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Are targeted killings Tikkun Olam? Reply to Rabbi Hartman

By Jerry Haber

In an op-ed published yesterday by Rabbi Donniel Hartman, we learn that killing “known terrorist leaders” who have “blood on their hands,” and who have expressed a desire to continue their killing, is not only permitted under Jewish law, is not only commanded as a form of self-defense, but should be praised as an act of tikkun olam, of repairing the world.

Before I criticize this position, I would like to go on record that I know Rabbi Hartman, and I admire his leadership of the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where I have been invited annually to be part of  a “philosophers’ group.” So I am glad that his op-ed gives me the opportunity to commend his work, as well as to disagree vehemently with his position. Our dispute is “for the sake of heaven.” I also want to acknowledge that the point of the op-ed was actually to restrain the natural feelings of hatred and demonization for the other that people feel when under attack.

Let me start by saying that, contrary to what Rabbi Hartman writes,  the morality of extra-judicial killings is highly debated and not at all clear. On just war theory, as I wrote below, a pre-emptive strike against an enemy is permissible only when a) the enemy’s attack is imminent; b) the response is proportionate to the threat, and c) no other recourse is possible. I mention, as an aside, that it is possible to find parallels for these three conditions in the Jewish law of self-defense. In initially justifying Israel’s decision to assassinate Zuhir al-Qaisi, Rabbi Hartman assumes that all these conditions obtained. This in itself is a good sign. (Note that American’s assassination of Osama Bin Laden was not justified through an appeal to knowledge of an imminent attack he was planning. So if an attack wasn’t imminent, Rabbi Hartman could not consistently approve even Osama bin Laden’s assassination.) By declaring the necessity of the “imminence” requirement Rabbi Hartman distances himself from many of his fellow Israelis, to judge from the press reports.

But later on in the op-ed, Rabbi Hartman drops the “imminent attack” requirement.

Targeted killings of known terrorist leaders, those with blood on their hands and the self-expressed desire and capacity to spill more blood, are not morally ambiguous.

On the contrary, as is well known, there is a great deal of moral ambiguity here. Substitute, for example, “serial murderer” for “terrorist leaders.” Would Rabbi Hartman consider extra-judicial killings of such people “not morally ambiguous”? Remember, we are not talking about a ticking bomb, or somebody on the way to commit a heinous act, but rather somebody with the self-expressed desire and capacity to spill more blood. There are Israeli generals with blood on their hands who have the desire to bomb Gaza. Would Rabbi Hartman think it legitimate for Palestinian drones to take out those IDF generals?

Classical just war theory  may be wrong in assuming the equality of combatants. But it does. And if al-Qaisi is judged as a combatant, then he has the same rights, on just war theory, that an Israeli general has, with or without the uniform. There are many like Dick Cheney who claim that al-Qaisi doesn’t have the rights of a serial killer OR the rights of an SS army officer. But this claim is disputed, which makes his killing hardly “not morally ambiguous.”

But what is most disturbing to me – before I get to the ‘Jewish angle” – is the complete faith placed by Rabbi Hartman in the IDF army spokesman. After all, how does he know that al-Qaisi was preparing an imminent attack and that other recourses were not available? This is one of the problems of appealing to just war theory to provide you with moral cover. The slippery slope of moral righteousness is that it becomes self-righteousness: each side accepts the version of events prepared by its side as Torah min ha-shamayim, the word of God. One side’s legitimate army is another side’s terrorist gang, to paraphrase Michael Walzer. Where certain conventions have been observed by both sides – and in the case of Israel and Hamas, for example, cease-fires and conventions have held up over time, until one side (usually Israel) unilaterally breaks them – both sides assume the rights and responsibilities of legal combatants. Now it is true that al-Qaisi is not a member of Hamas, and so may not benefit from that consideration. But Rabbi Hartman seems to make his principle a universal one that would justify taking out all  legal enemies of Israel, from Ismail Haniyeh, to Nasrallah, to Ahmadinejad,

In short, Rabbi Hartman slides pretty quickly down the slippery slope that he himself cautions against – contra the dictates of international convention and just war morality.

So far I have been assuming a philosophy-class scenario in which killing a ticking-bomb ends the story. But it never ends the story. Is the assassination of al-Qaisi justified if it leads, inevitably, to the cycle of violence that we have seen? For consequentialists, at least, that is relevant to the morality of the issue. But if not to its morality, then at least to its prudentiality, and to its supposed lack of moral ambiguity. When I read

I hate to see 20% of Israel living under the threat of missiles. I am pained by the fact that they must bear the brunt of our actions. I am thankful that the Iron Dome missile defense system is able to mitigate somewhat the price that is demanded of them.

I ask myself, “What of the 25 Palestinians who lost their lives because of the cycle of violence?” What of the humiliating nature of all targeted killings of a people held under the control of the occupier for over forty years? After all, only one side, the occupier, has the power and control over the other side. I know this matters to Rabbi Hartman, since I know the man. My fear is that he doesn’t mention in his op-ed the Palestinians killed because he knows that most of his audience don’t really care about them, and that his “moderate” message will be rejected as too “bleeding-heart liberal” if he mentions them.

