Opinion: BIU philosophy professor on the duty to name evil
“Whoever sheds human blood” – and the duty to name evil
So… that we know how to honour the continuation of the verse: “For in the image of God made man”
** And for everyone who asked me, the answer is very clear:
Yes, we have to continue talking about humanism and the meaning of “being human”.
I want to talk about evil, about the need to give it a name, about the obligation to measure evil and evils, so that we can stand against it, so that we know how to fight it.
I want to talk about the importance of being mentally and morally oriented toward adopting this stance. I want to talk about the importance of distinguishing between different forms of evil – between crimes against humanity, crimes committed in the name of religious belief, between war crimes, and other ideological crimes.
Let me begin by paying tribute to the men and women in the military – and security services who stood their ground with courage, determination and deep commitment.
To the ordinary citizens— civilians who left their homes without hesitation – because they heard the call to defend their villages and towns.
To all of them, we owe a debt that we will never be able to repay. Let us also pause to feel the depth of the pain and show respect for those in mourning.
For a few days, I searched for these two verses, until I found them and rediscovered their power (along with another verse that was hidden between the lines): “When David and his men reached Ziklag, they found it destroyed by fire and their wives and sons and daughters taken captive. So, David and his men wept aloud until they had no strength left to weep”. (Samuel I, 30, 3-4)
The Evil. Absolute Evil. Altruistic Evil.
In Israeli parlance, the “Shoah” (the Holocaust) is used as a term for absolute evil, such that no evil in the world can be compared to it (even though many of us frequently use images and concepts associated with it). But in these terrible days, days which we could not have imagined would ever return, we have been given the impossible task of thinking about absolute evil again. Incomparable evil. Nonetheless, we will begin to study these evils.
The attacks of October 7th of terrorists and barbaric Gazans who joined them, who entered southern Israeli kibbutzim and villages, revealed to us the ugliest face of humanity: the face of absolute evil. From this point on, we will be able to measure other evils against this absolute evil.
During the First World War, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook endured severe torments of the soul over whether it was right to acknowledge the existence of real evil. He wanted and believed that evil could be changed into good, because in the depths of evil, after all, lies good itself. In Jewish religious language, this is the question: how should the existence of concepts such as “Amalek” be treated? There will be other opportunities to write about Rabbi Kook’s courage in canceling the mitzvah of “wiping out the memory of Amalek”.
The very recognition of the existence of satanic evil, after all, is a violation of monotheistic faith – the belief in unity and inclusiveness, which is not prepared to recognize dualistic theology –the struggle between the good God and the evil God.
But beyond the matter of faith, the recognition of the existence of evil, of the existence of Satan in our world, may cause despair with reality, and necessarily introduces the element of pessimism into life. Rabbi Kook believed in human beings and humanity as a whole. And he continued to believe in humanity and the human spirit even in the face of the Great War. Rabbi Kook continued to put his trust in the hope for the the Messianic era, even when so many were killed, including children, righteous (or saintly) people, good men and women who had committed no injustice.
We must be willing to take a stand in naming the evil as Evil. We need to ask ourselves: does Jewish tradition once again have to question its deepest faith – the belief in good or the belief in evil? We need to ask ourselves about Jewish identity – the positive and constructive definition of identity versus a negative definition of Jewish identity – as a response to antisemitism – a response to Satanism of Hamas.
Naming evil by its name is not only labeling it with pejorative terms Nazis. Devil. Amalek. ISIS. Rather, it is the need to understand the aspects of evil to which it is linked. The task of confronting evil requires calling it by name, measuring it, understanding its various aspects, so that we can deal with it. No, won’t describe the horrors, the satanic intentions, the monstrous and deviant acts, which no written words are sufficient to detail. I find the very mentioning and naming of these crimes and atrocities to be a terrible thing, something that I find difficult to express in words. But, what we have already been exposed to in these days, willingly or unwillingly, is sufficient for us to understand the fear and the terror in the face of such horrors.
“Whoever sheds human blood… for in the image of God made man” Crimes against Humanity
Some of the acts of extreme violence committed on that “cursed Shabbat”, in the villages bordering Gaza, meet the definition of 'crimes against humanity'.
There are crimes, acts of monstrous evil committed in the real world. We cannot avert our eyes and say that these acts belong to dark forces, since they belong to the human realm, within the framework of the satanic aspects of human possibilities. Yes, there are crimes that exceed the limits of extreme crimes, that go beyond the limits of human evil – crimes that are intended to break all basic taboos that our lives are governed by. The injury to the image of God and the injury to the image of humanity belong to the realm of the unforgivable.
