Vigilantism in Jewish Law

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by R. Gil Student

I. The Subway Vigilante

I’ve been thinking lately about Bernhard Goetz, who 35 years ago famously shot four teenagers trying to mug him (link). Goetz, called the “Subway Vigilante” by the media at the time, raised a national debate regarding taking the law into your own hands, and probably helped create a climate that successfully demanded the cleanup of New York subways.

I’d like to address the question, within Jewish law, whether someone in fear of being mugged may shoot his would-be robbers with intent to kill. While there may be a remote threat to the victim’s life, does that justify his use of deadly force when he can aim for the mugger’s leg?

II. Two Principles

Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi, in his super-commentary to Rashi (Gen. 32:8), distinguishes between two principles in Jewish law. The first is ha-ba le-horgekha hashken ve-horgo — if someone is coming to kill you, kill him first. This means that if someone is attacking you, even if you are not sure whether he intends to kill you, you may kill him.

The second principle is that of rodef, a pursuer. A pursuer may be stopped with deadly force. However, you must use minimal force to stop a pursuer. If you can disable him without killing him but kill him anyway, you are guilty of murder. This rule, Rav Mizrachi argues, does not apply to the previous principle.

When someone is pursuing you, the first principle applies and you may kill him without trying to use minimal force. You are, almost certainly, incapable of determining the real danger you face given the great personal risk and are therefore exempt from even trying. Just do what you can to save yourself.

However, when someone is pursuing someone else, only the second principle applies and you must use minimal force. Because you are not personally in danger, you are required to determine just how much force is requires and not go beyond that.

The Mishneh Le-Melekh (Hilkhos Chovel U-Mazik 8:10) agrees in principle with Rav Mizrachi. He writes that someone who is being chased does not have a presence of mind and, therefore, is not obligated to warn his pursuer before attacking nor to use minimal force.

III. Contrary Views

However, this seems to be quite an innovative position. Others disagree. Rav Akiva Eiger (Commentary to Kesubus 33b) explicitly disputes this position. The Minchas Chinukh (600:7) points to the discussion in Sanhedrin (49a), in which Avner is condemned for killing Asahel even though Asahel was pursuing him (2 Samuel 2:18-23). While Avner was allowed to attack his pursuer, he could have disabled him and therefore had no right to kill him. According to Rav Mizrachi and the Mishneh Le-Melekh, Avner was being pursued and therefore did not have to make this distinction.

The Minchas Chinukh also points to Rashi (Sanhedrin 57a sv. ve-yakhol) who states explicitly that even someone being pursued should use the minimal amount of force necessary. See also Margoliyos Ha-Yam (49a:3) for a list of relevant sources.

IV. Conclusion

What we have, then, is a dispute among the authorities. According to Rav Mizrachi and the Mishneh Le-Melekh, someone being mugged may shoot to kill. According to Rav Akiva Eiger and the Minchas Chinukh, he should only use the minimal amount of force necessary to save himself.

(reposted from Jan, 2010)

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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