Culture, Politics

Yehi zichram baruch

War is evil. It is incumbent upon us always to remember the victims of the institution of war and our culpability in the very fact that wars are still fought.
These are the American soldiers who died since the beginning of the month. Their average age is 24 and a half years old. They are not heroes. They are dead. Today we should remember them-they fought and died because we sent them to fight.
Spc. Jonathan M. Curtis, 24, of Belmont, Mass. died Nov. 1 in Kandahar, Afghanista. 
Pfc. Andrew N. Meari, 21, of Plainfield, Ill. died Nov. 1 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. 
Sgt. 1st Class Todd M. Harris, 37, of Tucson, Ariz., died Nov. 3 in Badghis province, Afghanistan.  
Spc. James C. Young, 25, of Rochester, Ill., died Nov. 3 in Kandahar province, Afghanistan.
1st Lt. James R. Zimmerman, 25, of Aroostook, Maine, died Nov. 2 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Spc. Blake D. Whipple, 21, of Williamsville, N.Y., died Nov. 5 in Ghazni province, Afghanistan.
Sgt. Michael F. Paranzino, 22, of Middletown, R.I., died Nov. 5 in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Lance Cpl. Brandon W. Pearson, 21, of Arvada, Colo. died Nov. 4 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Lance Cpl. Matthew J. Broehm, 22, of Flagstaff, Ariz. died Nov. 4 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Pfc. Shane M. Reifert, 23, of Cottrellville, Mich., died Nov. 6 in Kunar province, Afghanistan. 
Staff Sgt. Jordan B. Emrick, 26, of Hoyleton, Ill., died Nov. 5 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Lance Cpl. Randy R. Braggs, 21, of Sierra Vista, Ariz., died Nov. 6 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan.  
Sgt. Aaron B. Cruttenden, 25, of Mesa, Ariz. died Nov. 7 in Kunar province, Afghanistan.
Spc. Dale J. Kridlo, 33, Hughestown, Pa. died Nov. 7 in Kunar province, Afghanistan.
Spc. Andrew L. Hutchins, 20, of New Portland, Maine, died Nov. 8 at Khost province, Afghanistan.
Spc. Anthony Vargas, 27, of Reading, Pa., died Nov. 8 in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan. 
2nd Lt. Robert M. Kelly, 29, of Tallahassee, Fla., died Nov. 9 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. 
Sgt. Jason J. McCluskey, 26, of McAlester, Okla., died Nov. 4 at  Zarghun Shahr, Mohammad Agha district, Afghanistan. 
Lance Cpl. Dakota R. Huse, 19, of Greenwood, La., died Nov. 9 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan.

51 thoughts on “Yehi zichram baruch

  1. What does it mean that you don’t mention the non-American dead, even in passing? Do you just not care? Or, do you think only mentioning the American dead makes for more powerful propaganda?

  2. Well, it means two things. It means that today is Veterans Day and it behooves us to spend 35 seconds remembering that people died because those of us who are US Citizens sent them to fight and die. It also means that it is very hard to get casualty statistics for Afghanis. There is a site iCasualties which has statisitics for Iraqis, but I don’t have any statistics for Afghanis. If you have those statistics please post them.

  3. The fact is, I won’t lose sleep over statistics, and I suspect that neither will you, which is why these “war is evil, just look at the dead bodies” conversations are empty of real substance. Just saying.

  4. The war in Afghanistan is an even bigger mistaken than the mistaken war in Iraq. There is no way to win in Afghanistan; there is no real objective. In Iraq there is a real objective, but there is no way to win there either.
    The “war on terror” should be fought at the gasoline pumps, with a national energy policy, to get the West off of oil and onto clean energy ASAP. We all know it, but not one politician is doing a thing about it. This is just another example of how democracy is a very imperfect system.

  5. One of the greatest tragedies of the Jewish establishment’s mindless support of everything the Israeli government does is the way that it has degraded Judaism by denying its pacifist and anti-war traditions.

  6. Right, Ross. Those Zionuts have ruined everything. Moses, Joshua, Saul, David, Samson, Chanukah, Purim… We have no military heroes, no holidays that celebrate G-d favor in the form of victory on the field of battle, no tradition of a code of conduct for war.

  7. Aryeh — Thank you for honoring their memory.
    Ross — Re Victor’s comment, our history is rife with war and conflict. One doesn’t have to look far to find it, as Victor points out.
    I’d be curious as to what sources you point to that establish pacifist and anti-war traditions in Judaism. I think you’d be hard pressed to support your position with Jewish texts, but I’d like to hear what your drawing on to support your point.

