Thou Shall Not

How should we confront evil? A gallery of quotes by Gandhi currently on Beliefnet offers a teaching in response to … Continued

How should we confront evil? A gallery of quotes by Gandhi currently on Beliefnet offers a teaching in response to this question — a response which fascinates and troubles me. It is easy to read the quotes, especially the one which teaches that truth and love always win and get a quick hit of inspiration. But is it true? Do they always win? Are they winning right now in Darfur? Did they win in Rwanda? How about on 9/11? In Sbarro’s Pizza in Jerusalem, were they victorious there? How about in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilah? Did truth and love triumph in Auschwitz?

I am no cynic and I believe in the human capacity to transcend the evil that sometimes fills our world, challenges decency and threatens our existence. In fact, that belief is central to any spiritual orientation in life. But I also wonder if romantic notions about everything eventually working out do not function as some kind of spiritual anesthetic, dulling our ability to feel our own pain, let alone that of others, and take steps to remedy the situation.

Each of the horrors I mentioned above was propagated by people who believed that they were remedying the situation of the world, so I know this is not simple. But I wonder if it isn’t important for those of us who take inspiration from quotes by Gandhi to also make a list of places in which truth and love are getting the tar beaten out of them and see how that list could inspire us also.

Perhaps the real brilliance of Gandhi’s quote is the most overlooked and seemingly least inspired word in the quote: “and”. It’s easy to be inspired by Truth with a capital T. Love? That has moved us since the beginning of time. And who doesn’t want to win?

But imagine if whatever victories we hope to achieve in the name of Truth were also held to the test of being experienced as acts of love, even by those over who we triumph? What if the message of this teaching is not that truth always wins and love always wins, but that when truth and love are combined together, they always win?

And as inspiring as this all is, perhaps we ought not to leave people in need to the long sweep of history which Gandhi promises will eventually save them from their suffering. Sometimes there is no time to wait for the eventual fall of those who hurt and oppress us, and there really are times when a fight is needed.

Judaism is not a pacifist tradition, even if it loathes the taking of even a single life. The idea that people can, under certain circumstances, actually be obligated to take a life is as old as the Bible and it’s a belief which is continued in rabbinic tradition.

Perhaps the clearest example is that the Ten Commandments do NOT, as popularly mistranslated, say “Thou shall not kill”. The Hebrew is quite clear. It says, “Thou shall not murder”. The difference lies in the latter’s acceptance that not all killing is forbidden, only that which is deemed unlawful.

Rightly or wrongly, that’s what the Bible says. And perhaps that should not surprise or even upset us. In fact, the teaching that murder, not killing, is absolutely forbidden may be part of the Bible’s brilliance. After all, is there nothing for which you would ever fight?

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About

Brad Hirschfield An acclaimed author, lecturer, rabbi, and commentator on religion, society and pop culture, Brad Hirschfield offers a unique perspective on the American spiritual landscape and political and social trends to audiences nationwide.
  • zebra4

    The Israelis should stop killing the Palestinians and stealing the Palestinian land, assasinating Palestinian leaders. Do you agree, Rabbi Hirschfield?

  • MGT2

    I think that killing is sometimes justified but it always, always has to be done out of love for the greater good, and only when it is unequivocally justified. Our current system of jurisprudence has been found wanting when it comes to this standard. Therefore, to me, what is worth fighting for is a fair and unbiased system that will make truly justifiable killing acceptable.

  • Paganplace

    I think, Rabbi, that certain problems aren’t *about* the legalistically-defined ‘potentially-sinful act’ of *killing,* (depending who interprets that blanket and objectless ‘command’ ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill,’ of course. Another case of ‘We must literally-interpret that term to our absolute convenience.’)There’s a difference between “I obey ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ …somehow” …and, as someone more like Gandhi says, “I don’t believe in killing.” That’s more powerful than some may be inclined to believe. Deeper. “I don’t believe in killing.”Killing is not a thing to do. Killing has no real power. Killing is not a solution, only a stopping.Justifying a killing in terms of ‘evil’ leads to.. More killing. More circumstances and attitudes and fears and smaller acts of violence and privation and delusion which *lead to* killing.What if you simply *don’t believe in killing?* Perhaps you don’t believe that a single lifetime is *you.* Perhaps you learn that what you fear to lose cannot be killed so easily? Perhaps that’s a way to wage peace. These are points well-taken. I’m much-informed by them. Pagan ways are perhaps somewhere between, in general. ‘Hope to Hel it hafta harm none,’ as I sometimes say. Act without malice. If needs be, strike without hate to defend. Getting indignant about labeling someone ‘evil’ won’t make you a better fighter, should needs press: (quite the contrary) ..Just a more-frequent one. Sometimes you’ve got to win a fight. But that’s *all* you can win thereby. Maybe I believe in *battle.* When needed. I don’t believe in killing, not as you do, anyway. Some *things* may be evil. If they are, it doesn’t take me saying it for it to need responding to in one way or another. People? Evil? Why name ‘evil,’ especially if you believe it’s something more cunning than those who hear the word and think ‘Threat and fair game?’Maybe I don’t believe in Evil, as you do, either.

