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Killing in the Name Of God
Civilians. Men, women and children. Killed in cold blood by a small group of people who believe that they are fulfilling God’s will by doing it.
The attacks of 9/11, ten years ago today, fill us with moral revulsion. The problem is that the above paragraph is an equally accurate description of the Jewish People killing the tribe of Amalek, or the seven nations that occupied the Land of Israel. What is the difference between us? What is the difference between the Al-Qaeda terrorists, who kill Israelis and Westerners out of the conviction that it is Allah’s will, and the Children of Israel, who proclaim fealty to the Torah which commands us to kill various nations?
This question arose in my mind after 9/11. One person that I discussed in with insisted that the answer is simply that we are right and they are wrong. He considered this to be a vitally important aspect of emunah. I did not and do not find this answer satisfactory. To be sure, we believe that the Islamic terrorists are incorrect in thinking that they are doing God’s will. But we don’t just believe that they are following a mistaken interpretation of God’s will; we see them as fundamentally evil. Likewise, we don’t merely believe that it is correct to obey the Torah; we believe that “its ways as being ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.” If pleasantness and peace is defined as doing God’s will, then the verse becomes meaningless.
It seems to me that there are several components to the answer. Since I detest discussions which get unfocussed, with people arguing at cross-purposes, I will break down this discussion into separate components, restricting each blog post to one component. (Note to those who are commenting: Stick to the specific aspect of this topic that we will be discussing!)
I think that at least part of the answer to this rests upon differentiating between goals and processes. Every person subscribes to a system of values, in which judgments are necessarily made as to who should live and who should die. But then there is the question of one’s attitude to carrying out a death sentence. With Islamic terrorism, we see that they take pleasure and perceive glory not merely in infidels dying, but even in the actual act of killing them. War is jihad, a “holy” war.
In Judaism we see a very different approach. Now, some would claim that one is always supposed to enjoy doing a mitzvah. I believe that this is misleading. A mitzvah involves two components; obeying God’s words, and committing an act. One can feel satisfaction at fulfilling God’s command at the same time as feeling revulsion at committing an act.
Before giving examples, let us look at a parallel concept in the world at large. We certainly find that one can commit an act which one feels to be ultimately good, and to take pleasure in that knowledge, even while the performance of the act is itself brutal and repulsive. The simple example is a surgeon or a dentist. The dentist is happy to be healing someone, even though drilling out his tooth is a brutal, painful act. Judaism likewise acknowledges that certain acts are themselves brutal and unpleasant, even though they are performed for ultimately noble purposes. There is no celebration of bloodshed.
For example, King David was not allowed to build the Temple because of the blood on his hands—notwithstanding the fact that he was absolutely justified and even praised for all the blood that he spilled. And, in a very different sphere, according to many halachic authorities, one does not recite the blessing of Shehechiyanu at the circumcision of one’s son, for the reason is that one cannot pronounce such a declaration of joy at an act that is a source of pain to one’s child.
One case that would appear to contradict our thesis is that of Abraham’s planned slaughter of Isaac. The Midrash tells us how Abraham complied with this command with alacrity, joyous at the opportunity to fulfill the will of his Creator. Yet further analysis and contemplation proves otherwise. The Midrash also tells us that Isaac was blinded by the tears that Abraham spilled. Abraham had mixed emotions; joy at fulfilling the Will of his Creator, grief at spilling the blood of his son.
Everyone has different beliefs as to who is worthy of punishment or execution. But one crucial difference between us is how we feel about carrying out these tasks.
(Please remember that, as noted above, I was only discussing here ONE ASPECT of the difference between Judaism and Al-Quaeda. In the next post, I plan to explore another aspect to this discussion: Comparing and contrasting Judaism's approach to weapons with that of other cultures. I will discuss still other aspects in future posts.)