Going Medieval

One of the things the the loudest and most obnoxious supporters of the never-ending “War on Terror” have consistently said since September 11, 2001, is that the United States and Israel (and sometimes Europe, depending on how charitable toward Europeans they feel that day) represent the best and most positive parts of “modern civilization,” a modernity in need of a vigorous and violent defense.

Because of that, the governments of the “West” have an obligation to use as much force as necessary to defeat, subdue and even annihilate the backwards and “medieval” forces of Islam, bent as they are on destroying individualism, freedom, capitalism, the nation state and technological civilization. Or Christianity and Judaism. Or secularism and civilization. Take your pick, the justifications differ. The murderous war and policing of the West, the suffering and deaths — oh, I’m sorry, the “liberation” — of non-Westerners is absolutely necessary to defend against the forces of unreason and barbarism. To remake the world, by force, in the image of the modern, individualized, civilized and reasoned West.

So, what do you suppose would happen if suddenly a core Western state began to use medieval reasoning itself to justify murderous violence? Because that is exactly what appears to have happened in Israel during that nation-state’s war on and in Gaza earlier this year.

According to a Reuters report published on 20 March:

Rabbis in the Israeli army told battlefield troops in January’s Gaza offensive they were fighting a “religious war” against gentiles, according to one army commander’s account published Friday.

“Their message was very clear: we are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the gentiles who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land,” he said.

The New York Times took the story up the following day, quoting the same soldier (who spoke using a pseudonym):

Several of the testimonies, published by an institute that runs a premilitary course and is affiliated with the left-leaning secular kibbutz movement, showed a distinct impatience with religious soldiers, portraying them as self-appointed holy warriors.

A soldier, identified by the pseudonym Ram, is quoted as saying that in Gaza, “the rabbinate brought in a lot of booklets and articles and their message was very clear: We are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the non-Jews who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land. This was the main message, and the whole sense many soldiers had in this operation was of a religious war.”

The New York Times continued:

Those who oppose the religious right have been especially concerned about the influence of the military’s chief rabbi, Brig. Gen. Avichai Rontzki, who is himself a West Bank settler and who was very active during the war, spending most of it in the company of the troops in the field.

He took a quotation from a classical Hebrew text and turned it into a slogan during the war: “He who is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful.”

A controversy then arose when a booklet handed out to soldiers was found to contain a rabbinical edict against showing the enemy mercy. The Defense Ministry reprimanded the rabbi.

Neither Reuters nor the New York Times state what that “classical Hebrew text” Rabbi General Rontzki was citing, nor did Ha’aretz when it reviewed literature distributed to Israeli soldiers before and during the Gaza War. Instead, it cited a number of pamphlets spouting religious, militarist and nationalistic ideas with only vague hints at any guiding scriptural or religious principle:

The IDF rabbinate, also quoting Rabbi Aviner, describes the appropriate code of conduct in the field: “When you show mercy to a cruel enemy, you are being cruel to pure and honest soldiers. This is terribly immoral. These are not games at the amusement park where sportsmanship teaches one to make concessions. This is a war on murderers. ‘A la guerre comme a la guerre.'”

This view is also echoed in publications signed by Rabbis Chen Halamish and Yuval Freund on Jewish consciousness. Freund argues that “our enemies took advantage of the broad and merciful Israeli heart” and warns that “we will show no mercy on the cruel.”

“A la guerre comme a la guerre.” I suppose that’s in the Torah somewhere, that little bit where God spoke in French to Israel in the wilderness, substituting baguettes for manna that day. Or maybe that’s in some midrash written by Charlemagne or Napoleon.

No, it took the Jerusalem Post to actually say what “classical Hebrew text” was in play, at least from one’s rabbi’s perspective, citing a letter from a former Sephardic army rabbi:

All civilians living in Gaza are collectively guilty for Kassam attacks on Sderot, former Sephardi chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu has written in a letter to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Eliyahu ruled that there was absolutely no moral prohibition against the indiscriminate killing of civilians during a potential massive military offensive on Gaza aimed at stopping the rocket launchings.

