Ethics & Halakhah, Israel & ISIS?


Slated to be the next chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, Rabbi Col. Eyal Karim has made statements against inducting women into the army and permitting rape of non-Jewish women during times of war. The latter was said to have been “taken out of context” and that the intention was “only theoretical.” The correct response would have been to reject the very question as an obscene act and religious desecration. If there is any shred of truth in the good rabbi’s self-defense, it means that there are, in fact, practically zero ethical brakes in Halakhah, and that there should be no place for it in the public realm of a democratic society. More on Israel and Judaism in Israel losing their ethical moorings, you  can read about it here  (with translations and follow ups) The original responsum is here in Hebrew.

The relative sections are translated into English here:

“One of the important and crucial values in war is maintaining the fighting preparedness of the army … and the needs and emotions of the individual are pushed aside for the success of the nation at war”

“Just as in war, the fence of risk-taking is breached on behalf of others, so are the fences of modesty and kashrut breached… Although fraternizing with a non-Jewess is a very bad thing, it is allowable in war out of consideration for the difficulties of the fighters.”

“Because the success of the collective is what mostly concerns us in war, the Torah allows the individual to satisfy his lust in the permitted conditions for the sake of the general success.”

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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22 Responses to Ethics & Halakhah, Israel & ISIS?

  1. dmf says:

    Reblogged this on synthetic zero.

  2. Look, he was referring to a law from Deuteronomy. To be blunt: he never expected his words to be read by people sufficiently out of the loop of traditional Judaism that they needed those words to be explicitly contextualized as a theoretical explication of a law which has not been practiced for thousands of years (if ever). Now certain political forces in Israel are betting on the ignorance of the public to trash the man’s reputation with this slander. Basically, people have the choice: to side with the manipulators, to stay ignorant and manipulated, or to be disgusted by the whole exercise.

    Deut 21: 10 When you take the field against your enemies, and the
    LoRD your God delivers them into your power and you
    take some of them captive, 11 and you see among the captives
    a beautiful woman and you desire her and would
    take her to wife, 12 you shall bring her into your house,
    and she shall trim her hair, pare her nails, 13 and discard
    her captive’s garb. She shall spend a month’s time in your
    house lamenting her father and mother; after that you
    may come to her and possess her, and she shall be your
    wife. 14 Then, should you no longer want her, you must release
    her outright. You must not sell her for money: since
    you had your will of her, you must not enslave her.

    • zjb says:

      from the text posted here the words read less like a lecture on ancient biblical exegesis and more like a responsum.

      • And you’ve never seen a responsum relating to a purely theoretical point of law?

      • zjb says:

        Responsa tend to be more practical in bearing, no? I’m not saying he’s condoning the practice, but then, what exactly did he think he was doing? Where are the sharp red lines? The confusion is the rabbi’s and the institutions he represents.

      • So you condemn the rabbi for not being sufficiently Internet-savvy, Fine. But what about all those very-savvy politicians who are making political hay out of something you have explicitly rejected as a false interpretation of his words?

      • zjb says:

        No, I condemn the rabbi for being a moral monster, or indecent at the very best. I hold him responsible for his words and don’t trust his attempt at post-facto spin.

  3. Paul Franks says:

    On the one hand, there is no question that he took himself to be addressing a theoretical question about a halakhah that is not applicable today. On the other hand, it is a failure that he approached the question only from the point of view of the soldier, not the point of view of the woman. In other words, he wanted only to address the question why the soldier is permitted to do something in wartime that is not permitted today. This suggests a narrow ethical imagination. His clarification — which I paste here with my rough and ready translation — is fine, although I wish he would expressed himself more sensitively in the first place.

    מובן שמעולם לא התירה התורה אונס אישה. דין “אשת יפת תואר” נועד לגרום לחייל לחזור מכוונתו לקחת את השבויה לאישה, על ידי סדרת פעולות שמצניעות את יופייה ומדגישות את אישיותה ואת צערה. אם לאחר כל התהליך עדיין רצונו לשאת אותה לאישה, הוא מחויב לעשות זאת על ידי חופה וקידושין.

    בנוסף, כל מהות הדין הייתה לעדן את המצב בעולם המלחמות הברברי שהיה קיים אז, בו כל חייל היה רשאי לעשות בשבויו כרצונו, ומטרת הדין היא למנוע מהחייל לקחת את השבויה לאישה בסערת הקרב. ברור שבימינו שהעולם התקדם למדרגה של מוסריות שבה לא נושאים שבויות, ודאי שאין לקיים דין זה למעשה, מה גם שהוא מנוגד לחלוטין לערכי ולפקודות הצבא.

    “It is understood that the Torah never permitted the rape of a woman. The law of “the beautiful woman” is communicated in order to cause the soldier to relent from his intention to take the captive as a wife, by means of a series of actions that hide her beauty, emphasize her humanity and her pain. If after the whole procedure he still wants to marry her, he is obliged to do so by means of huppah and kiddushin.
    Additionally, the whole essence of the law was to improve the situation in the barbaric world of wars that existed then, in which every soldier was permitted to do with his captives as he wished, and the point of the law was to prevent the soldier from taking her as a wife in the heat of battle. It is clear that in our days, when the world has progressed to an ethical level in which one does not take female captives, this law should certainly not be implemented in practice. Besides, it is absolutely contrary to the values and and missions of the army.”

