Luther Я (Not) Us!


A reader commented on my piece about waging war against an entire population because of the misdeeds of a few of them. His intention, it seems, was to support me.

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).

With all due respect, pointing to any passage in Chumash is precisely what I was arguing against in my post.

Oliver Cromwell’s Protestant Roundheads found a Biblical mandate to wage war against their (Catholic) enemies by turning to the commandment to the Jews entering Israel to wipe out the Seven Nations. They simply plugged in a few missing pieces, considering themselves the equivalent of the Biblical Israelites/good guys, and their foes the Seven Nations/ bad guys. Around the same time, some preachers made the argument that children who were disrespectful of their parents might be put to death, following the Biblical mandate of the Rebellious Son.

We Jews must be careful not to slip into that kind of thinking. We do not turn directly to Chumash to determine policy, private or public. We live by a system of Halacha/ Law, which comes to its conclusions through some well described and traveled pathways. These include the application of formal exegetical principles in the Mishna, Gemara, and Midrashei Chazal; the discussion of large numbers of scholars in the great academies of Talmudic times; and the back-and-forth between hundreds of years of sages in the centuries that followed, each one bringing the vastness of his Torah knowledge to focus on the issue at hand.

I cited Maharal’s justifying war against an entire population because of a provocation by a single member. (He hold this to be true even when the majority are not complicit, as demonstrated by his rejection of Rambam’s argument that the failure of Shechem’s compatriots to oppose his abduction of Dina made them culpable. Maharal argues that this was not within their power, and yet the war against the entire population was still justified, as part of the very definition of justified war.) Maharal does not use the Shechem narrative to teach him the proper justification for waging war. He does the opposite. He takes a definition that is already clear to him, and uses it to illuminate the Biblical passage! We don’t know how Maharal arrived at his conclusion, but knowing that he was a halachist, it gives us more to work with than a Biblical story unaccompanied by Oral Law commentary.

Our reader may or may not be correct in seeing a parallel to the passage about the Canaanite king of Arad. If anything, the context of the passage leaves us with unanswered questions. In their confrontation with hostile groups, the Jews sometimes negotiated, sometimes pacifically withdrew, and sometimes fought. The taking of the single captive may spell the difference, but it may not. Without weighing multiple contributions by Rishonim and Acharonim (medieval and later Torah authorities), we have nothing to work with. We simply do not and cannot find solutions to complex problems by directly citing Biblical narrative. Such thinking almost always winds up simplistic. Martin Luther believed that G-d communicated with people through the unmediated use of the Bible. Each reader opens it up, and G-d speaks to him. Add this to the list of gripes we have with Luther.

The Jews waged their war against Arad on direct orders from G-d, something, alas, unavailable to us today. At last consideration, a direct communication from G-d even trumps Ehud Olmert.

Of course, far, far less evidence is needed to disregard Amir Peretz!

You may also like...

7 Responses

  1. Raymond says:

    i hope i do not have to be either a bona fide torah scholar or a rabbi to make a comment about rabbi alderstein’s article. from my understanding of what he said, we cannot derive halacha from incidents in the torah. but i can think of several instances where this is precisely the case. for example, we are supposed to verbally differentiate torah law from rabbinical law, because adam did not tell chava that the prohibition of even touching the tree of knowledge was his fence around G-d’s prohibition of eating from the tree. from G-d delaying the flood for one week to give noach a chance to sit shiva for metushelach, we learn to sit shiva and for how long. from avraham, we learn to welcome guests into our home on shabbat and the yom tovim, and that eating meat after drinking milk is nowhere nearly as serious as drinking milk after eating meat. from the consequences of ya’akov sending joseph out to his brothers, those who host shabbat guests must walk out with them a brief distance after the meal is over. of course i cannot presume to disagree with my favorite rabbi (he has been my teacher for many years), so i suppose i bring this up for clarification and to improve my torah knowledge.

  2. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Jonathan Rosenblum usually gets the better of me in any argument, so I am quite possibly in trouble. He may be correct about the Maharal – but neither of us has any way of knowing with certainty. I am much more interested in how the scorecard should be filled in than in the final score. The following is the way I see it.

    If Jonathan is correct – that Maharal created his approach here de novo, as a way of understanding a difficult Biblical passage – then his remark is interesting, but carries virtually no halachic weight. In halachic shop talk, we usually refer to this kind of exercise as “derush.” Yes, I know that lots of halachic authors have tried bolstering their arguments by pointing straight to Biblical text, but such attempts carry very little halachic weight in places that people study halacha with a critical eye.