The letter, published in Olam Katan [Small World], a weekly pamphlet to be distributed in synagogues nationwide this Friday, cited the biblical story of the Shechem massacre (Genesis 34) and Maimonides’ commentary (Laws of Kings 9, 14) on the story as proof texts for his legal decision.

According to Jewish war ethics, wrote Eliyahu, an entire city holds collective responsibility for the immoral behavior of individuals. In Gaza, the entire populace is responsible because they do nothing to stop the firing of Kassam rockets.

Maimonides. Moses ben Maimon, a great Torah scholar (among other things), born in Muslim Spain in A.D. 1135 and died in Muslim Egypt in A.D. 1204. Definitely not a modern, and only tangentially a European by today’s definition.

The ruling in question derives from Maimonides’ understanding (writing in his Laws of Kings) of Genesis 34, the story of the rape of Dinah by Shechem and the revenge Jacob’s/Israel’s sons take on Shechem. The story goes like this: Shechem, a non-Israelite, is smitten with Dinah, rapes her, and then tries to convince her to marry him. He asks his father Hamor to speak to her father Jacob and make it happen. “Meanwhile, Jacob’s sons, having heard the news, came in from the field. The men were distressed and very angry, because he had committed an outrage in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter – a thing not to be done.” (Gen. 34:7, all biblical citations from the JPS Tanakh)

Jacob’s sons, speaking “with guile” (v.13), tell Hamor and Shechem that they cannot “give our sister to a man who is uncircumcised, for that is a disgrace among us. Only on this condition will we agree with you; that you become like us in that every male among you is circumcised. Then we will give our daughters to you and take your daughters to ourselves; and we will dwell among you and become as one kindred. But if you will not listen to us and become circumcised, we will take our daughter and go.” (Gen. 34:14-17)

All of the men of Shechem eagerly agree. Dinah must have been some catch given what the men of an entire tribe were willing to do so that one man among them could marry. Then, as they are recovering from their painful ordeal:

Simeon and Levi, two of Jacob’s sons, brothers of Dinah, took each his sword, came upon the city unmolested, and slew all the males. They put Hamor and his son Shechem to the sword, took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went away. The other sons of Jacob came upon the slain and plundered the town, because their sister had been defiled. They seized their flocks and herds and asses, all that was inside the town and outside; all their wealth, all their children, and their wives, all that was in the houses, they took as captives and booty. (Gen. 34:25-29)

In his treatise The Laws of Kings, which covers warfare and other matters of state, Maimonides wrote this (if this web site can be trusted) to describe why it was Shechem had been put to the sword – as descendants of Noah (Noahides), they were under the seven laws given to Noah, and had a responsibility to uphold them. Laws of of Kings 9, 14 explains what that means:

In what way must [Noahides] fulfill the commandment to establish courts of justice? They are obligated to set up judges and magistrates in every major city to judge according to the above six laws, to warn the nation [regarding their observance]; A noahide who breaks one of these seven laws – is executed by decapitation. [additional text: for example: an idolater, or blasphemer, or murderer, or someone who has had one of the six illicit relations according to [Noahide law], or robbed even the worth of a peruta, or consumed any amount of “torn limb” or “torn meat”, or witnessed someone breaking one of these laws, and did not judge and sentance him – all these people are executed by decapitation.] For this all the inhabitants of Shechem were liable for capital punishment. This was because Shechem kidnapped [someone] and they witnessed this and knew [what he had done], but did not judge him. A Noahide is [may be] executed [on the basis of the testimony of] one witness and [the verdict of] a single judge. No prior warning [is required]. Relatives may serve as witnesses. However, a woman may not serve as a witness or a judge [in Noahide law].

No prior warning needed! A woman may not service as a witness or a judge! How progressive and modern, this voice from the 12th century!

So, under this understanding, anyone who witnesses a crime, an outrage, an act of evil or violence, and does nothing about it, is as guilty as the actual perpetrator and is as liable to the same capital punishment God outlines to Noah in Genesis 9:6 — “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man his blood shall be shed; For in His image did God make man.” (Who among us is this innocent?) This is the medieval principle that some in Israel are demanding form the basis of nation-state military actions.

