue that Jewish lives are more important than gentile. Not more important to us because we take care of our own before we take care of others, but simply objectively more important. They prove this in section three by ignoring the Ramban’s view that we violate Shabbos to save the life of a resident gentile (ger toshav — see his commentary to Lev. 25:45 and the back of Sefer Ha-Mitzvos, omitted aseih 16), according to whom R. Nachum Rabinowitz holds is the halakhah (Melumedei Milchamah no. 43). Omitting this important datum, they reason that since a Jew’s life overrides Shabbos and a gentile’s does not, therefore a Jew’s life is always more important than a gentile’s. Aside from the fact that not all Jewish lives override Shabbos and some gentile lives do, the rationale underlying all of this has nothing to do with the importance of lives (see here: link). This is simply poor logic based on partial information.
Some have interpreted this chapter to mean that the authors advocate killing gentiles in order to harvest their organs to save Jewish lives. This is an understandable misreading but incorrect; the last footnote in the chapter (p. 169 n. 16) makes it clear that they do not advocate such an approach (see also p. 199 n. 31). Nevertheless, they use this disturbing principle to justify killing gentile civilians during war, even targeting innocent children to affect their parents, in order to save the lives of Jewish soldiers or civilians.
Torah HaMelech proposes an indecent military ethic that permits the strategic killing of anyone in an enemy nation. No measure of compassion exists, not for infants or even sympathetic civilians, in pursuing military victory. The racist undertones within the book compound its unworthiness, making it a painful and unrewarding read. While the authors offer some worthwhile halakhic interpretations, I question whether any but the boldest scholars will quote the book due to its many flaws.[Note: I am using the transliteration of the book’s Hebrew title that the media has adopted. I would normally write the title as Toras Ha-Melekh.]