After the revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, Moses and Joshua climb the mountain. From below, they hear the sound of people worshiping an idol, the Golden Calf. Joshua says, “The sound of war is in the camp!” (Exodus 32:17). “No,” replies Moses, “That’s the sound of people singing.”
When Moses asks God for help with spiritual leadership, God gifts 70 people with the ability to prophesy. When a young servant reports to Moses and Joshua that people are prophesying in the camp, Joshua says, “Jail them!” (Numbers 11:28). “Don’t,” replies Moses, “If only all God’s people could be prophets!”
When the twelve scouts return from assessing the habitability of Canaan, ten scouts report that fearsome giants control the land. But scouts Joshua and Caleb say, “Don’t be afraid if they fight us; they are undefended!” (Numbers 14:9)
If the Torah were a movie, those three lines would convey Joshua’s character. His eyes see the discipline of war everywhere. So it’s no surprise that in the sequel (i.e., the next book of the Bible) The Book of Joshua, he leads the people to war.
The Biblical Joshua is no ordinary general. He is a deeply spiritual person. He has a gift for creating ritual, which he uses to design a ceremony for crossing the Jordan River (Joshua 3:1-17). He facilitates miracles: when he asks God to make the sun stand still, God complies (Joshua 10:12-14). He is a stickler for the ethics of just conduct in war, punishing soldiers who violate them (Joshua 7:1-26). Perhaps a spiritual frame helps him shape and contain war’s terrifying adrenaline overload.
But peace is not part of Joshua’s spirituality. He accepts a peace treaty only when tricked into it (Joshua 9:1-27). He considers his war to be a holy war, commanded by God.
On these matters, he completely reverses the teaching of his mentor Moses. For Moses, a divine command to do battle should be questioned. A peace treaty should be offered, proactively.
In Deuteronomy, Moses reports that as soon as the Israelites had raised a strong army, God told him, “I have delivered into your hands Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon…engage with him in battle.” Instead of engaging, however, Moses says, “I sent messengers to Sihon with words of peace” (Deuteronomy 2:24-26).
Moses is generally a critical thinker par excellence. When he has an adrenaline overload, he stops to reflect. When he hears God talking from a burning bush, he says, “What is your name?” (Exodus 3:13). When an angry God later tells him, “I’m going to wipe out my disloyal people,” he explains logically why that is not a good idea (Numbers 14:13-16).
Occasionally he does lapse; for example he loses his temper after his sister Miriam dies, insulting the people and ignoring God’s instructions (Numbers 20:1-13). But for the most part, he does not accept either violence or spiritual experience uncritically. He does not unreflectively use spirituality to make sense of violence.
Jews, Christians and Muslims revere Moses as a prophet and a leader. Four out of five books of Torah focus on his story. New Testament quotes his Deuteronomic speech 32 times. Qur’an mentions him more than any other individual. Please, world, when we are tempted to use God’s name to justify war and religion, let’s follow our inspirational leader.
What would Moses do? He would think, question, and try to craft peace.
About me: I’m a judicial officer. I’ve served on presidential and gubernatorial campaigns, and as counsel to my state Senate. I earned one academic degree in international relations, a second in public law and a third in public policy, and I’ve taught graduate law and policy courses. Even so, in my current role, judicial ethics bar me from publicly discussing most political issues. As such, this Jewish spiritual leader—trained for and steeped in public affairs—can’t publicly discuss the Mideast’s blow by blow. For talk of peace plans, war crimes, two-state solutions, one-state solutions, human shields and human pawns in Mideast politics, please look elsewhere.
Freed from adding my political voice to the Mideast cacophony—and given that most of us don’t readily absorb perspectives challenging what we already believe about the Mideast—my focus here can only be spiritual. So, in good rabbinic tradition, I’ll tell a story.
At bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, clergy typically say nice things about young adults stepping into tradition. When I became bar mitzvah, I received a surprise. As I sat in front of my family and friends assembled for my bar mitzvah, the rabbi told them that, a few weeks earlier, he’d watched me punch another kid in the face. My blow broke the kid’s nose, which flowed with blood. For emphasis, the rabbi repeated the punch line: I broke the kid’s nose and his face flowed with bright red blood. My teenaged face must have turned bright red to hear this story, at my bar mitzvah, from my rabbi.
The rabbi’s point, he continued, wasn’t that I punched a kid or even that I acted in self-defense. What most got the rabbi’s attention was that he saw me cry while I delivered the knockout blow.
We’re called to cry when we cause pain. We’re called to cry for the fact that causing pain can be necessary in an imperfect world. We’re called to cry for the pain we inflict. We’re called to cry that we ourselves cause pain. We’re called to cry for the humanity of anyone who receives our blow.
Modern culture seems conflicted on crying. Once society held that “real men don’t cry,” but now some romantics seek “men who aren’t afraid to cry.” Some tears are bitter, but “laughter through tears” is a Steel Magnolia’s favorite emotion. Tears connote vulnerability; and often the real issue—the risk in crying—is the vulnerability and inner authenticity that tears depict. That’s one reason we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah—to simulate if not stimulate tears (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 33a). On the other hand, often we judge an action wrong if it brings tears: in Hillel’s famous words, what is hateful to oneself, don’t do to another (Talmud, Shabbat 31a).
War is different, we’re told: “all’s fair in love and war.” It’s military gospel that waging war requires objectifying and dehumanizing people as “targets”: otherwise, most would find it impossible to fight. To be blunt, if purveyors of war let themselves cry, they might not be able to wage war or send others to battle. Psychologists understand this phenomenon in two ways. The first is social identity theory, by which we unconsciously tend to define ourselves by group affiliation. Even if groups are artificial (the classic experiment concerns color war teams at summer camp), in-groupers learn to dislike and even detest out-groupers, subconsciously deeming them inferior. The second, as Milgram’s classic experiment depicted, is conformity: we tend to defer to authority and view ourselves as conformist instruments of their will. Together group identity and conformity can reduce one’s sense of moral responsibility for behaviors that harm others. Such, in a nutshell, is the psychology of war.
Lest we cast scriptural tradition in more pious terms, even the Bible depicts war as psychological dehumanization. Steeling the Israelites for the military challenge of conquering Canaan’s peoples, Torah records God to instruct, “You will smite them. You will utterly destroy them … and show them no mercy” (Deut. 7:2). No mercy, no tears.
But if Jews must fight, Judaism asks more than merciless steel. To the Slonimer Rebbe (1911-2000), it was the Israelite slaves’ very “cry” under the weight of bondage (Ex. 2:23) that began the road to liberation – so Jews must cry for others, for Jews once were slaves in Egypt. One who steels oneself to another’s tears will “cry and not be answered” (Prov. 21:13). Even amidst destruction, the gates of tears never close (Talmud, Bava Metzia 59a). And one mustn’t glorify another’s demise: at the Egyptians’ defeat at the Sea of Reeds, God rebuked the celebrating angels: “My children are drowning and you sing praises?” (Talmud, Megillah 10b; Sanhedrin 39b).
Fast forward to 2014. At the moment of this writing, Mideast missiles stopped flying for now, but cries for war and peace continue to resound across social media, newspaper editorial pages and Cairo cease-fire talks. Meanwhile war’s innocent victims cry plenty.
But how about the tears from the rest of us, safely distant from the war zone, who either cry for war or cry for peace? If we defend the current Mideast violence, do we shed tears for its victims, or do we objectify them as out-groupers for whom suffering and death somehow are less tragic? If we condemn war’s spasms, do we shed tears for the grief that preceded it, or do we take moral refuge behind the price of war as if the status quo ante bellum caused no tears of its own? In short, are we crying the right tears of war and peace?