As for the “Jewish angle” of tikkun olam and extrajudicial killings. Even had I agreed with his analysis, which I do not, I would have preferred that Rabbi Hartman appeal to the principle of wiping out the seed of Amalek, which Maimonides sees as wiping out evil. Seeing extrajudicial killings within the framework of tikkun olam is wrong for two reasons. First, the phrase nowadays is used by many liberal Jews to denote social action in the service of liberal causes, often outside the Jewish community. So these Jews cannot but be offended by extending it to morally controversial issues such as extra judicial killing.  Second, in its original intent in the Jewish code of law, the Mishnah, the phrase tikkun olam was used to justify new edicts that provide for harmonious social relations where existing rabbinic law failed to do so. States that engage in practices that violate conventions and norms such as the law of war do not repair society but rip it apart. They provide justification for other states, and non-state actors, to do the same. Such practices place a state outside of the olam, the “world” it is purporting to repair – and, lowers it to the status of an outlaw state, a rogue state, a terrorist-state.

Finally, I appreciate Rabbi Hartman’s desire to restrain the all-too-human impulse for revenge and destruction and demonization of the enemy that Israelis – like all peoples –feel when they are threatened. Rabbi Hartman is following in the footsteps of Aaron, “who loved peace and pursued peace” among Jews. But we should also remember that Aaron desired Jewish peace so much that he was willing to help the Jews forge the Golden Calf. In doing so, he channeled their destructive impulses into something less destructive and bought time until Moses could return.  But that well-intentioned move also led to their rejection of God’s messenger for the sake of an idol.

Rabbi Hartman: Targeted killings are Tikkun Olam

Jeremiah (Jerry) Haber is the nom de plume of an orthodox Jewish studies and philosophy professor, who divides his time between Israel and the US. This piece was originally published on Jerry’s blog, the Magnes Zionist. It is re-posted here with the author’s permission. 

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    1. Bill Pearlman

      I’m sorry that the Jewish body count isn’t high enough for you. Maybe next time

      Reply to Comment
    2. John Yorke

      It is a good thing that the finer points of such matters can be debated and that arguments for and against be considered at some length and in much greater detail. Were it not so, then there would be little settled thought on the direction that these situations should take, no concept of appropriate behaviour other than that relating to the expediencies of the moment.

      Unfortunately, it is often the moment that determines the course of actions taken and such brevity of time enhances the distinct possibility of error and poor decision-making.

      It might be much better if an entirely new approach to the whole scene were to be employed.

      Here, it would be much easier to extract a fuller and more tempered evaluation of whatever has gone down. In doing so, verdicts that are defined by a much wider appreciation and of less emotive opinion can prevail. These might then command the allegiance of a much higher audience than would otherwise be the case. Those having a natural bias toward one side of the story would then be more than offset by others favouring a more consensual interpretation.

      But debate that is too rarefied can often be dismissed as such, leading on to inaction and delay. Such an outcome does not provide help for people desperately crying out for salvation and an end to all forms of violence.

      By aligning both the legislature and the executive to the task, the best of both worlds is obtained. And, in a strange reversal of fortune, the forces of discord may themselves become allied to the serious search for a lasting peace.


      ‘In the county of the blind,…. .’

      Reply to Comment
    3. Dhalgren

      Thank goodness for this. That article by Rabbi Hartman was rather unsettling. The interface where religion and violence meet is a dangerous border that requires constant patrolling (by both the religious and secular communities). Haber’s perspective is much appreciated.

      Reply to Comment
    4. I have not read Rabbi Hartman’s article, so I only have R Haber’s response to go by, but it seems to me that both perspectives are essentially incorrect.

      Rabbi Haber suggests we are dealing with war theory. Perhaps so, but more so are we dealing with le’tzorekh sha’a, a sugé halakha (halakhic category) that literally means “immediate need”.

      The Shulchan Arukh, for example, provides that a dayan (a judge on a beth din) may order capital punishment le’tzorekh sha’a and if the civic authorities so permit.

      Framed this way I think that both Rabbis Haber and Hartmann should look to the immediate needs of Israeli society and avoid hashkafa (philosophical argument).

      Reply to Comment
    5. Dhalgren

      @Rabbi Arie Chark
      We are discussing more than just an immediate need, however. As described, the Shulchan Arukh appears to address what is permissible. There is a question of what is right, though, a larger question of long-term effects as well as the question of what response to this immediate need is best. That is where hashkafa (if I am using the term correctly) would come into play. After all, life cannot be considered only as a series of immediate needs.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Tammy

      @Rabbi Arie Chark: To your credit, your write that you have not read Rabbi Hartman’s article. (By the way, as he self-identifies, Jerry Haber is a Jewish studies and philosophy professor; he is not a rabbi). Absent your having read Rabbi Hartman’s article and imprecise reading of Professor Haber’s article, your comment strikes me as a plug-in response to any number of articles, ideas, and theses maybe beyond your usual foci. Suggestion: Read Rabbi Hartman’s post and reread Professor Haber’s, and then come back to comment. I look forward to reading what you write.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Tammy, I may have read Prof Haber quickly, but I did not read him imprecisely. I stand by my assertion that his argument is hashkafi (philosophical).

