Shiur 10: Desecration of God's Name Committed by the State

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Based on a Shiur by HaRav Yehuda Amital*

 

 

THE DESECRATION AND THE SANCTIFICATION OF GOD'S NAME

 

            A famous talmudic passage in Yoma 86a asserts that the most severe transgression is the desecration of God's name:

 

But in the case of one who is guilty of the desecration of [God's] name, repentance does not suspend, Yom Kippur does not atone, and afflictions do not cleanse. Rather they all suspend, and death cleanses – "And it was revealed in my ears, by the Lord of hosts; Surely this iniquity shall not be forgiven you till you die." (Yeshayahu 22:14).

 

            This passage, however, is dealing with the desecration of God's name committed by an individual. Without a doubt, the desecration of God's name committed by the community or its representative – the king – is even more severe, as is described in Scripture:

 

And there was a famine in the days of David three years, year after year; and David sought the face of the Lord. And the Lord said, It is for Shaul, and for his bloody house, because he put to death the Giv'onim. And the king called the Giv'onim, and said unto them - now the Giv'onim were not of the children of Israel, but of the remnant of the Emori; and the children of Israel had sworn unto them; and Shaul sought to slay them in his zeal for the children of Israel and Yehuda. And David said unto the Giv'onim, What shall I do for you? and wherewith shall I make atonement, that you may bless the inheritance of the Lord? And the Giv'onim said unto him, It is no matter of silver or gold between us and Shaul, or his house; neither is it for us to put any man to death in Israel. And he said, What say you that I should do for you? And they said unto the king, The man that consumed us, and that devised against us, so that we have been destroyed from remaining in any of the borders of Israel, let seven men of his sons be delivered unto us, and we will hang them up unto the Lord in Giv'a of Shaul, the chosen of the Lord.

And the king said, I will deliver them. But the king spared Mefiboshet, the son of Yonatan the son of Shaul, because of the Lord's oath that was between them, between David and Yonatan the son of Shaul. But the king took the two sons of Ritzpa the daughter of Aya, whom she bore unto Shaul, Armoni and Mefiboshet; and the five sons of Mikhal the daughter of Shaul, whom she bore to Adriel the son of Barzilai the Mecholati; and he delivered them into the hands of the Giv'onim, and they hanged them in the mountain before the Lord, and they fell all seven together; and they were put to death in the days of harvest, in the first days, at the beginning of the barley harvest. (II Shmuel 21:1-9)

 

            King David kills seven of Shaul's sons in order to atone for Shaul's breaking of the covenant that had been made with the Giv'onim!

 

            The Gemara in Yevamot 79a has a difficulty with David's handing over Shaul's sons to the Giv'onim:

 

But, surely, it is written: "The fathers shall not be put to death for the children etc." Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: It is better that a letter be rooted out of the Torah than that the Divine name shall be publicly desecrated.

 

            We see then that in order to atone for a desecration of God's name committed by the king of Israel, it is even permissible to root out a letter of the Torah!

 

In the continuation the Gemara describes the power of the sanctification of God's name that resulted from David's action:

 

A hundred and fifty thousand men immediately joined Israel; as it is said: "And Shelomo had threescore and ten thousand that bore burdens, and fourscore thousand that were hewers in the mountain."

 

That is to say, a hundred and fifty thousand proselytes attached themselves to the people of Israel in the wake of David's sanctification of God's name.

 

The prophet Yechezkel also speaks of the importance of avoiding any desecration of God's name:

 

Therefore say unto the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God, I do not do this for your sake, O house of Israel, but for My holy name, which you have profaned among the nations, whither you came. And I will sanctify My great name, which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in the midst of them; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, says the Lord God, when I shall be sanctified in you before their eyes. (Yechezkel 36:22-23)

 

            According to Yechezkel, God will redeem Israel in order to avoid the desecration of His name that would be caused if the exile continues. In the wake of this idea, I dare to say that we have merited the establishment of the State of Israel – something that our fathers did not merit – because of the terrible desecration of God's name during the period of the Holocaust. The establishment of the state and the sanctification of God's name that found expression in its wake atones in the smallest way for the terrible desecration of God's name caused by the killing of six million Jews during World War II.