  • MGT2

    Colinnicholas says “Religion kills, and always has.”No and not true. If you use a hammer to saw through a piece of wood and a saw to drive a nail into a piece of wood, neither the hammer nor the saw are at fault, and for that matter, neither the wood nor the nail are at fault either. Each item has its purpose; it is the user who bears the responsibility for the way they are used.Remember, “It is a poor workman that blames his tools.”

  • coloradodog

    “Judaism … loathes the taking of even a single life.”Now I’m confused again. Is not Judaism the predominate religion in Israel?

  • honorswar26

    The Israelis should stop killing the Palestinians and stealing the Palestinian land, assasinating Palestinian leaders. Do you agree, Rabbi Hirschfield? Historically, the land had been the land of the Jews for many centuries prior to the birth of Mohammed, so who’s land is it really? It could easily be argued that Arab (Muslim) armies stole the land from the Jews during the Muslim wars of expansion. Muslims had maintained a policy of forbidding Jews from purchasing land in their ancient homelands as well. When the British controlled Palestine, they maintained the same ban on Jews buying land there for fear of offending the Arabs.Assassinating Palestinian leaders? The Arabs declared war on Israel and its Jewish inhabitants from the nation’s birth. So is it really assassination to kill enemy leaders who are planning military (terrorist) actions against one’s nation? The same goes for killing Palestinians who fire mortars and rockets from the grounds of schools and use civilians as human shields to protect themselves as they deliberately fire upon Israeli civilian settlements that are nowhere near the West Bank.If the Palestinians want an end to the death and violence, they can choose to end the violence that they persist on inflicting upon the Jews. You don’t see many Palestinians advocating non-violent protests in the footsteps of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. in spite of the success of the latter, do you? Zebra4 and Coloradodog, you have a lot to learn about the REAL situation in Israel.

  • Athena4

    In the OT, God tells the Israelites to do a whole lot of killing. And they do. But, those were just the Canaanite tribes who lived in the area. I guess they don’t count against the Commandments if God tells you to smite them?

  • ccnl1

    Even the followers of Judaism have a hard time determining the true history of Palestine.To wit:New York Times”New Torah For Modern Minds Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called ”Etz Hayim” (”Tree of Life” in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine document. Similarly ambiguous, Mr. Levine writes, is the evidence of the conquest and settlement of Canaan, the ancient name for the area including Israel. Excavations showing that Jericho was unwalled and uninhabited, he says, ”clearly seem to contradict the violent and complete conquest portrayed in the Book of Joshua.” What’s more, he says, there is an ”almost total absence of archaeological evidence” backing up the Bible’s grand descriptions of the Jerusalem of David and Solomon. The notion that the Bible is not literally true ”is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis,” observed David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to ”Etz Hayim.” But some congregants, he said, ”may not like the stark airing of it.” Last Passover, in a sermon to 2,200 congregants at his synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe frankly said that ”virtually every modern archaeologist” agrees ”that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all.” The rabbi offered what he called a ”litany of disillusion” about the narrative, including contradictions, improbabilities, chronological lapses and the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, he said, archaeologists digging in the Sinai have ”found no trace of the tribes of Israel — not one shard of pottery.”

  • A_V_G

    On second thought, I can write “kill” here and not get censored. I can’t write “****” here and not get censored. A little reappraisal of true foulness is in order, don’t you think?

  • Dermitt

    Confront evil? With hate. Hate can be healthy. We had boy ambush some police. Thought he’d shoot it out and win. Now he’s in a cell with a little light and no light in his soul being kept in cold storage. He hates himself and tortures himself, so I guess torture can be a good thing. Note that Nancy. If you want to go to war with us, you are going to need to bring more than guns. I have the ability to hate too. It’s raining today, so all you tin soldiers better stay in of doors. Now it’s back to business as usual.

  • ThishowIseeit

    Rabbi,

  • asoldier4peace

    I am once again saddened by the way our religious leaders have once again re-written the Bible to fit their needs. Let us see, 3.8 million killed not murdered in Vietnam, 1.2 million killed not murdered so far in Iraq, 160 million killed not murdered in all the wars of the last century…Christian crusades of the 5th and 7th centuries, countless killing…No wonder many leave the church.I am appalled. I have blood on my hands I was in Iraq and I will have to live with that for the rest of my life. So for the rest of you, keep re-writing the book if it helps you sleep.asoldier4peace

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