Human Rights

IDF Code of Ethics

Rabbi20drawing I am embarrassed by how clueless some of my rabbinical colleagues are.  I sometimes really wonder whether some of these rabbis study the same Torah and Talmud that I do.

The Jerusalem Post reported on August 21 that the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) an association of Orthodox rabbis, has called on Israel to reevaluate its military rules of war in light of Hizbullah’s "unconscionable use of civilians, hospitals, ambulances, mosques and the like as human shields, cannon fodder and weapons of asymmetric warfare."

Rabbi Basil Herring, executive Vice-President of the RCA said "Our traditional sensibilities tell us that it is not right to risk the lives of our soldiers to minimize civilian deaths on the other side."  Huh?  Is he kidding?  As the blogger Romach points out it is absurb to say such a thing.  Romach says "Surely Herring isn’t saying we should just carpet bomb Lebanon or Gaza, killing tens of thousands to save the life of one soldier. Or maybe he is."As I reported a few weeks ago in Matot-Masei and the War in Lebanon we should be proud of those Israeli rules of war known as "Tohar Haneshek," purity of arms.  The basic principle of Tohar Haneshek says “The IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity even during combat. IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property.”

In the J Post article Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu of Safed says of our code "Our corrupt military morality, which tells us that our soldiers must endanger their lives to protect enemy civilians, is the reason we lost the war."  Another Orthodox rabbi from the North, Rabbi Tzefania Drori of Kiryat Shmona says "Anti-Semites demand that we use Christian morality while our enemies act like barbarians."

As if this gratuitous and mysterious reference to "Christian morality" isn’t bad enough, he went on and said we should follow "Jewish morality," which dictates that "he who gets up to kill you, get up yourself and kill him first."

Yes, Jewish morality does allow for a pre-emptive strike.  But preventing civilian deaths is not "Christian morality," or if it is they got it from us.  Maybe Rabbi Drori was sleeping the day that they studied the section of the Talmud (Bavli Sanhedrin 57a) which says that if you kill someone who is coming after you when you could have stopped him with lesser force, like maiming a limb, you have committed a capital offense.  Perhaps he never studied the passages from Rambam’s Hilchot Melachim which tell us we must avoid civilian deaths by leaving them an "escape route."  Perhaps he wasn’t paying attention to the teachings about bal taschit, a passage in the Torah which tells us we must not destroy fruit trees to make siege engines in a time of war — a passage which later authorities (like Maimonides) extend to forbidding any kind of gratuitous destruction of property.

The existing IDF Code of Tohar Haneshek is something every Jew should be proud of.  Yes, it is very painful when some of our soldiers die because we decide to try and minimize civilian deaths by sending in ground troops instead of dropping bombs.  I know it’s painful, the son of an acquaintance was killed in Jenin exactly because of this commitment to our code of morality.  However, the prophet Isaiah charges us with being a "light to the nations."  We are supposed to show the world what is moral.  We are supposed to show the world how God wants us to behave.  Just because there are Islamic radicals who cut the heads off of innocent people they kidnap does not mean we should do the same thing.

War is ugly.  The other guys don’t fight fair.  That’s no reason to throw OUR values, OUR morals, and the principles we have learned from the Torah out the window.  When the other side acts badly is exactly the time when we need a code of ethics all the more, to remind us not to allow ourselves to become as debased as the other side.  We are here to raise the bar, not lower it.

God spare us from "rabbis" who say it is a liability that we have been acting "too ethically."

Reb Barry

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

5 thoughts on “IDF Code of Ethics

  • Hey R. Barry,

    Just came across your blog. I like it. Will be back to read more.

  • “I am embarrassed by how clueless some of my rabbinical colleagues are. I sometimes really wonder whether some of these rabbis study the same Torah and Talmud that I do.”

    Such hubris!

    The Talmudic passage that you mention has nothing to do with war. But I’m sure that a guy as bright as you are already knew that.

    It is obvious that according to Jewish Law the IDF practice of endagering Jewish lives in order to save enemy civilians is wrong. You are distorting the Torah, but then again, that’s what Conservative “Rabbis” have always been doing.

  • Orthodox rabbis also will take a teaching in the Talmud from one context and apply it another. In fact the Talmud itself does that all the time.

    “Shivim panim l’Torah,” the Torah has 70 faces…you don’t need to insult Conservative rabbis. I did not specifically insult Orthodox “rabbis.” I allowed as to how some of my colleagues seem clueless. Not the same as saying ALL Orthodox rabbis are clueless. Conservative and Reform rabbis are also capable of being clueless…

  • This was some of the best information that I got from your blog. My friend suggested me to visit this blog. Really good one!

  • The question is, is there a legitimate distinction between the halachic categories of rodef (being pursued by an individual) and war, and do the ethical boundaries change once you say it’s war rather than an individual pursuing you.


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