Of Warriors and Wolves

Timothy Shields, The Lion and the Lamb, CC BY 3.0 (
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Aharon Frazer

During this time of intense violence, pain, and suffering, my mind seeks refuge in the fundamental sanctity of human life. Much of the discourse today is operational―what steps should we take to defend ourselves? What response is justified? What tactics should we use? These are all critical questions in such a turbulent and dangerous time, and I obsess over them as much as anyone else. However, I think they push aside a more fundamental set of questions: what do we consider holy, what is our ultimate value, and what is our vision and endgame for the world?

The Torah is far too vast and heterogeneous to allow anyone to claim “this is the Torah’s message” on such questions. But I will simply say: this is the message I personally take from the Torah at a time like this. As each new day brings new reports of life lost, these are the passages I read and reread, and these are the interpretations on which I ruminate.

Some of the most fundamental laws of basic interpersonal morality are imparted by the Torah in what seem to be extreme and exceptional cases. We might expect that the Torah would contain an explicit unequivocal prohibition against physical assault, but in fact it does not. To be sure, there is civil law about the payments due in the event that one injures another. However, there is no direct prohibition per se against inflicting pain and injury on another person’s body. It is actually quite shocking, given the breadth and specificity of the Torah’s legal codifications, that this is never addressed head-on.

Seeing this gap, the rabbis extrapolate the prohibition from a passage about a person who is found guilty of a sin and is therefore punished with lashes: “He shall strike him forty times, he shall not add” (Deuteronomy 25:3). The officer administering court-mandated corporal punishment to an offender may not add on even one lash of his own accord; he must adhere to the forty lashes prescribed by the law. From this precedent, the rabbis reason, we can deduce that it would be no less of an offense for a private citizen, not appointed by the court, to strike an innocent person who is not deserving of any punishment whatsoever (Sifrei Devarim 286:10).

A similar pattern repeats itself regarding the burial of the dead. We do, of course, find many stories about biblical characters being buried. But we do not find anywhere in the Torah an explicit commandment to bury every deceased person promptly and with dignity. This rule is instead derived from the law regarding a person who is executed for a capital offense: “You shall surely bury him on that day” (Deuteronomy 21:23). Once again, the consideration accorded to a criminal is the paradigm from which we can deduce a more general rule (Sanhedrin 46b). Certainly, it would be no less of an offense to withhold the dignity of burial from an innocent, righteous person!

There are many acts of kindness that we perform because of our relationship to someone, such as the good we do for a parent, a friend, or a spouse. But sometimes, we are obligated to do good for someone not because of who they are as an individual but simply because they are a member of the human species. The basic prohibition against assault has nothing to do with the particular person we are considering assaulting. Whether the person deserves to be punched or whether they are instead deserving of our compassion is not part of the calculus. It is about the fundamental holiness of the human being created in God’s image. The same applies to dignified burial; when we bury a person, it’s not about honoring their life accomplishments, our relationship with them, or the extent to which we identify with their values. It honors, rather, the very fact that they are human.

I believe it is for this reason that these laws are imparted in such an obtuse manner. We are not just enjoined against assaulting our dear friends; we are not just commanded to bury our revered ancestors. We are specifically instructed to recognize the fundamental holiness of every human, irrespective of their actions and our feelings toward them, and to accord them certain basic honor in life and in death.

But what does this notion of intrinsic human holiness say about our practical vision for the world? In particular, does it say anything about how we are to conduct ourselves when confronting violent evil? After all, the Torah recognizes that one can strike or even execute another person in the proper context and with legal justification. Can the forty-lash maximum or the burial of the executed person tell us something fundamental about human dignity even in moments when violence is justified?

A seemingly technical dispute about the laws of Shabbat reveals a deep ideological argument between the tannaim concerning universal human holiness, the nature of war, and the meaning of redemption. Rabbi Eliezer maintains that one may wear weapons outdoors on Shabbat without violating the prohibition against carrying items in the public domain. He reasons that the weapons are “adornments” that are more akin to clothing (which of course may be worn outdoors on Shabbat) than a burden which a person carries. The other rabbis, however, reject his opinion, explaining that weapons cannot be classified as “an adornment” because they are quite the opposite―“a mark of shame” (m. Shabbat 6:4).

Note that the rabbis concede that weapons may be carried on Shabbat when they are needed for defense―the Mishnah and Talmud in Eruvin (44b-45a) address this in great detail. What is disputed is the ceremonial or symbolic display of weapons―is it a sign of glory or debasement? Rabbi Eliezer, for his part, concedes that weapons will not be used in the messianic age. He denies, however, that this is due to fundamental ideals of pacifism or universalism; rather, having triumphed over all enemies, the Jews will have no further practical need to use weapons. The Talmud (Shabbat 63a) says he considers them to be merely superfluous in the time of the Messiah but not offensive―“As a lamp in daylight, what utility does it have?”

The Talmud further explains that this debate hinges on the contradiction between two opposing verses. The rabbis follow the verse, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into harvesting shears; nation will not raise a sword against nation, and they will no longer learn warfare” (Micah 4:3). Their vision for the end of days, the endgame of the world, is one of peace, an end to war. All nations play a vital role―the surrounding passage explains―setting aside their differences to serve God in unison. Weapons may be used today with justification, but their use is always shameful, as it demonstrates that humanity, collectively, is not living as it should. Therefore, the weapons cannot simply be cast aside in the messianic era; rather, they must be destroyed or fashioned into useful implements of agriculture. Warfare itself must be forgotten even as a subject of study. It is a shameful fact about humanity’s regrettable past.

