Pursuing the ‘Rodef’


By Philologos

Published July 16, 2004, issue of July 16, 2004.
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The rabbinic concept of din rodef is — unfortunately — back in the news. It last made the front pages at the time of the Yitzhak Rabin assassination. Two weeks ago it resurfaced — this time, in connection with the declaration of Avigdor Nebenzahl, the learned and respected rabbi of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City: “Anyone ceding parts of the Land of Israel to gentiles is, from a halakhic point of view, subject to din rodef.” Although Rabbi Nebenzahl then qualified this statement with the assurance that by his reading of Halakha or rabbinic law, din rodef is not applicable in the state of Israel today, his words set alarm bells ringing. It was din rodef, after all, that Yigal Amir and his sympathizers cited as a religious justification for the murder of Rabin.

Din rodef means, literally, “the case of the pursuer,” although it might be more idiomatically translated into English as “the right of self-defense.” It refers to the rabbinic precept that, as articulated by Maimonides, says: “Every Jew is obligated to save a pursued person from his pursuer, even if this means killing the pursuer.” A “pursuer,” in the rabbinic context, is someone who is a threat to someone’s life. If you see a mugger with a knife running after someone in the street, for example, he is a rodef and it is your duty, if you can carry it out without risk to your own life, to stop him in any way you can — even by shooting him with the gun you are carrying.

On the face of it, this is not a legal concept that, even in the eyes of Jewish extremists, would seem to have anything to do with the assassination of prime ministers. But as is often true of rabbinic law, it is a concept with great elasticity. A rodef, as the rabbis came to think of it, need not be someone actually threatening you with a weapon; it can be anyone endangering you at all. Thus, din rodef was used not only to justify killing a burglar who has broken into your home, on the grounds that it must be assumed he may try to kill you for defending your property. It also was used to justify abortion in cases in which carrying the fetus poses medical danger to the pregnant woman. Since such a fetus can be regarded as a rodef, a “pursuer” of its own mother, the doctor terminating the woman’s pregnancy is may do so under rabbinic law.

It was this logic that led certain nationalistic rabbis, at the time of the Oslo Agreement, to propose extending din rodef to Rabin. Since the prime minister, they argued, had signed an agreement with the Palestinians turning over to them areas of the West Bank and Gaza in which Jewish settlers lived, and since these settlers’ lives would be in danger under Palestinian rule, he was a rodef and subject to din rodef — that is, to being killed if this would help foil the agreement. Yigal Amir was convinced by this argument and used it in his defense at his trial.

One can simply dismiss all this, of course, as the wolf of fanaticism dressing in the sheep’s clothing of talmudic reasoning. But even if one takes both the Land of Israel and talmudic reasoning seriously, there are obvious flaws in such thinking. In fact, the rabbis themselves recognized that din rodef is a dangerous concept because it can be so situationally ambiguous. Suppose, for instance, that the burglar had no intention of killing you and only does so because you tried killing him first. Why can’t he now claim that din rodef is on his side?

Din rodef might then uphold the right of two men to kill each other! And by the same token, if you believe that not ceding territory to the Palestinians will endanger Jewish lives by preventing a peace settlement that could put an end to war and terrorism, why doesn’t din rodef entitle you to kill the opponents of Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement plan”? Why doesn’t it entitle you, for that matter, to kill Rabbi Nebenzahl?

This is no doubt about why Nebenzahl, albeit convolutedly, ruled that din rodef was not applicable to Israeli politics, just as it is not applicable to many other things. Although “the right of self-defense” is a valid principle, the minute this principle escapes the bounds of clear and immediately life-threatening situations, it becomes a license for general mayhem. When rabbinic law cannot possibly lead to workable conclusions, even those who seek to live by it should acknowledge that other standards are preferable, such as those of the democratic political process. Whether or not Israel withdraws from part or all of the “territories” should be decided by a majority vote of the Knesset, not by the imperatives of rabbinic law. Those who should be saying this most loudly are Israel’s rabbis themselves.

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