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Jewish Reflections on War and Peace
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

Jewish Reflections on War and Peace

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

Peter Gay in his book The Cultivation of Hatred, describes the Mensur, the student duel that became popular among German University students the late 19th century. Spectators would gather in a room, while the combatants, who wore protective goggles and padding, would take out swords and fight. The entire purpose of the duel was the resulting wounds; as the duel progressed, pieces of the combatants' scalp and face would be hacked off. (These pieces were immediately placed in an envelope to be carefully preserved by their former owners.) The schmisse, the wound received in the duel, was considered to be a permanent record of the possessor's courage and honor, proof that he was no coward. (Sadly, Jewish students, eager to disprove the anti-Semitic libel that they were cowards, were disproportionately  likely to engage in these honor duels.) In Gay's view, the mensur was part of larger pattern of bourgeois cultivation of aggression in the Victorian Era. This cultural climate prompted the major powers to overreact to minor events at the start of World War One. In this regard, the Victorian Era was not unique; from Sparta to the Crusades to Hamas and Osama Bin Laden, many groups and societies have romanticized aggression and war, often with devastating results.

Judaism has never considered violence to be glamorous. In the army of Bar Kochva, new recruits were expected to prove their bravery by severing one of their fingers. The Rabbis of the time strongly disapproved of this practice, considering it destructive and pointless (Eichah Rabbah 2:4). Despite the Jewish distaste for violence, Judaism recognizes both "a time of war and a time of peace" (Ecclesiastes 3:8). What requires clarification, is how the conflicting values of war and peace interact with each other. With a long conflict expected in Afghanistan, it is the proper time to reflect on the Jewish attitude towards war.

Any Jewish discussion of war must begin with peace. Peace is Judaism's highest aspiration. The Midrash says the entire Torah is based on the value of peace (Gittin 59b; Bamidbar Rabbah 11:7). Another Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 9:9) explains that the obligation to seek peace is of a much higher order than ritual observances. It notes that although many of the Torah's commandments are phrased in conditional terms such as "if you see", "if you meet", "if you come across", which indicate that they are only operative in specific situations, the imperative of peace is much greater, because the Torah demands that one "search for peace and pursue it" (Psalms 34:15).

In order to maintain peaceful relations between individuals, we are allowed to compromise on other moral and religious values. One may lie in order to prevent strife (Yebamot 65b), and in one instance, a section of the Torah may be erased in order to preserve marital peace (see Rambam Chanukah 4:14).

One must bend over backwards to make peace. It is a mark of piety if a person accepts insults quietly, and does not respond (Shabbat 88b); a true scholar is humble, and ignores the slights of others (Eruvin 54a). In general, grace and mercy are divine attributes, meant to be emulated by man (Shabbat 133b).

Clearly peace is Judaism's paramount value; but how do we apply this value in the face of aggression? Some might argue pacifism is an appropriate response. Pacifism has the advantage of being uncompromising, categorical, and absolute. Pacifists can retain their love for peace, and not sully their hands with violent actions. Considering the strong emphasis the Jewish tradition places on peace, this view has to be taken seriously.

There are two major arguments made for pacifism. One is consequentialist, and assumes that in long run, the world will be more peaceful if individuals and groups choose to remain passive in the face of aggression. A second argument is moral, which claims that violence is absolutely forbidden, no matter what the circumstances are. (See Brian Orend, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. "War"). Consequentialists posit that if you are defending yourself with violence, you perpetuate an endless cycle of violence. It sees non-violent protest as a way of ending this cycle. According to this argument, attacking Afghanistan will only create future violent reactions; the United States would be better off taking the high ground, and by remaining a passive victim, which would ultimately convince the aggressors of their immoral stance.

This view is not new; indeed, some pacifists trace this idea to a passage in Josephus' The Jewish War (Book II chapter 16). In a speech by Agrippa, (the Jewish King during the Jewish revolt of 66 c.e.), he exhorts the crowd, which wants to revolt against the Roman Governor Florus, to be patient. He tells them: "Now nothing so much damps the force of strokes as bearing them with patience; and the quietness of those who are injured diverts the injurious persons from afflicting."

This view can also be called the "shvieg shtill" (stay quiet) view of pacifism; it assumes that people will receive goodwill if they remain meek, passive and useful. Indeed, the Talmud (Gittin 57a) considers the Jewish revolt a tragic mistake. The tactic of "shvieg shtill" was often used by Jews in antisemitic societies, where they found it best to avoid making waves, and offer complete cooperation to those in authority. However, even this approach has its limitations, and there are times when remaining passive is ridiculous. There is a well known Jewish joke that illustrates this point. Two Jews are about to be executed by a firing squad. As they are handed their blindfolds, one of the Jews refuses to put his on. The second Jew, mortified by this act of rebellion, turns to his friend and says: "Please, don't make trouble!"