  8. Uriel Simon has written how the Israeli civic religion turned these figure back into military leaders by ignoring the post-biblical rabbinic traditions that had turned them into Torah scholars. He talks about a new biblical midrash that has been created to enhance the Judaic martial tradition, which is accomplished by denying or ignoring rabbinic tradition.
    Many others have written about this too. See for example the last two paragraphs of page 9, continuing to page 10 of Steven Schwazschild’s article here:
    which is about the rabbinic tradition’s reinterpretations of martial biblical texts to have nonviolent meanings.
    Other materials along a similar line can be found at the Shomer Shalom bibliogaphy of Jewish nonviolence:
    My point isn’t to say that there is no martial tradition in Judaism but that there is also a non-violent tradition, just as there is a nonviolent tradition in ever religious tradition, that is denied by the establishment.

  9. Ross, I agree with you. Our faith is rife with exhortations to seek and promote peace, among Jews, and in the world at large. I often misunderstand the impulse among progressive Jews to polarize, almost reflexively, against currents in the traditional Jewish establishment. I hope you understand that doing so makes it difficult for others to abstain from reflexively assuming polarizing stances themselves. Unfortunately, this is all rarely conducive to meeting back in the middle, where we started, in pursuit of our mutual faith, which is called “the middle path”.
    I would offer that the complexity in Jewish tradition, and not merely on the subject of war and peace, owes to the unique role of our people. To be a pacifist is easily virtuous in the confines of remote monasteries. As we learn from the peace pact made by Jacob and Labban, signified by a mound of stones – not a solid wall, but a semi-permeable structure – our purpose is not to seclude ourselves behind walls, to hide from the unholy and unjust in this world, content with our own purity and spiritual service. From behind a semi-permeable membrane, which preserves our distinctiveness, we are to engage with the world, to deal with it as it truly is, not as we wish it to be, to penetrate into the darkest recesses of creation and transform them through the character and teachings of our tradition.
    Should it come to be that war must be fought, Jews do not hide from it, and with no less intensity do we seek peace.

  10. Seconding Ross, and in response to Victor’s assertion that “should it come to be that war must be fought, Jews do not hide from it,” one should remember that classical rabbinic Judaism (i.e. from the Mishnah through the Bavli) holds, essentially unanimously, that Israel should not engage in violence for political purposes. This is, furthermore, linked to their notion of the infinite value of individual human life (hence their opposition to shefichut damim).
    So, *if* one is committed to maintaining control over a Jewish ethno-state, then, yes, it may be that ‘war must be fought.’ However, I’d posit that the (realistic) classical rabbinic view is: if one has to choose between maintaining such state control, and refraining from taking human life, than it is better to abandon the state-control. As such, it is not the case that war ‘must’ be fought. Human life is more valuable than ‘being in charge’ (to use J.H. Yoder’s phrase). Hence, their notion of ‘no attempt to regain sovereignty until the Messiah comes.’ This is not simply a ‘metaphysical-eschatological’ idea, but is profoundly linked to their opposition to sacrificing human life for political ends.
    The ideology of political Zionism (like other nationalist state-ideologies) holds the opposite: it is better to sacrifice human life (both ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’) in order to gain/retain state-control. The early Zionists knew very well that they were rejecting the rabbinic ethos and ethical stance. If one wants to do the same, kol ha-kavod, but then at least have the honesty to admit that one is doing so, rather than trying to claim that a state-violence ideology is part of ‘the Jewish tradition’ in some general sense. One could perhaps find resources for this ideology in the Hebrew Bible considered ‘by itself’ (i.e. reading as a Karaite), but not, I posit, in classical rabbinic Judaism and in its reading of the Hebrew Bible.

  11. ben azzai,
    Please provide some sources for your contention that “Israel should not engage in violence for political purposes”, and “if one has to choose between maintaining such state control, and refraining from taking human life, than it is better to abandon the state-control”. I’m interested to see how you square these assertions with halacha, Jewish history and philosophy.
    I hope you are willing to consider the possibility that you may convince me, through the strength of your sources and logic, not adherence to dogma, and that I may convince you.

