The Rodef is Dead
A Sermon for Shabbat Emor
By Rabbi Susan Grossman
Beth Shalom Congregation
My friends, I want to introduce to you one Hebrew word that will help us understand what is going on in the news this week through Jewish eyes. I want to explain what this word means within the context of Jewish law and why it is so helpful for us not just this week but in the weeks and years to come.
The word is Rodef. Simply put, rodef means pursurer. A rodef is someone who is pursuing someone else with intent to harm and/or kill. A rodef can be an armed robber, an attempted rapist, even a fetus endangering a mother’s life.
According to Jewish law, we are obligated to stop a rodef from causing harm. Our Torah teaches “Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow.” In other words we are required to intervene not only in our own defense but also in defense of others.
Stopping a rodef is a mitzvah. Jewish law requires us to take whatever steps are necessary to eliminate the threat, even if it means taking the life of the rodef in the process. As the great medieval Sage Maimonides writes, “All Israel is commanded to save a person being pursued for his life, even if it means killing the pursuer.” [i] We are to protect the potential victim by any means necessary.
Ideally, the rodef should be stopped using the least possible violence necessary. If he can be stopped by talking to them, he should be stopped by talking to him. If he can be stopped by only wounding him, he should be stopped by wounding. However, if he can only be stopped by killing him, he is to be killed. If there is any doubt, one is to decide in favor of doing whatever it takes to protect the pursued and his or her defenders, not in favor of limiting casualties to the rodef. One is to take whatever steps appear necessary at the time to stop the rodef.
One is even permitted to take preventive measures to protect oneself and others against a rodef. The great medieval Sage Rashi writes, “If someone intends to kill you, kill him first.” In other words, the intent to kill is sufficient justification to act in defense of self and others. Rashi learns this from the Biblical verse, “…there shall be no bloodguilt for him if the sun be risen upon him...” The rodef’s intent must be clear however. As the Talmud teaches (San. 72a): “...if it is as clear to you as the sun that his intentions toward you are not peaceful, then you may kill him but if not, you may not kill him....”
My friends, Osama bin Laden was just such a rodef. His intentions were unambiguously clear as the sun: he was dedicated to killing us and killing others. Under Jewish law, the Navy Seals who took him out, at great personal risk to themselves, performed a mitzvah. They eliminated the threat he presented not just to Americans, not just to Jews, but to all of civilization. Simply put, they stopped a rodef. We owe them, and all who helped them, a great debt of gratitude.
President Obama could have chosen to bomb the entire complex. He did not in an effort to limit casualties to the women and children there. That was also a good decision according to Jewish law, according to our holy Torah.
We learn this in our weekly Torah portion, Parshat Emor: “ nefesh tahat nefesh (take) a life for a life.” The text goes on to say, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
This is perhaps the most misunderstood of all verses in our Holy Torah. These verses do not call for vengeance or retribution. The end of the paragraph makes clear the Torah’s intention: “You shall have one law for the stranger and the citizen.” These verses call for equal law for all. They are a response to Ancient Near Eastern law which punished slaves more harshly than slave owners, the poor more harshly than the rich, foreigners more harshly than citizens. These verses in our holy Torah also respond to the Ancient Near Eastern law of vicarious punishment, that if you take out the eye of someone’s son, that person can take out your son’s eye. If you kill someone’s slave, that person can kill your slave. Our Torah teaches otherwise. Everyone is responsible for his or her own actions and the consequences thereof. The person who kills will be killed, not someone else in his place.
Now I am not advocating capital punishment. I am advocating for the sad necessity that sometimes the only way to stop a rodef is to take his life. Sometimes it is necessary to take the life of the one who has taken and wants to continue to take lives so that he can no longer harm others.
That doesn’t mean we should celebrate such death. That doesn’t mean we should celebrate Osama’s death, regardless of how rightfully relieved we may feel. We shouldn’t celebrate the death even of our worst enemy, regardless of the cathartic sense of justice the families of victims and first responders are feeling this week amid their renewed sense of loss.
I don’t know about you, but I felt uncomfortable watching the spontaneous celebrations outside the White House the night President Obama reported Osama had been killed. True most of the celebrants were young college students raised under the spector of Osama as a real life Voldemort who had finally been stopped. The crowd in NY was older and more sober, including as it did first responders and those who had lost friends and loved ones on 9/11. Yet, the sense of triumphalism in DC and elsewhere around the country struck me as inappropriate.
It certainly is not what we Jews do. Just a few weeks ago at our Passover Seders, we removed drops from our cups as we recited the Ten Plagues. Do you know why? To mourn Pharoah and his charioteers who died in the Sea.
Pharoah and his charioteers were certainly rodefs: they pursued the Israelites to kill them. They presented a clear, present, and unrelenting danger, which is why God drowned them in the Sea. According to rabbinic tradition, when the angels in heaven gathered to sing praises in honor of the death of the Egyptians, God silenced them saying, “These too are my children, though I had to stop them.”
That is why we reduce our cups by a drop of wine for each plague. Though we are obligated to defend ourselves and others, even unto the death of those who pursue us or others, we are not to relish such violent victories however necessary they may be.
Every human life is precious. Law, order, and due process stand as essential building blocks in a just society. Yet, there are times when in order to protect life, life must be taken. Our Torah makes this distinction in the Ten Commandments which state, do not murder, not as it is often wrongly translated, do not kill. Sometimes there is no way to stop a rodef except by killing him. I have no doubt that that was the case with Osama bin Laden.
His death does not make us safe. But perhaps it will make us safer. His death also gives us pause to thing about the value of all life and the deep sadness that should accompany us whenever we have to resort to violence in an effort to defend against worse violence.
May the day come when such efforts will no longer be necessary as our enemies become our friends, all peoples recognize the humanity we all share, and the world will finally live in peace. And let us say, Amen
[i] Mishneh Torah Hilhkot Rotzeah 1:6, translation from Basil Herring, Jewish Ethics and Halakhah for Our Time.