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Friday, December 29, 2006

On 'ethicists' and Jewish values

I've been suspicious of 'ethicists' ever since 2002, when the New York Times' 'ethicist' - one Jewish-sounding Randy Cohen - advised a woman who wrote to ask whether she should work with an Orthodox Jewish male real estate agent who would not shake her hand that
she was entitled to work with someone "who will treat you with the dignity and respect he shows his male clients." He deemed it irrelevant that the agent was acting in accord with his deepest religious beliefs: "Sexism is sexism, even when motivated by religious convictions." Cohen agreed that the action was "offensive" -- nothing less than an attempt to "render a class of people untouchable" -- and calling it religious "doesn't make it right."
An ethicist - according to Wikipedia - is one whose judgement on ethics and ethical codes has come to be trusted by some community, and (importantly) is expressed in some way that makes it possible for others to mimic or approximate that judgement. In other words, an 'ethicist' espouses a set of popular values, that may not be part of any value system, and may not belong to anyone other than himself. All that is required is that 'some community' trust him and that his judgment may be mimiced or approximated.

As an Orthodox Jew, I believe that all ethics and morality are embodied by and contained in the Torah. Torah prescribes how we should behave in each and every situation, and has an answer for each and every issue. There is nothing that is not contained in the Torah. There are no ethics and no morality outside of Torah. Torah encompasses all. There is no better moral system.

The IDF has an ethicist. Despite the fact that the IDF's ethicist is being called upon to set ethical standards for a Jewish army in a Jewish state, his 'ethical standards' do not necessarily accord with Torah. For example....
The government's policy of restraint regarding Kassam rocket launchings from Gaza is legitimate from an ethical perspective, Prof. Asa Kasher said this week in an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post.

"The chances that a Kassam rocket will kill are relatively low compared to a suicide bombing," said Kasher, co-author of the IDF code of ethics.

"Therefore, use of targeted killings to prevent terrorist attacks that threaten the lives of dozens of Israelis is an obligation of the state that has nothing to do with political policy decisions. But the decision to exercise restraint against Kassam rocket launchings is a legitimate policy decision."
The Torah's ethics are very different. In Shomth (Exodus) 22, the Torah tells us that if a robber sneaks into a house and the owner of the house kills him, the owner is not liable. Our Rabbis explain that one who sneaks into a house with the intent of stealing must realize that the owner of the house is not going to stand by and watch his property be taken. The owner is likely to defend his property by standing up and killing the robber. That the robber chooses to enter the house anyway shows that he has no regard for his own life, but since the robber will not allow himself to be killed without a fight either, the Rabbis conclude that the robber has come to kill or be killed. Therefore the owner of the house is not liable for killing the robber. (Secular law actually recognizes this principle as well wth some limitations). From here, the Rabbis derive a principle: When someone comes to kill you, kill him first.

This week, two teenage boys were critically wounded in Sderot from one of those Kassam rockets that have a 'low chance' of injuring someone compared with a suicide bomber. While those boys will God willing recover, their lives are forever changed. They will never be able to do many of the things that they took for granted. In many ways, their lives are over. Can we really say that those who shot the Kassam were not trying to kill anyone? Why aren't we killing the shooters - and those responsible for the shooters - first?

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