  12. Victor,
    Sure, I can try–yes, sources and logic are definitely better than dogma.
    I guess I could put it this way: the classical rabbinic sources contain a lot of discussion of violent political institutions (kings, armies, high courts, etc.). But, they essentially see these as suspended during the period of exile–they were valid during the biblical period, and they may be valid again in the messianic future. But, they do not constitute valid options for Israel in the current period.
    So, while they may discuss halakhic issues relating to these topics, they intend them not to be practically relevant in the present–just like halakhic discussion concerning Temple sacrifices. (See, e.g., BT Sanhedrin 51b)
    On top of this, the basic conception of the classical rabbinic texts seems to be that Israel’s task is to keep those aspects of the mitzvot that do *not* require political violence–and God, not Israel, will be the one who will restore political sovereignty. In this way, they don’t reject political institutions–but they say that Jews should not engage in the violence that is required for human beings to achieve/maintain political sovereignty. In a sense, this allows them to have their political cake, and eat it non-violently too.
    For one helpful study in this general regard, you could look at Jacob Neusner’s “Vanquished Nation, Broken Spirit.” You could also look at most of the early political Zionists, who seemed to have a similar view of rabbinic Judaism–and that’s why they wanted to reject it. I think today there is just less honesty about the ways in which political Zionism constitutes a sharp break from rabbinic Judaism.
    Does this count more as ‘sources and logic’? I’m happy to continue the discussion. On your side, what are sources that you’d point to indicating a classical rabbinic *approval* of political violence in the current period of exile?

  13. As I was reading your comment, I came to the impression, which you then confirmed, that your basic emphasis on a rejection of “political violence” is related to a rejection of Jewish political sovereignty as a whole, prior to our coming redemption. This, of course, is entirely consistent with the view of Rabbinic Judaism, as exhibited by the vehement anti-Zionist proclamations issued from what today we call Orthodox and Chassidic Jewry prior to the second world war. In that sense, you have a very good point.
    Let’s take the issue of Israel as a Jewish political sovereign aside, because I consider that a separate discussion. We would first have to define what a Jewish sovereign means, from the standpoint of Rabbinic Judaism, and whether Israel today fits that description. It’s an interesting question, but I would first like to ask you something that I consider more fundamental.
    There is a basic a principle in Jewish law related to the preservation of life. You seem well read, so I will not bore you with the details, except to say that preservation of life is an overriding principle for which all laws may be broken, save three, and we need not go into them. As you may know, there is a famous ruling, during a time of exile, in Bavil:

    Shulchan Oruch (Shabbos, ch. 329:6), which states:
    “When there is a [Jewish] city close to the border, then even if [enemies mount an attack, although they] come only for the purpose of [taking] straw and stubble, we should [take up arms] and desecrate the Sabbath because of them. For [if we do not prevent their coming,] they may conquer the city, and from there the [rest of the] land will be easy for them to conquer.”

    I hurriedly pulled this translation from somewhere, but search for it and you will find the quote in many reference sites online, and even in the Shulchan Oruch (which I don’t have handy). Similar wording is used in Shulchan Oruch Ha’Rav, Mishnah Berurah, Eruvin 45a, etc., and the Rambam comments on this also, obligating neighboring Jewish villages to come to the defense of the besieged Jews, and even to carry their weapons back home when they’re done, in case the enemy regroups and attacks them on the way, or their villages later.
    It is important to note that this ruling was made not in Israel, but in exile, in Babylon. It is made for exile, as it were, and it doesn’t merely permit, but obligates Jews to desecrate the Shabbos and take up arms, even on the mere chance that a nearby passing army will attack them, if only for their straw.
    To be precisely, various rulings differ on the matter. If it is clear that the invading army is only coming to steal – so there is only monetary value at stake – shabbos can’t be violated. But if it is known that they are coming for Jewish lives, or from experience it can be reasoned, or if the attackers don’t announce their intentions, we have to assume they come to take Jewish lives, and we must fight them.
    So, armed violence, outside of a Jewish sovereign political context, even in exile, even at the limits of what we would consider necessary for self-preservation, is not merely permitted, but obligated by Jewish law.
    What are your thoughts about this?

