Objecting to Conscientious Objection
According to at least one scholar, Jewish tradition does not recognize the right of personal conscientious objection.
With the best of intentions and with the greatest desire to transform the biblical phrase into relevant, liberal, modern terminology, the Tosefta's "compassionate soul" who must return from the war is not a conscientious objector. First, the Tosefta's addendum itself must accord with Akiva's principle that the phrase be taken literally, viz. "faint-hearted." This "compassionate soul" has a psychological revulsion from bloody combat, but hardly relates to the tough-minded conscience and its religious or humanistic base.
Indeed, how would one interpret the biblical prescription, immediately following, that the anointed priest preach to the soldiers, Al yarekh levavkhem, "do not be faint-hearted." Surely he did not warn, "Do not be compassionate!" Further, if we here refer to a conscientious objector, why is he not included among those who never leave for the war, instead of with those who must go to war but are now entitled to return. Obviously his faint-heartedness is an intuitive reaction, not a considered and deliberate moral judgment.
Finally, the Halakhah placed no additional burden of proof on the "compassionate." On the contrary, it exempted this category from the requirement made of all others who claim exemption and return from the camps--that they bring testimony (else, as Nahmanides says, hordes of soldiers would invent similar situations and deprive Israel of ever being able to wage war). Only the faint-hearted, according to Rabbi Akiva, need bring no evidence--"His evidence is with him at all times!"
Most important, however, for the assertion that there is no personal conscientious objection, is that it is highly unlikely that after the Sanhedrin had rendered a moral decision affirming the right to war, the individual could place himself above them, in a position of greater insight or greater authority, and declare that, for himself, the war was immoral.
After the war, far from the blood and bullets of the battlefield, it must be affirmed that Judaism rejected total pacifism, but that it believed strongly in pragmatic pacifism as a higher and morally more noteworthy religious position. Nonetheless, this selective pacifism is only a public, national decision, and not a personal one. The public was not permitted to embark on mortal combat without the prior authorization of the Sanhedrin, functioning as the community conscience.
That having once been declared, however, it was expected that all individuals would subscribe to the decision. In an American culture and a Protestant ethic which places a premium on the individual conscience these words may register as anachronistic. But that is how I read my Judaism.
Reprinted with permission from "After the War--Another Look at Pacifism and Selective Conscientious Objection," in Judaism, volume 10, number 4 (1971).
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