Friday, September 11, 2009

Shoftim (Zohar - Essay))

Reflections on War and on Peace

Once again, in the absence of a suitable Zohar passage, I present another subject altogether. The following is an expansion of a Devar Torah written for the newsletter of Rabbis for Human Rights. A spoken version was broadcast on Radio Kol Hashalom.

In this week’s portion, the Torah relates to several aspects of the practice of warfare. Interestingly, the first section dealing with this subject (Deuteronomy 20:1-9), the law of the kohen mashuah milhama, relates to the needs and interests of the potential soldiers in civilian life. The priest addressing the troops before going into battle begins with words of encouragement, telling them not to fear the enemy, to know that God is with them and, as Rambam puts it, that they are fighting “for the unity of the Divine Name.” But immediately thereafter, the same priest addresses mundane human needs: the man who has built a new house and not yet dedicated it; the one who has planted a vineyard but not yet enjoyed its fruits; who has betrothed a woman and not yet “taken her”—all these are allowed to go home and not participate in combat, “lest they be killed in war, and another man dedicate it/eat it/take her.” Moreover, the Torah expresses understanding for the person who is “fearful and tender hearted,” who is excused from combat—if only because he is liable to infect the other soldiers with his fears.

Notwithstanding the caveats of this section—that, according to the halakhic explication these verses only apply to milhemet reshut—an optional war—and not to one of self-defense, milhemet mitzvah—to which “all go out, even a bridegroom from his canopy”—the underlying sensibility here is one in which civilian life—building, planting, marriage—takes precedence over military activity. In other words, war is a means, not an end in itself; a necessary evil, in certain situations, given the belligerent nature of the human being. In this, the Biblical and later Jewish approach differs profoundly from that of many nationalist movements in which war is the ultimate expression of national glory and people even find meaning for their lives in deeds of bravery and self-sacrifice on the battlefield.

The following section, verses 10–18, likewise expresses a certain degree of human sensitivity to the enemy: when you draw close to a city to wage war against it, you must first call upon it for peace, and only when the enemy does not agree to the terms of peace—which admittedly, in the verses that follow, involve unconditional surrender and paying tribute to the conqueror—is war permitted. The option of peace, it would seem, is vastly preferable.

The question that came to my mind upon reading these passages was: how is one to interpret them in the contemporary situation? Is there room for reinterpretation of the halakhah, in light of the vastly changed meaning of war in the modern context? Just as our Sages instituted various takkanot that turned such halakhic institutions as the release of debts during the shemitah year into dead letters, surely there must be room for reinterpretation here as well.

The modern Zionist movement, and the creation of the State of Israel, returned the Jewish people to a situation in which questions relating to war and armies became relevant, after lying dormant for millennia, existing at most as theoretical concepts in the Talmudic literature. Indeed, one of the central motifs in the concept of the “New Jew” that moved the founding fathers of Zionism, was the idea of self-defense. The new Jew, living in his own land, would be able to stand up proud and strong to assure his own physical survival; unlike the ghetto Jew of the Exile, he was not dependent upon the mercy or good favors of anyone else. The traditional Diaspora Jew abhorred bloodshed (see Maurice Samuel’s The Gentleman and the Jew for an important discussion of this); the New Jew was not afraid to enter the fray of battle. Indeed, the traumas of Jewish existence in the Diaspora were an important motivation in shaping the concept of how the new Jewish society would look.

Over the years, a number of books have been written about issues of war and peace and how a Jewish state ought to conduct itself in military matters. The late Chief Rabbi of the IDF and then of the State of Israel, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, wrote a definitive, three-volume halakhic compendium on this topic, Meshiv Milhamah. Others wrote shorter guides intended to instruct young religious soldiers how to conduct themselves in their Army service, such as Dinei Milhama ve-Tzava. These books relate to issues of Shabbat and prayer, to the daily round of the religious individual, as well as to questions of justification for war and the various relevant halakhic categories, such as compulsory war as against optional war—but I don’t know whether they relate to the painful existential question of the quantum change in the meaning of warfare in an age of weapons of mass destruction.