  14. OK, good. The passage about the border-town is interesting. First, though, let me say that I never claimed that classical rabbinic Judaism rejected violence on an absolute level. Rather, I was limiting my claim to ‘political violence’ (violence for a political end, for preserving a certain political order), in contrast to violence for the sake of saving a life. (For instnace, the case of the rodef would also fall under what I call non-political violence.) So the border-town question would not contradict what I said in my previous comments.
    But, granting the theoretical possibility of non-political violence, it’s not clear to me whether this would have been likely to be put into practice. First of all, the discussion of a ‘border town’ in the gemara seems to presume a context of political sovereignty, where a group controls a large area of territory, and the border-towns represent a strategic risk to the territory as a whole. As such, it doesn’t seem that applicable in a situation of non-sovereignty (despite the comment about Babylon being like a border-town), and seems more to be about a theoretical discussion of halakhic conceptions of Shabbat violation.
    But, even if it’s a situation that *could* be applicable outside the context of political sovereignty, it still seems unlikely to be practical–since, if you don’t have political sovereignty and a standing army, it doesn’t necessarily seem like a smart idea to fight people coming for straw. My sense is that engaging in group violence in such a context would be likely to put *more* lives in danger, rather than saving lives.
    And, this also goes along with my sense that, historically, rabbinic Jews did *not* engage in such violence, even though there were probably many instances in which Jewish towns were besieged. For instance, when you say that Rambam’s comments obligated Jews to engage in this sort of violence, do you also have the sense that there were concrete instances where he encouraged Jews to engage in actual violence? And the same question goes for the other sources. The Talmud itself does not seem to make much mention on the need for training Jews to engage in such types of violence, which leads me to think, again, that their discussion in Eruvin 45a was primarily theoretical.
    So, I’d conclude the following from the classical rabbinic sources: Political violence = not permitted. Non-political, life-saving forms of ‘group violence’ = theoretically permitted, but not realistic to put into practice in a situation of non-sovereignty.
    What do you think?

  15. Ulla b. Kosheb was sought for by the government. He took refuge with R. Joshua b. Levi. They came and told the inhabitants that the town would be laid waste unless he were given up. R. Joshua persuaded Ulla that he should deliver himself up. Now Elijah was in the habit of appearing to R. Joshua, and he came no more. Then R. Joshua fasted many days, and at last Elijah appeared. He said to R. Joshua, “Should I reveal myself to informers?” “I did but act according to a teaching,” said the Rabbi. “Is that a teaching for the pious?” said Elijah.
    Mandates for killing usually presume knowledge of the malevolent motivation of the assailant. I believe that a hallmark of a pious person is not to presume this kind of knowledge so I do not think a pious person would ever feel mandated to kill. But who amongst us is pious? In a crisis situation where we feel our life is threatened we might kill in self defense. It is precisely in these situations that we are least able to draw upon our spiritual resources.
    One way that advocates of nonviolence can interpret teachings that appear to mandate violence in self defense is not to treat them as mandates for individual conduct but instead as mandates on how somebody who commits an act of violence in self-defense must be judged by their community afterwords. There should be no blame placed on people who have killed because they sincerely thought somebody was going to kill them. Each of us should strive to be pious but each us should recognize our limitations and acknowledge that we probably need more training and study and would probably have done the same in their situation.

  16. Ross,
    What you say does sound good as a method for interpreting apparently violent texts in a non-violent manner. However, I think that a distinct, and separate task is to assess how non-violent the texts seems to be ‘in themselves.’ That is, it’s important to assess first how much violence they actually do mandate, and then figure out how to deal with however much violence that turns out to be. In the case of classical rabbinic texts, I’d argue that the approach that they promote is *already* pretty much non-violent (in practice). In that case, jumping too quickly to interpretive moves (which stem from a non-violent commitment on the part of the interpreter, and could be applied to any text) can tend to blur the importantly non-violent ethical outlook of *these particular* texts.

  17. So, I’d conclude the following from the classical rabbinic sources: Political violence = not permitted. Non-political, life-saving forms of ‘group violence’ = theoretically permitted, but not realistic to put into practice in a situation of non-sovereignty.
    What do you think?

    Kudos to ben azzai for consistently writing interesting things but, even more, for actually engaging his interlocutors, instead of the standard “you’re a troll/straw man/mindless follower of the man” line that is too common around here.

  18. It’s almost worth the fact that this thread was derailed ENTIRELY from the post honoring our war dead!
    Note: ALMOST.

