Is Unity in the Army a Halachic Consideration?


[Talk in the Yeshiva during Lunch]

 

In light of several recent incidents in which people have attacked the Israeli army, we have to clarify and make known a major principle of Jewish law as it relates to the army: unity.  This critical idea is discussed by the Netziv's (Ha-Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin) in his commentary on Rav Achai Gaon's She'eltot 142 (siman #143).

Regarding Yoav, who waged war on Edom for half a year and exterminated all of their males (Melachim 1 11:16), the Talmud (Bava Batra 21a-b) relates that David asked him, “Why just every male? What about the females?” Yoav responded, “The Torah states, 'You shall blot out the males (Zachar) of Amalek'" (Devarim 25:19), which he saw as a precedent for dealing with Edom.

David responded, “The Torah does not say Zachar (males) but Zecher (memory).”

Yoav then said, “I was taught to read 'Zachar' and not 'Zecher'.” Yoav then went back to his teacher and said, “You taught me 'Zachar', and he pulled out a sword to kill the teacher, in accordance with 'Cursed be he who is slack in doing Hashem's work' (Yirmiyahu 48:10). The teacher replied, “True, I am cursed, but that is no reason to kill me.” Yoav then said, “That same verse continues, 'And cursed be he who withholds his sword from blood'.”

In the Talmud two opinions are expressed – he killed his teacher or he didn't. The Netziv on She'eltot says that he did in fact kill him. So one might ask: The verse, “Cursed be he who withholds his sword from blood” is not from the Torah but from Yirmiyahu. How could someone base Jewish law on it?

To this the Netziv responds: Certainly one does not normally kill a teacher who made a mistake. Here, however, the laws of war are at issue. It may well be that if someone sows confusion regarding the laws of war he should be killed, because regarding those laws, we do not know what the results of an error will be.

Our Torah source for this principle is taken from the laws of a soldier who flees the battlefield. The law is that the military police, positioned in the rear, are allowed to kill that soldier because he weakens morale. The Netziv says that that soldier is classified as a Rodef Klal Yisrael, one who pursues Jews to kill them. Whoever weakens the army, the fighting, the Chief-of-Staff, is the worst Rodef there could be.

Applying this principle, the Netziv explains many perplexing stories from the Tanach:

1. As is well-known, Achan stole spoils of war and was killed for it (Yehoshua 7). We might wonder whether such a soldier should really be killed. The Netziv answers that a military order had been issued not to take booty, and Acahn had violated it. He was weakening the army, so he could be killed.

True, stealing booty does not constitute a clear-cut military debacle, but if there is an order not to take it, then one should not take it, and if one takes it, the army's authority is weakened.

2. In the episode involving the murder of the concubine at Gibeah [Judges 19-21], the Jewish People demanded of the Tribe of Binyamin that they hand over the murderers. They refused, so the Jewish People killed the entire tribe of Binyamin. Our medieval rabbinical authorities deliberated on whether or not they were justified in doing so. The Netziv holds that they were right, because the tribe of Binyamin had rebelled against the Jewish People. The Jewish People had asked Binyamin to hand them over, so they should have done it. Otherwise, every tribe would become its own country, and that would be the end of the Jewish People.

Likewise, before the battle against Binyamin, the Jewish People swore that whoever did not go to war would be killed. Yavesh Gilead did not go, so all of Yavesh Gilead was killed for draft evasion during a civil war. They refused the Jewish People's call, weakening the army, and so they were killed (Shoftim 21:10).

3. King Shaul gave orders not to eat on the day of a battle (Shmuel 1 14). Yonatan consumed honey, and Shaul sentenced him to death. Was that a clear-cut military offence?! It makes no difference. He violated military orders. In the end, the people saved Yonatan, but Shaul had been ready to execute his son for violating a military order.

4. Gideon harshly punished the people of Succot for not wanting to provide food to soldiers during the battle against Midian (Shoftim 8). That punishment was unavoidable. If every tribe had its own militia, the enemy would destroy us! The Netziv warns how much worse this would be: If there were individual militias, this tribe would forge a covenant with this enemy and that tribe would forge a covenant with that enemy, as in the times of Aristobulos and Hyrkanus. One forged a covenant with the Greeks and the other forged a covenant with the Romans, and we were left high and dry.

All of these examples, states the Netziv, involve rebellion against the Chief-of-Staff. Rambam writes in Hilchot Melachim 3:8: “The king has authority to kill whomever rebels against him. Even if the king decreed that someone must go to a particular place and that person did not go, or he decreed that someone must not leave his home and he left it, that person incurs a death penalty, and if the king wishes to kill him, he can, as it says, 'Any man who flouts your commands' (Yehoshua 1:18).”

Rambam explains that this verse is referring to the king. The Netziv explains otherwise, that the verse is referring to the Chief-of-Staff of the army, for the verse was addressed to Yehoshua bin Nun, who was not a king. True, the Rabbis argue over whether or not the laws of kingship apply to him, but the Netziv holds like the opinion that he was not a king.

We rule that if the king issues a decree that goes against Jewish law, we don't heed it (Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 3:9), as it says, “Any man who flouts your commands and does not obey every order you give him shall be put to death” (Yehoshua 1:18), and that verse concludes, “Only be strong and resolute!” which the Rabbis knew to be referring to adherence to the Torah. In other words, the verse is saying: Obey the king only if he issues orders according to the Torah.”

Yet Yoav ben Tzruya did not hold to this view. He held that whoever violates a military order, whether justly or not, incurs a death penalty. He therefore killed Amasa ben Yeter who justly violated David's order to him (Shmuel 1 20:8-10). Yoav himself was later sentenced to death for this by King Shlomo (Melachim 1 2:32). Yoav held that one must obey the king even if he says one must do something forbidden, because it is a matter of life and death. Otherwise, that person weakens the king's authority.

We, however, do not rule that way. A military order that involves a sin is patently illegal, and there is no obligation to obey it (see Sanhedrin 49a).

In conclusion, writes the Netziv, our Nation's unity is a matter of life and death. Whoever violates that unity – no matter what the background – is clasified as a Rodef. I'm not saying that anyone who violates it has to be killed.

Even the Rodef is not always killed.

In our country there are all kinds of people with all kinds of outlooks and ideas. They are confused. They are not bad people. Yet one cannot begin to divide up the Nation into two armies or more – one army to evict Arabs, another army to evict Charedim, a third army to evict leftists, a fourth army to evict rightists. That's a lot of armies. Every army would have its own insignia and we would have to ask each soldier, “Are you willing to carry out this mission?” That's impossible. When there's an order, you fulfill it and that's it.

We must not inject political arguments into the army. It's busy with life or death issues involving the entire nation. There are three hundred million Arabs around us, and another billion and a half Muslims who support them, and another billion Christians. Please leave the army out of it.