 

DESECRATION OF GOD'S NAME AND BREAKING A COVENANT

 

            Having seen the importance of the sanctification of God's name, and, lehavdil, the consequences of the desecration of God's name, let us now examine the Rambam's words on this issue:

 

War is not waged against anybody in the world until a call of peace is extended to him, neither an elective war nor an obligatory war. As it is stated: "When you come near to a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace to it" (Devarim 20:10). If they made peace and accepted the seven commandments that the sons of Noach are commanded about, nobody is killed and they are tributaries. As it says: "They shall be tributaries to you, and they shall serve you" (ibid. v. 11)…. It is forbidden to violate the treaty with them and to deceive them, after they have made peace and accepted the seven commandments. (Hilkhot Melakhim 6:1-3)

 

            The Rambam teaches a novel law that after an enemy has made peace with Israel and accepted upon itself the seven Noachide laws, it is forbidden to violate a covenant that was made with them. The only commentator that I have found who relates to the source of the Rambam's ruling is the Radbaz (ad loc.), who explains that it is forbidden to violate such a treaty owing to the desecration of God's name that this would cause.

 

In the continuation the Rambam rules:

 

But the seven [Canaanite] nations and Amalek who do not make peace – nothing that breathes is spared of them. As it is stated: "Thus shall you do… But of the cities of these peoples… you shall save alive nothing that breathes" (Devarim 20:16). And similarly it says regarding Amalek: "You shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek" (Devarim 25:19). And from where [do we know] that it is only talking about those who did not make peace? For it is stated: "There was not a city that made peace with the children of Israel, except the Chivi, the inhabitants of Giv'on: they took all in battle. For it was of the Lord to burden their hearts, that they should come against Israel in battle, that He might destroy them utterly" (Yehoshua 11:19) – implying that they offered them peace, but they did not accept it. (ibid., halakha 4)

 

The Radbaz (ad loc.) raises a question: Why regarding Amalek and the seven Canaanite nations does the Rambam write that we are not to kill them if they make peace with us, without mentioning the requirement that they accept upon themselves the seven Noachide laws? In the end, he comes to the conclusion that in this context there is no difference between Amalek and the seven Canaanite nations, on the one hand, and other enemies, on the other. According to the Rambam, even with respect to these nations, peace may be made with them only if they accept upon themselves the seven Noachide laws:

 

Rather, our master can say that "made peace" also includes accepting the seven [Noachide] laws.

 

            A question arises: what is the Rambam's source for his ruling that it is only forbidden to violate a covenant made with nations who made peace with us if they accepted the seven Noachide laws? If indeed it is forbidden to break a treaty because of the desecration of God's name that this would cause – as the Radbaz explains – why does this principle only apply if the nations accepted upon themselves the seven Noachide laws?

 

            In order to uncover the source for the Rambam's position, let us examine the story of the Giv'onim mentioned above, where Shaul is punished in the wake of his breaking the covenant that had been made with them.

 

WHY WASN'T THE COVENANT MADE WITH THE GIV'ONIM BROKEN?

 

            The Gemara in Gittin 46b states that the covenant that Yehoshua had made with the Giv'onim could not be broken because it was a vow that was made publicly:

 

Rabbi Yehuda says: If he divorces her for vows which she made publicly, he may not remarry her… Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: What is the reason of Rabbi Yehuda [for holding that a vow made publicly may not be annulled]? Because Scripture says: "And the children of Israel smote them not, because the princes of the congregation had sworn unto them."

 

            When we examine the verses themselves, we see that the vow under discussion was even more severe:

 

