|Rabbi Eliezer Melamed|
The writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.
From time to time the question arises: Is it possible to learn from the Torah and halakha what the State of Israel’s proper security policy should be, and can Torah scholars, occupants of the study halls, run the security policy of the State?
While the answer is extremely complex, basically, it can be summarized in one sentence: certainly should be learned from the Torah, but their implementation is contingent on the overall, existing situation.
Therefore, in order to implement the Torah’s vision, first, Torah scholars must thoroughly clarify the principles of the Torah.
Alongside these Torah scholars, there is a need for extremely intelligent people who understand the principles of Torah and believe in them, and at the same time, understand the political and security state of affairs in all its components, in order to examine how to implement the vision. And among these intelligent people must evolve leaders who are capable of actualizing the practical idea into reality.
At the same time the public is busy electing its operative leaders, we must endeavor to fulfill our task of clarifying the principles – without which the vision cannot be realized.
The first principle that needs to be learned from the Torah is – think before you act. Study precedes action. First we must know what we are striving for, because the more unclear the goal is, the more difficult it is to achieve.
If you listen carefully to the words of the key leaders of the State of Israel, this discrepancy can almost always be detected.
Let's begin clarifying the principles.
The Mitzvah of Settling the Land of Israel
The foundation of Israel’s policy lies in God’s promise of the Land to our forefathers, and the Biblical mitzvah (commandment) to settle it. Without the promise and the mitzvah, the Zionist movement would not have emerged, and the State of Israel would not have been established.
Ramban’s Position - Conquest and Settlement
The chief spokesman for the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz (settling the Land) is Ramban, Nachmanides, who practiced what he preached by making aliyah and to Israel and founding a community in Jerusalem. To this day, the Ramban synagogues in Jerusalem bear his name.
He wrote: "We were commanded to take possession of the Land which the Almighty, Blessed Be He, gave to our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and not to abandon it to other nations, or to leave it desolate, as He said to them (Numbers 33:53-54): ‘You shall inherit the Land and dwell in it, for I have given the Land to you to possess it…’ ( to the Sefer HaMitzvot of the Rambam, Positive commandment #4). The meaning of the word ve’horashtem (‘you shall inherit’) is to conquer – namely, Israeli sovereignty over the Land; andve’yeshavtem the word (‘to dwell in’) is to settle the Land, so it won’t be desolate."
The mitzvah requires Israel to conquer the Land, "and this is what our Sages call a milchemet mitzvah [war by commandment] (Sotah, chapter 8, Mishna 6) .... and in the words of Sifri ‘ve’yarashta, ve’yashavta ba’ – in the merit of your inheriting (conquering), you will dwell…"
And in order for us not to mistakenly think that the mitzvah was given only to the Jews who left Egypt in the times of Joshua, Yehoshua bin Nun, Ramban emphasizes that the mitzvah requires all generations not to abandon the Land "to other nations at any time…behold, we are commanded with the conquest of the Land in every generation." By virtue of this positive commandment, every individual Jew is required to dwell in the Land of Israel, "even in the times of exile."
Notwithstanding, for many generations the Jewish nation was in a state of oh’nes (coercion) stemming from the exile of both body and mind and could not fulfill the general mitzvah; consequently, most individual Jews were negligent in making aliyah. But in recent times, by the grace of God, Hashem began to allow our redemption to flourish, our situation changed, and we can now fulfill the mitzvah, both as a nation and as individuals.
It is important to further add that this mitzvah overrides pikuach nefesh (saving lives) of individuals, for we were commanded to conquer the Land and Torah did not intend for us to rely on miracles, and since in all wars there are casualties, the mitzvah of kibush ha’aretz (conquering the Land) requires us to risk lives for it (Minchat Chinuch 425, 604; Mishpat Kohen, pg. 327).
Rambam’s Position - Settlement and Defense
Albeit, Rambam, Maimonides, did not write in his rulings that
Israel is commanded to conquer the Land. It seems that in his opinion the mitzvah to conquer the Land was assigned to the generation olei Mitzrayim (those who left Egypt), and apparently, to the kings of Israel throughout history as well.
There is a general and basic mitzvah for every Jew to live in Israel, Eretz Yisrael, and for the Jewish People, Am Yisrael, to establish its nation in the land. The reason Rambam did not count this mitzvah in his 613 commandments, is that yishuv ha’aretz on which he based his counting is that he would not include general mitzvot on which other mitzvot are contingent. Many mitzvot are contingent on the mitzvah of , including all the agricultural commandments that apply only in Israel, mitzvot ha’te’luyot ba’aretz, the mitzvah to erect the Beit Hamikdash, sanctification of the months, not giving the seven nations a foothold in the land (‘lo techanem’), the prohibition of extraditing a slave who escaped to Israel, and the mentioning of the Land in the Grace ater Meals, birkat ha’mazone.
Nevertheless, according to the Rambam, if the Gentiles conquer the Land of Israel and exile the Jews, there is no obligation for Israel to initiate a war to re-conquer the Land.
Rather, the mitzvat ha’milchama (war) mentioned in the Torah presently applies only to “ezrat Yisrael me’yad tzar” (helping to save Israel from an enemy).