Already Thomas Jefferson viewed war as “the greatest scourge of mankind.” In the past, war may have involved battles between “ferried ranks assembled” of uniformed soldiers; today, warfare inevitably involves the bombing of civilians, the gratuitous murder of women, children and elderly, the destruction of entire neighborhoods. There is an unbearable disparity between the enormous effort invested in building a city, in cultivating human talents and training the talents of individuals, and the unbearable lightness and ease with which all that may be destroyed by a single bomb. Israel, as a country which, over the past five years, during the incumbency of a single government, has waged two wars, both involving extensive bombing of civilians, surely needs to consider these questions.

But more than that: in an age of nuclear warfare, there is the very real danger that an originally local war may touch off a worldwide conflagration which, if not signaling the end of human civilization as we know it, would certainly plunge humankind into a new dark age. Whole cities, entire populations, can be snuffed out, literally in an instant. Surely, such horrors cannot be reconciled with a religious worldview in which the human being as such is seen as created in the image of God. How can one even consider such a thing, no matter the justification?

Those who preach pacifism, whether in part or in whole, are often accused of naïveté and lack of realism—and especially so among Jews and those who care about the survival of the State of Israel. Somehow, the traumas suffered by the Jewish people in the past are seen as justification for a certain kind of belligerency, summed up in such simplistic slogans as “Never Again,” justifying military solutions to any and all problems. But who is in fact living in fantasy and who is the realist? Who is sane and who is insane?

About a month ago, the weekend supplement of the Israeli newspaper Ha-Aretz ran an interview with Dr. Uzi Arad, head of the National Security Council and senior national security adviser to Israel's prime minister, in which he spoke about his approach and his background (Musaf ha-Aretz, 10-7-09, pp. 24 ff.). Arad reminisced about the years he spent as a young man studying in the United States, working side-by-side at the Hudson Institute with men who dared to imagine the unimaginable, who, in shaping American nuclear policy, engaged in cold-blooded strategic thinking about how to wage and win a nuclear war. He spoke in particularly glowing terms of Dr. Hermann Kahn, whom he saw as a kind of personal mentor. It was Kahn who coined the term “mega-deaths,” and talked in a calm, objective, “rational” manner about how one might manage things so that only 30 million people would be killed rather than 60 million. I found it blood-chilling to read about these people, to contemplate the detachment from human life and from all the values we hold dear, that enable one to think in such terms. He went on to mention another phrase used by Kahn, “wargasm,” referring to the almost sexual excitement elicited by the thought of missiles being fired from their silos and beginning their trajectory towards the Soviet Union. So, I repeat: who is living in fantasy and who is the realist? Who is sane and who is insane? (In this context, I wish to recommend the novel of my brother, Abram Chipman, Involuntary Commitments, Xlibris: 2000, which addresses precisely this issue.)

For years, Israel has been guided by an ideology known as Bitzuism, best translated perhaps as “hard-nosed pragmatism”—admiration for people who think in down-to-earth, immediate, realistic terms, and expressing a certain contempt fior lofty ideals and philosophies. It is exemplified by the leadership of retired generals and military man—men like Arik Sharon and Ehud Barak, as well as others, who spent the first half of their adult lives in the Israeli army, thinking about practical strategic questions, and later went on to become leaders of the government. Israeli culture as a whole often seems too much infected by this type of thinking and its mentality. The time his come, first and foremost from religious people, and from all those who care about humanistic values and the sanctity of human life, to start a new way, to somehow bring about a cultural revolution here in Israel. (Incidentally, contrary to the current stereotype, Tom Segev, in his book 1967, mentions that the religious party leaders of that time—Joseph Burg, Zorah Warhaftig, Rabbi Y. L. Maimon—were davka among the “doves” and were far more reluctant to go to war and annex territories than the secular tzabarim, mostly military men, such as Dayan, Allon, Rabin—as well as Shimon Peres—who were far more hawkish. The unholy union of religion and nationalism, so familiar to us today, was not always the case.)

Enough to leadership of generals and strategists and experts in “hasbarah”—meaning, those who manage to find clever excuses for why nothing can ever change and dress it up in mellifluent phrases! We need men and women imbued with the belief that Jewish culture cannot truly flourish in except in an atmosphere of peace—and that peace is not built through constant preparation for war, or through thinking in terms such as those of Kahn or Arad, but through tirelessly seeking reconciliation with the other side, through small changes in which we treat our Arab neighbors in decent and non-discriminatory ways, to somehow begin to transcend the trauma and the hatred on both sides.