Crying isn’t enough, of course—the Mideast needs far more than our tears—but spiritually we each begin where we are. A Jew who throws a punch or advocates throwing one, but doesn’t cry for its resulting pain, misses Judaism’s higher calling. Conversely, a Jew who withholds throwing a necessary punch, or condemns throwing one because it would cause pain, might be no more justified because right action sometimes causes hurt. We dehumanize ourselves—we become less capable of moral choices—whenever we steel ourselves to pain we cause or decline painful acts that are necessary.
As a judicial officer I can’t take public sides on Mideast politics. But this much I can say: one who sheds no tears for victims of war has no right to advocate war, and one who refuses to cause necessary pain doesn’t know what real peace is. Those are truths for all of life’s battlefields – home, work, school, synagogue, family, everywhere.
And as for war and peace, if more of us cried the right cries of war and peace, then maybe soon there’d be less to cry about.
A week after coming home from a month in Israel, my soul remains immersed there. The tension in Israel, charged with fear and worry, can become like a cloak around your shoulders, enveloping you.
After arranging to come home a day earlier than planned, I was lucky to catch one of the last flights out before the temporary shut-down. Some colleagues were significantly delayed—one more stress added to the anxious experience of living in the midst rocket fire. But still, it was nothing compared with the suffering of Israelis living under constant fire in the South, or those whose loved ones were sent to fight in and near Gaza.
When I called the airline to change my ticket, I had a passing and ridiculous superstitious thought—what if I made a decision that put me in harm’s way? In a crisis, especially in the psychological warfare of rocket fire, irrational thoughts happen. I got a grip, emerging with still more sympathy for all the folks living under fire.
But something else remained with me. The airline agent, hearing that I was in Israel, said, “I’d high-tail it out of there right away.” After thanking her for her sympathy, I became protectively defensive of Israel, insisting it was no problem to stay there. My changed plans shouldn’t reflect on Israel, Israelis, or on my personal commitment to being there in support.
With kindness, she replied, “OK, well, keep the faith. No charge for the changed itinerary—after all, you’re in a war zone.” My reaction caught in my throat while I pondered “keeping the faith.” What does that mean in this situation?
We all know the aphorism “there are no atheists in foxholes,” but it’s not so simple. In Israel I heard that an ultra-Orthodox rabbi had told his followers that the IDF didn’t need to defend Israel—if everyone prayed, God would do the work. I was sickened. Didn’t he read the many rabbinic statements about human responsibility in partnership with God in completing the work of creation? Or the ethics taught by our Biblical prophets, often recited in synagogue as haftarah? Our tradition teaches us to repair the world on God’s behalf; empowering us to fight hatred, evil, cruelty, injustice and violence. We have all the tools we need to bring caring, compassion and healing to our world.
I was glad to have been blessed by that airline agent, even though I am guessing my approach to “keeping the faith” isn’t what she meant. It doesn’t matter. When the world feels out of control, there is a very real way to regain agency. Coping with crisis by “keeping the faith” isn’t irrational, superstitious or magical thinking. It’s a way of being, rooted in meaning, transformative and completely empowering.
Jon Stewart, in his July 21 episode of The Daily Show, viscerally demonstrated what many of us, I am sure, are experiencing on our Facebook feeds and our email inbox when it comes to postings on Israel and Gaza. Take a look at his attempt to talk about Israel.
At the same time as I support Israel’s right to defend itself in a war with Hamas 100%, I do believe there is room for respectful and thoughtful analysis of the broader context as we try to understand why we have arrived at this moment, and what might lie ahead. There are those who are uncomfortable with that conversation, because they don’t think it’s the right time to raise anything that might be critical of Israel’s choices and policies, but it’s not really possible to have the conversation if we’re not willing to look at those choices. I don’t think that’s helpful. I don’t think we need to silence opinion and conversation, but I also don’t believe that this broader conversation about the peace process can be applied to the specific battle at hand today. Whatever both sides may have done or failed to do in the past, today’s battle, if you identify with the fate of the Jewish people and the Jewish State of Israel, is about Israel defending its citizens from indiscriminate attack, and nothing about the larger context of the peace process will shake my certainty that they must do what must be done to achieve that goal.
