Noah (Zohar) - Special Essay
After Hiroshima and Auschwitz: Avoiding Gog and Magog
Thoughts on Aggression, War and Judaism
We continue to “e-publish” some of my longer and long-postponed essays. It is fitting to do so now, as Bereshit and Noah introduce, along with other aspects of the human condition (such as sexuality, treated at length in the essay presented last week), the phenomenon of human evil: from the defiance of God’s decree in the Garden, through the spontaneous violence of Cain in killing his brother, the arrogant sexual appropriation of the Nefilim, to the complete corruption of the Generation of the Flood. A brief selection from this week’s Zohar will follow later.
The bulk of this essay was written in August 2005 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; a shorter Hebrew version was published at that time in the newsletter, Shabbat Shalom. The threat to Israel implied by Iran’s nuclear program, combined with the worldwide uncertainty about the future—financially, environmentally, and also politically—make these issues unfortunately more relevant than ever.
And the land became corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence—Genesis 6:11
Where have all the young men gone, long time passing… when will they ever learn… – Pete Seeger
A person does not sin unless there enters into him a spirit of foolishness. — Talmud
1. The World after Hiroshima
The explosion of the first atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945—a horrendous event, in which over 100,000 innocent human beings were killed in one blinding flash, in a fraction of a second, and myriads more were maimed, blinded, suffered horrific burns and other injuries, or died slowly and painfully from various radioactively-generated diseases over the course of months or years—ushered in a new era in human history.
Many historians and others have questioned whether this awesome display of might was necessary, even from a narrow strategic, military or geo-political viewpoint. In what might be called a revisionist reading of the event, the questions are asked: Was it, as the official American line claims, in fact necessary, or was it based on haste, a desire to humiliate the Emperor Hirohito, to make the defeat all the more utterly and totally conclusive? Was there an element of demonstrating power for power’s sake? Was there an element of racism in its use specifically against an Asian people, rather than against a European country, Germany, whose Nazi government had started and launched the war (not to mention committing far greater atrocities than the Japanese)? And was there a brazen disregard for the consequences of this act, in its opening a Pandora’s box? Interestingly, Albert Einstein, who, through his understanding of the sub-atomic processes involved and the possibility of converting matter to energy, first realized the possibility of designing an atomic bomb, strongly warned against its use in his famous letter to President Roosevelt.
Following my father’s death some twenty years ago, I came across a copy of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists from 1947 or ‘48, containing an article by a highly placed US official severely criticizing this action (my memory, notwithstanding other things more hawkish things he wrote and said on the subject, is that it was by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson). Among other things, this author adamantly challenges the claim that dropping the Bomb “shortened the war” or “saved American lives,” stating that all that was needed at the time to end the war peacefully would have been to provide Emperor Hirohito with some minimal face-saving gesture. The sense of this article was that the Americans were intent upon proving their own power. But, as the old saw has it, history is written by the victors, and all these reservations have largely been forgotten.
2. The Anomaly of Human Nature
More recently, I began reading Arthur Koestler’s book, Janus: The Summation, in which he makes the frightening statement, difficult to deny or confute, that the atomic bomb has drastically changed the existential situation of humanity itself. Whereas previously the individual knew that he was mortal, but that the human race per se would continue indefinitely into the future, the atomic bomb raised the real possibility of the self-destruction of humanity itself. The mind balks at even contemplating for long such a terrifying thought.
Koestler goes on to discuss this potential for self-destruction, considering an idea suggested by philosophers of previous ages: that the human race is fatally flawed by a kind of “insanity” or paranoia. He goes on to note the fact that, unlike most animal species, that only kill for food, the human being has the potential to engage in intra-cohort lethal violence—i.e., murder or warfare. This is in striking contrast to intra-species competition among other mammals (e.g., fights between males competing to mate with a given female), who suffice with symbolic gestures of submission. To put matters simply: whereas mankind’s intellect, in which he takes such pride, has engendered impressive accomplishments in the conquest and mastery of matter through science and technology, in the emotional and moral realm, that of control over his own self and behavior, there has been virtually no “progress” and there has been hardly any change since the dawn of history. To invert Maimonides’ words about the prophet: regarding the vast majority of human beings, “His Impulse is not in his hands, but he is in the hands of his Impulse.”
