By Jonny Kay
Because I told you to…
In this week’s parashah, Moses continues his pep talk to the Israelites, and there is certainly no shortage of hard-hitting extracts. For instance: “The Lord will dislodge before you all these nations: you will dispossess nations greater and more numerous than you” (Deut.11:23), and “You will be blessed above all other peoples” (Deut.7:14). Intense stuff, I think you’ll agree.
We’re used to this level of intensity, though. In some form or another, we’ve been undertaking our own week-by-week greatest hits of the Torah for centuries. Now consider the contemporary mind-set of the Israelites at this point on their epic journey. They have just wandered through the desert for forty years, having been slaves in Egypt for 430 years (Ex.12:40). Consider how they would have reacted to being told that they would dispossess bigger and stronger nations and that they would now be blessed above all others, having just endured half a millennium of suffering?
Moses ups the intensity further by telling the Israelites, “you shall obliterate their [the Canaanites’] name from under the heavens; no man shall stand up to you, until you have wiped them out” (Deut.7:24).Now the Israelites are effectively told that murder in the name of the Lord is not only permitted but necessary. Even today, this is a shocking revelation.
It’s all very well us reciting these verses many centuries later, week on week, far from any semblance of context, but in context it (literally) puts the fear of God into me. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise me; we have seen this destructive and vengeful side of God before with the plagues in Egypt, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the flooding of the world (to name only a few). But this extract has more ominous connotations. Notwithstanding whether one believes the Torah is verbatim the word of God, taken literally this verse introduces a caveat to one of the Ten Commandments that had very recently been decreed to the Israelites. “You shall not murder” loses its absoluteness when it becomes “you shall not murder…unless God tells you to”. My experience of human nature is that we prefer absolutes, “do this” or “don’t do that”. One knows where one stands with absolutes, but qualifying an absolute leads to ambiguity. Ambiguity leads to misinterpretation, and misinterpretation could produce an entirely unexpected and (in this case) potentially disastrous result culminating in the taking of life in the name of God. A tragic and infamous example of such a misinterpretation occurred in 1995 when Yigal Amir murdered Yitzhak Rabin. In a rare interview with +972 Magazine, an Israeli website,, Yigal’s brother, Hagai Amir, explained why he conspired with his brother to carry out the murder. When questioned whether he thought it was acceptable to violate the basic divine commandment of “thou shalt not kill”, Amir had this chilling response, “This commandment is not absolute. Of course there are cases when it is allowed, such as war. For this is the Torah of Israel, not the Torah of Fools. Therefore, there is in the exact same Torah the commandment “one who comes to kill you, kill him first".”
Killing in the name of God based on the interpretation (or misinterpretation) of religious texts is an excuse that has been used for centuries by many religions. That’s all it is though, an excuse, a wholly invalid excuse. Such flagrant misinterpretations of Torah that are acted upon and validated with the claim that they were done in the name of God, will certainly not be acts in the name of our God.
Jonny Kay is a member of New North London Synagogue.