Northern Hills Synagogue - Congregation B'nai Avraham

MARCH 8, 2003

The Book of Exodus began with a short summary of the beginning of Hebrews’ experience in Egypt, followed by the ominous statement that “A new king arose in Egypt, one who didn’t know Joseph”. The Torah then told a moving story of bitter oppression and miraculous redemption. The book ends on majestic note. We read of the construction of the Tabernacle, each step done, as the Torah tells us, “As the Lord had told Moses”. In the last verses, we read:

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tent. Moses wasn’t able to enter into the tent of meeting, because the cloud stayed on it, and The Lord’s glory filled the tent. When the cloud was taken up from over the tent, the children of Israel went onward, throughout all their journeys; but if the cloud wasn’t taken up, then they didn’t travel until the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was on the tent by day, and there was fire in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys.

The image with which we are left, of the people of Israel’s being guided by God’s Presence throughout their journeys, is an enduring one, an image whose applicability extends far beyond those forty years of ancient times. Throughout all our journeys, as individuals and as a people, we are (or, at any rate, we should be) guided by God’s Presence. That truth about our world and our experience has not changed for 3,000 years. What has changed is the way in which we sense God’s Presence and message. The cloud of our parasha was probably intended to suggest intangibility, to contrast the Eternal, invisible, God of Israel with pagan idols. This nebulous Presence (nebula in Latin means mist or cloud) was succeeded by the “kol d’mama daka”, the still, small voice of II Kings. However, for 2,000 years or so, the way in which we have most often sought Divine guidance is through our sacred texts and the process of interpreting them.

Today, it appears that we stand at the beginning of a fearsome journey through the inferno of war with Iraq, and we ought to try especially hard to ascertain that we are following the signals of God’s Presence.

Last night, I spoke about the crisis vis-a-vis Iraq, but I focused on political and general ethical considerations. This morning, I want to focus more on Jewish religious teachings. Before I turn to our sources, I must say two things by way of introduction. The first (giving the gist of what I said last night) is that I reluctantly and unhappily would support an American attack on Iraq. Given my general political inclinations, I am inclined to oppose such an attack. I believe that, in fact, there are arguments on both sides, but I must say that I believe that the arguments in favor of an attack are stronger.

Saddam Hussein is clearly a cruel, tyrannical, dictator, who has caused tremendous suffering to his own people. He clearly has ambitions to be a leader of the Arab Middle East, and he has shown that he will do whatever he thinks he can get away with in order to satisfy those ambitions. Iraq certainly has chemical and biological weapons, and it is on the way to developing or acquiring nuclear weapons, and it is doing whatever it can to keep its power of mass destruction available.

I have great respect for Hans Blix. I believe that he and his inspectors are doing the best that they can under the circumstances, but it is not good enough. I don’t see any way of eliminating the danger posed by Iraq to the region and the world without eliminating the current Iraqi regime.

My second introductory remark has to do with our religious tradition. We cannot expect to have the Bible or the Talmud to tell us whether or not the United States should attack Iraq. The kind of religious guidance which we get on such issues is not so straightforward. For one thing, the tradition is open to different interpretations. Second, and more important, the application of Jewish religious teachings to complex real-world situations requires making all kinds of factual assumptions, and these, too, may be matters of dispute.

For example, my judgement that an attack on Iraq may be necessary is based on the assumption that a continuation of the inspections will not work. If one assumes that inspections can work, then one will come to a different conclusion about and attack, but that assumption has nothing to do with Judaism. However, that does not mean that the tradition is useless. We cannot make the tradition say whatever we want. A serious approach to the sources will give us a general line of thinking which we should follow. When we follow that line, and when we do our best to find support for our factual assumptions, then we have, not an infallible oracle, but a position which our consciences should accept.

