Thursday, June 30, 2022

A Cri de Coeur for the Russian Army to Return to Its Moral Roots by Rabbi Shalom C. Spira

 Some 77 years ago, on Pesach 5745, the Russian army (or, technically speaking, what was called at that time the Soviet Union army) liberated my paternal grandparents who had been hiding in the Czech mountains from the Holocaust. This was an exemplary moral achievement by the Russian army. More recently, 4 years ago, the Chief Rabbi of Russia (in a visit to Montreal documented at  <>) announced that the Russian army’s commander-in-chief, Vladimir Putin, gives respect to the Torah. This once again reflects to the moral credit of Russia’s army, given the Gemara, Chullin 92b that one of the commandments of the Noahide Code is to honour the Torah. 

            It is thus disturbing to see how, for the past four months, Russia’s army has potentially compromised its moral integrity with its attack on Ukraine. To that effect, many international governments – including that of Canada (where this writer presently resides) – have protested the Russian army’s action. See, for example, <>. In the present article, I will argue that the invasion of Ukraine is inadvisable under the Noahide Code on account of three doubts to the side of stringency. 


            1) Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, Ha’amek Davar commentary to Genesis  9:5, allows Noahide governments to engage in offensive warfare, pursuant to the opinion of Shmuel in the Gemara, Shevu‘ot 35b which elucidates Song of Songs 8:12 to mean that a Jewish monarch may kill up to a sixth of humanity in a milchemet reshut (so-called “discretionary war”). Understood as such, Song of Songs 8:12 teaches us that just as a prudent farmer will eliminate a few diseased trees to protect the vineyard as a whole, so too a milchemet reshut may ethically target up to a sixth of humanity in order to better protect global security. Rabbi Berlin essentially argues that what is authorized for a Jewish monarch must perforce also be authorized for a Noahide government. This is also the view of Maharal of Prague, Gur Aryeh to Genesis 34:13. 

            However, Rabbi Berlin’s extrapolation is not necessarily as compelling as it may appear at first glance, be-mechilat Kevod Torato. A careful examination of Shevu‘ot 35b reveals that Shmuel’s opinion is based on the supposition that the Name in Song of Songs 8:12 is sacred. However, according to the countervailing view in the Gemara that the Name in Song of Songs 8:12 is secular, there is no license for Noahide governments to kill up to a sixth of humanity (or even one human being) in an offensive war. [And that which a Jewish monarch may engage in a milchemet reshut flows from a special Torah commandment (Deut. 20:10-15) that is directed only to the Jewish People, and even then, only when so authorized by a prophetic revelation via the urim ve-tumim, the latter notion being inoperative in our era until the messianic redemption.] 

            Rambam, Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 6:9 rules that the Name in Song of Songs 8:12 is in fact secular, although is contested on this matter by Ran al ha-RifShulchan Arukh does not adjudicate between these conflicting views. Accordingly, Rambam’s outstanding view presumably creates a legitimate safek that the halakhah may perhaps not follow Ha‘amek Davar, such that offensive war would actually be forbidden to Noahide governments. 

            Given this doubt, it is not surprising that – as documented by Rabbi J. David Bleich, Contemporary Halakhic Problems Vol. 3, p. 287 – both R. Avraham Dov Kahana-Shapiro, Teshuvot Dvar Avraham I, no. 11 and R. Menachem Zemba, Teshuvot Zera Avraham no. 24 forbid Noahides from engaging in offensive warfare. To that effect, the latter two scholars both invoke the Gemara, Sanhedrin 59a which declares that “Noahides are not included under the rubric of conquest” to explain why the license of milchemet reshut is denied to Noahide governments. 

            Rabbi Bleich also cites R. Moshe Sofer, Teshuvot Chatam Sofer, Yoreh De‘ah no. 19 as prohibiting Noahides from engaging in offensive warfare. Actually, this appears to be an oversimplification, be-mechilat Kevod Torato. A closer reading of Chatam Sofer reveals that he considers the question to be one that is “tzarikh iyun gadol” (requires great investigation). Nevertheless, even that should presumably be sufficient to prevent the Russian army from relying on Ha‘amek Davar and Gur Aryeh to engage in offensive warfare. After all, the principle “why do you see that your blood is redder, perhaps the blood of your fellow is redder” (Sanhedrin 74a) indicates that even doubtful murder must be eschewed. 


            2) Rabbi Bleich, ibid., pp. 9-10, observes that even according to the aforementioned Ha‘amek Davar, license for Noahide governments to engage in offensive warfare is limited to killing up to a sixth of humanity. Now, since it is tactically certain that a nuclear war would annihilate more than a sixth of humanity, Rabbi Bleich concludes that nuclear warfare is forbidden for Noahides. Yet, in our present situation, the Russian army has threatened to employ nuclear weapons against any nation that tries to defend Ukraine. Arguably, this threat may itself cloud the moral legitimacy of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, even according to Ha‘amek Davar. [Admittedly, Rabbi Bleich continues that Noahide governments are allowed to passively maintain a nuclear arsenal as a deterrent against attack by foreign nations. However, it seems to this student that one might question whether the deterrent justification only holds true for purposes of passive self-defense, as distinct from purposes of actively invading a neighbouring country (the latter representing Russia’s current strategy). In the latter instance, humanity would risk destroying itself through nuclear bullying, thereby running afoul of Rambam, Hilkhot Melakhim 10:11 (viz. the concept “that the world should not be destroyed”). See Rabbi Bleich, Be-Netivot ha-Hahalakhah Vol. 1, pp. 98-101 for an elaboration of the latter Rambam]. 


            3) As explained by Shalom C. Spira and Mark A. Wainberg “HIV Vaccine Triage: Halakhic Considerations,” Jewish Law Annual Vol. 20 (2013), Noahide societies are commanded to implement programs that prevent the spread of infectious disease, pursuant to the Mishnah, Bava Batra 7b, which authorizes citizens of a town to compel one another to erect fortifications for protection against possible attack by marauders. As of the present date, the COVID pandemic continues (as evident, for example, by the fact that the present writer is still required to don a mask at his place of work and on public transit when travelling to-and-from his work). By waging a war at this time, the Russian army is jeopardizing its ability to protect its soldiers from preventing the spread of COVID. Arguably, this itself may erode the moral legitimacy of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 


            Given the aforementioned three doubts, I appeal to the conscience of Russian soldiers to consider the following Gemara, Shabbat 30b. To justify why a candle should be extinguished on the Sabbath in order to allow a dangerously ill patient much-needed sleep in order to recover, the Talmud posits: “A regular candle is called a candle, and a human soul is also called a candle [i.e. the candle of G-d, in Proverbs 20:27]. It is better to extinguish a regular candle created by flesh-and-blood for the sake of saving the candle of the Holy One, Blessed Be He.” We can infer from this Talmudic lesson that human inventions and firepower should play second-fiddle to the saving of human life. Now is the time for the Russian army to return to its moral roots by aborting its invasion, and indeed a recent proclamation of Agudath Israel (at <>) concludes likewise. Perhaps Agudath Israel oversimplified by terming the Russian invasion (definite) “murder,” but – as before – even doubtful murder must be avoided, and so Agudath Israel’s practical conclusion remains cogent. 


Rabbi Spira works as Editor of Manuscripts and Grants at the Lady Davis Institute of Medical Research [a Pavillion of the Jewish General Hospital] in Montreal, Canada.

No comments :

Post a Comment

please use either your real name or a pseudonym.