Maharal on the Gaza Incursion

Not exactly, but close.

Readers whose every reaction to the question of striking back at the enemy is “nuke ‘em” need not read the rest. Those who seriously consider Torah guidelines on the justification for war and the appropriateness of different kinds of response might find what follows useful.

Without suggesting for a moment that any single source can adequately address a complex halachic issue, I nonetheless offer this passage from the Maharal’s Gur Aryeh (Genesis 34:13). Maharal questions the propriety of Yaakov’s (Jacob’s) sons wiping out the entire city of Shechem, site of today’s Nablus. How is it that an entire city should be punished for the misdeeds of a single malfeasor? After rejecting Rambam’s approach, Maharal continues (free translation):

It seems to me that there is really no question. [A conflict between individuals or groups is] not comparable to strife between two national groups, like the Israelites and the Canaanites. For this reason, it was permitted for Yaakov’s sons to wage war, comparable to that of any nation waging war on another. Although our Torah commands us (Deuteronomy 20:10) “When you approach a city to wage war against it, you shall call out to it for peace,” this [obligation to first sue for peace] does not apply if the enemy has already acted against us. Where they have acted against us in some manner – as in the incident at had where they opened a breach against them by their vile act – we are permitted to avenge ourselves [through war] against the entire nation even when only a single individual was guilty of the infraction, since that individual is a member of the national group.

(Thanks to Prof. Michael Broyde for brignging this passage to my attention.)

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24 Responses

  1. Joshua says:

    But how does this apply to the nation of Israel?

  2. Calev says:

    Very interesting view – but how does it hold compared with other sources forbidding us to take revenge (even against non-Jews)?

    Also, are you suggesting that the current situation is one of an individual (or small minority) acting in a warlike manner? The coalition of Hamasnicks and others are acting on behalf of the majority – not only because the majority voted for Hamas but also because surveys show that the recent killing and kidnapping of Jews has widespread support (even in the face of massive Israeli retaliation). Would this preclude the need for the Maharal’s opinion? Surely this is a situation of strife between two national groups.

  3. HILLEL says:

    Be careful, this argument of “collective guilt” has been used against us Jews for centuries. This MAHARA”L needs elucidation by a TalmidChochom who has a broad command of Torah and who specializes in the works of the MAHARA”L.

  4. joel rich says:

    Rabbi Broyde’s reference is quite interesting. Note however that it says permitted, not required.

  5. a jew says:

    It would be more helpful if you tried to provide some sort of explanation of this principle. Why should a whole nation be held responsible for the wrongdoing of an individual? I’m not saying that this is the situation in Gaza right now, but once you’ve quoted this Maharal, I think due diligence requires, at least in this forum, that you explain the morality behind it, or at least the divine principle.

  6. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I would amplify Rabbi Broyde’s statement in that this is far more thatn a mere series of acts of individuals. Every organization or pseudo-national entity calling itself “Palestinian”, being partially or fully recognized by international bodies and certainly with the open support of the vast majority of organized Islamic groups (whether they represent either the majority of Muslims in the world or authentic Islamic teachings is irrelevant), supports these acts in principle. Sometimes they distance themselves tactically because they deem it not good for the cause. Furthermore, all “Palestinian” organizations date back tho the PLO which was formed in 1964 or earlier, before the 1967 war and its “occupation” of “Arab territory”. From 1948 on Israel was considered “captured Arab territory”. The novelty of the forming of the PLO in 1964 was merely to put the “Palestinian” brand name on it. Before that time there was only the greater Arab nation. The only people ever to be called Palestinians were the Jews under the British Mandate who formed the Palestine Brigade in the World War II British Army. It seems to me that the moral justification for turning all of Gaza, Ramallah,etc., into a parking lot is there. The only question is prudence, the “Fifth Shulchan Aruch” of daas Torah. As if the people who send out the army are going to ask the gedolim for an answer. The ONLY thing we can do is exhort the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora to do teshuva. Certainly those of us who serve in the Army should not lend a hand to any more surrender of territory. At the moment I would suggest active opposition by those and other people. In other words, not “Sir, I am unable to obey this order” but “Sir, you are under arrest”.