But when the inhabitants of Giv'on heard what Yehoshua had done unto Jericho and to Ai, they also acted cunningly, and went and took provisions, and took old sacks upon their asses, and wine skins, worn and rent and patched up;  and worn shoes and clouted upon their feet, and worn garments upon them; and all the bread of their provision was dry and was become crumbs. And they went to Yehoshua unto the camp at Gilgal, and said unto him, and to the men of Israel, We are come from a far country; now therefore make you a covenant with us. And the men of Israel said unto the Chivim: Perhaps you dwell among us; and how shall we make a covenant with you? And they said unto Yehoshua, We are your servants. And Yehoshua said unto them, Who are you? and from whence come you? And they said unto him, From a very far country your servants are come because of the name of the Lord your God; for we have heard the fame of Him, and all that He did in Egypt, and all that He did to the two kings of the Emori, that were beyond the Jordan, to Sichon king of Cheshbon, and to Og king of Bashan, who was at Ashtarot. And our elders and all the inhabitants of our country spoke to us, saying, Take provision in your hand for the journey, and go to meet them, and say unto them, We are your servants; and now make you a covenant with us. This our bread we took hot for our provision out of our houses on the day we came forth to go unto you; but now, behold, it is dry, and is become crumbs. And these wine-skins, which we filled, were new; and, behold, they are rent. And these our garments and our shoes are worn by reason of the very long journey. And the men took of their provision, and asked not counsel at the mouth of the Lord. And Yehoshua made peace with them, and made a covenant with them, to let them live; and the princes of the congregation swore unto them. And it came to pass at the end of three days after they had made a covenant with them, that they heard that they were their neighbors, and that they dwelt among them. And the children of Israel journeyed, and came unto their cities on the third day. Now their cities were Giv'on, and Chefira, and Be'erot, and Kiryat-Ye'arim. And the children of Israel smote them not, because the princes of the congregation had sworn unto them by the Lord, the God of Israel. And all the congregation murmured against the princes. But all the princes said unto all the congregation, We have sworn unto them by the Lord, the God of Israel; now therefore we may not touch them. This we will do to them, and let them live; lest wrath be upon us, because of the oath which we swore unto them. And the princes said concerning them, Let them live; so they became hewers of wood and drawers of water unto all the congregation, as the princes had spoken concerning them. And Yehoshua called for them, and he spoke unto them, saying, Wherefore have you beguiled us, saying, We are very far from you, when you dwell among us? Now therefore you are cursed, and there shall never fail to be of you bondmen, both hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God. And they answered Yehoshua, and said, Because it was certainly told your servants, how that the Lord your God commanded His servant Moshe to give you all the land, and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you; therefore we were sore afraid for our lives because of you, and have done this thing. And now, behold, we are in your hand: as it seems good and right unto you to do unto us, do. And so did he unto them, and delivered them out of the hand of the children of Israel, that they slew them not. And Yehoshua made them that day hewers of wood and drawers of water for the congregation, and for the altar of the Lord, unto this day, in the place which He should choose. (Yehoshua 9:3-27) 

 

            We see then that not only was the vow made before all of Israel, but it was also made in God's name. Even though it is generally possible to annul vows, in the case of such a severe vow, this is impossible.

 

            The Tosafot to the Gemara in Gittin 46a, however, raise an objection:

 

You might ask: Even without this, is the oath valid – surely it is a oath to cancel a mitzva, for it is written: "You shall save alive nothing that breathes" (Devarim 20:16)!… It might be suggested that it is about those who do not wish to make peace that it is written: "You shall save alive nothing that breathes."

 

            These words of the Tosafot parallel what we saw in the Rambam. It seems from here that when the Canaanite nations wish to make peace with us, there is no obligation to destroy them. The Tosafot continue:

 

You might ask: What is the reasoning of Rabbi Yehuda – surely it is an oath made in error? Moreover, according to Rabbi Yehuda, how did they allow them to remain in the land? Surely it is written: "They shall not dwell in your land," and it was an oath to cancel a mitzva! You are forced to say that it was on account of the desecration of God's name… You might ask: Without the desecration of God's name, they could also not have killed them, since they came to convert! It might be suggested that were it not for the desecration of God's name, while they could not have killed them, they could have expelled them from their cities. And furthermore, at that time they did not come to convert, but only later.

 

            The first answer suggested by the Tosafot is very difficult. Already the Maharsha noted the difficulty:

 

They could have expelled them from their cities – that is to say, they could have expelled them from their cities to other villages in the land. But they could not have expelled them from the land if they came to convert. As is implied: "'They shall not dwell in your land' – does this apply even to a non-Jew who accepted upon himself not to worship idols, etc."

 

            The Maharsha cites the Gemara in Gittin 45a which teaches that the rule that "They shall not dwell in your land" does not apply to a non-Jew who comes to convert. This implies that it cannot be that were it not for the desecration of God's name involved, they would have expelled the Giv'onim from the land even though they came to convert. Accordingly, the Maharsha explains that the Tosafot mean to say that were it not for the concern about the desecration of God's name, they would have expelled the Giv'onim from their cities to other villages in the land of Israel.

 

            But this answer is difficult: If it is not permitted to expel from the land those non-Jews who come to convert, why should it be permitted to expel them from their cities to villages? Moreover, what is the purpose of expelling them from their cities to villages – what will that accomplish? The Tosafot's second answer seems therefore to be more reasonable.