    One thing that he does not make clear is that, as in every other case of huppah and kiddushin, the captive must consent. The Rambam , Sefer Shofetim, Hilkhot Melakhim u-Milhamot, specifies a series of stages in which her consent is solicited: she may accept conversion immediately and marry, or be given thirty days to mourn, followed by another two months., after which she may accept conversion and marry, or be given another nine months, after which she may accept the 7 Noachide commandments and go free, or else face execution for idolatry.

    Of course, her consent under conditions of captivity and the threat of execution is problematic, to say the least. . . I have to agree with Rav Karim that this halakhah must be seen, not as an ethical ideal, but rather in historical context as an attempt to improve a given situation of barbarism. Interestingly, although the Rambam has such an idea of historically contextualized halakhah, he doesn’t regard this halakhah in such a light. I strongly suspect that he is influenced by the prevailing Islamic norms of military behaviour.

    • Your concern with feminist sensitivities is fine and dandy (and I say that as someone who has tried to express feminist sensitivities in my own writing) , but the press and the Israeli left is promoting the the view that he was making a statement about a halakhah which is applicable today. Basically, they took a page straight out of the Nazi playbook (and I mean that quite literally!): take a distressing quote from ancient Jewish sources, pretend that it is applied literally today, and announce that the Jews are blood-thirsty and conniving barbarians. And you know what? Check the “White Power” and Neo-Nazi websites in a couple of days (if not already) and I bet you will find articlesfrom English YNET and statements from Zehava Galon staring on their homepages.

      • zjb says:

        A person bears some responsibility for what he posts online. I’m more concerned with what the Jews say, not what the Neo-Nazis say. If the rabbi has no capacity to manage this kind of question, he shouldn’t even be in the business.

    • zjb says:

      One can understand everything and anything in historical context. But that’s not what’s happening in the original teshuva. Yes, reflective and theoretical in a crude and awful way, but where are the red lines, not about “rape” per se, but about what we today would broadly recognize from the headlines as an act of sexual slavery justified as part of a war ethos? He should have simply rejected the entire premise of the question as indecent. That he couldn’t says what about current norms in religious Zionist circles today?

    • It is somewhat important to point out that the rabbi’s clarification was posted back in 2012 and a link to the clarification is attached to the original responsum. I think he should have just solved the problem by deleting the original responsum back in 2012. In any case, the people who claim today that he supports rape are willfully ignoring the clarifications he offered years ago.

  4. Sorry zjb, when I wrote “So you condemn the rabbi for not being sufficiently Internet-savvy, Fine. But what about all those very-savvy politicians who are making political hay out of something you have explicitly rejected as a false interpretation of his words?” I mistakenly thought I was responding to a comment from Paul Franks, who did explicitly reject the manipulative interpretation of the rabbi’s words. I sincerely hope that you get this point as well. And as for your question about the practicial nature of responsa, yes, that’s generally true, but rabbis also answer plenty of theoretical questions as well. In this case, we have a typical example of a modern rabbi trying to wrest some kind of meaningful lesson from a halakhah which is essentially a dead letter. And if you are not worried about antisemitism, well, I envy your care-free attitude.

    • zjb says:

      first that’s a kind interpretation, but the basic problem remains. on what possible basis can one hope “to wrest” a “meaningful lesson” from this kind of material. Not to say that I’m not worried by anti-Semitism, but that this kind of racism worries me more. We can each envy each other’s care-free attitude, yes?

      • “on what possible basis can one hope “to wrest” a “meaningful lesson” from this kind of material”? That’s the way Judaism has always worked We don’t erase verses from the Torah, we try to make some kind of valuable sense of them.

  5. What was genuinely unwise about the rabbi’s original letter was that the questioner did formulate a specific practical question regarding IDF soldiers which was left unanswered, while the response went into generalized darshanut about classical Jewish laws of war (I don’t think the rabbi supports the practical idea of sending home any soldier who claims to be a coward, either).

    • Paul Franks says:

      Yes. He never addressed the original question, either about whether it was rape and, if so, why that would be anything other than a tragic crime, or about whether it was relevant today. This was a failure, to say the least. But the story is already spreading and I am more immediately concerned, not about his reputation or suitability for the job, but about the uses to which it is being put in order to defame Jews in general.

      • zjb says:

        Berel had the same concern about anti-Semitism as well. Slightly paraphrasing Ben Gurion, I suggested that it matters more what the Jews do then what the anti-Semites were already going to say. About anti-Semites there’s not much one can do. Speaking as a scholar, it’s interesting to see this disjoint between halakhah and ethics. Speaking politically, it’s up to “us” to get our own house in order.

      • “it matters more what the Jews do then what the anti-Semites were already going to say” Do you count, say, Zehava Gal On as a Jew? How about her cynical promotion of the worst possible misinterpretation of the rabbi’s words for political gain? (And, of course, complete disregard for the further collateral damage issuing from her statements). I’m not exactly sure what this break between halakhah and ethics is that surprises you so much. You accept the standard academic narrative of the development of rabbinic Judaism, right? What do you think was going on when the rabbis turned capital punishment into a practical impossibility?

      • zjb says:

        On the many disjoints between halakah and ethics there is a large literature, starting with Joseph Soloveitchik (Halakhic Mind), Yehsahyahu Leibowitz, and Marvin Fox.

  6. How about the ethics of Yediot Aharonot?

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