While the title of Koestler’s book is taken from the Greek myth about the god of war, Janus, who has two faces turned in opposite directions, it could easily be applied to human beings as well: a “two-faced” being, suggesting the moral antinomies, paradoxes and ambivalences that mark human life. This idea is well-expressed in a series of Rabbinic midrashim about the creation of man. One particularly apt midrash on the creation of man appears in Genesis Rabbah 8.5:
R. Simon said: When the Holy One blessed be He set out to create Man, the ministering angels were divided into different factions and groups. Some of them said: “May he be created,” and others said: “May he not be created.” Concerning this it is said: “Loving-kindness and truth met; justice and peace kissed” [Ps 85:11]. Loving-kindness says: “May he be created, for he will perform acts of kindness.” Truth says: “May he not be created, for he is full of lies.” Justice says: “May he be created, for he performs acts of justice.” Peace says: “May he not be created, for he is filled with disputes and quarrels. “ What did the Holy One blessed be He do? He took Truth and threw him down to earth, as is written, “And He threw truth to the earth” [Daniel 8:12].
The ministering angels said: “Master of the Universe, why do you insult Your Seal [an allusion to the notion that ‘Truth is the seal of the Holy One blessed be He’]? Raise truth up from the ground!” Of this it is said, “Truth shall blossom forth from the earth” [Ps 85:12].
What is implied in the image of God thrusting truth down to the earth? (Needless, to say, in its original context in Daniel this verse has nothing to do with such an image, but alludes to the great “he-goat,” symbolizing the Grecian empire and its offshoots, which desecrated the Sanctuary). The essential point seems to be that God’s creative impulse, His love, His “need” for man, are stronger than His adherence to the absolute yardstick of truth. The world—meaning: life, vitality, with all the diversity and tempestuous change implied by the word—cannot survive under the hard coin of immovable truth. Ultimately, God wishes there to be life, with all its imperfections and troubles, above the unsullied, perfect, quiet, peaceful purity of an undifferentiated Infinite.
This midrash portrays the confrontation between two pairs of attributes or values. On the one hand, truth and justice are hard, absolute values—uncompromising, unyielding norms, leaning toward harshness and severity, without “taking into consideration” mitigating, situational factors. Love and peace are gentle, humane values, that appeal to every sensitive, caring person; but their very softness—their pliability and flexibility and tolerance and openness to compromise—are ultimately a source of weakness. Thus, the “meeting” or “embrace” of one with the other lends a completeness to the picture that would be missing were each taken by itself.
Our text sheds sharp light on the struggle between good and evil impulses within humankind. Each person has within him/herself a certain potential for love, an ability to act kindly and selflessly, to overflow with generosity, caring, empathy, nurture, etc. But by the same coin, every human has a tendency towards weaknesses, which typically emerge when he/she withdraws into the self, adopts an egocentric attitude, and thinks only of his own interests: he then lies, cheats, conceals the truth. This in turn often leads to arguments and quarrels, which may in turn cross over into violence and even bloodshed and, on the tribal or national level, warfare.
What can one do with such a contradictory creature? At one moment he is filled with the most elevated, sublime, generous impulses; at the next—with meanness, cruelty, xenophobia, pettiness, and hatred. Every group endeavor of human beings—be it religions, political movements, aesthetic and philosophical schools, even self-help groups—seems destined to split into groups, sub-groups and sub-sub-groups.