Among Jews, there are a wide spectrum of opinions and feelings about what is happening in Israel and Gaza right now. But on certain issues I would hope we would substantially find agreement:
1) Hamas is a terrorist organization. It has stated publicly that it seeks to cause harm to its own people as a way of furthering international condemnation of Israel. To that end, it operates from mosques, schools, and in the midst of heavily populated areas. What it is doing from these locations is firing rockets indiscriminately on the civilian population of Israel.
2) No nation state in the world would tolerate for one moment this kind of bombardment. Israel is completely within its rights to do whatever it takes to protect its citizens. When the safety of your citizens and the stability of your country is at stake, you do whatever it takes. Those who speak of a larger context or the suffering of the Gazan people are conflating issues that should not be conflated. We can still talk about the larger question of what is or is not happening with the peace process, and where Israel bears responsibility for poor judgment along the way along with poor choices on the part of the Palestinians. But none of that mitigates Israel’s right to do whatever it takes to protect its citizens when they are being indiscriminately fired upon. That is an act of war, and Hamas has chosen to declare war on Israel. And if you were living in Israel right now, you would not expect anything less of your government.
3) Even while defending Israel’s right and need to take the actions it is taking, as human beings we can still have compassion for all who are suffering through this war. When Gazan civilians die in the midst of the battle, we should cry for the loss of lives. When children in southern Israel have PTSD because they have now lived through years of having seconds to run for cover when the sirens sound, we should have compassion. When Israeli extremists murder a Palestinian teenager we should be disgusted and bring them to justice (as Israel is). And when young Israeli adults are serving their country in the IDF and will be called upon to do difficult things that will lead to the loss of lives, we should think about the impact that war has on all who have to fight it. There are no easy choices.
When it comes to thinking about and talking about Israel, I’m sure that many of you, like me, have been listening to the news and reading many online articles about the situation. Some information is helpful, some inaccurate. Some are naïve, some are antagonistic. Some draw lines of connection that are helpful and some are profoundly misleading.
We all have a tendency to read more from those who already think like us. So how do we navigate our way through the quagmire of information? One might try to distinguish between what is descriptive and what is opinion. But this isn’t always useful. We might hear a news report that begins by telling us how many Gazans died today and how many times Israel fired on Gaza. That is descriptive. But if only as an afterthought is it mentioned, in passing, that Israel did so in response to the several hundred rockets fired by Hamas at their civilian populations, then the information is not being communicated accurately. When Israel is criticized because more Gazans were killed or injured today than Israelis, that is simply a preposterous way to judge and evaluate what is happening and what Israel needs to do to protect its citizens in this war. Approximately 7 million Germans died in WWII and 420,000 Americans died. Was America guilty of a disproportionate response to Hitler? Where opinions clash, it is often not about the facts on the ground per se, but about the framing of these facts, where there are enormous differences in perspective.
And then, when we try to expand the conversation to understand this recent flare up in war with Hamas in the larger context of the long-term lack of a peaceful two-state solution, what we have are many pieces of a puzzle, and they don’t all fit neatly together. So we can talk about the need for a settlement freeze and other choices that Israel could make to better lay the groundwork for a different kind of way of thinking about the Palestinian question. And we can talk about it, as many Israelis already do, independent of an all-inclusive final peace settlement. But if we’re going to talk about those things, we also have to talk about the choices that Hamas has made to take 10 years of potential economic development in Gaza and pour those resources into weapons and tunnels designed to kill Israelis. When we talk about Israel’s policies and choices, we cannot do so in a vacuum that excludes the context of Palestinian policies and choices.