I would like to touch upon a concrete political issue. Since the early 1960’s, Israel has had a policy of “atomic amimut”—of vagueness or ambiguity regarding the existence of an Israeli atomic bomb. This, notwithstanding that every schoolchild knows that we have the Bomb, and everyone even knows its address—the nuclear research facility just outside Dimona known as KaMaG, Israel’s government officially denies possessing nuclear weapons or capability. This policy effectively hampers any open, public discussion of nuclear policy. It has also led to such absurdities as, not only the conviction and lengthy imprisonment of Mordecai Vanunu for disclosing this fact to the world, but the ongoing imposing of Draconian restrictions on his personal freedom even now, after he has competed his 18-year prison sentence and “paid his debt to society.” In my own humble opinion, the man is if anything a hero rather than a criminal. (While as a religious Jew I am troubled by the conversion of any Jew to Christianity, as a democrat I cannot but respect his right to choose his own faith.)

At this juncture, this policy is truly harmful. President Obama has put forward a vision of a nuclear–free world, and has even called for an international conference to begin to control nuclear proliferation and to begin the long, hard road to disarmament. Israel’s policy of amimut prevents it from participating in such discussion, since to do so would require ending the masquerade that “we don’t have the Bomb.” Surely, this is irresponsible behavior for a nation which wishes to be a partner in the international community. In plain language: it is as if we are permitted to lie to the world—this is a plain-speaking translation of nuclear “vagueness”—because we are poor nebakh Jews who have suffered the Holocaust and are surrounded by dangerous enemies. By so doing, we are only making the world a worse place in which to live, and not a better one. We take pride in the Bible, and in the Isaiah Wall at the United Nations building containing the famous verses from that prophet invoking a world without war. But our actions belie that heritage; surely, Isaiah would turn over in his grave were he to know how the nation that bears the name Israel is behaving.

A Rabbinic aggadah, repeated in three different sources (Jerusalem Talmud, Hagiggah 1.7 [76c]; Eikha Rabbati Ch. 2; Midrash Shoher Tov 127) seems germane to this issue:

Rabbi Yehudah Nesia’h sent Rabbi Hiyya, Rabbi Asi [or: Yossi] and Rabbi Ami to pass through the cities of the Land of Israel to fix therein scribes and teachers of mishnah. They came to a certain town, and found there neither scribes nor teachers of Mishnah, They said to them: “Bring us the guardians of the city [neturei karta].” They brought them the sentries who guarded the city. They said: “These are not the guardians of the city, but the destroyers of the city [mahreivei karta]!” Who then are the guardians of the city? Scribes and teachers of mishnah. Of this it is said: “If the Lord does not protect a city, its guards are vigilant in vain” [Ps 127:1].

Traditionally, this story has been invoked in support of a hyper-traditional, anti-Zionist position, by those groups who see full-time Torah study as, perhaps in an almost quasi-magical fashion, assuring the welfare of the Jewish people. Indeed, the name Neturei Karta, “Guardians of the City,” has been adopted from this passage by that group generally considered the most extreme of all Old Yishuv Haredi sects.

But perhaps this aggadah may be read a bit differently. It is first of all a critique of reliance on arms and on fences. It seems to me that the experience of the last decades has shown that building ever higher fences and ever more terrifying “defensive” weapons only makes the world a more dangerous place. Walls and fences only serve as challenges for those who wish to do violence and to outwit what they see as the oppressor: I refer here both to the Israeli experience and to that of the United States during the Cold War. Moreover, a balance of terror only works so long as both sides possess a minimum degree of sanity. I recall, as a 16-year-old youth during the Cuban missile crisis, walking down the street where I grew up, and contemplating what seemed at the time the very real possibility of my own death within the next day or two. To this day, I do not know whether I, and all the other Americans living at that time, owe our lives to the sense of restraint, responsibility and common-sense of Nikita Krushchev, or to the masculine bravado and brinksmanship of John F Kennedy.

True peace, a life of security and tranquility, must be based on the peaceable, civilian virtues—which for us Jews is symbolized by Torah study (“scribes and masters of Mishnah”). But it also means building peace and friendship through mutual respect and humanity. This must start with such obvious things as removing or reducing to the absolute minimum such things like checkpoints and separate roads and bureaucratic run-arounds and discriminatory procedures for going from one place to another, which complicate the lives of the Palestinians and breed ever greater hatred and suspicion. The only way, for the long term—if we want our grandchildren and their grand-children to be able to live in this land in a decent way—is to build bridges of human respect, of caring and understanding.


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