Even before Yigal Amir was sentenced to life imprisonment for the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, a related trial had already been concluded in the court of public opinion. Tragically, Jewish law itself has been roundly pilloried as an accessory to the crime, after an inquest held in absentia.

Jewish law has an enviable past, particularly in promoting the sanctity of human life. It was Jewish law, after all, that first crowned each human life with absolute value. While their neighbors drenched their altars with the blood of small children to propitiate their gods, the prophets of ancient Israel thundered their formula for pleasing the Almighty. “Let the oppressed go free . . . . Divide your bread with the hungry . . . . When you see the naked, cover him.” For Isaiah and his colleagues, G-d was best served by enhancing the quality of the lives of others.

The earliest rabbinic writings continued the tradition. “Whoever saves the life of a single person is considered as saving the entire world,” claimed the Mishna. Jewish law regarded life as so sacred that all precepts of the Torah could be suspended to save it, excepting three cardinal transgressions. And one of those three was murder. Jewish law was so loath to take a human life that criminal procedure was hopelessly stacked in favor of the defendant. If the twenty-three judges managed to reach a guilty verdict in a capital case, they were required to fast the entire day. And if they found for guilt unanimously, charges were dismissed. A court that could not produce someone to back the defendant obviously was not doing its job well.

The Talmud sums up its internal audit of procedure in capital cases appropriately enough. “A court that takes a life once in seventy years is a killer court.” This is the lenient view. Others suggest an even longer interval.

In the course of history, these lessons were not lost to the Jewish people. It is no surprise, then, that murder was never a popular Jewish vice, even among those who jettisoned their observance of much of the rest of Jewish law.

The Devil, however, can cite Scripture; his disciples turn to case law and statute. Somehow, Yigal Amir thought that he found justification from the law itself. Amir decided that Yitzhak Rabin’s negotiations with the Palestinians posed an immediate threat to the lives of tens of thousands of Israelis. Jewish law (as well as many other codes) allows (actually demands) anyone to take the life of a murderous pursuer”or rodef ”of his innocent victim. Amir thus claimed that Mr. Rabin was a rodef , and that it was a mitzvah (commandment) to kill him.

The argument is specious, and was denounced as such by virtually every major and minor Jewish legal thinker. To be a rodef , the pursuer must perform some act that is objectively life”threatening. The models in the literature make it clear that one cannot be a rodef to some and a savior to others. Arguably, there are as many Israelis who believe that the peace process will save lives as those who believe that the consequences will be insufferable. Besides, one argument alone justifies taking the life of the rodef : the certainty that the pursued will be saved. No sane person could have guaranteed that killing Rabin would stop the peace process in its tracks. If anything, killing Rabin immediately had the opposite effect, dramatically increasing popular support for the Labor position.

Suppose, though, that all of this evaded Yigal Amir. Suppose he found support for his argument from a handful of sympathizers well-read in the law. What would the law expect of him?

On the eve of Rosh Hashanah in 1944-as Irving Rosenbaum relates in Holocaust and Halakhah ”the Nazi commandant of Auschwitz purged the camp of all teenage boys who were not tall and strong enough to work. The victims of the selection were herded together in a special cell block, without food or drink, with the understanding that they would be sent to the crematoria the next evening.

A father turned to Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Meisels for a halakhic (Jewish legal) decision. The father had valuables hidden away with which he could bribe the guards to release his son. Should he do so, another boy would have to be snatched to replace the one who was missing, since an exact count had been taken. Was it permissible to do so? He was ready to submit to any decision rendered by the rabbi.

Rabbi Meisels implored the man not to ask him the question. How could he decide on such a weighty matter in the hell of Auschwitz, without consulting texts or colleagues? A matter of life and death required the sitting of a veritable Sanhedrin to decide. The father insisted, but Rabbi Meisels was just as firm in his reluctance.

The next day the man returned. “Rabbi, I have done what the Torah has obligated me to do . . . . If you cannot tell me that I may ransom my child, it is a sign that in your own mind, you are not certain that Halakhah permits it . . . . So for me your evasion is tantamount to a psak din ”a clear decision”that I am forbidden to do so . . . . I accept G”d’s decree with love and with joy. I will do nothing to ransom him at the cost of another innocent life, for so the Torah has commanded.”