      I have since read R Hartmann’s article on Ynet. Reb Donniel’s language is neither halachic nor theological, it is rhetorical, and I disagree with his conclusion that assassination may be classified as tiqun olam, a term that is carelessly used these days.

      The tann’im (our earliest Jewish sages) intend tiqun olam as Jewish world reparation with the intent that the entire world benefits. This is where liberal Judaisms gets the impression that social action is a type of tiqun olam. I agree cautiously with this perspective.

      I feel a need for more respect from you, Tammy. I feel patronised by your assertions and wonder if you think I am unworldly and unqualified to participate in these discussions? I will, therefore, qualify myself somewhat:

      I am a Hasidic rabbi unlike any you have probably ever encountered. I march in Pride parades with shoulder-length payot (sidelocks) in full bekeshe and shtrieml (long coat and round, fur hat).

      I understand tiqun olam (world reparation) to require repairing the Jewish world so we can assist civil society repair the non-Jewish world.

      I understand qiruv (Jewish inreach) as a responsibility to put up posters against intimate partner violence and to lobby for non-gendered restrooms, among other things that my haredi (fervently Orthodox) cousins would be shocked by.

      As to my usual foci. I am the Rector of The Metivta of Ottawa and hold appointment as Professor of Core Competencies. My primary body of knowledge is communication studies, which I teach in postgraduate seminar courses.

      I also spend a good deal of my time among alcoholics and drug addicts in this G-7 capital city without a port and a port city’s problems. Quite a few of them are Jews.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Dear Rabbi Clark,

      Thanks for the taking the time to comment. Indeed, my response did not go into hilkhos milhomos because I wished to respond to the tenor of Rabbi Hartman’s response, which was indeed hashkhafic as was mine. But you seem to suggest that this was not a particularly good way to go about discussing these issues. That strikes me as odd.

      By the way, tzorech sha’ah as a principle is, as you well know, much broader than in the current context, and is a very delicate issue. But it may be comparable to the idea of “imminence”, i.e., ordinarily, in just war theory, one is not allowed to attack somebody unless that person is actually attacking you. But if an attack is imminent, that would be comparable to le-tzorekh sha’ah may be comparable, and would allow a pre-emptive attack.

      Thus, were Israel about to attack Iran, or vice-versa, Iran would be justified to engage in a pre-emptive strike because both would be le-tzorekh sha’ah

      Oops, there I go, getting “haskhafic” again…I was assuming that a Jewish malkhus and a goyyish malkhus have the same dinim….

      Reply to Comment
    9. Henry Lowi

      “tikkun olam, repairing the world” is the flavor of the day for most North American synagogues and Jewish organizations.
      By giving murder the legitimacy of “tikkun olam”, by legitimizing a tactic of war as “tikkun olam”, Rabbi Hartman will help dismay, disorient, and confuse many honest and decent Jewish youth and others. These thoughtful, well-meaning Jewish people will be froced to re-consider their commitment to the mantras of the Jewish elite, and will challenge the premises of Zionism, its murderous reality, and its “liberal” justifications. I hope Rabbi Hartman keeps up the good work. The polarization in the Jewish community, along pro-Zionist and anti-Zionist lines, will proceed apace. “Magnes Zionism” will move into the anti-Zionist camp, where it belongs. Palestine solidarity will be enriched.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Hashkafa has many uses, Reb Yeremyahu, and I am not on principle opposed to its use. In this makhloqet, however, I think hashkafa hides agendas rather than clarifies them.
      Reb Donniel is thinking like a musmakh (rabbi) and speaking like a frightened and frustrated Israeli. You are thinking like a philosopher and speaking as an academic.
      What I take from this is that you are using hashkafa to comment on rhetoric, which remins me of how my mother, grhs, would reply in English to her father when he talked to her in Yiddish.
      We understand the test of tzorekh sha’a differently. We agree that the immediate need must be acute, but differ on what constiutes immediate need. The assumption in Choshen Mishpat seems to be of general lawlessness and banditry, such as we see in Somalia.
      It’s inadvisable, I think, to use general philosophical principles to comment on specific halachic issues. One can use philosophy of law to comment on law generally, but you are using philosophy of war to comment on law.
      Dinim is the last resort of the mindless.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Tammy

      @REB ARIE: Thanks for reading both posts, and for returning to share a bit about yourself, your foci, and your concerns. My bottom line on the posts and discussions: While organizing to kill another is a deadly (sic) serious matter that I feel unqualified to comment on, I do feel qualified to comment that tikkun olam and killing another do not belong in the same sentence.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Tammy, we agree that R Hartmann should not equate tiqun olam with ratzach (murder) or hitnaqashut (assassination). Frustrated people tend to take refuge in the first simple solution that presents itself, which is why dinin now tends to dominate halacha, as Jerry pointed out in his reply to me, and it becomes essential that liberal Jews, irrespective of how “religious” they are, begin to demand halachic responses from their Reform and Reconstructionist leaders. Only then will the dati establishment in Israel become compelled to respond. They own the field at present, so they have no incentive to innovate.

      Reply to Comment