So we must distinguish between the terrorist violence that took place on Israeli soil on the cursed Sabbath of Simchat Torah, and between acts for which there can be no understanding – neither in this world nor in the world to come – because they defy the laws of humanity and negate fundamental aspects of being human. Neither sadism, nor any pathology of perversion, can provide an explanation for this kind of evil. The all-important distinction between hate crimes, war crimes and crimes against humanity lies in the basic agreement of human beings, that there is evil that we cannot recognize even in the realm of evil acts perpetrated in our world.
In the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks: “I mean evil of the kind that we all recognize as such. Killing the weak, the innocent, the very young and the old is evil.” This is precisely why the Nuremberg Trials were established after World War II, because of the concept of “crimes against humanity…to give global force to the principle that there are some acts so heinous that they cannot be defended on [any] grounds”. These acts are so foreign to the idea of humanity that they cannot be justified in any way whatsoever.
In a strange and incomprehensible way, Jewish destiny summoned us; it has assigned us the duty to stand up in the name of all humanity and declare with tears and cries: these crimes were not committed against Israelis, nor against Jews. They were committed against everything that is human. In the words of Abraha, this is the fear that “there is no fear of God in this place” – that there is no basis for morality at all.
I am a not a jurist or a politician, but I suggest that it would be both possible and appropriate for a special international tribunal to be determined by the nations of the world to bear responsibility of humanity to stand against these crimes.
Not in the Name of God: Religious War
Pascal has already taught us that “only out of religious faith are people able to commit evil deeds with such complete joy and mental fulfillment.” (Pascal, Meditations).
There are special aspects to violence and crimes committed in the name of God. And apparently there are special and relevant aspects in the fight against this kind of violence, because it is part of a religious war. There are very clear aspects of Islamic fundamentalist religious violence in the acts of evil committed against Israelis – Jews and non-Jews – in the terrorist events of the 7th of in October.
“We need a term to describe this deadly phenomenon, which can turn ordinary people who are not psychopathic people into cold-blooded murderers of schoolchildren, aid workers, journalists and people at prayer. It is, to give it a name, altruistic evil: evil committed in a sacred course.” (Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name, 9)
Since September 11, the world has had the chance to encounter particularly brutal and extreme terrorist events, allegedly carried out in the name of God: Al-Qaeda, the Janjaweed, and ISIS – as during the Middle Ages. These include extremely cruel acts, often carried out with the bare hands of their perpetrators, and without fear of seeing the faces of their victims, while shouting “Allah Akbar”.
“My punishment is greater than I can bear” (Genesis 4), says Cain, when he realizes that he will not be forgiven either in this world or in the world to come. And here the Rabbinical Midrash teaches that crimes committed in the name of God have no forgiveness, not even by God.
In the list of atrocities committed in the name of religions in the twenty-first century, the terror of the Cursed Sabbath is a particularly horrific atrocity. It teaches how believers acting in the name of God, while carrying Muslim books of law, can act like the most evil infidels on earth. And here we encountered their flags, their religious books, their shouts, in the name of which the most horrific acts that human beings are capable of inflicting on other human beings were done.
The pogrom of October 7th in the Israeli villages at the border of Gaza took place in one of “the frontline outposts” guarding against fundamentalist religious violence. The responsibility imposed on us as Jews, who take part in the Abrahamic covenant, is far heavier than inflicting damage on Hamas, destroying religious terrorism, or removing a constant threat from the residents of the south. We carry a righteous religious struggle to save people from the most dangerous aspects of their beliefs; to save humanity from the most difficult phenomenon of apostasy it will ever confront: apostasy in the name of God.
“The crimes of religions have one thing in common. They involved making God in our image, instead of letting him remake us in his. Highest truth does not cast its mantle over lowest instincts – the search for power, the urge to conquer, the use of religious language to spread the aura of sanctity over the ignoble crimes. These are forms of imperialism, not of faith. Terror is the epitome of idolatry.” (Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name, p. 267)
The question about the justice of the war is important and profound, and may be only a theoretical question, since most of the leaders who have the power to declare war or initiate war do not take part in such discourse. But, questions about just and appropriate actions in wartime, about the limits of permitted and prohibited actions during wartime, will be considered practical questions, and therefore justified questions. And, we note, also necessary questions.
