THE RODEF AND THE KING

THE RODEF AND THE KING

BY EPHRAIM CHAMIEL

The first decades of the 19th century were particularly stormy for the Jewish communities in Europe. Napoleon brought to the countries he conquered the concepts of the French Revolution, and the Czars in Austro-Hungary and Prussia began treating the Jews with greater leniency, leading towards emancipation. The reactions of those who objected to the granting of equal rights to the Jews included the claim that because the Jews actually want and pray for a Jewish state in their own land, their desire for equal rights is not totally sincere, and in their hearts they are actually “traitors” towards the Czar’s authority over them.

All of the Rabbis and Jewish thinkers of the generation came out strongly against such charges – each with his own nuance, in accordance with his own views: the hareidim on the one side, the reform Jews on the other side, and the neo-Orthodox and the Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) in the middle. On one point, though, they were all in agreement: it is forbidden to rebel against the Czar. Whether they were passive in that they wished to wait for the salvation of the Messiah, or they wished to begin the Redemption process themselves, all Torah-observant believing Jews agreed that such a thing would be unthinkable, and that it would be a totally forbidden act from the Halakhic standpoint. All quoted the verse from Jeremiah (29,7): “And seek the peace of the city into which I have exiled you, and pray to G-d [for it], for in its peace shall you have peace.”

The aspirations for Redemption, even when they are accompanied by a desire to make aliyah to the Land, or by the actual act of aliyah, are religious in nature. Even those who gave these longings a nationalist tilt emphasized the importance of recognizing the beneficience of the Czar and his nation towards the Jewish people in sheltering them and in giving them a country with which they could identify themselves.

This was best expressed by Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Chajes, the rabbi of a city in Galicia who became famous as a scholarly Talmudist of the first order and a genius in Torah, on the one hand, and was erudite in philosophy and science, on the other hand. In the course of his analysis of the laws of a King in Israel, Rabbi Chajes emphasizes the unequivocal proscriptions placed by the Halakhah on any form of rebellion against the King or against any authority. In addition, he lists the sometimes extreme measures the King is allowed to take vis-a-vis the citi-zenry for the purpose of having his will carried out. In his words (Sefer Torat N’viim, ch. 7, p. 43-49):

The Halakhah has determined that a King in Israel is permitted to do all that is enumerated in the Scriptural passage dealing with the King [Sam. I 8]: he may confiscate the people’s sons and daughters, their fields and orchards. That which a regular citizen may not even covet in his heart, a King may take by force. The Halakhah also posits that “the King’s route is unlimited,” and that he may burst through private fields and fences, and none may protest. He may have citizens executed without prior warning and without due process, and he may punish in ways that he sees fit… In my opinion, the King has a status equal to that of an affirmed prophet, in that whenever he says that a certain Torah law must be nullified for a specific generation, based on his perception of the society’s situation and circumstances, and on his feeling that it will be to the benefit of the generation to uproot the law, he may do so. This is because the compliance itself with the word of the King will in all ways be of great benefit to the generation, even in matters connected only with his personal honor… Even in our day, whoever acts criminally to rebel against the royalty must be turned over to the authorities, for any rebel against the kingdom – even the kingdom of the other nations – is worthy of capital punishment, according to Torah law.

Rabbi Chajes, however, goes even further, and claims that the king, or any other form of authority, is in essence chosen by the people. Therefore, his welfare is a general interest of the public, which has taken this authority upon itself, and has accorded him the responsibility for the lives of the citizens, their welfare, and economic prosperity. Again, in his words:

The following novel idea therefore appears to me to be true: All of the laws of the King are only a form of alliance between the King and the nation, into which the two sides agree to enter based on these conditions. The citizenry agrees to concede its money and property for the sake of the public, in the sense that the previous generation may have fought a war for the sake of the present generation, and with the understanding that it is vital that in time of war the King should be able to blaze a path through private property – just as an individual may save his life by using the property of another – for the King includes the entire nation, and upon him is dependent the welfare of the State. This is true even in a matter that concerns only his own personal honor, for this too provides benefit for the entire nation… And not only was the personal property and money considered by the Rabbis to be forsaken in favor of the King and the public benefit that would arise from his rule, but also their very lives were forfeit, in that they took upon themselves that anyone who would disobey the word of the King would be liable to execution at his hand, and this was inherently agreed to by the very fact of their having accepted upon themselves the King.

And then Rabbi Chajes takes a sharper and even more significant step. He defines as a rodef anyone who harms the King, for such an act endangers the whole nation:

The main aspect of this matter is the fact that the Halakhah rules that one who pursues another with the intention of killing him – known as a rodef – may be killed by any one (see Maimonides, Laws of Murderers 1,6), and here too – because the King’s rule is of general benefit to the entire nation, an individual who wishes to rebel and to thereby destroy the foundations of the society and of principled behavior is thereby considered a rodef. The consequences of rebellion against the King may be wars and killings and the shedding of innocent blood… and because the rodef wishes to destroy and to uproot the peace of the society – the members of which are sitting serenely under the shadow and protection of the King, following their absolute concurrence that only the kingdom is the appropriate authority for them – he is in essence “pursing with the intent to kill” the entirety of the nation, and anyone is permitted to kill him, according to Torah law.

This means that the King has the right to act according to his own will, on the basis of the mandate that he received from the nation, as long as the path that he chooses appears to him to be correct for the sake of the goals and the benefit of the nation, even if for this purpose he must uproot a Torah law, or effect a process that involves a risk to property or to life – not only does such a King not fall under the category of rodef, Heaven forbid, but one who harms him is the true rodef, and is liable for capital punishment under Torah law.