  7. Nachum says:

    So what’s the difference between two nations fighting? Isn’t this, indeed, the “Nuke ’em” approach?

    Of course, the residents of Shechem did nothing. The Palestinians did more than that- they voted in a Hamas government.

  8. Aaron says:

    Doesn’t the end of Proverbs 8 say that those who love death hate Hashem?

  9. Toby Katz says:

    The comparison with the city of Shechem is very apt for another reason — Shechem (the prince) kept Dinah captive in his home in Shechem (the city) all during his oily smooth-talking “negotiations” about how he wanted to ally himself with her family. Presumably the entire city was complicit in her captivity. Also, had they not been eliminated, perhaps they would have impeded her rescue.

    Look at the sequence of events in the pasukim:

    Bereishis 34:25: And it was on the third day, when they were in pain, and two sons of Yakov, Shimon and Levi, brothers of Dinah, took each man his sword and they came to the city in sureness and they killed every male.

    34:26: And Chamor, and Shechem his son, they killed by the sword AND THEY TOOK DINAH FROM THE HOUSE OF SHECHEM and they left.

    It seems to me that while one of our soldiers is still being held captive, the Israeli army has the right and perhaps the duty to do everything possible to rescue him, including things they might not do if it were merely a matter of subsequent retaliation. Killing enemy civilians in the course of rescuing our own man is unquestionably permitted and moral. Killing civilians later, as an act of revenge, or a deterrent to further acts of terror, would be a different matter — still possibly permissible but more of a gray area.

  10. Chareidi Leumi says:

    Also see Maharal Gur Aryeh 14:7 for a similar idea. This is based on the Mechilta BeShalach Parsha 1 (in the Kushta edition 275) [this was censored in the Lehmberg edition] and Tosafot Avodah Zara 26b “VeLo Moridin” which in turn is based on Masechet Sofrim, end of chapter 15. See Also the Yerushalmi Kidushin 2:1 with the note in the side.
    (For a more full discussion of these topics see Rabbi Bleich in Contemporary Halakhic Problems, Volume 3, Preemptive War in Jewish Law)

    Very interesting view – but how does it hold compared with other sources forbidding us to take revenge (even against non-Jews)?

    Which view is that? I would love a source.

    This MAHARA”L needs elucidation by a TalmidChochom who has a broad command of Torah and who specializes in the works of the MAHARA”L.

    This is a well known Maharal. He means what he says.

    Everyone should keep in mind that oversensitivity to enemy civilian casualties puts our own soldiers needlessly at risk. 16 soldiers were killed in Jenin because we followed a false morality that puts enemy civilian lives in higher regard than our own soldiers. hundreds were killed in Lebanon in 82 because the army sent them in without artillery cover (they feared civilian casualties).

    Lets not support policies which have no basis in the Torah and which actually run counter to its dictates.

  11. ben meir says:

    “His Be’er Hagolah, the classic defense of rabbinic Judaism by Maharal of Prague, was published by Artscroll/Mesorah Publications.”
    i think this establishes Rabbi Adlerstein’s bona fides to talk about the Maharal

  12. Chareidi Leumi says:

    Above should be Maharal Gur Aryeh Shemot 14:7

  13. Nachum says:

    Aaron, just the opposite. It’s more of a threat of punishment, expressed poetically: “If you hate Hashem, you will love death [i.e., die].” But it’s certainly a nice drush.

  14. Holy Hyrax says:

    The comparison with the city of Shechem is very apt for another reason—Shechem (the prince) kept Dinah captive in his home in Shechem (the city) all during his oily smooth-talking “negotiations” about how he wanted to ally himself with her family. Presumably the entire city was complicit in her captivity. Also, had they not been eliminated, perhaps they would have impeded her rescue.

