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It's 'Thou shalt not murder'

>Q: I was raised in and still practice the Catholic faith. After high school in 1962, I enlisted in the U.S. Army, as I felt I needed to give back to my country some of what it had given me. Lo and behold, in late 1965, I was sent to Vietnam for just over a year. I was in combat and did kill some troops who were our enemies.

In light of this, will I ever go to heaven, since one of the Ten Commandments says, "Thou shalt not kill"? I asked my parish priest the same question, and he said, "Well, yes, you did kill people and there is a commandment forbidding that." He never did answer my question. Can you?

-- A., Selma, N.C.

A: As I tell people all the time, I'm in sales, not management. I don't have the pass list for the pearly gates. I don't know, nor could I ever judge, the kind of life you've lived. I know neither the good you've done nor the evil you've abetted. All I can do is humbly share with you my belief that the righteous have a share in the World to Come. I know there's disagreement about that salvation theory here on earth, but I don't think there's any debate about it in the green pastures and still waters of heaven.

I want to thank you for your service to America, which I believe to be a sign of a very great personal moral virtue: your patriotism. You understand that you owe a sacrificial debt to something bigger than yourself, and that something is America. There were those whose patriotism led them to oppose the war in Vietnam, and I honor them, as well. That war within the heart of America caused grievous wounds, some of which still fester.

As for your question about the 5th/6th commandment (there's a difference in the numbering of the Big Ten), the most widely known translation is, indeed, "Thou shalt not kill." Unfortunately, this translation is profoundly and radically incorrect.

In biblical Hebrew, as in English, killing (harag) and murder (ratzah) are two different words with two very different moral connotations, and the commandment uses the Hebrew word ratzah, which means that the proper translation of the commandment from Hebrew into English is, "Thou shalt not murder." The difference is crucial.

Killing is taking a life. Murder is taking a life with no moral justification. Murder is morally wrong, but there is wide moral agreement (not complete agreement) that some forms of killing are morally just, and killing an enemy combatant during wartime is one of them. You did not violate the commandment by serving in the U.S. Army and fighting the battles you were ordered to fight.

So do not fear. I hope and pray that there is a place for your embattled soul where every question will be answered by God and where every task and every place will be peaceful.


Rabbi Marc Gellman is happy to try to answer your religious, personal or ethical questions. Send questions only to The God Squad, c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207, or email them to