This evil must be investigated and paid attention to, since it contradicts the intuition that in war anything is permissible, as if war is always total war (Clausewitz). But Clausewitz was mistaken. The concept of total war has been rejected, and there are limits to what is considered acceptable during wartime. War is an expression of violence, war allows countries and warriors to harm each other,and to do everything in their power to preserve their own lives while harming the lives of their enemies. Precisely because of this, humanity has taken it upon itself to limit the permitted and potential violence, to define some of the violence committed during wartime as absolutely forbidden acts which are considered war crimes.
Historians have researched how the laws of war were established, an inherently fascinating subject, and legal scholars extended this research to review the development of what is permitted and prohibited during wartime, as well as the legal definitions of war crimes.
But we seek to deepen the study, to examine the foundations of ethical thought, because precisely with the help of these foundations we will be able to accurately define what constitutes a “time of war”, and the way in which we can think about just and unjust wars. This will help us recognize that some of the acts committed in the name of the Gazan national struggle – qualify as among the worst and most terrible war crimes that human history has ever known – in the East and the West.
“No soul has ever been saved through hatred. No truth has ever been proven through violence. No redemption has ever been achieved through holy war. No religion has ever won the admiration of the world for its success in causing suffering to its enemies. Although all these behaviors have been adopted from time to time by religious believers. Honestly, they are a mockery and insult to faith. Until we learn this, religion will continue to be one of the greatest dangers to the peace of the world.” (Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name, p. 267)
Which means: we must recognize the full weight of the responsibility imposed upon us, being in a situation of a just war of unparalleled dimensions.
The National Struggle
It is hard to believe that it is even possible to refer to the criminal violence of the Cursed Sabbath as another chapter in the history of a national struggle for this territory. At the same time, we cannot ignore the nationalist aspect of these events. This thought obliges us to think about that day when we will also want to co-exist with our enemies in this bloodied land.
On the Shabbat of Parshat Noah, we read about the divine dilemma, about what to do when “the earth was filled with violence” (Genesis 6). The biblical word for violence is hamas. The Bible tells about God’s great sadness over creating human beings. Prof. Nechama Leibovitz taught us to read the verses about the moment when “God will be comforted because he made man”, because sometimes it turns out that human abundance that was worthy of blessing – the increase in the number of people – turns against us, and only adds evil and misery to the world.
Population growth does not promise increasing wealth and abundance in the world, but, in this case, actually causes the land to ” be filled with hamas.” (Who attached this difficult biblical term to this monstrous terrorist organization?!).
This is the divine deliberation – and this is Abraham’s and Noah’s argument with God.
When the land is full of violence (hamas) – should the whole land be destroyed and only the righteous saved?
Should the whole land be saved – and only the wicked be harmed?
Is there a solution on earth for a society that has become so corrupt?
I would like to believe that this land will know how to vomit out these perpetrators of evil, even if they acted in the name of God, even if in the name of their nationalist convictions. I would like to believe that the mere fact that such perpetrators of evil are making these demands is sufficient to disqualify their aspirations.
There is an evil that cannot be justified, not even in the name of a national struggle, not even in the name of the most hidden concerns. I think that there is a war that needs to be fought against Evil, so that it is possible to return to hope for the good.
Yes. And even now to continue to imagine the possibility of a better world.
On the Duty not to Bystander
The duty to call evil by name includes extremely important basic rules for standing up against evil:
The duty to hear the voices calling us
The duty to keep one’s eyes open and stand up to evil.
The duty to fight evil, in a way that preserves the good.
The duty to bear witness to evil, and how it can be dealt with.
Not standing up to the face of evil will be called “indifference”. Ignoring the harsh and satanic forces will be called “indifference”. Resisting the desire to look away in order not to see the other person, in order not to know about their pain, is one of the more demanding aspects in the fight against indifference: “The opposite of love is not Hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” (Elie Wiesel, speech at the White House, 1999)
“When someone remains indifferent in the presence of evil, he expresses an immoral attitude, and perhaps even commits an act that is inappropriate, from a moral point of view, of course, but to the same degree it can be said that he lacks moral interest. Indifference towards those who suffer evil is the end of the moral enterprise, and the limit of morality in the field of culture.” (Adi Ofir, Slander, 3)
We must find the words, because words have power, because words have power that strengthens the fight against evil.
First published by Prof. Hanoch Ben Pazi, a professor in the Department of Jewish Philosophy at Bar-Ilan University, in The Times of Israel, October 24 2023
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