    I am in full agreement that while rescuing anyone from the captors, any enemy (or civilian) that is hindering that rescue is allowed to be killed. I also believe believe that in the course of rescue, safety should be first given to [our] soldiers over civilians. But my problem is going out and deliberatly killing the civilians that had nothing to do ith the abductions as it seems Shimon and Levi did. Like I said, if they were hindering it, thats another situation, but all you can say is “Presumably the entire city was complicit” or “perhaps they would have impeded her rescue.” Is this really good enough, just making an assumption, especially when we know from the text that every male was in pain and obviously would not be able to impede a rescue?

  15. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Joel –
    I don’t want to stick Rabbi Broyde with the blame. We’ve been discussing a lecture he gave on a Torah perspective on the ethics of war. The Gur Aryeh cite was included in the text. The application of it to the current situation is entirely mine. I will take all credit, and all blame.

    Calev –
    I know of no sources instructing national groups not to take revenge. To the contrary, the Bible is replete with examples of wars waged to avenge an outrage by another nation upon us.

    A Jew –
    One of the attractive elements of blogging is that you don’t have to craft finished essays all the time. Sometimes, you just throw out an interesting idea, and readers provide the next layers of thought.

    This passage of Maharal is clearly interesting, and may have something to say about the issue at hand. I can’t provide a definitive explanation of it. I have yet to meet the person who made the argument that he had found THE correct understanding of any difficult passage in Maharal. I made a point of stating in my book that I was offering educated guesses as to Maharal’s meaning, not the last word on pshat.

    In this case, my guess would not even be so educated, because I can’t readllly come up with comps from other locations within Maharal. If I were pressed, I would say that Maharal recognizes a right of nations to defend themselves in a very different manner than individuals or groups. Non-nations have a right to defend themselves, but not to wage war. The latter offers far more latitude, including inflicting damage upon unrelated third parties e.g. non-combatants. Nations cannot be held hostage by the apparent non-complicity of many on the other side of the border. When there is a legitimate score to settle, a nation may wage war even though there will be significant collateral damage.

    If pressed further, I would point to innumerable places in Maharal where he sees nations as important entities in the intended fabric of creation. Some people see nations as just the conglomerate of people sharing a land or culture or interest. Some see all governments as products of a social contract. Maharal does not. He sees a Divine plan in creating X number of national groups, each with a particular mission. Nations are there by design, not by convenience. Different rules apply to them than to the conduct of individuals.

    Yehoshua Friedman –
    Of course this goes beyond the acts of individuals. I offered the passage as an example in the extreme. Even when it is only a matter of individuals, Maharal still asserts that the aggrieved nation has a right to strike back, even though many, many more people will be caught up in the hostilities and likely killed. This is important simply because many thoughtful people worry about the morality of wars in which people far from any involvement in the issues lose their lives. If Olmert takes off his gloves and overrules Peretz, you can be sure that many people, including many Jews, are going to ask themselves whether Jewish thought condones this kind of action. Maharal minimally offers at least one strong voice (and one of a recognized halachic master, even if this passage is not a halachic one) for justifying such a military option, should it be exercised.

    Nachum –
    What I meant by the “Nuke ‘em” approach is not the military strategy, but the moral thinking behind it. There are people who will not give the time of day to any discussion of principle and morality. Their knee-jerk reaction is that the enemy must be vaporized, the sooner the better. I wrote the piece for people who ask themselves the serious question of what the Torah tells us about justified and unjustified wars – and are prepared to listen to the answer.

  16. Binyamin says:

    to a jew,

    The counter-argument is that we must deal with the individual whom we have an issue with, since only he did wrong. This attitude completely misunderstands the meaning of a society. The rationale for the Maharal is that we cannot relate to enemy individuals as individuals. The fact that we each have a different society, and different jurisdiction and laws precludes such a relationship. It is impossible for us to deal with him and address the problem. Any interaction is therfore an interaction between two societies. If the other society wants the fight to be settled as between individuals they would have to force their member to deal with us on our terms. If they instead to prefer to allow him to act within their framework, then they are necessarily accepting that there is a clash between the two societies, even though only individuals were directly involved.

