Judaism Today: The Outlaw’s Return

Our leading politicians have just declared a war on crime, but are they ready for the casualties that prosecuting and winning such a war will inevitably involve? Our experience in Viet Nam taught us what can happen when our leaders commit us to a war without the will to win. In order to test whether we possess the will to win, we need only ask ourselves two questions. Who is the enemy? And are we willing not only to sustain casualties, but more importantly, inflict them? As a Jew, I turn to the Torah for guidance in, answering these two questions.

There is no mention of the afterlife anywhere in the Five Books of Moses. This is to emphasize that the Torah is not about theology, it is about life. Far from being a dry and dusty volume of forgotten philosophies, it is a vibrant, passionate guide to the structure of a durable human society. From the day that Cain killed Abel, wise people have realized that one of the principal obstacles to tranquil, productive life is the bandit, the lazy outlaw who uses superior strength, speed, or merely his recklessness to plunder his more productive neighbor. Not surprisingly, the Torah provides wise guidance to the principles that must underpin a successful criminal justice system. It helps us answer the two fundamental questions.

Whom to fight? Scripture is explicit that not only do inanimate objects not carry responsibility for damage but neither do animals. In both cases the owners, or those people responsible are held liable (Exodus 21:28-34). So far, most politicians have declared a willingness to wage war only against the wrong targets. They propose stricter gun control. The Surgeon General thinks that banning toy guns will reduce crime. A congressional committee thinks that warning labels on violent video games will help.

These targets are politically ideal because they can neither die nor fight back; they produce no casualties. This also helps to explain the justice establishment’s zeal for tackling white collar crime: no blood need be spilled. Military strategists warn that a campaign limited to inflicting damage only upon inanimate targets will likely end in defeat. Both from context and from Talmudic tradition, the well-known Biblical phrase, “And you shall remove the evil from your midst” (Deuteronomy 13:6), can be clearly seen to refer to the people who commit the evil, not the inanimate objects they happen to employ in their pursuit of evil.

Our leaders have failed to identify the enemy. It is not guns, knives, or cinderblocks. It is the vicious predators who wield these things. Our leaders score a failing grade on question one. How do they do on question two?

Will we accept the inevitable casualties? Only if we know that there exists some transcendent good above human life. This can only be the Creator Himself, as no human has the right to permit us to take life. Not surprisingly, the only reliable correlation in the great death penalty debate is that generally, religious people favor it and secularists oppose it. When one comes to think of it, this is exactly how it ought to be. Only Scripture can provide for the death penalty; it alone can sanction killing during a war. We see this in the Biblical origin of the old naval term “Man o’ war” referring to God (Exodus 15:3).

Who would the casualties be? They would be criminals of course. In a successful war on crime they would be the inflicted casualties. In what passes for crime-fighting today, casualties are mostly sustained by the forces of society. So long as New York’s Governor Cuomo and many others oppose the death penalty (on moral grounds, he assures us), they are really telling the rest of us that winning the war on violent crime is a swell idea so long as nobody gets hurt. Well, people are going to get hurt and until we learn of our moral right to inflict casualties in order to defend law-abiding society, the casualties will continue to be innocent victims, along with the widows and orphans of slaughtered cops.

Our leaders seem unwilling to accept the casualties that winning the war would entail. Well, without being willing to attack the enemy — in fact not even being willing to identify him — what business do our leaders have declaring war in the first place? Perhaps all is not yet lost. There may be a prescription for what ails, and once again we can find it in God’s guide to a durable society.

After Cain’s murder of Abel, God first administered moral rebuke and only thereafter, punishment. God identified Cain as an outlaw, then condemned him to live as a fugitive (Genesis 4:14). Cain rightfully worried that this would remove the umbrella of legal protection from him, making him an outlaw. He correctly predicted that he would be hunted down and killed, which was indeed later done by Lemech (Genesis 4:23), as the Talmud teaches. God neither denies that this could happen nor does He prevent it from happening. God’s point to Cain is that his murderous action has put him outside the protection of the law. He has become, in fact, an outlaw.

The will to win a war, any war, springs from moral certainty in the cause. Past presidents knew that in order to persuade Americans to fight a war, they must appeal to our deeply ingrained sense of right and wrong. Unlike many nations, we are not easily called to arms for reasons of national prestige or economic expediency. We will support a war that is moral. Lincoln sustained the Union effort in the Civil War by casting it as a war against the evil of slavery. Both world wars were fought for moral purposes. Even President Bush understood that the Gulf War had to be “sold” in terms of saving the vanquished people of Kuwait, not in terms of oil for American cars.

That sense of moral certainty is produced by understanding the behavior of the foe as immoral. Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, Saddam Hussein had done less harm to America than most of our urban criminals, yet nobody heard explanations of his troubled childhood. It was clearly understood that if we were to make war against him, we needed to villainize him. Similarly we need to villainize all criminal behavior. That is God’s decree to Cain and that is therefore, by definition, the moral thing to do.

Many Americans are beginning to long nostalgically for the Old West. A killer was branded an “outlaw,” and he was often wanted “dead or alive.” Many Americans want to highlight the moral distinction between law-abiding citizens and heartless thugs. They are beginning to want outlaws off the streets; dead or alive, but off the streets.

Redefining the entire debate in terms of traditional morality would enable us to answer both crucial questions. It would allow us to identify the enemy, and it would provide us with the conviction that the casualties, while sad, are both moral and necessary. Many Americans subscribe to Judeo-Christian thinking in this area and are ready for this step. Our leaders clearly are not.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin of Pacific Jewish Center is a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute and is president of Toward Tradition, a Mercer Island, Washington-based organization dedicated to admitting Judeo-Christian ethics into public policy debate.


  • Rabbi Daniel Lapin

    Daniel Lapin (born 1947) is an American Orthodox rabbi, author, public speaker, and heads the American Alliance of Jews and Christians. He was previously the founding rabbi of the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, California. and the former head of Toward Tradition, the Commonwealth Loan Company and the Cascadia Business Institute. Lapin currently hosts a daily television program with his wife Susan and provides spiritual advice to people through his website.

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