    If I am correct – that Maharal formed his ideas about the justification for war from other arguments and texts, and only then applied those ideas to provide a solution for the Biblical text – then Maharal’s definition means a good deal more.

    I based my comment on an intuition growing out of familiarity with Maharal’s style. Intuition is not the best way to analyze text. My personal leanings towards Maharal may very well have influenced me to read in more halachic importance to the piece than I should.

    If I am wrong, then Jonathan is correct that we cannot find anything dispositive in this citation from Maharal. (As I conceded from the beginning, even if he is not, one Maharal does not a halachic argument make! It would have to be weighed against all other authorities.) Far more important, though, is my basic contention, which is that we also cannot and do not take halachic conclusions straight from Biblical texts without affirmation of such conclusions from the centuries of halachic analysis that precede us.

  3. Chareidi Leumi says:

    Jonathan Rosenblum,

    The maharal’s derech is very well supported in the sources as I pointed out in my comments to the previous post. His only “innovation” is to apply a din of milchama to what was then basically a family unit. I think that most other commentators did not go in his path (Ohr HaChaim comes pretty close) is that they had a hard time conceiving of the concept of war being applied to a battle between one family and an entire city.

    Whether we could conceive of this incident as war or not is something which we are free to debate. However, the proper mode of operation during time of war is something which has very broad support in the poskim and nowhere do we find that we should limit the efficacy of our military operation due to concern for civilian casualties. If anything, the opposite is true.

  4. Marty Bluke says:

    I don’t think the 2 are analogous at all. Chazal through drashos, halachos, etc. clearly state the parameters of the mitzva to wipe out the 7 nations, of course Cromwell’s use of this was a distortion. However, the story in Chukas is not expounded upon by the Medrashim or mefarshim (from what I saw, please correct me if I am wrong), they seem to take it at face value. In fact, if anything Chazal strengthen our case by commenting that the captive was only a shifcha. The story clearly is there for a reason, to teach us something. Given that Chazal and the mefarshim seem to have taken it at face value I see no problem with drawing lessons from the story taken at face value.

  5. Jonathan Rosenblum says:

    For once, I find myself completely puzzled by Rabbi Adlerstein’s post. If we do not simplistically derive public policy guidelines from reading the Biblical narrative, surely we do not do so by extracting a paragraph in the Maharal. Pace, Rabbi Adlerstein, I do not know that the Maharal first had a halachic principle with which he then elucidated a Biblical passage. Perhaps he had a problem — the same problem that bothers all the commentators when discussing the wiping out of Shechem — and derived his halachic principle as the only possible way to understand the Biblical narrative.

  6. Marty Bluke says:

    See for example here where this incident in Chumash is used.

  7. Chareidi Leumi says:

    I think the main halachic issue is what constitues a milchemet mitzva. Once you establish the halachic paradigm of interaction with another nation as one of war, then the Maharal’s description (and pretty much every other rishon and achron) of proper halachic behavior in war applies. (see the sources I provided in my comments to the previous post)

    So the question becomes whether or not we are in a state of milchemet mitzva. Also, according to some poskim, it matters whether or not we are in a situation of “yad Yisrael Takeifa” (Israel having the physical upper hand over their enemies). A blog is almost certainly not the best forum for such an halachic discussion. However, I can not resist offering up a few sources on the topic:

    Mishna Sota 8:7
    Tosefta Sota 7:9-15
    Bavli Sota 10b, 44b, Sanhedrin 16a, Evuvin 45a (see Tosefot d”h Iee Matzlach)
    Yerushalmi Sota 39b
    Rambam Melachim 5:1-2, 7:4 (see also the Kapach translation of the peirush haMishnayos to Sotah 8:6 to see how the Rambam defined war against the seven nations, that is whether it applies to other nations occupying EY)
    Ramban, Commands that Rambam did not list, possitive commandment 4
    Meiri, Beit HaBechira, on the sugya in Sotah
    Shu”t Nodah BeYehuda, Second Ed, Even HaEzer 129
    Shu”t Chatam Sofer, Even HaEzer 155
    Minchas Chinuch, Mitzva 425
    Rav Kook Ztvk”l, Mishpat Kohen, Pg. 346
    Satmar Rav Zt”l, Al HaGeula VeAl HaTemura, The last essay
    HaGri”z Soloveitchic Zt”l, end of volume Chidushei Torah on Milchemet Mitzva
    Rav Shaul Yisraeli Zt”l, Amud HaYemini Siman 14
    Rav Goren Zt”l, Machanaiim 69 “Milchemet Mitzva VeMilchemet Reshut”

    There are of course many more.