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The Halakhic Attitude Toward Violence (2)

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
Text file


Based on a lecture by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
Adapted by Aviad Hacohen
Translated by David Silverberg with Reuven Ziegler


          I mentioned earlier that in Halakha we deal with several forms of restraint which are of universal significance, but in Halakha these issues take on somewhat more severe dimensions.  Let us take as an example the law of "hasagat gevul," the unlawful infringement upon the livelihood of another.  The Western, and particularly American, mindset maintains that economic competition works to the benefit of society, and views monopolies as something negative that calls for governmental intervention.  In Halakha, by contrast, a monopoly is not something disgraceful, and there is even some criticism of competition, which, though it could lower prices, could potentially bring about a situation that approaches the law of the jungle, where "each devours his fellow alive."

          With regard to societal issues, the Halakha is based less on man's rights and more on his obligations.  Thus the prevalent view in the West, which promotes mainly individual rights, stands at its core in opposition to the Jewish approach.  This does not mean that Judaism denies certain rights of man; rather, its approach to man's life within society is based primarily on an emphasis of his obligations towards his fellow, rather than his rights vis-a-vis his fellow.

          The Jewish outlook on this matter rests upon two concepts, one more specific and the other more inclusive.  The first is that of "kevod ha-beriyot," or human dignity, which denotes both the dignity of others as well as one's own dignity.  This value requires treating one's fellow as a spiritual creature, as a subject, and forbids viewing him as an object, against whom force may be applied.

          But the imperative of restraint does not only flow from a sensitivity to "kevod ha-beriyot."  Beyond that, it is anchored in a concept that we may perhaps view as central to Judaism: the mitzvot.

          The very fact that a person is called upon to act as a "metzuveh," as someone receiving and obeying commands, is the primary focus of our conduct as Jews.  This concept is a demanding one.  A mitzva does not imply privileges; it does not give, but rather demands, and it demands much.  First and foremost, it demands a basic stance of the individual towards the Almighty; thereafter, it involves specific demands in each and every realm.  In the social realm, these demands lead not towards expansion, but to restriction; not to domination, but rather to restraint.  The combination of these two factors - the mitzva as an inclusive concept and kevod ha-beriyot as a specific concept within the realm of human relations - yield a result that we may view as the Jewish ethic.

          This ethos could perhaps be regarded as passive and constraining, and indeed we have been attacked here and there on this basis; but there is no reason to be alarmed because of this.  True, the ideal of forbearance and restraint is less intense in the Jewish outlook as in the classic Christian ethic, but it certainly exists.  The Gemara reflects this ideal in the passage,

"Those who are insulted but do not insult, who are shamed but do not respond - regarding them the verse states, 'May His friends be as the sun rising in might.'" (Gittin 36)

          The Jew expresses this ideal when he prays three times a day, "and my soul shall be like dust to all."  We speak here only of an ideal, not of a demand that we may present before any average Jew.  But the very fact that such an ideal exists already points to the overall tendency and value system that addresses every individual.

          Classic capitalism believes that within every individual there is the ambition to expand as much as possible and achieve personal goals.  As man generally worries about himself more so than about others, if every person would worry for himself he could expend his energy to the utmost.  By contrast, if we tell him to act towards altruistic goals, he will expend only seventy percent of his capability.  The conclusion: society in general will be better served if every individual worries primarily about himself.

          Judaism rejects this outlook, for two reasons.  First, we are far from certain that the results of this personal contest will be so positive, and the danger exists that indeed man will apply all his energies, but thereby trample someone else.  Secondly, even should we know with certainty that this unrestrained personal contest will indeed yield a higher standard of living in society, nevertheless the ethical price would be too high for us to pay.  The moral corruption that accompanies egocentric conduct and is thereafter expressed through violence - be it verbal, physical, or economic - is a price which we can never resign ourselves to paying.  It is therefore preferable to forego certain mundane achievements in order to avoid creating a society in which each individual is prepared to invest for his own good all his strength and the all means at his disposal, without paying attention to others.


          Finally, I would like to dwell upon Judaism's approach to dealing with violence.  This inquiry must address three points:

  1. applying force in order to restrain the violent individual as required from a societal and ethical perspective;
  2. treatment of the violent person himself, in an effort to rehabilitate him from a moral and spiritual standpoint;
  3. addressing those circumstances that engender manifestations of violence, be it directly, such as points of friction, or indirectly, such as the general social circumstances that contribute towards forging a violent personality.

          Judaism's outlook emphasizes the educational perspective, but not to the extent of foregoing entirely on the element of force.  A well-known French writer said that force and justice rule the world - with each anticipating the other.  This does not refer to alternating periods of time, but rather to a constant blend between force and justice/ethics, in an effort to increase the latter and limit as much as possible the former.

          The intertwining of these two factors must be maintained even when we are interested in a deep-rooted treatment of the individual rather than simply external restraint.  While the three components that I mentioned are necessary, in each case of dealing with violence one must compose a unique, suitable program and determine different proportions between the three components from different angles.

          In Halakha, we find a very strong emphasis on the ethical element when dealing with the deep-rooted treatment of a person's soul.  This flows from a firm, and sometimes remarkable, belief in the individual's power of free will, which yields his ability to act as an ethical creature should he so desire.  We are obviously aware of the limits in this regard, and that this will differ from one person to the next.  In principle, though, Judaism views man as a creature of free choice, an ethical creature, and, consequently, a responsible creature.  This approach affords legitimacy to the application of force under certain circumstances.  We apply force clearly in order to punish and not merely in order to avoid harm to others, and this strengthens the treatment from a spiritual and ethical perspective.

          Within the framework of Halakha there is undoubtedly a certain understanding of the motives behind violence; it does not view the individual as entirely guilty.  But I believe that this understanding is perhaps not as strong and less vindicating than the prevalent attitude in contemporary social work.  This, too, stems from the concept of kevod ha-beriyot: since we see even the violent criminal as a person with an ethical personality, if only potentially, we cannot forego on the ethical element in our attitude towards him.

          During a night-long blackout in New York a number of years ago, many of the city's residents, mainly from the poorer neighborhoods, looted their surroundings.  Afterwards, there were people who justified this on the basis of several arguments, such as the fact that the looters grew up in poverty, suffered from distress, etc.  But author Midge Decter correctly wrote at the time that specifically one who justifies this phenomenon for whatever reasons, and not one who condemns it, is guilty of prejudice and denigration of the "ghetto children."  Justifying such conduct means viewing anyone who grew up in poverty as someone beyond responsibility, beyond ethics, and specifically such a perspective constitutes a severe infringement on his dignity.  It is forbidden to assume that poverty has the power to eradicate the image of God.

          Judaism has its own way of relating to the motives behind violence and the specific factors that at times trigger it.  On the practical plane, Judaism's approach comes to expression on two levels.  First, a person should obviously be provided with all the needs whose absence is prone to lead one to violence; this is both because we seek to limit violence, but no less because gemilut chasadim (kindness) constitutes one of the cornerstones of Halakha.  Everyone, even the criminal, deserves a proper, basic standard of living, and society must provide him with it.

          But in addition - and here I return to the issue of education - there is room as well for the lowering of people's demands.  At times phenomena of violence can be avoided not only by providing certain needs, but also by lessening the desire for them.

          Behind Halakha's attitude towards violence, then, stands an outlook that sees the phenomenon as part of a broader context, as part of a tapestry of issues concerning man's life and his place in society.  In light of this outlook, up to a certain point the halakhic attitude is capable of understanding the roots of violence; beyond that point, however, it seeks to, in the end, rectify and remedy the phenomenon.


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