Ever since Zionism brought the Jewish people back into history we Jews, and especially the State of Israel, have had a major challenge; how to remain rachmanim b’nai rachmanim (compassionate children of compassionate parents) while at the same time protecting ourselves from real enemies as citizens of the modern State of Israel and as pro-Israel advocates amongst world Jewry.
In this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, we encounter a passage set down during the time of the reign of the Judean King Josiah (7th century BCE) who was in the process of solidifying his political control over all the land of Israel while the Assyrians were busy fighting on their eastern front. Here is the offending passage:
“Smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly, and everything in it… gather all the spoils… and burn with fire the city… and it shall be an eternal ruin forever; never again to be rebuilt. Let nothing that has been declared taboo there remain in your hands…God will then grant you mercy and the Almighty will be merciful to you, and multiply you as Adonai has sworn unto your ancestors.” (Deuteronomy 13:16)
The juxtaposition of Israel’s utter annihilation of an enemy on the one hand and the reward of compassion on the other is jarring. Rabbi Akiva (1st-2nd century CE) tried to ameliorate the brutality of the text by saying that the phrase “God will grant you to be merciful” means that you are not to kill the children (Tosefta Sanhedrin 14).
Following the destruction of the 2nd Temple (70 CE) when the Jewish people lost political control over their homeland, Talmudic tradition writing mostly from Galut (Exile) is replete with discussion of mercy and compassion as a principal Jewish trait to be nurtured and developed. One of the most famous of these is found in Yevamot 79a: “It is taught: There are three distinguishing signs of the Jewish nation: mercifulness, humility and loving-kindness. Mercifulness, as it is written, ‘God will then grant you mercy and the Holy One will be merciful to you….’”
Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar (i.e. Ohr HaChayim – 1696-1743 CE) remarked that the killing of another human being, even when done in self-defense, can lead the killer to become accustomed to bloodlust and eventually will corrupt the heart of Jewish civilization itself. Judaism teaches that we cannot become cruel and still call ourselves Jews. It is a tragic consequence that with the establishment of the State of Israel that there have been far too many occasions when Jews have been forced to get our hands dirty. Even so, tradition warns that we Jews can never forget the virtue of mercy. With this value uppermost in mind the Haganah and then the Israel Defense Forces developed a policy called Tohar Haneshek (lit. “Purity of Arms”) that is to this day an essential aspect of the training of every Israeli soldier.
Tohar Haneshek teaches how to fight a war as compassionately as possible, even at the risk of one’s own life, in order to avoid causing harm to innocent civilians. Indeed, no army in the history of the world has done more to avoid such harm to civilians than has Israel. Few know this because the Israel-haters use every opportunity to accuse the Jewish state of inhumanity and war crimes. Nevertheless, despite Israel’s uncommon record, many Israeli soldiers come home from military duty both in times of war and after service in the administered territories scarred and devastated by what they had to endure. Israel’s current government, however, in my view is guilty in a way no other Israeli government in its history has been so guilty of presiding over a hardening of heart, disrespect for Palestinians’ essential human rights, and democratic principles on which the State was founded, that I believe in time Jewish history will judge harshly.
The passage from Deuteronomy above set down 2700 years ago is disturbingly relevant today. Compassionate annihilation!? Please. There is no such thing and we ignore that truth at our own peril.