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On War, Love, and Preserving an Ethical Core

How should moral foundations and love of life guide a sovereign Jewish state in times of war?
Rabbi Dr. Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi s a Jewish institutional leader, author, and sought-after public speaker. Currently, Rachel serves Ohavay Zion Synagogue and is a senior scholar of the Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood. Most recently she served as Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Ethics at Hebrew Union College (HUC) and led a four-campus team to achieve strategic goals. Prior to her national role at HUC, Rachel served as Vice President of the Shalom Hartman

Nothing focuses our attention quite like war. Among the many phenomena of war is the way in which it forces an existential confrontation with life and death and focuses our minds more clearly on that which we truly fear and that which we truly love. Both the unbearable weight of fear and the overwhelming love of life cause us to act in inexplicable ways. The experience changes what we do, perhaps only temporarily – but we are never quite the same afterward.

The earliest book of wisdom on human behavior, the Biblical text, offers several powerful examples of how enormous fear or love can alter behavior in unusual ways. That Abraham, on the morning of the Offering of Isaac, got up early and saddled his own donkeys (Genesis 22:3) initially puzzles the sages. If Abraham had two young men with him who would normally have saddled the donkeys, why does the text tell us he is doing it himself? Why does it specify that he got up early in the morning? Didn’t he wake at dawn every day? Their answer: “Ahavah m’kalkelet et ha-shurah…” “Overwhelming love disrupts the usual way of behaving.” (Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, Vayera, 55:8)

Powerful experiences and the emotions that accompany them often change how we act and shape who we are. Abraham’s new love and commitment to the one God was so powerful and deep that his entire behavior, and thus his existence were transformed. That disruptive love which guided Abraham was the birth of a monotheistic culture that diametrically opposed the sacrificing of human life. Divine love and respect for human life changed everything for human existence.

The days of Operation Pillar of Defense demonstrated how a culture based on a profound love of life itself functions in the face of constant existential threats on an unfathomably complex and ever-growing battlefield. We heard the horrifying sounds of Code Red missile sirens, the crashing of falling missiles on civilian targets, the shattering of Iron Dome interceptions and falling shrapnel; we heard the explosion of a terrorist trap on a bus, the cries of the wounded and the mourners, the sound of IDF air strikes, and the rapid gathering of ground troops preparing for a potential ground invasion. Millions of people, in fear and in love, were completely transformed by the experience.

As the days passed, and the sounds of the conflict became, insanely, more familiar, I noticed another phenomenon of war transpiring in my own heart and soul: my overwhelming love, growing exponentially, for my small children, my husband, my friends and extended family called up for duty to the edges of Gaza. They were all still the same people, but I suddenly saw them and experienced them entirely differently. A war sharpens our human sensibilities, clarifies our values, concretizes our fears, deepens our loves, and focuses our hopes and dreams about the future.

After living in Israel with the gas masks of two Gulf Wars, the terrorism of two Palestinian Intifada uprisings, the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead, I can say with some degree of certainty that despite all the other phenomena, these times of war also intensify my love for this country and the values and people who created and sustain it. Operation Pillar of Defense – whether or not it will prove ultimately to have been successful – did succeed in galvanizing the Jewish citizens of this country and engendering a national unity which heightens our shared commitment to defending the country on every level. But perhaps more importantly, this situation, like all those which came before it, also magnifies the importance and relevance of one of the ethical foundations of Judaism: the ultimate sacred value of human life. The Divine dignity and value and love of life, first revealed to Abraham, continues to motivate us to behave in ways that may perhaps defy logic or surprise the outsider, but that must also continue to be the core of Jewish culture.

But how should its moral foundations and love of life guide a sovereign Jewish state in times of war? There are several teachings in our tradition which should continue to guide us in the face of whatever lies ahead. These teachings are echoed in the IDF’s Code of Ethics, and are based on texts I studied with my teachers Donniel Hartman and Yitz Greenberg:

1.       We Israelis and Jews everywhere, like all human beings, have both the moral right and the religious obligation to defend ourselves. As human beings created in the image of God, our lives are sacred (Genesis 1:27). The blood of another human being is not redder or better than ours; our lives are of equal value and therefore it is our moral and religious duty to protect ourselves as well as to protect others. (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 74a)

2.       If someone rises up, actively engaged in activity that will kill us, we have the right and the obligation to kill him first (Sanhedrin 72a, Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 21:4). Jewish tradition teaches us that we are forbidden to murder, but we are permitted to kill in self defense – in order to save our own lives.

3.       One must use only the amount of force necessary to protect oneself and no more. We cannot abuse our power or our weapons in any way (Sanhedrin 49a).

4.       Just as we are obligated to protect ourselves, because we are created in the image of God, so too are we required to protect – as much as possible – all others whom we encounter. Doctors and nurses in Israeli hospitals should continue to treat both Jewish Israelis, as well as Palestinians injured in the conflict. This is a sign of an ethical nation.

Even when Israel fights a war of self-defense (hopefully, with the best military and political wisdom), we must never ignore the unintended but unavoidable negative consequences of actions that lead to the suffering of other human beings. This suffering is not simply “collateral damage” but part of the tragedy of war that we cannot ignore and for which we should take responsibility. We certainly must prioritize our own survival, but we are not blind to the suffering of others, even that of our enemies.

According to the famous Midrash, when God heard the angels singing as the ancient Egyptian soldiers who pursued them were drowning in the Red Sea, God chastised the angels harshly:

"God said to them: My creatures are drowning in the sea and you are singing songs of praise?!" – Megillah 10b

Even though the ancient Israelites had been terrorized by generations of enslavement by the Egyptians, God, the Creator of all humanity, would not tolerate some of his children celebrating the death of any other human being, even when it is the death of the enemy.

Especially when we are at war, we must remind ourselves who and what we are. While we must succeed in destroying the dangerous weapons aimed at our destruction, we may not become callous. Even when fears and fury are rightfully overwhelming and when love of family and country consumes us, the ethical core of the Jewish tradition must not be lost.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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