Jewish Captives, Cruelty, & Compassion

Jewish law on the proper treatment of prisoners of war

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The medieval exegete Rashi, commenting on another section of Talmud, uses this verse as proof that "all of Israel is warned against embarrassing others" (comment to b. Sanhedrin 84b). While permissible, punishment should be carried out in such a way as to preserve the dignity of the one being punished. Rabbinic law also reduces the severity of the punishment to 39 lashes, out of fear that 40 lashes may kill one who is frail.

Torture to Save Lives

The harsh treatment of POWs is often justified as a necessary means of extracting information that may, in the end, save lives. This argument would place POWs within the halakhic (Jewish law) category of the "rodef," one who pursues another with intent to murder. In regard to this person, the Talmud establishes a general principle that "If someone is coming to kill you, rise up first and kill this person" (Talmud, Berakhot 62b). Failing to kill the rodef is understood as a violation of the biblical command, "Do not stand by the blood of your brother" (Leviticus 19:16).

Even as rabbinic law commands the killing of the rodef, this mandate, like the laws of war and punishment, comes with restrictions. Before killing a rodef, one must be certain that this person actually intends to murder, and may even need to verify that the rodef understands the implications of this crime (Talmud, Yoma 85b and Talmud, Sanhedrin 72b). Furthermore, one must do the least harm necessary to stop the rodef from murdering. Thus, one who kills a rodef when breaking a limb would have sufficed is liable for capital punishment (Talmud, Sanhedrin 57a).

While permitting the preemptive killing of a soon-to-be murderer, Jewish law restricts this permission to cases in which the murder is imminent and in which killing the murderer is the only means of preventing the death of an innocent person. Some halakhic authorities have argued that a POW or suspected terrorist may be considered a rodef, and may therefore be harmed as a means of extracting information that has the potential to save lives. Israeli law once permitted the use of moderate physical pressure on suspects in "ticking bomb" cases--where a terrorist attack is imminent--but the country’s Supreme Court later ruled against this practice.

An additional caution against torture as a means of extracting information arises from the extraordinary concern within Jewish law that testimony accepted in criminal cases be accurate and not influenced by external factors. Confessions are not accepted as testimony, out of fear that the accused may be confused or suicidal (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Sanhedrin 18:13). This concern is corroborated by the consensus among most human rights scholars that torture rarely produces accurate information.

General Unease

While permitting and, at times, even mandating war and punishment, Jewish law demonstrates a general unease with both of these categories. Some of this discomfort presumably stems from an understanding of life and death decisions as being the domain of God, and not of human beings. Many of the specific restrictions on military behavior and on criminal punishment also recognize the potential for these actions to lead to the degradation of another.

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.