Judaism never glorifies war, but it is not pacifistic. I say this, not because of the descriptions of wars in the Bible. There are many things in the Bible which were not continued in the ongoing Jewish tradition. But war was followed up. Maimonides in his Code the Mishneh Torah devotes one whole section to “Laws of Kings and Their Wars”, giving his understanding of the laws of war in Judaism. Strictly speaking, these laws apply only to a Jewish country with a Jewish ruler (maybe only to one which operates according to the laws of the Torah, which would exclude even the present State of Israel), but the teachings are suggestive for other situations as well.

One of them is that self-defense is absolutely permitted - I would say even required. There is a well-known saying in the Talmud Tractate Berakhot: If someone is coming to kill you, kill him first. Now, this saying is not a binding halakhic statement, but the related law of “rodef’” (the pursuer) is binding. If we see someone pursuing another person in order to kill him, we should try to save the pursued person. A rescuer in this situation is supposed to use minimum necessary force, distracting or disabling the pursuer. However, if no other means are available, he is permitted to kill him.

Prof. Michael Broyde of Emory U, in an excellent essay on Jewish teachings concerning war, points out that restrictions on the law of rodef, e.g., that one may not kill any innocent people, make that law literally inapplicable to a situation of war. However, he cites authorities from the medieval Tosafists to Rabbis Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin and Moshe Schreiber in the19th century who recognize war as a category of activity with its own rules, different from those of civilian life.

Some of those rules are the requirements to try to solve a problem peacefully before turning to war, and to try to avoid harming civilians. These rules are found in Parashat Shoftim in the Book of Deuteronomy, and they are codified and applied by later authorities. One corollary is that the use of weapons of mass destruction is forbidden by Jewish law. Again, these apply strictly to a Jewish situation, but there is reason to believe that they can be applied to all wars.

The reason comes from another Jewish teaching, which, I believe, underlies and guides us in the interpretation of many of the principles which I have mentioned. That is the famous Mishnah from Tractate Sanhedrin, “One who destroys a single life is considered as if he has destroyed an entire world, and one who saves a single life is considered as if he has saved an entire world.” The idea is that each human life has intrinsic worth, that one cannot trade a life off against other values. (By the way, when this Mishnah is quoted in Jewish circles, it often happens that someone objects that it says “single Jewish life”. That objection is erroneous. To be sure, the common printed editions do have word the “Israel”, but, for several reasons, we may say that the universalist version is more correct.)

Now, if we were to take this principle literally and as absolute, not only could we not wage war, but we could not engage in self-defense or save another person from a pursuer, because, in doing so, we are sacrificing one life to save another. The principle is so inspiring, and it fits so well with much Jewish teaching, that I was shaken when I realized that we don’t really take it literally. But we don’t. The function of the principle, as I understand it, is to counterbalance and create tension with all the pragmatic and permissive teachings which I have mentioned above.

We can sometimes wage war, but there is a presumption against war, we have to provide a very good reason to go to war. We must give peace every possible chance, until it is clear that there is no reasonable alternative to war. In a war, there will inevitably be civilian casualties, the death and injury of innocent people, but we must make a very strong effort to minimize such losses, even at the cost of making military operations more difficult.

Where does this leave us with regard to Iraq? I believe that Saddam Hussein is more evil than the average dictator, that his regime can be considered a rodef, a pursuer. I believe that the effort to achieve Iraqi disarmament through inspections and other peaceful means has been tried, and it is just not working. There may be argument about my assumptions, but they are the ones which seem most plausible to me. Therefore, I would, as I said, “unhappily and reluctantly” support an American attack on Iraq.

The Talmud says in Berakhot that, even if a sharp sword is resting on your neck, do not give up hope. The sword of war is resting today on our necks, on those of the people of Iraq, of Israel, and of other countries. Perhaps something will happen at the last minute to remove the danger posed by Saddam Hussein without the need to go to war. If there is a war, let us pray - and, as citizens, let us insist - that our government prosecute it with the greatest possible concern for human life, and may the outcome be one which diminish, but rather enhances, the image of God which has been impressed on each and every one of us.

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