While the "shvieg shtill" form of pacifism is a reasonable approach for a powerless group, it would seem absurd for a powerful nation like the United States to remain completely nonviolent, allowing all who attack it to do so with impunity. Yet pacifists argue that even world powers should embrace nonviolence, and refuse to offer any resistance to those who attack it. They argue that nonviolence, by virtue of its moral authority, can be successful, and note that Gandhi succeeded in getting the British to leave India through nonviolent protest. However, as Michael Walzer points out in his book Just and Unjust Wars, Gandhi succeeded because he was opposing an empire tired and weakened after World War II, and opposing an empire with a tradition of respect for human rights. It would have been ineffective in other instances. For the 6,000,000 Jews getting murdered in Europe, Gandhi had no practical advice. He advised Rabbi Leo Baeck, the leader of German Jewry during the Holocaust, that he should get all German Jews to commit mass suicide; this he said would focus the world's attention on Hitler's inhumanity. (To this Baeck replied that "we Jews know, that it is God's singular commandment, to live.") Nonviolent protest would have done nothing to change Hitler's evil heart.

The second type of pacifism, moral pacifism, assumes that it is morally forbidden to use violence, even in self-defense. Many people are inspired by the nonviolent Buddhist teachings of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, who received the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize. Exiled from his homeland of Tibet, he still preaches a principled form of nonviolence to his followers in Tibet, asserting that "because violence can only breed more violence and suffering, our struggle must remain nonviolent and free of hatred." Others have based their moral pacifism on the New Testament. In  Matthew 26:52 Jesus tells a disciple not to defend him against an enemy. It says "Then said Jesus unto him, put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword." This can be construed as a prohibition against any violence, even in self defense. Furthermore, on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:29), Jesus says: "But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." While many Christian authorities interpret these verses in other ways, there are Christian sects, such as the Mennonites and Anabaptists, who preach a moral pacifism that views violence, even in self defense, as unethical.

In the Jewish tradition, self defense is a moral obligation. The Torah allows people to defend their property from a thief even if this will cause the conflict to escalate into a physical battle. If there is reason to assume that the thief will use lethal force to seize the property, the owner may use physical force, and even kill the thief if necessary to protect himself (Exodus 22:1, Sanhedrin 72a). There are two rationales for allowing self defense. The first is practical; without the ability to use lethal force to stop the actions of aggressors, anarchy would reign (Chinnuch 600). The second  rationale challenges the moral assumptions of nonviolence. It asserts that it is impossible to equate the lives of the aggressor and the victim; we have as a rule "that God's quest is the interests of  the hunted" (Ecclesiastes 3:15). The life of the aggressor and the victim are not of equal value; if only one will survive, it is our obligation to make certain that it is the innocent person, the victim, who will survive (Cf. Rashi to Exodus 22:1).

For this reason, the Jewish tradition considers pacifism in the face of aggression to be immoral. Refusing to fight evil is to be party to evil. As Michael Kelly (Washington Post September 26, 2001) has pointed out:
"No honest person can pretend that the groups that attacked America will, if let alone, not attack again. Nor can any honest person say that this attack is not at least reasonably likely to kill thousands upon thousands of innocent people. To not fight in this instance is to let the attackers live to attack and murder again; to be a pacifist in this instance is to accept and, in practice, support this outcome."
This is essentially the Jewish point of view; if you don't help the victim, you are an ally of the aggressor. If a person refuses to defend himself, he allows evil to triumph.

Peace is Judaism's paramount value, yet at times we have to make war. While this may seem to be a paradox, somehow we have to love peace and make war at the same time. It means that we should never lose sight of the humanity of our enemies, and we should recognize that every death on the battlefield is tragic. The Talmud teaches us that on the night that the Egyptian army drowned in the Red Sea, the first true moment of freedom for the Jews fleeing Egypt, God refused to hear the angels sing their prayers, and said "my creations are drowning in the sea, and you will sing songs?" (Megillah 10b). Every human is created in God's image, and every death is a tragedy. The former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was often quoted as saying she could forgive the Arab countries for killing Jewish children, but she could not forgive the Arab countries for making it necessary for Jews to kill Arab children. The warrior must mourn the deaths of his enemies, and never forget the value of life.

A soldier's love for peace will affect his wartime behavior. While the old adage goes "all's fair in love and war", the Jewish view is that war must be conducted in an appropriate fashion. During wartime soldiers must make every effort to avoid killing noncombatants. This concern with collateral damage is first found in Abraham's pleading with God to avoid killing any righteous citizens of Sodom. Abraham argued that even though God was destroying Sodom because it was a profoundly wicked city, justice demanded that God avoid killing any righteous individual while destroying the city. The Torah even prohibits the destruction of trees in the vicinity of military attack (Deuteronomy 20:19). This is because even in wartime, we must be careful never to destroy, and despite the violence inherent in battle, we must endeavor to preserve every living being from humans to animals to trees (Chinnuch 630). A soldier must love peace, even when he goes out to battle.

A recent report in the New York Times (August 31, 2001 "Palestinians Reclaim Their Town After Israelis Withdraw") illustrates this point. After Israeli troops entered  Beit Jala to stop snipers from shooting into Gilo. The reporter, Clyde Haberman, visited Beit Jala after the Israeli troops withdrew. He found that in one apartment: "soldiers apologized in a note that they left in the paws of a teddy bear. In slightly misspelled English, it said, 'we are truely [sic] sorry for the mess we made.'"

These soldiers understood that peace is Judaism's paramount value. They understood that we are always sorry about the mess and tragedy of war, and that all Jews wait desperately for the days when "They will beat their swords into plowshares... and no nation will lift up its sword against another nation" (Isaiah 2:4).

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