This father, unlike Yigal Amir, demonstrated an understanding of what Jewish law is all about: When in doubt, refrain. Millennia of Jewish legal response point to a persistent pattern. Issues are never decided by finely crafted arguments alone. Halakhah demands that you first consider every nuance of every possible objection to your argument, and convincingly refute all of them. Only after you dismiss the competition does halakhah provide you with a forum for advancing your own theory. The more important the issue, the higher the stakes, the greater evidence you need to amass, both against the opposing position, as well as in support of your own. And nothing is weightier in Jewish law than the taking of a human life.

There are only two crooked paths that Amir could have taken to pervert the law as he did. Perhaps, despite the enormity of the issues, despite all the attendant doubts, he decided not to ask questions beyond his own small circles. Had he inquired in the Jewish legal world at large, he would have been stunned by the ferocity of his rejection. If this is what he did, he clearly contravened the process of Jewish law. Alternatively, he did not have any doubts at all, because he already had answers, and had no need to ask. Amir, student of both Jewish and Western codes, practiced bad law before practicing murder.

It should be noted, however, that another feature of Jewish law makes it difficult to finger Amir as an isolated, diabolic culprit. Because Jewish law has a religious basis, and answers to a higher authority than the state, it can easily intertwine the ethical with the purely legal. Feeding the poor, visiting the sick, helping a neighbor are not just admirable acts; they are demanded by statute, and became part of the fabric of daily life.

Legal texts recognized both the law and what lies beyond its letter”and then made both normative. Nowhere, perhaps, is this more evident than in halakhic attitudes towards speech. Jewish law was much more concerned with the specter of Pharaoh, the traditional personification of moral turpitude, than with the scepter of King George III and his burdensome meddling. The awesome and insidious power of speech loomed greater in the halakhic mind than any deprivation of personal liberty.

Restrictions on free speech, therefore, are not uncommon. Any uncomplimentary speech, however true and accurate, was banned under the rubric of lashon hara , evil speech. It is one of the most serious transgressions of Jewish law described in the literature. (One halakhic icon of the early twentieth century enumerated some forty-odd biblical transgressions that a simple, matter”of”fact conversation could spawn.)

The third-century Pirkei Avot , perhaps the oldest rabbinic text dealing with ethics alone, pithily declared, “Wise men! Be careful with your words!” warning that words misunderstood or misinterpreted by others could result in tragic consequences for the hapless speaker, and the ultimate desecration of the Divine Name. Not the fool, not the loose cannon is adjured here to be circumspect, but the wise man. He is warned that an occupational hazard of sagacity is the belief that others will surely understand precisely what you mean.

Alas, claimed the rabbis of the Talmud (anticipating Murphy’s Law), the wiser you are, the more likely you will not be understood. Amir bears full responsibility for his heinous crime. But wise men all over have reason to examine their own behavior. Some, by asking some purely theoretical questions about leadership gone awry, made the unthinkable thinkable. For those only waiting for an excuse, the thinkable eventually became possible and then probable.

Others”on both sides of the Israeli political divide-helped create the charged atmosphere that became the backdrop to the crime by using words so incendiary that they demonized the hateful “other.” Perhaps none of them fully meant what they said. But the Divine Name was indeed profaned. In the final analysis, Amir’s actions had nothing to do with Halakhah. So before people excoriate Jewish law, they should stop and remember that much of their distaste for his cowardly and despicable act owes historically to that very same tradition.

At the same time, they should remember that law itself is a poor guarantor of the good society. Ancient Jerusalem was destroyed, claims the Talmud, because its inhabitants stuck to the law and refused to move beyond its letter. There is a lesson here for the practice of politics everywhere. Politicians and political commentators may smugly point to their positions, clearly within the confines of the law. Along the way, though, they might ask themselves: How many untoward passions will be inflamed by their rhetoric? How many crazies will find succor and support for their fantasies? The speakers will claim, quite honestly, that they meant nothing of the sort.

Words uttered, though, are like teenagers. They seldom come back to seek the advice of those who first breathed life into them. It would be wonderful, but hopelessly naive, to believe that Yitzhak Rabin was the last casualty of words run amok.


Yitzchok Adlerstein , an Orthodox rabbi, is Director of the Jewish Studies Institute, Yeshiva of Los Angeles and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.