  19. With respect to B.BarNavi, I actually think this kind of thread is precisely where we should be talking about Jewish views of war and peace. On top of which, since when have Jews been worried about conversational digressions? (See: Talmud, Babylonian)
    On top of which, Aryeh’s opening paragraph seems to place this post somewhere other than simply in the “let us all honor our war dead” category. He starts, after all, with the assertion that “war is evil” and goes on to say that the dead listed “are not heroes.” If people can’t discuss that vis-a-vis Judaism in this post, I don’t know where they could.
    I, for one, would like to know if Victor has a response to ben azzai’s last point. But, perhaps in lieu of actually discussing war and peace and the sacrifices of 20-year-old men, we could just all “honor our war dead.” Because that move has traditionally been extremely effective in addressing the real and bloody issues of war.

  20. Consider these two resolutions passed by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Source: Digests of resolutions adopted by the Central Conference of American Rabbis between 1889 and 1974)
    While the mission of Israel is Peace, yet when one’s country is at war in behalf of righteousness and humanity, the individual Jew who claims this hope of Judaism as a ground of exemption from military service, does so only as an individual inasmuch as historic Judaism emphasizes patriotism as a duty as well as the ideal of peace. (1917, p. 175)
    It is in accord with the highest interpretation of Judaism for a Jew to conscientiously object to personal participation in warfare. We oppose any legislation designed to penalize adherents of any religion who conscientiously object to personally engaging in military operation. (1931, p. 72)
    We should be grateful that the CCAR even grudgingly acknowledged conscientious objection in 1917. But at a time when the country would have benefited from greater exposure to Judaism’s pacifist and anti-war traditions, the CCAR instead places that tradition lower than patriotism and it doesn’t even question the idea that WWI was fought in behalf of righteousness and humanity.
    Between 1917 and 1931 there was a great deal of organizing in the reform rabbinate, described in Pacifism and the Jews by Evilyn Wilcock, which culminated in the excellent resolution of 1931 in which the CCAR says that refusal to participate in war is “in accord with the highest interpretation of Judaism” in many ways a reversal of its 1917 position.
    But today whenever the U.S. or Israel use military force the statements we get from our institutions read more like the 1917 CCAR resolution than the 1931 resolution. I do not think I have ever seen in a modern resolution or statement any recognition that there are interpretations of Judaism, forget “highest” interpretation, in which the use of military force is to be objected to.
    I believe we honor the victims of war by promoting what the CCAR referred to in 1931 as “the highest interpretation of Judaism” and by trying to hold our institutions that speak in the name of Judaism accountable to that interpretation.

  21. I’m thrilled to see such a lively, well-thought out discussion that’s sprung from Aryeh’s post.
    I’d like to go back to the original post for a moment, though, and bring up a part that struck me as less well-thought out, that these soldiers were not heroes. That they were merely dead. Unless the author took the time to research the story behind each and every one of these soldiers’ military careers, the assertion that none were heroes is quite possibly false, and an insult to their memories.
    Have any of the authors or commenters here been to the funeral of a soldier who died in Afghanistan or Iraq? I have. I can say with utmost certainty that Ben Sklaver, whose funeral I attended, was indeed a hero. Please take a few moments to read about him here, perhaps as an act of teshuva:,8599,1930683,00.html
    No matter how you feel about the current wars- or any wars- please keep in mind that these deceased soldiers are not merely names in a list or on a monument. Some are heroes, some are not, but all went over there knowing full well that it was possible they’d lose their lives, and that’s certainly not a coward’s mission.

  22. More or less every day (and sometimes twice a day) I get an email from the Department of Defense with the names, ages, units and circumstances of the casualties of the two wars the United States is fighting. I copy the names into a file on my computer. I do this so that I should take some account of the fact that people are killing and being killed because of a war for which I am culpable if not responsible. I published the above list as a reminder that the wars we are fighting have human consequences. Sometimes I do more research on the names and sometimes I just paste them into the growing file. (I don’t have a similar file on Iraqi and Afghan casualties because their names are not available.)
    I stand behind my statement that they are not heroes. The discourse of heroism — wherein if a person was shot in combat his death is more meaningful than the guy who died because his vehicle slipped off a road and turned over on him — is part of the problem and not part of the solution. The problem is war. When people are put in a situation in which they must kill or be killed they are way past the point in which rational decisions are to be made. Making them out to be heroes, entrenches the problem. There is, unfortunately, an almost endless supply of people who are willing to sacrifice their lives for this or that reason. If that supply ran dry we would not have any more armies, terrorists, etc. (I’m not holding my breath.)
    I am not saying that they were not good people. I am saying that all deaths are in one way or another tragic. The discourse of heroism just encourages us to valorize those who engage in institutionalized killing at our behest. We should mourn them, not ever forget that they are there because of us (those of us who are American citizens), grieve that war still exists and work to stop it–war in general and the specific wars we are engaged in, in particular.