3. “And Cain Rose Up and Slew Abel, His Brother”
The subject of human aggression is a vast one. In the limited space available here, I can barely scratch the surface and make a few very general comments on Judaism’s approach to this issue. Freud spoke of two basic drives of the Id, of the unmediated, raw stuff of the human psyche, before the civilizing affects of parents and socialization into adult society begin to modify them, which reemerge in all kinds of situations: Eros and Thanatos—love, sexuality, and the pleasure principle, on the one hand; and the death wish, the inchoate desire to do violence to others and, at times, to self, on the other. Contemporary psychology tends to see aggression, or “assertiveness,” as an important human function, if kept within reasonable bounds, and certainly not as something that can be quashed. The ideal of assertiveness has gained particular importance in the feminist movement of recent decades, the underlying assumption being that, if women are too calm and accepting of whatever others do, they will be stepped upon, victimized, and not get their fair share of what is ones due.
Interestingly, traditional Judaism, in both Hazal and in Kabbalah, speak of two basic forces in life—concepts of yirah & ahavah, love and fear—which roiughlky parallel these. Both are vital, necessary to life, and both, uncontrolled, can have profoundly negative effects. Our society at least thinks that it knows how to deal with sexuality, and certainly talks about it enough, but Thanatos seems less well controlled.
The midrash and other branches of Jewish literature provide a rich store of discussions on humankind’s propensity towards violence: from the midrashim on the story of Cain and Abel, through the generation of the Flood—or, for that matter, the case of Adam and Eve after the sin of the Tree, when man-woman relations began to be based upon elements of power and patterns of domination/submission, rather than upon equality—a factor which many feminist thinkers see as a crucial element in the development of culture ever thereafter.
But the starting point for any discussion of violence and aggression must be the story of Cain and Abel—the first murder in human history. Two years ago, on the occasion of his being honored as Hatan Torah at Yakar, Professor Uriel Simon gave a talk about Cain. Essentially, he described how the biblical text, in a few choice phrases, portrays Cain as a weak person, incapable of bearing frustration or disappointment, easily surrendering to moods. After his sacrifice is rejected by God—for whatever reason, which we are not told—Cain is angered and “his face falls.” The crucial verse is Genesis 4:7, in which God tells him: הלא אם תיטיב שאת; ואם לא תיטיב, לפתח חטאת רובץ, ואליך תשוקתו, ואתה תמשל בו (”if you do good, you will be accepted [or: there is uplift - NJPS]; but if you do not do good, sin crouches at the gate, and its desire is towards you, but you shall rule it”). That is, his anger is the result of a child-like self-obsession, a limited view of the world, in which he blames others for the consequences of his own shortcomings or for what goes wrong in his life. The challenge presented to Cain was to show maturity, responsibility for his own action; otherwise, “sin”—a personification of all negative human traits—lies in wait to take over. Yet even then, he may yet rule it—life is a constant struggle with these negative impulses, which is never conclusively decided one way or another. Unfortunately, Cain failed the test and, in the next scene, in the course of a quarrel with his brother that was perhaps so petty that Scripture doesn’t even bother to describe its cause, he rises and strikes a fatal blow against his brother. Humankind has been paying the price, repeating this paradigmatic fratricide, ever since.
The Rabbinic midrashim on this incident ridicule aggression and conflict as stemming from an absurd perception of reality, and from petty concerns. Thus, Bereshit Rabbah 22.7, discusses the verse immediately preceding the first murder—“And Cain spoke to Abel his brother; and it came to pass when they were in the field….” (Gen 4:8):
What were they discussing? They said: Come, let us divide the world. One took all the land, and the other took all the mobilia. This one said: The land you are standing upon is mine; and that one said: What you are wearing is mine! This one said: Strip! That one said: Fly! [or: Jump!]. Between this and that, “Cain rose upon his brother Abel and killed him.”
R Yehoshua of Sakhnin said… [No} This one said: The Temple shall be built in my territory! And that one said: The Temple shall be built in my territory! As is said: “and it came to pass when they were in the field.” And “field” refers to the Temple, as is said: “Zion shall be plowed like a field” (Micah 3:12). From this: “And Cain rose up…” etc.
Yehudah b. Rabbi said: They were arguing about [the original] Eve. R Aibo said; Eve had returned to the dust. About what then were they quarreling? R. Huna said: an extra twin sister was born with Abel. This one said: I will take her, for I am the first born! And that one said: I shall take her, for she was born with me! From this….