Rabbi Eliezer, by contrast, glorifies weapons as a sign of power and triumph. He bases this on the verse, “Gird your sword on your hip, champion; it is your glory and splendor.” (Psalms 45:4) The verse is taken from a fairly graphic psalm which depicts the king of Israel as a vigorous and triumphant conqueror. In the psalm, other nations appear only as vanquished, their daughters taken as the king’s concubines in the context of their defeat. In this view, war is the eternal state of the world. Enemies are eternal enemies, and the only “redemption” is (our) victory. Weapons may become unnecessary if we win decisively enough, but warfare was never regrettable. No shame attends its paraphernalia, and indeed their display glorifies the victor.

The Halakhah follows the opinion of the rabbis―weapons may not be carried outdoors on Shabbat except in cases when they are needed for practical defense. The rabbis appear to prevail philosophically as well. The Talmud explains that they consider Psalm 45 quoted by Rabbi Eliezer as an allegory for spirited debate about Torah study―verses expertly cited and sharp, logical insights are the glorious weapons to be brandished with pride. Actual weapons are shameful and are not classified as an adornment. Indignity attends their use, even when contemporary circumstances may necessitate it. Our vision for the end of days is one where all nations, ourselves included, destroy their weapons and join together to serve God in harmony. This view recognizes the intrinsic humanity and holiness of all people, their value before God, their critical role in our collective redemption, and the shame and tragedy of warfare―even when justified and unavoidable.

I believe that Maimonides also expresses an awareness of intrinsic human holiness in his vision for messianic times. As we have already seen, the Bible and Talmud are cryptic and often contradictory on this subject, leaving a great deal of room for subsequent interpretation. Maimonides devotes several chapters to articulating his understanding of what this future holds in store. In doing so, he reveals a fundamental belief about human nature.

As a rationalist, he eschews many of the fanciful and supernatural predictions that others entertain, instead insisting that in the messianic era, “the world will function as it functions” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and Wars 12:1)―meaning, there will be no change to the laws of science and nature. Rather, he foresees a time of peace and worldwide commitment to holier purposes.

What, then, to make of the famous verse in Isaiah (11:6), promising that “the wolf will live with the sheep, and the tiger will frolic with the goat”? How can that possibly not violate the natural order?

Maimonides responds that this verse is not to be taken literally. Rather, it metaphorically refers to the Jewish people’s enemies as predatory animals. It foresees a period when all these human ״wolves and tigers״ will desist from their hostility and choose a good path, benignly joining the Jewish “sheep and goats” in their pursuit of Torah study and holiness. This is in line with the spirit of the rabbis’ view regarding weapons discussed above. All nations will join together and serve God. Warfare will be forgotten.

Maimonides’s deflection of the verse also reveals―almost accidentally―a fundamental understanding of the holiness of human beings which is at the heart of his messianic vision. He reinterprets the verse in Isaiah to be talking about people and not animals, which means, apparently, that for animals not to be predatory would be a miracle, but for violent people not to be predatory is natural. Indeed, some animals are fundamentally predatory. If we are rationalists, we do not imagine that, even in the times of the Messiah, the wolf or tiger will “repent” and change his behavior toward the sheep or the goat. It is simply not consistent with his biological makeup.

By contrast, Maimonides believes that even the most despicable human being guilty of the most heinous acts is fundamentally capable of change. No human being is irredeemable. For this very reason we can envision a utopian messianic era in which the world continues to “function as it functions.” There is no barrier to people behaving in a utopian, peaceful manner other than their choices. No miracle is required to effect such a change.

As with the example of court-administered lashes and capital punishment, or the weapon carried on Shabbat for defense, there may be instances of justifiable violence on the circuitous path toward utopia. However, violence can never be the endgame. We cannot bring the Messiah simply by making war until all of our enemies are gone. Redemption must include all human beings, who are all fundamentally holy, and who all must be protected in life and accorded dignity in death. If that is the case, warfare has no place in the ultimate utopian vision. This is a daunting goal. Yet, we are assured that in the long arc of history, if not in the immediate present, it is an attainable one.

Maimonides was also the author of 13 Principles of Jewish Faith, which he writes in his commentary of m. Sanhedrin 10. One of these relates to the coming of the Messiah―To believe and affirm that the Messiah will come… and if he tarries, wait for him…” (12th principle). This is a passage I keep coming back to each day of the war. Sometimes I read or see things here in Israel that make me feel that we are at risk of glorifying the carrying of weapons, of reveling in the display of firearms as a fashion accessory or “statement piece.” It feels like human dignity is being stained, like our collective souls are being sullied, and that we are thus moving further away from the Messiah, not closer. For the first time in my life, I feel a palpable sense of tum’ah, defilement, from the mere contact with death, irrespective of the war’s justification or morality. We may have no other immediate option besides violence, and yet this violence carries shame and debasement. It diverts us from the ultimate endgame.

To paraphrase Maimonides, it feels like the Messiah is tarrying. Still, I relate to the fundamental holiness and redeemability of all people as an integral part of a future utopia in which I ultimately have faith. I refuse to accept that any group of people are simply tigers or wolves. All people have an innate holiness and a role to play in the Messiah’s utopia. I wait longingly for his arrival every day.

Aharon Frazer is a graduate of Yeshivat Har Etzion, Yeshiva University, and Ben Gurion University of the Negev. He served with his wife Adena as JLIC Torah educator at Brandeis University. He leads a data science team at a high tech company in Tel Aviv, and he is an active advocate of diversity and inclusion in the industry. Aharon and Adena live with their five children in Alon Shvut, where Aharon volunteers as a guard and a fundraiser for the security team. You can learn more about that project here: