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The Jewish Legal System

Criminal Law

The Rabin Assasination and Jewish Law

I have read that there are those who believe that the killing of the former Israeli Prime Minister (Mr. Yitzchak Rabin) was justified because he was in the category of a “Rodef” (i.e. a “pursuer” – someone whom it is permissible to kill, due to the fact that he or she is trying to kill an innocent person). Was the murder of Rabin justified according to Jewish law, or was it, in fact, a violation thereof?

Upon examining the different applications of the laws of a pursuer in the Torah, the bottom line we uncover is that a pursuer, whom we are directed to kill even without instruction from a Sanhedrin (Rabbinic Supreme Court), is someone who poses a CLEAR and immediate threat to life—a threat so evident there is no need to debate it in court.

One classic example of a “pursuer” is someone running after you with a sword: you are well within your rights to assume the mortal danger that the chasing swordsman poses to you.

The Talmud even offers some other, not as immediately obvious, examples of a pursuer. For instance, if a woman’s life becomes endangered during delivery, and the only way to save her is to cut apart the fetus while it is still inside her (because the trauma of its delivery in one piece will cause her death), then, in this tragic case, we are obligated to kill the fetus. Here, the Talmud explains, the fetus is a pursuer. (Today, of course, with modern medical advances, cesarean births can save the life of both mother and child in many of these instances.)

Also related, the Talmud explains that in most instances one can consider a burglar discovered in one’s home similar to a pursuer, since instinctive human nature could compel a confronted burglar to kill.

The case of the Rabin murder, however, is completely different than the case of a pursuer. Whatever danger some may have believed Rabin to pose certainly did not fall into the category of being “so obvious that there is no need to debate it in court.” Remember, just because something seems clear to one person, or even to a group of people, does not make it sufficiently “obvious” to justify killing another human being. Otherwise, no universal system of law or government could ever exist; everyone would always just do what seemed “obvious” to them.

Indeed, Rabin and his camp felt that they were the ones removing danger. Now, they may well have been very wrong; but this does not qualify as “an issue so obvious that there is no need to debate it in court.” Therefore, even if we were to presume that Rabin was terribly mistaken, he would not be eligible for the classification of a pursuer in Jewish law.

It is also essential to point out that in all cases of a pursuer, the latter may only be killed as a last resort. If non-deadly force can safely stop the pursuer, intentionally killing him is considered murder.

Take care,

Shlomo Shulman

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