At least Hamas, Al Qaeda (and its affiliates and franchisees) and fine folks of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade grounded their killing of civilians at least in part upon modern political theory, as opposed to entirely in ancients texts, stating that all citizens of a democratic state are morally responsible for the actions taken by that state in their name, and thus there are no “innocents” in a democracy.

Now, far be it from to tell a group of sephardic rabbis (or anyone else, for that matter) how they ought to interpret scripture. They did it long before I came along it will be doing it long after I’m gone. But I have always had a problem with trying to distill law from scripture, to use it as the guide for human ethical action, because it isn’t really about us doing stuff, it’s about God doing stuff to and for us. We human beings are the object of the action, while God is the subject. Scripture is the very human musing on what it means to be acted upon by God – it is revelation of God, not revelation from God (though it contains some of that) – and what does it mean to be God’s people. There aren’t always answers, good bad or otherwise.

But as God’s people, we have experienced God acting (in scripture and our lives), time and again, to save us, to redeem us, to show us that they have not been abandoned to their own devices, left to wallow in our own sinfulness. This is the connection between the so-called “Old” and “New” testaments, it’s what links Israel and the Church (indeed, they are the same), and it’s what makes the two cannons one continuing story. Our story. Of what God has done for us.

So it helps to read and consider the whole story – in this case, all of Genesis 34. And Maimonides’ reading (as endorsed by Rabbi Eliyahu) of Genesis 34 completely ignores the final exchange between Jacob/Israel and his sons:

Jacob said to Simon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.” But they answered, “should our sister be treated like a whore?” (Gen. 34:30-31)

It’s left completely up in the air as to whether or not the actions taken by Israel’s sons are proper. Jacob is concerned – now he and his sons are potentially vulnerable. They have shown themselves to be bad neighbors who are willing to misrepresent themselves – to pretend to invite a group of people into the covenant with God as defined by circumcision – in order to kill and plunder. The ruse is clever, and it works in this instance, but it’s also very risky. Who will trust them in the future? Jacob and his sons are strangers in this land, outnumbered and potentially very vulnerable.

And yet the sons are correct – family honor is at stake, and without doing something, it would be clear that the daughters of Israel could be had for nothing. Neither question is answered. So the tension of this very human situation remains morally unresolved. It is unclear what the right or proper course of action is, it is only clear what the story tells us was done.

It’s easy to take scripture and try to turn it into a dry legal code or a how-to-guide for life, a narrative without meaning. It’s also interesting how selective the use of Maimonides’ writings are. Granted, he speaks only of capital punishment, but the passage he cites as his justification speaks also of looting, pillaging and the taking of captives (women and children). Why aren’t the rabbis of the Israel Defense Forces telling the soldiers of Israel that, in addition to killing Palestinian men, it’s also perfectly compatible with the Torah to enslave children and women, to loot and steal? (Maybe they are, and I just haven’t been able to find it.) After all, looting and enslaving happens a great deal in scripture. Most of the time, it’s not punished or even condemned. It just happens.

Is it because killing Palestinians, showing them no mercy, serves the interests of the Israeli state, as seen by some (many, probably) while enslaving them does not? (It’s funny, now that I think about, but why is it perfectly okay for the state to kill people but not enslave them?) But what of Jacob’s question? Is it not still pertinent today, 3,000 years later? Is this not a question supporters of the state of Israel – especially those most intensely committed to existence, survival and even moral superiority – should consider? Jacob himself, the state’s namesake, asked it. Why can’t they?

In fact, isn’t this a question the supporters of every nation-state anywhere should be asking themselves?

2 thoughts on “Going Medieval

  1. Nice analysis. I was wondering also what texts were used to justify this. I didn’t realize it was Shechem and Maimonides. So it’s not ‘Medieval’ where there were rules for war and treatment of your enemy even if they were more honored in the absense. It was calling back to an earlier period and affirming barbarism.

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