Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9)
Efrat, Israel – “When you draw near to a city to wage war against it you shall [first] call out to it for peace.” (Deuteronomy 20:10)
Despite the bad press we constantly receive at the hands of the media, I do not believe there is an army in the history of world warfare which operates with the degree of ethical sensitivity that is adhered to by the Israeli Defense Forces; we never target civilians despite the fact that our enemy only targets Jewish civilians. We have always subscribed to a policy known as “purity of arms,” the foundation for which harks back to the Bible, and particularly to this week’s Torah portion of Shoftim.
Both Maimonides, as well as Nahmanides, maintain that this principle of initially requesting peace before waging war – and for Maimonides, that includes the enemies’ willingness to accept the seven Noahide laws of morality, most notably “Thou shalt not murder” (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 6:1; Nahmanides, ad loc.) – applies even when waging a battle in self-defense, even when warring against Amalek or the seven indigenous inhabitants of the land of Canaan.
But then, as we read further, the picture seems to get a bit complex, even murky. The Bible continues to prescribe that if the enemy refuses to make peace, then “from those of the cities which the Lord your God has given you as an inheritance, you shall not leave any living being alive; you must utterly destroy them” (Deut. 20:16-17), and this would seem to include innocent women and children as well. How are we to understand our compassionate Bible, which teaches that every human being is created in the divine image and is therefore inviolate, sanctioning the destruction of innocent residents?
In order to compound our question, only two verses after the command to “utterly destroy” appears the following curious – and exquisitely sensitive – divine charge (Deut. 20:19): “When you lay siege to a city… to wage war against it and capture it, you may not destroy a fruit tree to lift an ax against it; after all, it is from it that you eat, so you may not destroy it because the human being is [derives his sustenance from] the tree of the field;’ (or as alternatively rendered, “Is the tree of the field a human being who is capable of escaping a siege?”)
Can it be that our Torah cares more about a fruit tree than about innocent human beings?
First of all, one might argue that a fruit tree, which gives human beings nutrition, the wherewithal to live, is of greater benefit than an individual born to an environment which preaches death to all who reject Jihadi fundamentalism or who do not pass the test of Aryan elitism. Such individuals are sub-apples, because they are out to destroy free society.
Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (end of the nineteenth century), dean of Yeshivat Volozhin, in his masterful commentary on the Bible known as Ha’amek Davar, provides the beginning of a second answer. He insists that when the Bible ordains that we “utterly destroy” even the women and children (as it also commands in Deut. 7:1-2), this is limited “to those who gather against us in battle.” (Ha’amek Davar, ad loc.)
It is almost as though the Bible took into account our present war against our present Operation Protective Edge again Hamas, who cynically use the population of Gaza as human shields from which they send out missiles against the innocent Israeli population. If we did not strike back at the Gazan apartments and the UNWRA schools and hospitals which are being used as launching pads against the innocent Israelis, we would be granting a victory to the terrorists and we would be teaching all terrorists to use civilians in such a way. Indeed, war stinks; to paraphrase Golda Meir, I don’t hate Hamas for attempting to drive us out of Israel – but I do hate Hamas for making us take the lives of innocent Gazans.
Michael Walzer, in his classic Just and Unjust Wars, maintains that a soldier’s life is not worth more than an innocent victim’s life. But we must add to this that if the “innocent victim” has bought into the evil of the enemy, or if the enemy is a terrorist purposely waging war from the thick of residential areas because they know our ethical standards, we dare not allow them to gain the edge and enable evil to triumph.
Yes, we must try as much as possible to wage a moral war but morally we must never allow immorality to triumph. Our sages correctly teach: “Those who are compassionate to the cruel will end up being cruel to the compassionate!” But short of allowing immorality to triumph, the IDF governs its actions on the side of compassion for innocents, even in battle.