Israel is being accused of being genocidal murderers and war criminals. Are there sources that show that Jews love life and value universal humanity?
Thanks for your question. I don’t think it’s that Jews love life per se, I think it’s that God loves life. This is a value that He taught mankind even before there were Jews, in Genesis 9:5. After Noah and his family came out of the ark, God says that He will hold responsible anyone who takes a human life. Since there were not yet any Jews, it was God telling all mankind to value the life of all mankind. (Sadly, not everyone has chosen to embrace this message.)
I think no source expresses the idea better than Deuteronomy 30:19, in which God says, “This day, I call Heaven and Earth as witnesses that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life so that you and your descendants will live.” I mean, really, what could be clearer than God overtly telling us, “Choose life?”
God emphasizes the sanctity of life in a number of ways. He commands us not to murder (Exodus 20:12), not to leave hazardous conditions on which others might be hurt or killed (Deuteronomy 22:8) and not to stand by idly while others’ lives are endangered if in our power to assist them (Leviticus 19:16). There is also a general commandment to diligently protect our lives (Deuteronomy 4:15).
That Jews have embraced this value is clear from other Biblical books, which were written by humans. Job 10:12, for example says that God “gave me life and kindness, and in Your providence watched my spirit.” This verse equates life with kindness, so it’s clearly a good thing.
Throughout the book of Tehillim, King David prays for his life. Examples include Psalms 86:2 – “Guard my life because I am faithful” – and 119:40 – “Behold, I longed for your precepts. Preserve my life in your righteousness.” David was a warrior who spent most of his life in battle but he doesn’t embrace death. He knows that life is worth preserving.
King Solomon also said a lot about life in Mishlei (the book of Proverbs). Examples include:
If you need more proof that we value life, consider that on joyful occasions we recite the bracha of Shehechiyanu, which praises God for keeping us alive to reach the milestone in question (Brachos 9:3). In fact, if one must choose between violating a prohibition in the Torah or giving up his life, one must violate the commandment rather than agree to be killed. This is based on the idea of “you shall live through them” (Sanhedrin 74a based on Leviticus 18:5. There are three exceptions: murder, idolatry and prohibited sexual relations, for reasons that are beyond our scope). The Talmud (Yoma 84b) further says that violating Shabbos in order to save a life is not only permitted, it’s praiseworthy.
One might think that all this only applies to Jews. So let’s see a few sources that certainly include non-Jews.
For starters, the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 4:9) says that a person who takes a life is like one who has destroyed an entire world, while one who saves a life is as if he has saved an entire world. (The Bavli says this specifically about Jews; the Yerushalmi casts the net wider.) We also see, from the story in Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b, that God values non-Jews just as He does Jews: When the Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea, the ministering angels wanted to sing songs of praise to God. He silenced them by chastising, “My children are drowning and you want to sing?” So Judaism acknowledges that all people, not just Jews, are God’s children and all lives are precious.
As far as alleged “war crimes,” the Torah actually has very specific rules for combat. For starters, cities under siege had to first be approached with an offer of peace. Only adult males were considered combatants; women and children were not to be killed. Also, an escape route had to be left open, in case the enemy chose to flee. The Torah certainly doesn’t permit genocide. If you were to ask, “What about Amalek? Isn’t that genocide?” I’d advise you to recall that members of Amalek could renounce their nation’s evil ways and be safe. (We see an Amalekite convert in the book of Samuel, plus the Talmud – Gittin 57b – tells us that Haman had descendants who studied Torah in B’nei Brak.)
As you can see, God values life. He wants us to value life. This applies to everyone’s life, not just to those of our co-religionists. When we do have to go to war, we do everything we can to minimize casualties.
So do like God says and choose life.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
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