Zinna Alekseeva of Boston asks: “Does Judaism approve of armed combat? In other words, can I, as a Jew, be required to kill a human being?”

created at: 2013-04-30The Jewish tradition ascribes near-absolute value to human life. The Sages learn from the Genesis story (chapter 2) of the creation of humanity through a single person (Adam) that every human being is endowed with three inalienable dignities. First is the dignity of infinite value, i.e. if the whole world descends from the first person, then it follows that whoever saves a single human being saves an entire world, and whoever destroys a single human being destroys an entire world. Second is the dignity of fundamental equality, i.e. if all humanity has a common father and mother (Adam and Eve), then no one can claim superior lineage. And third is the dignity of uniqueness, i.e. all human beings are made in the image of God and yet no two are identical (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5).

The Jewish tradition upholds that life is a blessing and that there is so much for which to live; therefore, if ever confronted with a conflict between transgressing a mitzvah and staying alive, one must “live by them (i.e., the mitzvot/commandments) and don’t die by them” (TB Yoma 85b interpreting Leviticus 18:5). Likewise, the Torah in numerous places outlaws murder, most notably in the Ten Commandments: “Lo Tirtzach – Thou Shalt Not Murder” (Exodus 20:13). Time and time again, the Torah and its rabbinic interpretation remind us of the near-absolute value and importance of human life.

And yet, unfortunately, an imperfect world imposes circumstances and situations in which death and taking of life may be justifiable, if not actually an affirmative duty. So while Judaism says that it is better to transgress a mitzvah/commandment and live to see another day with new religious opportunities, part of appreciating what life is worth living for is the consideration of what in life is worth dying for, and even, if necessary, killing for. The Talmud teaches that it is better to die than to commit idolatry, adultery or murder. For example, if a bad guy tells you: “If you don’t kill X, I will kill you,” then it is better to allow yourself to be killed than to take the life of another, “for who says that your blood is redder than his that you should live and he should die” (BT Sanhedrin 74a). Sometimes, it is justifiable to take another’s life, as in the case of self-defense, for which the Talmud declares: “If someone is coming to kill you, rise up and kill him first” (TB Berakhot 58a). This is an occasion of justifiable homicide, even preemptively, in the case of individual self-defense. The Talmud, however, also allows an individual to use deadly force, if absolutely necessary, to stop a person who is murderously pursuing another human being (TB Sanhedrin 73a). For example, think of a policeman shooting a person with a rifle trying to enter an elementary school with malicious intent.

We can expand these arguments to concerns of local or even national security. In America, we would rather risk death than vacate our civil liberties; think of the New Hampshire license plate of “Live Free or Die.” National self-defense requires a standing army ready to engage in armed combat and which, at times, may even need to strike preemptively and not just reactively. Similarly, the same regard for the near-absolute value of human life that should make anyone loathe to take another human being’s life also requires us not to stand idly by in the face of genocide, mass murder, murderous tyranny, etc. The law of the pursuer would justify action on a national scale in such cases.

Finally, the Torah explicitly sanctions capital punishment, though the rabbis of the Talmud were highly skeptical of its just application (see Mishnah Makkot 1:10).

In sum, while the Jewish tradition exceedingly values human life and prohibits murder, there are times when the taking of human life is justifiable and perhaps even required. At the same time, the final blessing of every Jewish prayer is peace.

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Rabbi Benjamin Samuels is the rabbi at Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Newton Center. He is also a Genesis Scholar at CJP.