  17. Sholom says:

    1) Yaakov did not approve of their action, and never forgave them.2)Their action put the family in mortal danger, it was only due to the hidden action of Hashem that they survived.3) In the time of Tanach there was an Urim Vtoomim.4) The fact that Hashem sent us into golus changes the equation entirely, in regard to other nations or even outlaws.

  18. Calev says:

    Forgive me if my eyesight’s failed me but I haven’t seen anyone noting that the incident at Shechem met with the strong disapproval of Yaakov. Frankly, how desirable is a course of action that would bring upon me and my people a bad repution even amongst people as morally corrupt as the Canaanites?

  19. Nachum says:

    Yes, Yaakov disapproved. But who gets the last word in the story?

  20. Binyamin says:

    Yaakov’s disaproval is unrelated to the moral coreectness of the action. He does not accuse them of acting inappropiately, but only says that it was imprudent.

    In Gaza also, the issue should only be a question if it is worthwhile, but a full-scale operation is clearly justified.

  21. Chareidi Leumi says:

    Also, chazal themselves (with some exceptions) tend to support Shimeon and Levi’s actions and say that they pretty much won the debate with Yaakov. Here are some sources:

    Bamidbar Rabba 2:7 (The revenge of shimeon cause him to merit to have the image of the city of shchem on his flag – in order to commemorate his heroism). (also see Mahara”z there)
    Bamidbar Rabba 13:19 (Shimeon gets to bring the korban early because of his zechut in maase schem)
    Tanchuma, VaYishlach 7 (Hashem tells yaakov not to fear and that shimeon and levi are proper)
    Midrash Lekach Tov, Bereishit 34:31 [Buber ed] (Shimeon an Levi win the argument)

    Peirush Rav Shmuel ben Chafni Gaon Bereishit 34:30 [Greenbaum ed.] (it was a practicle disagreement, not a moral one – also Shimeon and Levi win the argument)
    Rabbeinu Yona on the Torah, S. Yerushalmi ed, page 71 (same as above)
    Radak in Bereishit [Katzanelbogen ed.] (also see Tanchuma Vayeze 2) (yaakov was wrong to have fear)

    There are others as well.


    Shimeon and Levi did not have the urim and tumim. This is an halachic question and debate and no rishon I have found says that they did what they did based on nevuah. Quite the opposite, most analyze this issue in the halachic sphere.

    Also, your point number 4 is the major point of debate between chareidim and RZ Jews, it is simply wrong to present it as if it is a simple matter that galus changes the halachic parameters of these issues.

  22. Martin says:

    The reason Hashem destroyed Sodom and Gamorrah, we are told by Chazal,was for the crime of KIDNAPPING. AS Torah-committed Jews, we are commanded to “walk in His ways”.Following this logic, it seems to me that we are OBLIGATED to destroy the wicked and evil inhabitants of Gaza totally and completely. Hashem has set the example and will bless us if we imitate His actions.

  23. Marty Bluke says:

    Look in last week’s parsha Chukas (this weeks parsha in Chutz Laaretz). The King of Arad wages war aginst the Jewish people and captures 1 person (Rashi quotes Chazal, a shifcha). What is the reaction of Bnei Yisrael? Total war, the complete destruction of their cities and killing all the people (see Rashi there).

  24. Raymond says:

    rabbi adlerstein is all too familiar with my views about the moslems, so i will try to show some restraint here so as to add to my credibility. to me, it seems like the matter in gaza is simple. the ignorant, secular, leftist, anti-israel media is trying to portray this situation as israel using massive forces against all of the so-called palestinians on the basis of the latter kidnapping just one israeli soldier. by doing this, they create the impression that it is david (the so-called palestinians) against goliath (the mighty israeli military). if this were an isolated incident, they would be right for a change. however, this is obviously not the case. israel is not reacting to one kidnapping of one soldier. they are reacting to the endless barrage of missiles fired onto innocent israelis by the so-called palestinians. when america finally killed zarkawi, did anybody sane claim that it was the bully america attacking one lone man, or did people instead realize this was one of the consequences of the moslems constantly engaging in terrorist acts of murder against america and other free people around the world?

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