Jewish Reflections on War and Peace – Part 2

Jewish culture By Rabbi Jeremy Gordon 10th Jun 2015

Last week we featured an extract from Rabbi Jeremy Gordon’s book ‘Spiritual Vagabondry’, reflecting on Jewish approaches to war and the Jewish people’s underlying commitment to peace in Biblical and Medieval times. This week we continue the extract, addressing Jewish responses to violence during the Third Reich and after the foundation of the modern State of Israel.

The great pacifist, Mahatma Ghandi wrote, in 1938, that the Jews of Germany should protest against Hitler only using non-violent means. ‘I am as certain as I am dictating these words that the stoniest German heart will melt [if only the Jews], adopt active nonviolence… I do not despair of his [Hitler’s] responding to human suffering even though caused by him’.

The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (hardly known as a militarist!) took Ghandi to task. The Jews of Germany, as Buber knew from personal experience, were dealing with a genocidal mania that would not respond to non-violence. Non-violent resistance in the face of utter brutality was capitulation. Of course, said Buber, the violent response was one that could only be employed with ‘fear and trembling’ but ‘[I]f there is no other way of preventing the evil destroying the good, I trust I shall use force and give myself up into God’s hands’. Alongside its abnegation of violence and love of peace Judaism began to place increasing weight on the value of self-defence.

Then the wheels of history turned and Israel found itself with an army, a state and, arrayed around and even inside its borders, armed aggressors. Now what? Certainly ethical and religious factors have always been central to the vision of the defence of the Israeli State. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have an ethics code, drafted by religious leaders, professors, lawyers and generals and drummed into soldiers during training.

The code articulates the values of ‘Human Dignity’, ‘Responsibility’, and ‘Purity of Arms’ – ‘IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity even during combat. IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property’. The ethical code is beautiful, but ethical codes drafted in ivory towers can be sorely tested in the heat of the moment.

Rabbis and religious thinkers, have advocated both hawkish and more dovish responses to attacks on the contemporary State of Israel, but, I argue, there is a third way which is truer to the Jewish tradition. Rav Shlomo Goren (d. 1994) founded the Israel Defence Forces Rabbinate and served as its first Chief Rabbi for about two decades. Much of his scholarly output concerned military matters. His formally collected Responsa on Matters of the Military, War, and Security run to four volumes and cover a vast range of issues, theoretical and practical, as applied to Generals and to Privates.

Goren was no apologist. In a radical and broad applicationof principles learnt from an obscure law in Deuteronomy he deems Israelis responsible for any death that occurs anywhere in the occupied territories. In 1982 Goren was Chief Rabbi of Israel and used his position to insist that an escape path be left open during the siege of Beirut, (in accordance with Maimonides’ demand as discussed in last week’s extract). Responsa literature is technical, and there are many competing factors to be balanced as religious aspiration and ugly brutality come into conflict. It also requires deep scholarship and understanding of religious sensitivity and of military necessity.

Goren’s approach is untidy, often unpopular and even occasionally unsafe. But it is, I argue, the truest reflection of a Jewish tradition torn between dreams of peace and harsh political and historical realities. Those who wish to speak on the validity, or otherwise, of various acts of military violence need to study much, speak carefully and know that the safety of certainty is not given to human beings. ‘Who knows if your blood is redder’, asks the Talmud, ‘perhaps their blood is redder’.

Ethics and war make for uncomfortable bed-fellows. Military ethicists, particularly those who speak in the name of a religious tradition, should be troubled sleepers, uneasy and unsure, afraid that their pronouncements could condone the spillage of a single drop of blood. No matter whose blood may be shed, every drop is sacred, ‘for the soul of all flesh is in its blood’ (Leviticus 17:14).

At the heart of Judaism lies an extraordinary articulation of the value of human life. All humans, the book of Genesis tells us, are created from one original template – Adam. This is so, state the Rabbis, in order to teach us that ‘whoever destroys a single soul, is considered as though they had destroyed an entire world; and whoever saves a single soul is considered as though they had saved an entire world’. It is, of course, an articulation that Muslim scholars will recognise from their own scriptures (Kuran 5:32).

The demand of the One God shared by both Jews and Muslims is that this message be taught and taught again and again until the day when swords can indeed be turned into ploughshares, nations and individuals will cease lifting up swords against one another and none shall learn war any more. And then every person, Jew and Palestinian, shall be able to sit under their vine and under their fig tree and none shall make them afraid (Micah 4:4).

Rabbi Jeremy will discuss this topic in more detail at the Masorti Judaism lawyers’ event on Tuesday 30 June. 

Jeremy Gordon is rabbi of New London Synagogue.

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