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Peter J. Rubinstein
War (Rosh HaShanah 5767)

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  September 23, 2006

Need I say that we Jews abhor war? We Jews especially abhor war because from the beginning we have been sacrificed on the battlefield of national interests. Our weak and elderly were massacred by Amalek when we fled Egypt. Jews were murdered by both the Muslim and Christian armies during the crusades. We suffered in the Czar’s army. We were expelled from our homes during this country’s Civil War because we weren’t trusted to be loyal.  And, as we know all too well in our time, we Jews were annihilated in the name of German national purity.

We know war and it never ceases to unsettle us. We enter the Sanctuary this year battered by daily reports of escalating body counts and fallen soldiers in Iraq, increasingly described now as on the brink of civil war. What can be the future of this heartbreaking conflict? And we are worried about Israel, apprehensive that the battles of this past summer may be a harbinger of larger wars to come.

Yes, we are especially unsettled. Though we hold a singular commitment to “seek peace and pursue it” (Psalms 34:14), we are not a pacifist tradition. Even knowing the tragedy and heartbreak of war, we will not turn aside from the battle for justice. We take our place on the front lines of the righteous cause. We are loyal in the battles for human dignity and protection of the weak. We take our stand, as we must, for the protection of life.

But how do we decide when the cause is just, that the battle is merited, that the war is worth our life or anyone’s life, our death or anyone’s death?

That is the question which occupies us today. So on this Rosh Hashanah, in the midst of our joyful celebration of beginning again, let us briefly reflect on war so that, whatever our opinions about Iraq or Israel may be,  our principles and our actions bespeak Jewish values.

First, from the Torah:

◾Whenever Israel goes to war, the Torah decrees, every Israelite is commanded to be in battle. No one stays home.

◾The Torah teaches that wanton destruction of life and property must be prevented. In fact even the life of an enemy is sacred.

◾Moreover, the Torah also teaches that, before Israel goes to war, it must first offer peace.

In the 12th century, Maimonides, commenting on the Torah section on war, expounded three fundamental moral principles about war.

1.First, there is a difference between a milchemet rashut, the “voluntary” or “discretionary war,” and the milchemet mitzvah, the “commanded” or “defensive” war.

A milchemet mitzvah, the commanded or the defensive war, is fought in direct response to an attack. It is a military retaliation when the security of our people or nation is threatened. The Bible refers to a war against Amalek as a milchemet mitzvah, an “obligatory” war. Amalek was an especially despicable enemy who singled out the weak and stragglers for annihilation (Deut. 25:17-19). Any war fought in immediate defense of Israel the people or the nation is an obligatory war. And by extension, I suggest that any war fought in immediate defense against an attack on this nation would be considered an obligatory war.

A milchemet rashut, a voluntary war, was not for self-defense or immediate protection. Voluntary wars were not fought to destroy an attacking army but were launched by a king or a leader for territorial expansion or the extension of national hegemony. Voluntary wars, according to our tradition, better served the reputation or self-interest of the king than the welfare of the people.

The great King David was forbidden to build the holy Temple because the wars he led were voluntary wars and he had irresponsibly spilled the blood of his countrymen. God considered David’s behavior reprehensible.

Maimonides affirms that voluntary wars were permissible but morally repugnant while defensive wars were obligatory and principled.

2.Secondly, Maimonides endorses the Biblical understanding that every Israelite must fight when the people go to war. While there were some exemptions, allowing people in specific situations to walk away from fighting in a voluntary conflict, all eligible Israelites were commanded to stand in the front lines in a defensive war. The Mishnah says that everyone, man and woman, go to the battle “even the bridegroom out of his chamber and the bride from under the Chuppah.” (Sotah 8.7)

When the cause was just, said Maimonides, the entire citizenry should support it with their own flesh and blood. No one sent others. They went themselves. Loyal citizens mobilize in partisan defense of their people or their nation when they are committed to the cause for which their nation is fighting.

By inference, the question we should ask ourselves about any war is whether we would go. Would we fight the battle with our own lives in the balance, or the lives of our children or our grandchildren? No one chooses to die on the battlefield,  but people will go to battle when they feel threatened or are passionate about a war’s justification. Citizens will fight to protect themselves and their families and their homeland. Maimonides insinuates that people vote on the righteousness of a war with their personal military service. When endangered, people step forward. When ambivalent, they don’t.


3.Thirdly, Maimonides asserts that the thrust towards peace must be the goal prior to, during, and after any war. Peace must be pursued with all available means, energy and purpose.

“Prior to attacking a town,” the Torah requires, “you must offer terms for peace.” Maimonides reminds us, “When Joshua conquered the land of Israel, which had been promised, he sent the Canaanite nations who dwelt there three letters urging them not to fight, but to accept peace and avoid the loss of life.” (Hilchot Melachim 6.5) And he further adds that “sensitivity to human life….must be present even in war. A Jewish army is not permitted to surround an enemy on all four sides. Those who want to run away must be permitted to do so,” thereby preventing the unnecessary loss of life. (Hilchot Melachim 6.7)


On these holy days, we apply this long -defended Jewish tradition to the wars in Iraq and Israel. We ask these questions:

1.Are these a milchemet mitzvah, defensive wars? Are these wars fought against an attacking enemy? Are we, here in America, or there in Israel, in imminent danger of armies massed on our borders or pointing their rockets at us? Is this a war against an immediate threat?

2.Is it a war about which we care so much that we would put ourselves or our children or grandchildren on the front line?

3.Is it a war that offers a hint of amelioration, negotiation, hope or peace? Is it leading to a better world or a better time?

Good people, very good people may answer these questions differently.

