Jewish Strength and Jewish Beauty in a Time of War.
There is no strength like the strength which emanates from one’s moral core. There is no beauty like the beauty which radiates from one’s innermost soul. The Jewish moral core and innermost soul are the ones that have been shaped and formed over thousands of years by the words of our teachers and sages.
Consider the following rabbinic teaching. When the Biblical King Avimelech was warned by God to not touch Sarah for she was a married woman, the king promptly returned her to Avraham in the morning. But as a residual consequence of God’s displeasure, all of the women of Avimelech's household became infertile. Avraham prayed for then, and in response to Avraham’s prayer, God restored their fertility.
The Torah’s next chapter begins with God remembering Sarah, and blessing her with conception. As our Sages read the stories, Sarah conceived precisely during that short window between when Avraham prayed, and when God restored fertility to the women of Avimelech's household. From which we are to learn that, “Whoever requests mercy for another, and is himself in need of the same mercy, he is answered first” (Bava Kamma 92a). Which is to say, that what God admires most in a human being, what makes a human being worthy of God’s response, is his ability to pray for someone else who has the same need that he does. In this case, the need was for fertility. But it could equally be the need for one’s children to be protected from dangerous explosives that are dropping out of the sky. This is what our sages intended for us to understand. That the most beautiful tehillim gatherings are the ones which also include prayers for the protection of all the innocent Gazans who are in harm’s way. This is the beauty that radiates from our innermost soul, the soul shaped by the teachings of our Sages.
Another sage whose teachings have shaped our soul is Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Mecklenberg, the Rabbi of Königsberg in the 19th century, and the author of a Torah commentary called HaKetav V’HaKabbalah. When Rabbi Mecklenberg reached the 16th chapter of Devarim, he puzzled deeply over 4 particular words there, part of Moshe’s instructions concerning the conquest of the Canaanites. Instructing the warriors Moshe said, לא תחיה כל נשמה, “leave no soul alive”. Not women, not children. Though not the first sage to be stunned by the moral implications of this command, Rabbi Mecklenberg invested an unusual amount of energy in struggling with it.
“It appears”, he says, “to be an act of great cruelty to spill the blood of innocents. If the men sinned (took up arms) what sin was committed by the children or by the women??” And after reviewing earlier rabbinic grapplings with this question he proposes a radically new interpretation. He first points out that the Biblical verb used here (l’hachayot”) often means “to sustain”. And then he proposes that Moshe was here reacting to the then-common practice of taking the vanquished women and children, and sustaining them with food and clothing only to then utilize them as maid-servants and slaves. Moshe is here prohibiting this practice, urging Israel to “send them free so that they can flee outside the places of Israelite settlement.”
Recognizing the novelty of his interpretation, Rabbi Mecklenburg concludes, “And even if you do not accept my interpretation…you have no choice but to agree that the meaning of the verse cannot possibly be that they were to kill all the people (even the men) in the city without distinction. Did all of them agree to initiate hostilities?? There are times when the army imposes its will upon the population. Could it even enter your mind that in such a situation the Torah would say “Leave no soul alive?!”
This is our moral core, as shaped by our Sages and as codified in the IDF’s ethical code. As Professor Moshe Halbertal wrote (in his 2009 critique of the Goldstone Report)
Three principles are articulated in the IDF code concerning moral behavior in war. The first is the principle of necessity. It requires that force be used solely for the purposes of accomplishing the mission…The second principle is the principle of distinction. It is an absolute prohibition on the intentional targeting of non-combatants…. The third principle, the most difficult of all, is the principle of proportionality. Its subject is the situation in which, while targeting combatants, it is foreseeable that non-combatants will be killed collaterally. In such a case, a proportionality test has to be enacted, according to which the foreseeable collateral deaths of civilians will be proportionate to the military advantage that will be achieved by eliminating the target” (The New Republic, 11/18/09)
One final teaching, this one from the Mishna. Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages disagree as to whether a man may wear his sword on Shabbat in a place where there is no eruv, in the same manner that a woman may wear jewelry under such circumstances. Rabbi Eliezer notes the social stature achieved by the warrior and the glory that battle accords him, and rules that implements of war are indeed to be deemed as ornaments and may be worn on Shabbat. The Sages however cite Isaiah’s vision of the day when people “shall beat their swords in to ploughshares and learn war no more”, and on that basis rule that weapons are not ornaments, rather implements of shame.
Obviously, Rabbi Eliezer was also aware of the passage from Isaiah. But he could see no reason why a vision of a world far in the future should impact the Halacha in the here and now. But the Sages taught that the vision of a future world can and must inform the way we see and understand the present world. Yes, in this world, war is necessary. In circumstances like the ones we face today, the refusal to fight would constitute a reckless abdication of moral responsibility. But the Sages insist that we must never confuse the necessary with the good. Even as we fight, the battle screams of how unredeemed the world is, of how spiritually undeveloped humanity still is. And when the battle ends, they contend, we are bidden to go back to the drawing board and search for a new paradigm – as stubbornly elusive as it may be – in which people can live with each other without lifting swords. According to our Sages, weapons do not qualify as ornaments. They are reminders that we are a yet-unredeemed species. Here again, our teachers are molding our moral core and shaping our innermost soul.
It is not easy at times like these to pray for the other, to care for the non-combatant, to experience the sword as necessary but not good. What we need to remember though is that we must do things not in order to adhere to modern western values, or to respond to international pressures that often come dripping in hypocrisy or wrapped in barely-concealed anti-Semitism. We must do them in order to remain faithful to our own moral core and innermost soul, which our teachers and sages have painstakingly curated for us over thousands of years.
A few days ago, I davened and recited Tehillim with our teenagers, and toward the end I asked them to share what they are thinking about, what they are feeling. One precious young man, just back from Bnei Akiva summer camp, simply said, “How could anyone have thought that it made sense to kill a Palestinian teenager?”
There is no strength like the strength which emanates from one’s innermost moral core. There is no beauty like the beauty which radiates from one’s innermost soul.
May God give strength – and beauty – to His nation. May God bless His nation with peace.