A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Monday, January 5, 2009

Thoughts on Judaism and War

I have posted a paper that I wrote on the Jewish tradition and warfare here. It is an exploration of whether there is a basis for a "just war theory" in Judaism and of what Judaism has to say about the killing of civilians in war. Obviously, I'm posting it now because of what is happening in Gaza - as my first post on this showed I think it is a horrible and very complicated situation. For those just interested in the civilian issue, sections V and VI are most relevant.

Michael Walzer, a Princeton philosopher who has written a lot about the ethics of warfare, has over the last couple of years begun to explore Jewish values and war. Some of his work on the topic is here.


  1. Judaism and War
    I scanned Rabbi Josh’s paper on Jewish Tradition and Warfare. I became bogged down in details of rationalizing and also objecting to wars. The various types of wars were described according to the not so well explained and mandated reasons for war of Jewish tradition as compared to the well explained, but wrong reasons, to mandate war as pronounced by the Catholic world.
    I find Jewish compassion for life to go from one extreme to the other. Many Jew’s, out of compassion for the enemy, object to the Lord God Almighty commanding Saul, for example, to put everyone to death and then rejecting Saul because he did not do as the Lord God Almighty had told him. Yet the Jew’s go to the other extreme on occasion by loosing their temper by engaging in pre-emptive and disproportional war because of a constant thorn in their side.
    Sometimes knowing, who the innocent party that needs protecting, is not always obvious. To get bogged down in to deeply analyzing the reasons to justify war can lead to wrong decisions. If we have made up our minds that it acceptable to take another’s life we have already taken one step closer to putting ourselves into the position of being combatants.
    Upon judgment day if we have established ourselves as combatants it might be worth while to change and accept the all powerful hand of the Lord God Almighty for our deliverance. As the Lord said, a thousand may fall at your right side, but no harm will come to you unless He has chosen you for martyrdom. This is hard to believe when being besieged with evil violent talk, or when bullets and bombs are flying all around you.

  2. Innocents of War-Who are they?

    Most children would be considered innocents of war. But even among them are those children who have rebelled against the consol of the voice of the Lord in Heaven or in the womb, and rebelled against His unction He gives us to direct our lives, and for the life He has given us.

    Most civilians are considered innocents or war. But are they? Many civilians grab on to the concept of violence done in their countries name to preserve the status-quo in their country and to prevent the overthrow of their government which would lead to chaos and pain for everyone.

    As long as suffering is inflicted on people in far off lands, whether they are considered innocents or not, it does not resonate with the people at home because it does not effect them, except for their children which some of them have put on the alter of sacrifice for patriotism or the perceived overall good.

    The Japanese overlooked the atrocities and torture of American POW’s and their allies by their military during WWII because of their love for their “Devine Emperor” and the concept that anyone who would surrender during a battle, even when all hope is lost, would be considered a coward.

    The horrific suffering of the Japanese people from the A bombs was dismissed at home because of the ignorance of the Japanese people to submitting to the will of the “Devine Emperor” and his minister of defense, Tojo. In fact, it was discussed, in America, about atomic weapons being used to bring the world into submission to democracy and “freedom”.

    If Russia had not acquired the A bomb the Lord only know what chaos and violence would have occurred without a nuclear stand off between America and Russia or later the Soviet Union. This may be redemption for the Rosenberg’s.

    All military personnel being considered as non innocents and subject to the will of their enemies is not always applicable either. Many military personnel put their lives up for ideals they consider more important than their own lives or ideals. The concept of respect, dignity, compassion, justice and fighting against what is perceived to be evil is more important to many military personnel than their own lives. Once a military person has turned their individual freedom over to people who control them under the guise of collective freedom for their country being more important, it may become obvious to him that this can lead to totalitarianism and he may regret his decision. Therefore life becomes just living in the moment with respect and justice being given to everyone in the most seemingly small and insignificant ways.

  3. Rabbi Josh says his paper is an overview in the areas of "Torah law, post-biblical Halakhah, Torah narrative, midrashic and other exegetical material, and the historical experience of the Jewish people." The first four areas were very difficult for me to follow, and if my belief system allowed it, I could thank God for not having made me a rabbi or a lawyer.

    But it is with the fifth area that I take issue. From the 2nd Jewish Revolt (= Bar Kochba war) against Rome in 135 BCE to the War of Independence 1948 --or some decades earlier if one includes the HaShomer, Haganah/Palmach, and the irregular military forces of the Irgun and Stern Gang (also known as terrorists)--until the IDF of the restored State of Israel there was no Jewish State so no Jewish wars. So it may have been a fine intellectual activity to debate the ethics of warfare based on legendary Biblical military engagements as fought by Moses and Joshua, but compare this to the nature of modern military weapons (nuclear, poison gas, biological, "shock and awe" saturation bombing by aircraft, rockets and artillery)and their strategical and tactical uses and it becomes a noble effort but existentially futile.

    So I am puzzled why the only really pertinent IMHO material, the IDF doctrine of _Tohar HaNeshek__ (Purity of Arms) is totally overlooked. Whether it is fully and properly based on "Jewish values" or is a meretorious contribution to the Rules of War can be questioned--a number of right-wing rabbis in Israel are severely critical. But at least it is a serious attempt to deal with real issues under contemporary conditions.

    Now that "contemporary conditions" have become the actions now going in the Gaza Strip, it can seem disingenuous to be discussing Rules of Warfare -- has it always been an oxymoron?