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Jewish terrorism vs. Jewish law

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On Oct. 7, an elite anti-terrorism unit attached to Israel’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet, arrested an American-born settler named Ya-akov “Jack” Teitel on charges that he carried out a 12-year spate of murders, attempted murders, and acts of terrorism. The arrest was made public earlier this week.

Keeping the faith

Jewish terrorism is nothing new. Also not new are the motives Jewish terrorists or their supporters offer — everything from revenge for acts of terrorism by Arabs against Jews, to political actions (e.g., blowing up a wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem when it served as the headquarters of the British Mandatory Authority), to religion. The Shin Bet, for example, maintains that there are terror cells waiting for an opportunity to blow up the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, both located on the Temple Mount, in order to clear the way for a rebuilding of the Temple and a revival of the sacrificial cult.

Jewish terrorists often are revered by some. For example, Baruch Goldstein killed 29 people inside the Cave of the Patriarchs on Purim day 1994. His grave, located in Kiryat Arba’s Meir Kahane Memorial Park, is a place of pilgrimage for those who see him as a Jewish hero. Reportedly, a plaque near his grave reads, “To the holy Baruch Goldstein, who gave his life for the Jewish people, the Torah, and the land of Israel.”

Baruch Goldstein is no Jewish hero. “Jack” Teitel, if the charges are true, is no Jewish hero. Halacha does not sanction the use of terrorism, either as a vehicle of revenge for Arab terrorism against Jews, or to further supposedly religious goals, including restoration of the Temple and the Sacred Service.

To begin with, it is God “to whom vengeance belongs” (see Psalm 94:1) and no one else. That would seem obvious, but it is far from it.

There should be no question, for example, about one Jew’s taking vengeance on another. Teitel is accused, among other things, of the attempted murder of a politically liberal Jewish historian and Israel Prize winner in 2008. The attempt reportedly was an act of vengeance against one whose leftist views on the peace process were seen as empowering Arabs to shed Jewish blood. “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk,” we are told in Leviticus 19:18.

Ah, I imagine some of you saying, but the Torah clearly allows a “blood-avenger,” the relative of someone who was killed, to kill the killer, a fellow Israelite, even before a trial takes place. (See Leviticus 25:19.) Is this not the Torah’s sanction of revenge killing?

Yes — and no.

Blood-vengeance is in keeping with ancient practice generally. Clause 229 of the Code of Hammurabi, for example, states: “If a builder builds a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built falls in and kills its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.” Clause 230 adds, “If it kills the son of the owner, the son of that builder shall be put to death.” The Code also has a societal add-on: If the unintentional killer is from a lower rung of the social ladder than the deceased, then two of his relatives must die to pay for the one already dead.

It is this unjust system that the Torah sought to eliminate in Israel (despite the opinion of some that blood-vengeance is a positive Torah commandment). First, it limited the blood-vengeance to the killer himself. Second, by creating the cities of refuge, where the alleged killer finds sanctuary of sorts, it made it virtually impossible to carry out.

In this light, revenge killings by Jews are acts of premeditated murder (especially considering that the people being targeted, such as the students in the east Jerusalem girls school seven years ago, probably did not kill anyone).

War, of course, can be a form of vengeance and the killing in it is often indiscriminate. The Torah sanctions this, too. (For example, see Numbers 31:1-3.) The vengeance is God’s; the instrument of His vengeance is Israel’s army. Only the state is empowered to execute such vengeance, however (known as a heter milchamah, a “dispensation to make war”). This also precludes Jewish acts of terrorism.

One could argue that it is permissible to take the law into one’s own hands in the face of imminent danger to life. A person, after all, does have the right to defend himself.

Indeed, the Sages of Blessed Memory grant such right (see Babylonian Talmud tractate Bava Kama 27b-28a), but it is very narrowly focused and in any case does not extend to carrying out the death penalty. Some rabbinic decisors go much farther, insisting that the vigilante, before he or she acts, must possess sufficient and incontrovertible evidence of the guilt of the one being punished.

One supposed justification for permitting terrorism is the so-called Law of the Pursuer, the Rodef. We are allowed to kill someone bent on committing murder (or rape), if that is the only way to stop him or her. However, states the Talmud, it must be “as clear to you as the sun that his intentions are not peaceable.” Subsequent decisors have set a 90 percent rule; there needs to be a 90 percent certainty that the “pursuer” really does mean to commit a capital crime. (See BT Sanhedrin 72a; the right is based on Exodus 22:1-2.)

Note to those who will argue, as they always do when I write on such matters, that the Laws of the Rodef do not apply to non-Jews: No less an authority than Rabbi Yosef Caro, author of the Shulchan Aruch, disagrees. See his Kesef Mishnah commentary to Maimonides, Laws of the Murderer and the Protection of Life, 2:11, in which he says that the Torah’s prohibitions against murder most certainly do apply to the killing of non-Jews.

If the charges are true, Ya-akov “Jack” Teitel is no hero of the Jewish people and should not be hailed as one. No terrorist should. Jewish law allows for self-defense; it makes no allowance for random acts of mayhem and murder.

To say that it does is nothing less than a profanation of God’s holy name.

Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of the Conservative synagogue Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park and an instructor in the UJA-Federation-sponsored Florence Melton Adult Mini-School of the Hebrew University. He is the editor of Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.
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Stay tuned for the return of comments

Carrol Mills, PhD posted 13 May 2011 at 08:28 PM

Excellent article.  Thank you!



Time to let the Confederacy finally die

On Palm Sunday in 1865 — that was April 9, just five days before Abraham Lincoln’s assassination — the formerly invincible Confederate general Robert E. Lee sat in the small house of a slave-owner named Wilmer McLean in the little town of Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

Earlier that day, Lee had tried and failed to battle his way into the city, which held vital supplies for his armies. He was quickly surrounded and outnumbered, and realizing it would be a losing battle, he’d agreed to meet with General Ulysses S. Grant to negotiate his surrender. Now, dressed in an immaculate uniform, he waited for Grant to arrive. As soon as Grant got there, Lee, the great terror of the Union armies, would surrender his own, the much-feared and renowned Army of Northern Virginia.



‘Zionism’ is not a dirty word


Jonathan Sacks should tell Jews to fight for Israel — not to surrender

This week, England’s former chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, gave a speech described by the media as doom and gloom at a conference in Herzliya.

Rabbi Sacks admitted a belief that the BDS movement had succeeded in making the state of Israel a “divisive factor” in Jewish life, and he claimed that as a result, supporting Israel was “almost impossible” for European Jews.

It was an astonishingly defeatist speech, which is troubling enough. But most disturbing was the false dichotomy he presented to European Jews. In his own troubling words, he said, “Jews have been faced with a choice: live in Europe and criticize Israel or be silent, or leave Europe…” In other words, the only solutions left for Europe’s Jewish community is to embrace and succumb to BDS or get out. What he shockingly neglected to mention is the obvious third option: to stay in Europe, embrace Israel, and fight for the Jewish state.


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