In other words, according to the Rambam this is the realistic plan for settling the Land – progressively more Jews are to immigrate and settle in Eretz Yisrael and gradually strengthen the Jewish community in the land.
Then, one of two things will happen: either, in a process of great teshuva (repentance), they will merit a miraculous redemption leading to full sovereignty, or, in a gradual process, the Jewish presence will grow stronger in their land and if nations endanger their existence – the Torah mitzvah of going to war to save Israel will be applicable.
In this situation, the mitzvah of going to war is not only for defensive purposes, but also to attack in order to defend. As our Sages said regarding Shabbat, if Gentiles come to steal even minor things such as straw or hay from towns situated on the border, it is a mitzvah to profane the Sabbath and go out armed to fight them, for if the residents do not react to the theft of straw and hay, in the end, the Gentiles will come to murder (Hilchot Shabbat 2:23). Thus, out of the need to defend, sovereignty is achieved (Milumdei Milchma, sect. 1).
The Precedent of the First and Second Temples
It can be said that in the opinion of the Ramban, the obligatory example of fulfilling the mitzvah of settling the land, yishuv ha’aretz, for future generations is the conquest and settlement of the Land by Yehoshua bin Nun and his contemporaries.
Therefore, the mitzvah incumbent on Israel when they are in exile or under foreign rule is to strive with all their might to achieve sovereignty, and be willing to initiate a war to conquer the Land and liberate it from foreigners.
On the other hand, in the opinion of the Rambam, the obligatory example is the manner Israel acted during the Second Temple, where initially the Jews settled in Eretz Yisrael under the auspices of the ruling Gentiles, and eventually the community expanded to the point where the need to protect their existence, both spiritual and physical, forced them to fight the rulers and restore sovereignty and kingdom to Israel.
The Rambam writes: "In the era of the Second Temple, the Greek kingdom issued decrees against the Jewish people, attempting to nullify their faith and refusing to allow them to observe the Torah and its commandments. They extended their hands against their property and their daughters; they entered the Sanctuary, wrought havoc within, and made the sacraments impure.”
“The Jews suffered great difficulties from them, for they oppressed them greatly until the God of our ancestors had mercy upon them, delivered them from their hand, and saved them. The sons of the Hasmoneans, the High Priests, overcame them, slew them, and saved the Jews from their hand.”
“They appointed a king from the priests, and sovereignty returned to Israel for more than 200 years, until the destruction of the Second Temple” (Laws of Hanukkah 3:1).
And for this, we thank and praise God during Hanukkah.
The Difference between the Two Approaches
In practice, the actual difference between the Rambam and Ramban is not great. For even the Ramban would agree that the entire country should not be conquered all at once, as the Torah instructed us first to conquer the essential areas of the country and gradually expand, and that war should be conducted according to rational considerations without relying on miracles.
Rambam, who holds that a milchemet mitzvah is only a defensive war, also recognizes the historical fact that it is almost impossible for a large Jewish community to defend itself without sovereignty, and that there is no defense without deterrence - including capturing the locations from which the attackers come.
Nevertheless, in principle, there is a considerable difference between them: according to Ramban’s approach, first we must strive to conquer the Land and afterwards settle it, whereas the Rambam’s approach is to first strive to settle the Land and then protect its inhabitants, a reality which usually requires war for sovereignty.
How wonderful it would have been had we merited complete repentance and fulfilled the obligation to live in Israel according to the words of the Ramban – or “even in a city of mostly non-Jews”, in the words of Rambam. Had most of the Jewish people ascended to their land way before the Holocaust, to settle it and re-establish their sovereignty, millions of Jews would have been saved and the Final Redemption would have been brought closer.
Not having achieved this, the main ingathering of the exiles began only after the Holocaust; few in number and out of the need for self-preservation, Holocaust survivors and refugees from the Diaspora merited establishing the State of Israel.
In light of what we have learned, the right policy according to the Torah emerges and becomes clear; a policy which includes a combination of all the principles presented by Rambam and Ramban: aliyah, settlement, defense and conquest.
The basic declaration of the State of Israel should be that of the Ramban: as members of the Jewish nation, and according to our holy Torah, we strive to settle all areas of our country – from the Nile River of Egypt to the Euphrates, on both sides of the Jordan.
Only non-Jews who are lovers of Israel, who believe in the Torah, and observe the Seven Noahide commandments, are permitted to be citizens in our country (according to the laws of ger toshav [resident alien]).
However, as a peace-loving people who have respect for all human beings, we restrain our aspirations and do not intend to initiate a war of conquest, and do not intend to deport foreigners who fail to completely identify with our aspirations.
However, if God forbid, our enemies dare to attack us, we will take advantage of any war to gradually expand the boundaries of our country.
And if the non-Jews living with us dare to threaten our sovereignty, in addition to crushing the violence, we will work to gradually remove them from the country.
All normal countries act this way towards their sworn enemies, however, we are not like all other nations; therefore, only when we understand that a sacred value guides us to do so, will we be able to achieve this policy with wisdom, determination, and sensitivity.
By adopting this political policy, a policy of vision in addition to those anchored in moral and historical considerations, we will be able to cope with international pressure in a much more successful manner.