 

            But if indeed we accept the Tosafot's second answer and say that when Yehoshua made a covenant with the Giv'onim, they were not yet interested in converting – from where then does the Rambam learn that it is only forbidden to break a covenant with the nations if they come to convert? Surely, Yehoshua did not violate the covenant that he had made with the Giv'onim, despite the fact that it was made well before they thought about conversion.

 

DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE – HALAKHIC OBLIGATION?

 

In my opinion, the Rambam's position is based on an important principle. According to him, it is permissible to break a covenant made with other nations as long as they have not yet paid a price for entering into the covenant. However, the moment those nations pay a certain price – breaking the covenant constitutes a desecration of God's name.

 

Accordingly, the Rambam does not mean to say that it is only forbidden to break a covenant made with another nation if it had accepted the seven Noachide laws. Rather, he means to bring an example of a price that non-Jewish nations can pay for entering into a covenant with Israel. The fact that a non-Jew agrees to observe the seven Noachide laws constitutes a certain price that he pays for making the covenant, and therefore in such a situation it is forbidden to desecrate God's name and break the covenant. However, even a different price that is paid for making the covenant can lead to the situation in which it is forbidden to break the covenant.

 

In other words, God's name is desecrated when we break a meaningful covenant, and acceptance of the seven Noachide laws indicates that the covenant is indeed meaningful and significant. In such a situation, then, it is forbidden to break the covenant.

 

Over twenty years ago, this idea led me to an important chiddush.

 

As we know, Israel's Declaration of Independence promises that the State of Israel will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, regardless of nationality, and even if they are not Jewish. In light of the explanation suggested here regarding the Rambam's ruling, I argued that since the Declaration of Independence is an important legal document, the obligations undertaken in it are of great importance. In other words, just as the acceptance of the seven Noachide laws gives force to a covenant, so too committing an obligation to writing in the Declaration of Independence gives it force. According to the Rambam, therefore, there is a halakhic obligation to fulfill the obligations undertaken in the Declaration of Independence – owing to the concern about the desecration of God's name.

 

At that time, the Foreign Minister invited me to attend a conference dealing with the attitude toward non-Jews living in the State of Israel. Yitzchak Navon who then served as Education Minister was also present at that conference. At that conference, various religious speakers brought all kinds of rabbinic statements, from which one might derive an obligation to worry about the welfare of non-Jews living in Eretz Israel. When my turn arrived, I briefly presented the argument proposed above, that Halakha demands that we uphold the full social and political equality of the non-Jews living in the State of Israel, because so it was promised in the Declaration of Independence, and we are obligated to fulfill this promise.

 

Several days later, someone from Kol Israel came to the Yeshiva, seeking an interview and asking me to repeat what I had said that the Declaration of Independence has halakhic validity. And so I did. My position was publicized, to the point that someone told me that Shimon Peres, who was then the Prime Minister, quoted me in one of his talks. Lehavdil, I was severely maligned in the Charedi press. The argument was raised there: If the state decides to write in the Declaration of Independence that all of its citizens must eat pork, will that too have halakhic validity? Of course, this objection is groundless. In this shiur I clearly explained what I meant; neither the Charedim nor Shimon Peres understood what I had said. It is not the Declaration of Independence that has halakhic validity. Rather it is the obligation found therein regarding non-Jews living in the State of Israel that has halakhic validity, owing to the desecration of God's name that would be caused if that obligation were not to be fulfilled!

 

Nevertheless, the fact that my words caused such a stir teaches us an important lesson. Even the secular community understands that when something has halakhic validity, it is meaningful and significant. Shimon Peres had high regard for the Declaration of Independence even before he heard what I had to say on the matter, but when he heard that I believe that the declaration also has halakhic validity, it rose even higher in his estimation.

 

In this context, I recall an interview conducted with Shai Agnon after he received the Nobel Prize. He was asked in that interview about his life story. He answered: "I was born in Buczacs, I wrote Yamim Nora'im and other stories, and now I have received the Nobel Prize." Agnon apparently understood that the excitement about his other stories is a transient matter. His Yamim Nora'im, on the other hand, is something that will last forever, since it is connected to the world of Halakha and prayer!

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 

* HaRav Amital delivered this shiur during Chanuka of 5768. This version was not reviewed by HaRav Amital.