Interestingly, this midrash does not paint Cain in any blacker colors than it does Abel: both were arguing and adhering stubbornly to positions about what might in the end turn out to be ridiculous matters. One year, Rav Soloveitchik devoted a series of his Saturday night philosophical-aggadic shiurim at the Maimonides School to this chapter. He suggested that this midrash presents a caricature of what might be described as the three main reasons for human conflict, be it on an individual or a collective level: namely, property, sex, and religion/ideology. All three, stripped of their high language, appear in ridiculous and mean light: the notion of one person owning all of the land property, or all of the movable objects, is a reductio ad absurdum. Similarly, “in my territory shall the Temple will be built” ends up sounding rather less like religious fervor and more like sheer egotism or desire for prestige: viz. the passions excited by control of holy sites here in Jerusalem (between Jews and Moslems re the Temple Mount; between different Christian churches a few hundred meters away, at the Holy Sepulchre), in India, in the Punjab, and elsewhere. Finally, the idea of “owning” another person’s sexuality (without her having any voice in the matter) is either cruel and barbaric, or absurd.
4. Aggression: an Halakhic Perspective
Turning from the realm of midrash and archetypes to an analysis of the phenomenon itself, we must divide the discussion between aggression and violence on the individual level, and on the collective level. Beginning on the individual level: The halakhah is clearly opposed to virtually all expressions of aggression, whether of a verbal, psychological, or physical nature. “Resh Lakish said: He who lifts his hand against his fellow, even if he did not strike him, is called a sinner, as is said ‘And he [Moses] said to the evil-doer, Why shall you [i.e., in the future tense] strike your neighbor?’” (Sanhedrin 58b; quoting Exod 2:13). Rambam, in portraying the basic character traits a person ought to cultivate, speaks of striking a ”golden mean” between the two possible extremes in almost every aspect of life, a kind of neo-Aristotelian, Hellenic ideal of balance, equipoise and inner harmony. But there are two notable exceptions to this rule: pride (govah lev) and anger (ka’as). Even the slightest measure of arrogance and haughtiness is forbidden: a person must minimize his pride, his ego-expansion and imposition of self upon others, to be humble, modest and self-effacing. The same holds true for temper and anger: the ideal is one of almost total calm and equanimity. Yet here Rambam makes an interesting exception: a person is never allowed to become truly angry, but may feign anger, make a show of apparent anger, in order to chastise, to teach or discipline others, especially children. Otherwise, how will they learn? A certain healthy fear of the anger of others, a desire to “stay on the good side” of parents or other authority figures, is seen as an important tool in the repertoire of the effective teacher. One cannot radiate sweetness and light at all times—or at least thus have Jews traditionally thought.
… Anger is an extremely bad trait, and it is fitting that a person should separate himself from it to the other extreme, and train himself never to be anger, even concerning those things about which it might be appropriate to be angry. And if he wishes to impose fear upon his children and the members of his household…. so that they may return to the good, he may make himself before them as if he is angry so as to chastise them, but his mind is calm within him, like a person feigning anger but who is not really angry. (Hilkhot De’ot 2.3)
But once we turn to the collective level, of the nation and of the Collectivity of Israel as a whole, matters become more complex. There are abundant biblical and halakhic precedents for warfare, and an understanding of the use of violence as something that is at times necessary, and even positive. The Torah clearly makes allowance for warfare, and even lays down, in Deuteronomy 20; 21:10-14; and 23:10-15 various definite rules and regulations governing warfare—both “volitional’ and “required” wars, and even milhemet mitzvah, “a commanded war.” The historical books of the Former Prophets are filled with accounts of battles and sorties against enemies; some of the best-known biblical poems—the Song of the Sea, the Song of Deborah, the Song that David sang “on the day that God delivered him from all his enemies” (2 Sam 23=Ps 18), the lament over Saul and Jonathan (indirectly), Psalms 68, 110, 144, and more—celebrate warfare, victory and heroism in battle (including the Divine element in which God Himself, “a man of war,” strides at the head of the serried forces, His garments, so to speak, crimson with the blood of His enemies). In a particularly striking passage, Maimonides writes with passion of war as a religious mission:
Once he has entered into the battle front, he shall rely upon the Hope of Israel and their Redeemer in times of trouble, and he should know that he is waging war for the unity of the Name. And he should take his soul in hand and neither fear nor be frightened, and think neither of his wife nor of his children, but should erase their memory from his heart and turn from everything else to war … As it says explicitly in the tradition: “Cursed is he who is slack in doing God’s work, and he who withholds his sword from blood” [Jer 48:10]. But whoever wages war with all his heart and without fear, and his intention is to sanctify God’s name alone, is assured that harm will befall him…. (Hilkhot Melakhim u-Milhemoteihem 7.14)
On the other hand, there is the renowned vision of universal, nay, cosmic peace, as the crowning glory of the End of Days: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more” (Isa 2:4)—and, again, many similar passages.