From the very beginning, a national debate about Iraq has raged as to whether the war should ever have been fought. For some of us in this sanctuary, the almost 2700 United States service men and women who have died on the streets of Baghdad and in the alley ways of Fallujah are the price we must pay, and the over 6000 violent Iraqi civilian deaths, recorded in July and August alone, are the price the Iraqis must pay,  for the birthing of democracy. For others of us in this sanctuary, the thousands of young American service men and women who will carry their wounds of battle for the rest of their lives are sad, but necessary martyrs in a preemptive strike against terrorists who would otherwise be massacring us. And, for others in this nation, the Iraqi conflict is a shameful national catastrophe.

We knew that terrorists had launched a war against us. September 11th, the still gaping wound where the World Trade Center stood, the constant reminders at airport security, regular police presence in front of our own synagogue remind us that there are terrorists who hunger to hurt us. We need to respond with vigilance, intelligence and firm national will and even force when and where it is proper.

Applying Maimonides first principle to this war, it didn’t make sense to many Americans that Iraq was the proper battlefield against terrorism, that it was from Iraq that terror attacks were being launched or formulated. For them the Iraqi war is not a milchemet mitzvah.  On the other hand, for those who do believe that our presence in Iraq is effectively disabling terrorists, then of course, this is a proper war, most definitely a milchemet mitzvah. Each of us needs to decide.

As to Maimonides second principle regarding compulsory conscription, most of us in this sanctuary will, thankfully, not know death in the Iraqi war. For the most part, it is not our sons and daughters who will be torn from the fabric of our family life. We are not the ones who are volunteering as soldiers or marines to search for roadside bombs or, failing to find them, be shredded to pieces. In fact, because there is no military draft and no feeling of shared sacrifice on the battlefield, protests against the war in Iraq are muted and most Americans will need not bury a child killed in action.

We ask ourselves, does the measure of personal service as a gauge support this war? According to our tradition, you know best about war by your instinct as to whether you would personally go to battle.

And, even if our answer is “No, this is not a war I support, not a cause for which I would fight,” nevertheless we deeply honor those who have gone to battle. We mourn those service men and women who have died in action.  By reading their names every week, we take them as our own in saying Kaddish.

What about the war in Israel this summer? About this one there was never any debate in Israel whether it should be fought. Israel responded to an armed incursion across its northern border, the killing of its soldiers and the capture of others, a constant rocket barrage on its northern cities and settlements, and the threat of more rocket attacks deeper into its heartland. It was, in every way, a milchemet mitzvah, a defensive war against immediate aggression. It was and remains a war for survival. Israelis were of one mind.

Additionally, since every young man and woman does military service in Israel, since reserve duty is required of every citizen through middle age, every Israeli family knows what death is. No Israeli faltered. Troops were called up and they went. Men left their wives and children. Women left their families and parents. The battle was pitched. Armaments were mustered. Israelis died - in battle and at home. No one in Israel is exempt from trauma and pain and loss. But Israel had enough. It went to war with one mind and one heart.

The survival of the Jewish state is at stake; this is a battle worth fighting for. None of us can shrink from that battle. In this war, we are all on the front line. I will talk about this next week.

In the meantime, today we focus on the Torah and on Maimonides’ third instruction: that war, brutal and murderous as it is, must thrust towards hope and peace.

Recently I read a book by Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival, a substantial perspective on the struggling Middle East. I commend it to you. Nasr theorizes that many of the military and terrorist eruptions around the world stem from an internecine struggle within Islam itself, a struggle between Shia and Sunni that has spanned nigh on 14 centuries. Nasr conjectures that “The lesson of Iraq is that trying to force a future of its liking will hasten the advent of those outcomes that the United States most wishes to avoid.” (250)

Nasr concludes that we must contend “with the reality of sectarian rivalries and understand what motivates them…” And then go “beyond them in the pursuit of common goals.” (p.253)

“In the pursuit of common goals”...that is a great hope, a hope that nations will speak to enemies as Israel has set out to do by tiptoeing toward conversation across battle lines. I believe that, in this wild time of confusion, when spasms of evil shatter the bedrock of decency and the rhythm of life, I believe that now when our children’s future is belittled by the misery of those who would eradicate us, that especially now we best find room for vision. Now we must rise from the mire of hopelessness.

So, yes, despite the mood of crisis and the fear in our hearts, I choose to be hopeful; no matter the morass that Iraq and Iran and other Arab Islamic states have presented, I choose to be hopeful.

I personally will act out of hope and ask you to join me in this congregation’s search for partners in frank dialogue, not only with the moderate Muslim leaders with whom we have talked, including the wonderful imam of the mosque down the street and others. No, we need to pursue meetings with those Muslim leaders in the city who so far turn away from meeting with us and who uphold political positions we oppose. It will be formidable but we do not withdraw from the challenge.

Let us deal with those who aim to hurt us. And at the same time let us learn about those who don’t know us. Let us speak to those who acknowledge us. Let us uncover intelligent alternatives to ineffective force. Let us understand for what the downtrodden in other countries yearn and why they are convulsing. Let us imagine speaking to those who say they despise us but who cannot live without us. Let us use our power for good. It is the character of this nation, and the noble hunger of every man and woman.

I believe passionately in the state of Israel. I believe passionately in the United States and the values upon which this nation is founded. We will stand firm with Israel. We will stand firm as United States citizens. And it is time for us to measure our wars, time to find ways to search first for peace. Now is time for us to commit to this vision. It most certainly is time for hope.

So we have work to do - acting on vision and hope takes work.

Yet, there is no other way for each of us to survive. The year awaits us. The world awaits us. So let us get on with it. May God help us be strong!


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