Thursday, January 29, 2009

After Gaza: On Violence and Self Defence

Twenty-one days ago the campaign against Hamas was balanced and right. About a week ago it started slipping and in the last few days it has crossed every line. The IDF may be squeezing Hamas, but it is destroying Israel. Destroying its soul and its image…In a few days the fire will cease and the fog will disperse, revealing the horror. Then we'll discover that we will not be paying the price only in Obama's America…but in the damaged souls of our sons and daughters. (Ari Shavit 16/1)

It happened in those days, when Moses had grown up, that he went out to his brothers, and looked at their burdens. He saw an Egyptian striking a Hebrew, one of his brothers. And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he killed the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand. (Exodus 2:11-12)

Thus begins the Torah's description of a young Moshe, an archetypal leader. Despite growing up in the luxury of Pharoah's court he identifies with his subjugated people; he protects the weak; he endangers his life to promote justice. Moshe's act of courage is one of the first acts in this revolutionary Biblical drama - of slaves becoming free on their journey to enter the Promised Land.

A story that - throughout the ages - has provided inspiration to the weak and oppressed.

Moshe doesn’t merit entering the Promised Land, dying instead in the Wilderness. But strangely enough, during one of several arguments with God in which he pleads for additional years, the Rabbis creatively bring his earlier heroism back to haunt him.

'You ask me for life?' says God 'but what right do you have? after all you killed that Egyptian'

'You're punishing me killing one Egyptian?' responds Moshe shocked. 'You killed all the innocent Egyptian firstborns – and I should die over killing one?!'

'Are you comparing yourself to me'? God asks incredulously. 'I who give life and take life…You however, what right did you have to take life?'

I think it's fair to say Judaism is ambivalent about violence. On the one hand we have the command to destroy another people – the Amalekites. On the other, we have the Rabbinic downplaying of Biblical strict justice, the fear our Patriarchs felt at potentially spilling innocent blood, the idea that a Court which sentences one person to death in seven years (some say seventy) is a 'bloodthirsty court'.

It's certainly not a pacifistic religion which denies a person the right to defend himself, his family, his people.

But the conversation between God and Moshe seems to suggest something else. That even when violence is right; even when its justified; even when one acts in self-defense. Even then violence and taking life have negative consequences.

Consequences which stopped our greatest monarch from building the Temple.

Consequences which prevented our greatest prophet from entering the Promised Land.

But what about those who have already entered their Promised Land; those who are sometimes forced to fight to defend it...

How will it affect them?


Unknown said...

As an aside, I want to refer to your comment that "On the one hand we have the command to destroy another people – the Amalekites."

The Torah says that there is a War of God with Amalek not that the Israelites must wage the war. Also there is an obligation to blot out the memory of Amalek. It doesn't say to actually kill them. The Torah is generally pretty clear when it tells the Israelites to kill another people.

Maybe the Torah's message about Amalek was something different than we have been led to believe.

The difference between Zaycher (memory) and Zecher (males) of Amalek might also be instructive. Note that the Torah says Zaycher. Later traditions added the potetial reading of Zecher.

Anonymous said...

it's interesting - but two points
1) Not enough is given to us as WHY Moshe's actions were viewed wrong by Hashem if that is the reason for him not entering the land.
2) It is implying, in a way, that we must be wary of self defense, which I think at times is very dangerous.


Calev said...


personally i dont think that the Amalek commandment is relevant anymore. I think it can be argued that it referred to a character trait that needs to be destroyed - like cynicism, or attacking the weak, or nihilism.

i also think that the Rabbis moved to neutralize the commandment by syaing that because the Assyrian ruler Sancheriv came and mixed up all the peoples, we no longer know who Amalek really is anymore, hence we cant destroy them.

but regardless of those two things, i think any discussion on Judaism's view of violence and war cant ignore the Torah text...

Calev said...


i think we need to move away from a type of binary analysis - if an action is justified then its good; and if its not justified then its bad.

What Moshe did was right. I think we should all aim to imitate that type of courage. The Torah looks on it positively. But i think the midrash is pointing out that even if something is right, doesnt mean cant also be accursed, that it affetcs the person who carries it out.

And that is an idea that doesnt seem to have been mentioned in discussions over Gaza...

Calev said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I agree with the Moshe bit - the torah mentions that also with Jacob's 'blessing' to Simeon/Levi, where he curses their anger/actions (and not them, as their intention was good - and hence, only they are referred to as 'Dinah's brothers').

But I think it has been mentioned over discussions with Gaza. Most of us are struggling with the fact that a) innocent lives have been lost on theirs side and b) a 'right' action has caused tremendous damage to Israel in many 'arenas'.

It's something, as you say, that affects us despite the vindication we feel in our actions.


Anonymous said...

As Nietche once said: "if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. "

In a country in which most of the population knows how to use automatic weapons you would expect a higher crime rate...if you compare Israel to the UK, the crime rate/violence in the UK is on a different scale compared to Israel - we are doing pretty well keeping our sanity in this violent region. British society is by far more violent than Israeli society...the first time I saw people fighting in the street was in the UK.

Israel's main concern should always be it's children. The international community will act according to each and every state's interest/trend. The nations of the world will condemn Israel in any case...One thing I learnt about many Europeans is that they do not care for the facts/truth - they care about hating Israel and their mind is set regardelss of Israel's actions.


Anonymous said...


Dont over think it my friend.

Its quite simple. Someone is trying to kill you, you kill him first.Full stop.

If you stop to think, you wind up dead. Thats how it is in the field.

We can think about it before the event, we can even think about it afterwards, as you are doing now, but that does not change what needs to be done.

There is a time for peace, and a time for war. This is the nature of all things. Light, dark. Day, night. Male, female.

And so it goes on. We need to come to terms with that as human beings.

It makes horrible decisions easier to make.

And it may also save your life and the lives of your friends if you end up doing your military service.