What is the source of these diametrically opposed views? The sad fact is, that human experience teaches that issues of war and peace are far from simple: There are just wars, against powers of stark evil which threaten to inundate and enslave the world; and there are wars that are no more than the result of obstinacy and greed on both sides, of the will of nations and their leaders to expand, to gain profit, territory and resources at the expense of other, weaker nations—and of their own soldiers, who are often but too willing to serve as “cannon fodder.” The two world wars of the twentieth century may be taken as object lessons of these two types. The following passage, from a review of some books about World War One, articulates the dilemma:
The last century, through its great cataclysms, offers two clear, ringing, and, unfortunately, contradictory lessons. The First World War teaches that territorial compromise is better than full-scale war, that an “honor-bound” allegiance of the great powers to small nations is a recipe for mass killing, and that it is crazy to let the blind mechanism of armies and alliances and trump common sense. The Second teaches that searching for an accommodation with tyranny by selling out small nations only encourages the tyrant, that refusing to fight now leads to a worse fight later on, and that only the steadfast rejection of compromise can prevent the natural tendency to rush to a bad peace with worse men. The First teaches us never to rush into a fight, the Second never to back down from a bully.
Happy is he who can clearly distinguish the two: a knave with a good speech-writer can easily turn a cynical, ruinous exploit into a great moral crusade!
* * * * *
Particularly in the post-Hiroshima world, it is imperative that we understand that war is the scourge of mankind; that it only rarely resolves the problems it was meant to solve (viz., but one recent example: Regev and Goldwasser as justification for the Second Lebanon War); that it more often than not escalates beyond the proportions originally envisioned by the armchair strategists (including those with epaulets on their shoulders); and that it appeals to the lowest, jingoistic instincts of the masses of men. Yet, notwithstanding all that, the position of absolute pacifism is no solution either. Simply ignoring the dangers posed by ongoing aggression is sticking one’s face in the sand, and in a very dangerous world is no workable alternative either—certainly not for the Jewish state existing in a conflict-ridden dangerous part of the world, nor to the Jewish people, who have undergone collective traumas making it reluctant to accept the counsel of “turn the other check” (suffered, not least, at the hands of the alleged devotes of that counsel).
In concluding, there is much more to be said on this subject. I have deliberately avoided directly addressing the problems confronting the State of Israel at this juncture in its history, as well as the difficulties created by certain aspects of the Israeli mentality, shaped as it was in reaction to the negative image of the “Galut Jew.” Suffice it to say, that I believe that these problems must be approached by our leaders with solemn gravity, not with unbearable lightness; with a world-view that transcends the merely military; and with awareness of the qualitative difference between the post-Hiroshima era and earlier times. Everything possible—everything, even talking with people we despise—must be done before making the decision to go to war, or even to engage in a “preemptive strike.” Dealing with the problems and dilemmas of this world is a knotty problem, but it must be done with full awareness that “not by might nor by bravery [alone], but by My spirit, says the Lord” (Zech 4:6).