A Jewish farmer takes a walk on Shabbat afternoon with his young son. They walk past the chicken coop. “Dad,” says the boy, “I’d love to have a chicken’s head to play with.” The loving father, anxious to accede to his son’s request, grabs a crowing cock and with no more ado lops off its head with a sharp knife.
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Now the father, a yeshiva graduate, knows full well that killing any living thing on Shabbat is strictly forbidden by the halakha, Jewish religious law. But he also knows that in the halakha you are only guilty of an offense if the outcome of your action is what you intended. But if it is a “davar shelo mitkaven,” an unintended consequence, you stand acquitted. In the case of the chicken, the semi-learned father reasons to himself: I didn’t intend to kill the chicken, albeit it’s now dead, I merely wanted its head for my beloved son; its death was unintended, and I am therefore innocent of the offense of killing a living creature on Shabbat.
But the father forgot, or was ignorant of, the ruling based on the Talmud, that the defense of “something unintended” does not apply in cases where a sinful outcome is inevitable. “If he chops off its head it won’t die?” the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat asks rhetorically in psik reyshey.
Morally, the rules of davar shelo mitkaven and psik reyshey are both unexceptionable. If a man of average intellect understands that the offender’s action — ostensibly unintentional though it was — would inevitably result in the transgression, then the offender cannot resort to a defense of his action based on his lack of intention to cause its inevitable consequences. He is assumed to understand the specific chain of events his action would trigger, and in real-time too.
It is not easy to analyze the morality of the Israel Defense Forces operations at a time when soldiers on the ground are being killed and wounded. But many Israelis do wonder about the justification, including moral justification, of the ground invasion of Gaza. They assume that since the bombing and shelling were not specifically aimed at civilians, they were morally unassailable.
I would submit the opposite: The bombing and shelling of Gaza are becoming, with every day of “collateral” deaths and damage — a classic case of psik reyshey, actions with clearly inevitable consequences. For years, bombing Gaza inevitably took innocent lives. Israel made a forceful claim to moral superiority because its pilots and artillery-men did not intend to bomb or shell children or other civilians (whereas Hamas’ rocket launchers absolutely did). But this claim is now nullified by the rule of psik reyshey. Like the lopped chicken’s head, there is no defense of no-intent when the unintended offense is inevitable. The record shows the death and wounding of non-combatants as virtually inevitable in the bombing of the crowded Gaza Strip. The record creates a paradigm of psik reyshey: Dangerous consequences that were clearly forseeable and inevitable.
This halakha-morality-based analysis joins the overwhelming military argument that close-range battles on the ground can reach and destroy rocket factories, rocket launching pads and tunnels more effectively than planes and long-range guns. A ground attack is hopefully characterized by far more pinpoint shooting and minimal “collateral damage” compared to aerial attack. That was the distinct lesson of the Second Lebanon War. Ehud Olmert applied it after long hesitation. Benjamin Netanyahu hesitated, too, but, despite his propaganda machine extolling the air force for its accuracy, he has now made his clear decision.
Psychologically and politically the main criterion of victory in this war will be whether Hamas is still shooting its rockets at Israeli towns and villages when the eventual cease-fire comes into force. First-class IDF troops on the ground can ensure that the rocketing will end. Hopefully public opinion at home and abroad will grow to appreciate that Israel’s sending in of ground troops is a way for the IDF to focus its weaponry solely on armed opponents, and not civilians.