Barry L. Schwartz
Rabbi, Author, Teacher

“Tohar Haneshek”: Is There Still a Place for “Purity of Arms”?

Thirty-five years ago, as a young rabbi, and a reservist in the IDF, I wrote an article entitled “Tohar Haneshek” (Purity of Arms): Reclaiming a Jewish Ethic in War.

The piece was a plea not to abandon the unique Jewish ethic in times of war, as propounded by the Palmach and reaffirmed by the IDF.

In light of Hamas’ slaughter of Israeli civilians, and their use of Palestinian civilians as human shields, is there any place for Tohar Haneshek today?

The fight against a terrorist entity that flouts every convention of war and human decency makes this question exceedingly complex.

Israel’s repeated warnings for civilians to flee north Gaza is, to my mind, a declaration that even in this excruciating time Tohar Haneshek is not dead.

Can Israel do more than this, especially when Hamas is blocking civilians from leaving and hiding behind them in mosques, hospitals, and community centers?

I do not know the answer to this question.

Nor do I believe that those who sit in the diaspora should be telling Israel what to do in this time of war.

Yet there are precedents that, while they may not completely fit the unparalleled situation we face today, nevertheless may be instructive.

The founding charter of the Haganah states:

“Self-defense is our right and obligation. With all our might shall we cling to it, as long as the need persists. But we shall also be diligent in preserving its purity and rightness. Any misuse of this right harms this most holy of undertakings and renders our defense defective. Our strength lies in the purity of our aspirations and the rightness of our deeds.”

This lofty statement was put to the test in the Suez War of 1956, when a military court found Israeli soldiers guilty of giving and obeying an illegal order to shoot Arab civilians who were returning late from their fields in Kfar Kassem and unaware of a curfew. The court decried the “black flag of lawlessness” that had been raised, and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion himself remarked, “I feel it is my duty to express our profound concern at the fact that such an act has been possible- an act that strikes a blow at the most sacred foundations of human morality drawn from Israel’s Torah.”

A Code of Ethics that seeks to avoid civilian casualties whenever possible has always been taught to Israeli soldiers. The fact that it has been revised several times indicates that it is taken seriously. The IDF even helped produce a popular film, Ricochets, that raised the issue.

Ironically, more than a few rabbinic commentators have authored responsa negating or questioning Tohar Haneshek. In past decades these included Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli (Takrit Kibya Le’or Hahalacha), who served as a member of Israeli’s Supreme Rabbinical Court, and Rabbi Avraham Avidan (Tohar Haneshek Le’or Hahalacha). Influential rabbinical voices (some even within the military rabbinate) continue to dissent from accepted IDF doctrine.

In rebuttal, Israeli peace activist Haim Shur, warned, “…if you cross and blur the line between what is permissible and what is forbidden, you damage the moral stature of the entire nation. For the moral conduct of the soldier and tohar haneshek strengthens the nation and the warrior by virtue of its rightness, and he who losses this, loses the most precious claim of the Jewish people in our time….”

As Israel’s warriors march into harm’s way in Gaza we pray for their safety. We recognize that they are engaged in a battle against unadulterated evil. We understand that they are also engaged in the sacred task of pidyon sh’vuyim, freeing the captives. Not for a second do we forget the danger of their mission and the fate of the two hundred and forty Israelis held hostage.

Israel must do everything it can to vanquish the enemy. In doing so, I also pray that we will uphold the unique ethic of Tohar Haneshek and remember, in the words of Ben Gurion, “the most sacred foundations of human morality drawn from Israel’s Torah.”

About the Author
Barry L. Schwartz is director emeritus of The Jewish Publication Society, rabbi of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, New Jersey, and author, most recently, of Open Judaism: A Guide for Believers, Atheists, and Agnostics (JPS, 2023).
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