PARSHAT MISHPATIM

SELF-DEFENSE

“If the thief is seized while tunneling and beaten to death, there is no bloodguilt in that case.”  (Exodus 22:1)

            Last week we read the Ten Commandments.  So many people mistranslate the sixth commandment.  They tell me, the Torah teaches “You shall not kill.”  That is not what lo tirtzach means.  It means “You shall not murder.”  The Torah forbids murder.  But there are times that the Torah permits killing.  In particular, killing a person in self-defense is explicitly permitted by the Torah.

            The issue comes up in this week’s portion.  It speaks of a thief tunnelling into someone’s home.  If the homeowner kills the intruder, there is no bloodguilt on the homeowner.  But the Torah continues, if the sun raises on them, the homeowner is guilty.  The Torah seems to be teaching that if the intruder breaks into a home at night when people are home, the intruder is considered a threat to human life.  Killing in self-defense is permitted.  But if the intruder breaks into the home during the day when the sun is shining, when usually no one is home, the presumption is that the intruder is looking to steal property rather than take a life.  One may not kill to save property.

            The Rabbis, interpreting the passage, made this idea more explicit.  If the sun is shining means that it is clear as day that the intruder is not a threat to human life.  In that case, killing the intruder is forbidden.  I imagine a neighbor kid breaking into a home to steal a computer or television, who is clearly no threat to human life.  It would be absolutely forbidden to shoot that neighbor kid.  We can use deadly force to protect life, but not to protect property.  This is true in Jewish law, but also in secular law.  One cannot shoot someone who is stealing property. 

            Jewish tradition permits killing someone in self-defense.  It also permits killing what the Rabbis call a rodef, a pursuer.  If someone is pursuing an innocent person with the intent of taking their life, one can kill the pursuer.  We can take the life of someone to save innocent life.  Clearly there are times when deadly force is permissible.  Sadly, some people have misused this law.  When Yigal Amir assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, he justified the murder by claiming Rabin was a rodef.  By signing the Oslo Accords to pursue peace with the Palestinians, Rabin was a threat to the lives of Israelis.  Amir was sentenced to life in prison.

            This brings me to the situation in Israel.  Today, Israel has been accused of breaking the sixth commandment in its war against Hamas.  In my mind, this is clearly a war of self-defense, following the mass murder of over a thousand Israelis on October 7 and the kidnapping of hundreds more.  There is a long discussion in Rabbinic literature about the justification of war.  (The idea is not as well-developed in Jewish tradition as Thomas Aquinas’ just war theory, which I teach in my philosophy class.  But from a Jewish perspective there is still a principle of just war.)  Judaism speaks of a milhemet rishut “optional war” and a milhemet mitzvah “obligatory war.”  A war of self-defense when one is attacked is an obligatory war.  Like the thief tunneling in at night, a nation has the right to use deadly force to protect itself.

            Today, as Israelis are sleeping in bomb shelters and rockets are being launched by Hamas in the south and Hezbollah in the north, Israel is being attacked by much of the world for a war of self-defense.  Certainly, civilian casualties are tragic.  But Hamas has placed its operational centers in the middle of civilian populations.  Israel, like every other nation, must do what is necessary to defend its citizens.  We can only pray that the hostages are released, Hamas as defeated, and peace comes to this troubled region.

            Nowhere does the Torah forbid killing.  It forbids murder.  But to defend innocent life, killing is sometimes a necessary evil.  It is a sad reality in our unsafe world today.