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The Halakhic Attitude Towards Violence

Part 1 of 2

Based on a lecture by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
Adapted by Aviad Hacohen

Translated by David Silverberg with Reuven Ziegler

The subject of Judaism and violence must be addressed, I believe, on two levels. One level involves the direct phenomenon of violence, meaning, the specific areas in which the manifestation of violence occurs. The second is the spiritual and moral plane, confronting the roots of violence within man and society.
A connection nonetheless exists between these two planes. When we speak of violence, one should distinguish between violence that, under certain circumstances, or when it flows from a certain authority, may be classified as justified violence, and the more common form, such as a person attacking another or even himself, which we obviously look upon negatively. This distinction may be expressed more clearly by differentiating between the terms "violence" and "force."
When coming to assess how Judaism views violence, particularly from the perspective of Halakha, the discussion must address several different areas, and by nature it is dialectical and complex. Were we to limit ourselves to the second category of violence, this task would certainly be much easier. But I would like to address the entire range, and we must therefore speak a bit also about the violence that earns a certain degree of justification in Judaism.
In the public sphere, the question of violence focuses first and foremost on the issue of war, or, more precisely, our priorities in confronting justifiable, national concerns, and the need to use force to meet these concerns.
In this area, Judaism does not adopt an entirely pacifistic stance. It establishes that war in certain circumstances is not only justified, but even constitutes an obligation and mitzva; that is, it recognizes the legitimacy of one form of violence. Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize that even in this area, and even under circumstances when the Torah and Halakha justify national use of force, the matter is accompanied by a certain degree of caution.

The halakha testifying to this is based on the following verse:

"If you make for Me an altar of stones, do not build it of hewn stones; for by wielding your sword against them, you have profaned them." (Shemot 20:22)
On this basis Chazal establish that when one builds an altar, it is forbidden for him to use not only a sword used for violent purposes, but even any tool made from iron, as it, too, symbolizes a sort of violence.
Even with regard to the war which, given the circumstances, is perhaps necessary and obligatory, we find a thread of ambivalence, giving rise to the rejection of any connection whatsoever between the altar used in the service of God and weapons of destruction. This consideration also disqualified King David from becoming the agent of Providence to build the Temple, despite the fact that the warfare he had engaged in had been obligatory:
"The word of the Lord came to me, saying, 'You have shed much blood and fought great battles; you shall not build a House for My Name for you have shed much blood on the earth in My sight." (Divrei Ha-yamim I 22:8)
While warfare involves the use of force by the community against a different community, there are also times when the community is sanctioned to use force against an individual. Halakha recognizes the legitimacy of punishment, including corporal punishment in certain circumstances. Since in the eyes of Halakha man is responsible for his actions, he is thus deserving of censure and denunciation in various ways. But even on this plane Halakha exhibits a dialectical attitude towards the use of force. The Gemara (Makkot 23) establishes that those who execute the court's sentences must be "yatirei mada" (rich in intelligence). It seems to me that the reason is, as one of my rabbis z"l explained, because the one assigned to an inherently violent task must be someone capable of rising above all personal, aggressive resentment and also understand that even justified violence, over which he presides as a public official, contains a negative element. One must beware of this element, even when the act must be executed.


We may divide this sphere into two:

  1. specific human relationships, in a framework more or less defined, some of which are based on a degree of authority and discipline, others founded on full equality;

  2. relationships among people in the broader, general context.

With regard to both, clearly the accepted attitude rejects violence. Nevertheless, here too we find (at least regarding the frameworks involving authority) recognition of the legitimacy of certain manifestations of violence; though again, this attitude is a dialectical one.

Parents' relationship towards children provides a perfect example. On the one hand, the verse establishes that "One who spares his rod despises his son;" at the same time, however, Halakha requires a parent, or anyone exercising discipline, to do so in as noble and gentle a manner as possible. This is both in order to minimize the harm inflicted and in order that the one using violence - even just verbally - is not affected by its utilization.
The Rambam on the hand cites the Gemara's comment that a teacher should "cast bile" upon his students, and on the other includes anger among the qualities regarding which the "golden mean" principle does not apply, and one must distance himself from it entirely:
"Anger is a particularly bad quality; it is proper for one to distance himself from it to the opposite extreme and train himself not to become angry even over matters worth growing angry over." (Hilkhot De'ot 2:3)
[He thus seems to say that, for educational and disciplinary reasons, one can act AS IF he were angry; but one should avoid the loss of control involved in actually feeling anger. - Ed. note]
While this is the case regarding relationships based on authority and discipline, any taint of violence must be avoided in other relationships, for example, that between husband and wife. Historians have already noted that even when society legitimated wife-beating, Halakha already took a firm stance against it and anything associated with it.
Even in less emotionally charged contexts, such as neighborly relations, we find in Halakha a clear emphasis on restraint and the rejection of violence. Halakha exhibits particular sensitivity towards the needs of neighbors in terms of their protection from noise, the smell of smoke and the like, even at the expense of the economic development that causes the disturbance.


The second plane of our discussion involves interpersonal relations from a broader viewpoint, beyond the specific phenomena of violence and the degree of legitimacy afforded or denied to them. Violence, of course, is not an isolated phenomenon; it is an expression of a world outlook and approach that evolves from a combination of social status, innate drives and personal character, which itself is composed of both a value system and a psychological makeup.
To complete the discussion, then, we could ask generally: What type of personality does Halakha or Judaism seek to cultivate, and what system of relationships between man and his fellow does it encourage?
I imagine that we might say that a clear element of self-restraint exists in various areas. These areas are not, at their core, specific to Judaism or Halakha; most of them belong to what we might consider the universal ethic. But they receive strong emphasis in Halakha and are treated with far-reaching severity. This is true regarding the prohibition against beating or cursing, but is even more salient in the prohibition of "ona'at devarim" (verbal abuse), which forbids embarrassing or inflicting harm on someone through harsh or painful words. Halakha's attitude toward this issue is especially severe. For example, the Gemara states, "One who humiliates another his public has no portion in the world-to-come" (Bava Metzia 59a). According to Tosefot, the principle of "yehareg ve-al ya'avor" - requiring one to surrender his life rather than transgress - applies to this prohibition against public humiliation.
It is worth emphasizing that the aim of restraining man's aggressive impulses arises not only from concern for the potential victim, but also for the perpetrator himself. The Biblical prohibition that forbids me from injuring or cursing another also denies me the right to injure or curse myself. The destructive person is also created in the image of God, and Halakha does not condone the accepted notion in the Western world that man is his own master. Rather, it sees God as the master and man as being entrusted with the guarding and nurturing of his body and soul.
This restraint is demanded not only with respect to man's treatment of others, and not only in his attitude towards himself, but also in terms of his treatment of his surroundings. There are prohibitions against cruelty to animals and destruction of property - even if they belong to him. This evolves, as stated, from a concern for both the individual causing harm and the object being harmed.
True, the Torah does afford the human being a degree of freedom: "Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it" (Bereishit 1:28). But this conquest is one of development, of imposing law and order, enforcing values, and imprinting a human-ethical stamp even on nature. Indeed, this commandment of "conquest" is balanced in the following chapter, and we must view both elements simultaneously: "The Lord God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and guard it." Meaning, man is entrusted with the world; he is entrusted with himself, his property, and, to some extent, his environment.
We derive from here that the element of "conquer it," which seemingly gives license to man's aggressive capabilities, and indeed allows a degree of control, and perhaps even, in a certain sense, domination, clearly leaves no room for abuse. Even man's striving towards achievement must occur within a morally restrained and controlled framework.

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