Part of what makes this so complex are the narratives that each side tell about the other; narratives that are often deeply flawed. I’ve often argued for the need to listen carefully to the Palestinian narrative; not because we are required to agree with their framing of their plight, but because we cannot understand what they are doing or why when Israel seems to make a step in the right direction (like withdrawing from Gaza) they are rewarded with terror attacks. It’s not so easy to change someone else’s narrative. So, for example, Hamas will often make reference to the success that the Algerians had in making the French leave. They hold that story up as a model for themselves; make life so intolerable for an invading colonial power that eventually they will leave. But the problem is that, as much as Palestinians define Israel as a Western colonial insertion in their land, that is not what Israel is, and is most certainly not how Israel understands itself. The people of Israel don’t have a “France” to go back to.
And so, when Hamas ramps up the terrorism, Israelis who will not be terrorized out of their homes will fight back with all they’ve got. On the other hand, if we listen to Bibi Netanyahu and observe his policy of continually increasing the breadth of settlement activity, it would appear that he and many others operate with a narrative that thinks that if Israel just continues to establish itself and build itself up, the Palestinians will eventually just give up and move to one of the surrounding Arab countries, or accept a minority status in a Jewish state. Given the Palestinian narrative in which they see the creation of the State of Israel as having denied them their sovereign rights in their own homes and villages, that is a naïve and foolish policy to pursue.
But it gets more complicated. As Jews, we often focus on Israel’s choices and policies. Those on the right support the Netanyahu narrative. Those on the left want to change the narrative to one that could open the pathway to peace. But… that pathway doesn’t exist if only one side changes their narrative. While Hamas continues to operate out of its narrative, then peace simply cannot be—they will not let it be. I’m not sure, but I think Mahmoud Abbas might wish to change the Palestinian narrative, but it is challenging for him to do so without great danger from fundamentalists on his right. Perhaps that is why he is being quiet during this Gaza war. Perhaps he understands that nothing will ultimately change until Hamas is taken out of the equation. Israel understands this too.
In the meantime, let us pray that this war can come to an end soon. Let us pray for the safety of civilians everywhere. Let us pray for Israel’s soldiers, and let us pray for safety of Jews around the world—Jews in Turkey, Jews in France, and elsewhere where anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attacks have already taken place. And let’s talk with one another; reach out to those with family in Israel, respectfully share thoughts and opinions about the larger issues, stand up for human rights when they are violated, and stand up for Israel when she acts to defend herself.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
A version of this article was delivered as my Shabbat sermon on Friday, July 18th. The original sermon can be viewed on the archive of our livestream (sermon begins at approx. the 40 min mark).
I hope that I’m not the only one who immediately thought of the sacrifices that appear scattered throughout the Torah. -There are several in which pairs of animals are sacrificed, but of course, the most famous is the sacrifice of the goats on Yom Kippur. It is a bit different in this case of course: rather than one animal being sacrificed, and the other set free, the turkeys are delivered to the White House in a motorcade where one is pardoned, and then both are retired – to live long lives elsewhere.
I decided not to bother to go and look up the origins of this mysterious ceremony, so that I can imagine it in any way that I wish.
The human predilection for symbolic action is so enormously pervasive.
On the day before much of the country engages in a ritual of gathering families together, many offering examples of what they are grateful for, many, many of them eating the same ritual foods – turkey, pumpkin pie, stuffing, watching the same football game… on this day before, the main dish is pardoned and offered an escape to a long life. I hope all of you will consider offering your own thoughts on what this could possibly mean in the comments.
Compare this ritual to that of the ancient Israelites and their sacrifices of atonement. It makes me wonder if, even in ancient times, the Israelites didn’t really consider sacrifice to be efficacious for atonement any more than we think that it is. After all, the rabbis, after the Temple was destroyed did not elect to maintain a sacrifical cult, even though they could have offered sacrifices somewhere that was not the Temple, as they had prior to it. many of the rabbis hated tashlich – that ceremony still beloved today, in which we cast our sins out with bread to be eaten by the fish – symbolizing several things at once – generosity, atonement… and yet, few people believe that throwing crumbs at fish is really the same as doing the hard work of repentance. Continue reading