Tradition Today: War and peace

Tradition Today War and

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November 5, 2009 10:54
4 minute read.

 
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On a recent Shabbat morning, as is the custom in our synagogue, a young man about to begin his army service was called to the Torah and then given a misheberach by the rabbi. The blessing, which Rabbi Barry Schlesinger had composed, included the normal things one would expect, praying for the young man's success and his well-being. But then the rabbi began to sing the well known melody accompanying the words of the prophet, "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore" (Isaiah 2:4). The entire congregation joined in the chanting. It occurred to me this was a most unusual combination - blessing a new warrior-soldier by wishing for peace, for a world in which war would no more be known or taught. As the prophet said, "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks." Yet what a strong and positive message this sends about our feelings and the ideals of our Jewish heritage concerning warfare. Clearly Judaism is not a religion of pacifism. The Talmud teaches specifically "If one is attempting to kill you, kill him first" (Brachot 58a). Self-defense is morally justified. Furthermore the Torah's injunction "Do not stand idly by the blood of your brother" (Leviticus 19:16) was interpreted by the sages to mean that one must be prepared to defend the lives of others, including family and fellow citizens (see Sanhedrin 73a). And yet at the same time Judaism, as interpreted by the sages, does not glory in war and bloodshed but lauds peace. The midrash, for example, in commenting on the words "and grant you peace" at the conclusion of the blessing of the priests (Numbers 6:26) constructs a great paean to peace with the repeated refrain "Great is peace," including "Great is peace, for peace is needed even at time of war, as it is said, 'When you approach a town to attack it, you shall offer it terms of peace'" (Deuteronomy 20:10; Sifre Numbers 42). Shalom - peace - is so important that all of our prayers end with a request for peace. Yet one might say that when we withdrew from history as a nation after the catastrophe of the Bar Kochba rebellion, and under the circumstances of our defeats we probably had no choice but to do so, it was easy to laud peace and to maintain our ideals concerning war and peace. They did not come under situations of testing. We lacked power. Zionism was a call to rouse ourselves to be prepared to fight to have a land of our own and to defend it. It taught that the time for inactivity was past and that Jews had to rouse themselves in self-defense and be willing to fight. This rebellion against the passivity of centuries sometimes went to extremes. The poet Saul Tchernichovsky, for example, wrote that Israel had conquered Canaan in a storm but then was "bound in the straps of the tefillin," as if our religious tradition had robbed us of our military capacity. Today we must wrestle daily with real situations and compromises are constantly being made. The decisions we make as a nation are difficult. The balancing act between what is right and what is possible is delicate. Sometime we make the right decisions, sometimes we make the wrong ones and sometimes we do the best we can. Prof. Yehezkel Dror recently wrote, "We all should strive to change global realities, in line with the commandment of tikkun olam - 'mending the world.' But until then, Israel's moral duty is to do whatever is necessary to maintain its existence." He goes on to say that when this results in harsh measures that hurt uninvolved civilians, these "must be accompanied by regret and soul-searching" but in this harsh world there are times when nevertheless we must do that which reality dictates guarantee our existence. To return to that verse from the prophet, it is truly amazing that the prophets of Israel, at a time when Israel was a military power, should have attained such a vision of the future. I do not know if there is any similar vision of peace in ancient literature of that time. The idea of nations disarming completely, giving up their armies and the art of warfare so that all human beings everywhere would be able to live a life free from fear is so far from any reality known to humankind that even today - much less thousands of years ago - it sounds like a fantasy. But what a fantasy! Unfortunately we are no nearer that goal than we were when it was first uttered, and we must live in the reality that is ours, a reality in which we face enemies and in which necessity calls upon us to take up the weapons of war and to use them, with all the terrible consequences that that entails. In founding a state the Jewish people has reentered history where assuring the long-term existence of that state is a prime duty. But that does not mean that we must give up our vision of a world at peace, even as we live in a world of war. Paradoxical as it may sound, it is important for the future of the Jewish state and the Jewish people that when our young people enter the army, even as they learn to fight, they do so with the vision of the prophet in view, "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore." The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.

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