Before the Geneva Conventions

Ki Tetzei By :  Lewis Warshauer Posted On Sep 6, 2003 / 5763

Yitzhak Rabin, in his acceptance speech on the occasion of receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1994, said:

At an age when most youngsters are struggling to unravel the secrets of mathematics and the mysteries of the Bible; at an age when first love blooms; at the tender age of sixteen, I was handed a rifle so that I could defend myself. That was not my dream. I wanted to be a water engineer. I studied in an agricultural school and I thought being a water engineer was an important profession in the parched Middle East. I still think so today. However, I was compelled to resort to the gun.

The idea of a prime minister of an independent Jewish state giving such a speech would have been inconceivable one hundred years before. It would have been inconceivable to most people, Jewish or not, that there could be such a state — or that Jews as a people would soldier for it. It would have been inconceivable to Herzl, who foresaw a Jewish state, that nearly fifty years after its independence, there would still be fighting.

Jews like to see themselves as peaceful. Jews can be proud that the prophet Isaiah’s words have become the standard banner for peace: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation; they shall not learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:4) But Isaiah specifies when this will be: at the end of days— not in his day, and, so it seems, not in ours either.

The genius of the Bible is that it provides not only hope for a future world that is better, but also a practical framework for living in a world that is far from good. The Torah soberly accepts the fact of war, and seeks not to abolish it, but to regulate it. The Book of Deuteronomy devotes much attention to preparing the Israelites to enter the promised land, and realizes that their entry will not be peaceful. Starting in last week’s parashah, the nation is urged not to be fearful of their enemies (Deuteronomy 20:1). This week’s parashah begins with a law regulating the treatment of women captured when an enemy is defeated (Deuteronomy 21:10–14). The subject of war returns later in our parashah:

“When you go out to war, guard yourself from all evil things” (Deuteronomy 23:10)

The context of this verse appears to relate to matters of ritual purity. Soldiers are warned to cleanse themselves and the ground of bodily emissions. This is probably the reason that the Jewish Publication Society translation reads “Guard yourself from anything untoward.” But that version is deceptively mild. The last word of the verse actually reads: “Evil”. Is the Torah trying to say that ritual impurity can be called evil?

Nahmanides sees this verse in its deeper meaning. He explains that when armies go out to war, it is typical for soldiers to eat prohibited foods, steal, do violence, and be unashamed to commit adultery or other offenses. Even a man of the most upright nature clothes himself with cruelty and anger when an army battles an enemy, and thus the Torah warns against doing transgressing any prohibition. “Guard yourself from all evil things” means all things that are prohibited, not just ritual infractions.

In other words, war is not an excuse for the suspension of all rules. Jewish traditions on the responsibilities of warriors preceded the Hague and Geneva conventions by many years. It is worth noting Nahmanides’ interpretation in light of his own circumstances. He lived in 13th Century Christian Spain, where Jews not only lacked military power but where he himself faced danger from militant Church authorities. Yet he chose to emphasize the responsibilities and restrictions imposed on soldiers according to Jewish law. Perhaps he foresaw that these rules were not confined to ancient times but needed to be repeated, because one day they would be needed.

Yitzhak Rabin faced the realities of Deuteronomy, but did so with the ideals of Isaiah. For most of his career he was a soldier, yet he shed the clothes of cruelty. His successors have the challenge of living up to that standard.

The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.