Why doesn’t “Do Not Kill” apply to war and law?

September 23rd, 2020 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 5 comments

In the 10 commandments, it says, “Thou shalt not kill.”  So if a police officer shoots a burglar breaking into your home, is God happy or displeased?  What about the military whose job it is to kill people?  Is God happy or angry?  Does it make a difference which army you are in?  Is a German soldier in WW2 treated the same as a soldier in the Israeli army?

Peter H.

Dear Peter,

Your question is one that we have received from many people so we are delighted to answer. Actually, though, your question is based on a mistaken premise.  This is because the sixth commandment does not state, “Thou shall not kill.” It says in Hebrew, לא תרצח, for which ‘thou shall not kill’ is a poor translation.   

Every legal system differentiates between varied aspects of killing.   These different words for killing carry different connotations and, when appropriate, different legal penalties. There are major differences between execution, killing, murder, manslaughter, assassination, as well as degrees such as 2nd-degree manslaughter. In the Hebrew language and Biblical culture, there are also different ways in which a life can be taken.   

God’s law requires that we punish some transgressions with the death penalty handed down and carried out by a legally constituted court. The laws surrounding the court and such a verdict are extremely tightly drawn, but the idea that a person can forfeit his life through certain actions is an important one. War is also part of God’s picture and, once again, while a soldier’s behavior is tightly regulated, killing one’s enemy on the battlefield is a reality.

When it comes to war, there are extremely complex issues. Is your country asking you to do something in opposition to God’s will? This issue can come up, not only in war but in other ways as well. To our disgrace and dismay, it is not far-fetched to imagine these days that a nurse might be ordered to participate in killing a perfectly viable newborn baby, whether through an action or through neglect. The bottom line is, that while respect for country and civil law is a Biblical value, respect for God’s law trumps that. This isn’t a “do what you want” card; it is a serious commitment of faith for which one is willing to sacrifice one’s own life.

When it comes to war, once the war itself is moral, there is still behavior within that war that must be followed. However, killing is an inevitable part of war and while we have great admiration for communities like the Quakers who shun violence no matter the cost, ancient Jewish wisdom posits that refusal to use violence will cause more bloodshed and evil in the long term. War and killing are sometimes necessary.

Similarly, the Bible stresses the need for a safe and stable society and the establishment of law and justice. Police, judges and legislators have an authority that can extend to killing within the parameters of a just legal system. Questions may arise about how the system works but not on whether killing is ever allowed. On that, there is no question.

You ask about a police officer killing a burglar breaking into your home. It doesn’t have to be a police officer. If you have reason to believe that the burglar might use force against you or your family, you shouldn’t wait for law enforcement to arrive.  You should prevent the intruder from inflicting bodily harm by whatever means necessary, including killing him.

A better translation of the sixth commandment would be, “Thou shalt not murder.” (And that is the translation our recommended Bible uses*.) Even so, there is nothing simplistic about this sentence just as there is nothing simplistic about any law or command given in the Five Books of Moses.

We hope this gives you the beginning of a path to understanding,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

*In our recommended Bible:

Page 226, top line, middle two words: Thou Shalt Not Murder לא תרצח

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5 comments

Carl Schleg RN, says:

Though people with ‘Alphebet soup’ beside their name have never read it, I suggest ‘The War Prayer’ by Mark Twain. It goes deeply into why to start a war ect.
Not a long read, but will provoke wisdom for those who seek it. I was a medic with the Marines at the time just post Viet Nam….MADE ME THINK….

Ted Smith says:

An excellent explanation. Thank you.

A famous Jewish rabbi once said, “The thief comes ONLY to steal and kill and destroy.” We often imagine that the thief breaking into a home might be relatively harmless, or even “needy” of your stuff, so maybe we should cut him some slack. But this is false! Any human being discovered invading your home becomes instantly and violently defensive and will do almost anything to avoid being captured. In his attempt to escape not even he yet knows the extremes he will go to. His actions usually result in the destruction of the property, and often physical harm, even death to the victims. So the words of the rabbi are not a description of the thief’s behavior but rather a pronouncement that a thief is in fact a murderer, and should be perceived and dealt with as such.

John A. Curry says:

As former military and law enforcement officer, I had it explained to me in this simple way.

The word should not be kill but murder. Murder is the taking of an innocent life.

And I can’t help but apply this definition to abortion. Which life is more innocent? The mother’s or the child’s?

Jean says:

Bingo! And that’s why a person can believe in the death penalty for a properly tried and convicted murderer, but still be pro-life when it comes to the unborn and NOT be intellectually dishonest.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Exactly Jean
Cordially’
RDL

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