  23. Hey ben azzai,
    I apologize for the absence; been trying to stay away from blogging this week. Seeing how no one really took our discussion much, and to please Miri, I’ll jump back in if you don’t mind.
    After reading what you wrote, I think we should both be careful, otherwise in one or two more comments no one will believe that you and I ever disagreed to begin with.
    I think making the distinction between political and non-political violence is important. However, I don’t think you took the distinction quite far enough. To really get into the mindset of the halacha that we referenced earlier, we have to consider the regional and temporal context.
    Today, we have a very specific idea of what constitutes a polity, a political entity which can engage in the political violence of which you wrote. The situation of the Jews of Babylon was altogether different. Think of it from a sectarian or Semitic tribal context. In fact, think of Lebanon – the Druze, the Palestinians, the Shiites, the Sunnis, the Christians, the Maronites… all these confessional communities, living under one sovereign, but as distinct units.
    This is how the Jews lived in Arab lands, and pre-Arab lands, as Babylon was back then, as a distinct ethno-sectarian-religious unit. Just as in Lebanon, where the Druze control the mountains, the Shiites control the south, the Christians control the main cities and the Sunnis control the north, so in Babylon, Jewish villages were clustered together (usually around cities of learning). It’s just how people group themselves in this part of the world.
    In Lebanon, if the Shiites attack a Druze village in the mountains (as happened a couple of years back) all the Druze in neighboring villages will come to fight. This is happening within the context of a sovereign state, but the state has no interest in stopping or directing the violence – it’s a communal sectarian issue, outside the scope of political violence that we’re accustomed to, although it can and often does have a political component.
    So it was with Jewish villages in Babylon. The halacha describes not a theoretical concept, but provides instructions to answer a real situation. Probably something happened, and a ruling was made to make sure it wouldn’t happen again, that the Jewish defenders would be mobilized in time to defend their community (not just their particular village, but the cluster of villages they inhabited), because even if one village was conquered with ease, the rest of the villages were put at great risk.
    The Shabbos issue is separate from the central point regarding the application of communal violence in self-defense. It is inserted to provide greater urgency, and maybe even a kol vachoimer (I’m just theorizing), that if even on Shabbos self-defense is not merely permitted, but obligated, then certainly during the week the Jewish community must be ready to aggressively repulse approaching threats.
    You may say, where is my proof that Jewish communities engaged in such violence. After all, there is no record of Jewish villages engaging in warfare in Europe, say against the Kossaks or Poles. You’re right, it’s unheard of in Europe. Consider however the Jews of Medina, that fought Mohammed’s Islamic army, or the Jews of Yemen, who are known to have once been fierce warriors. It is a common thing in the Middle East that, especially prior to the modern age, but even today, communities – cities, towns, villages, etc. – are armed, independent of any official national or local authority.
    It’s true that the Jews of Europe were disarmed and disempowered, and had no chance to fight back against overwhelming odds. You’re exactly right that were a Jewish village in Russia to revolt against Kossak raids, the Tzar might send an army to exterminate everyone. There is a tradition of Jewish communal violence in the context of exile in the Arab lands, however, where central authority either was not strong enough, was disinterested and even deterred from disarming sectarian communities.
    So, the halacha is not at all theoretical, I’ll argue, but immensely practical, meant to deal, in a legal way, with the challenges the Jews were facing. And, I’ll argue later, challenges that Jews continue to face.
    I haven’t addressed all the points you made, but I figure this is long enough to be making statements without some input on your end. Let me know what you think.

  24. Hi Victor,
    Yes, I think you’re right that we could very well end up largely agreeing. So, we’ll have to be careful, but, hey, those are the risks!
    I could grant that it’s entirely possible that there could have been Jewish violence in pre-modern Arab countries–but, I’d like to see your evidence for that, as its not something with which I’m familiar. Furthermore, though, Jewish violence in those areas doesn’t necessarily mean rabbinic Jewish violence–especially since, for example, it’s not clear how rabbinized the Jews of Medina were in Mohammad’s time. (For instance, Seth Schwartz argues in his Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 BCE to 640 CE, that the rabbis were a relatively marginal group in late antiquity, and that rabbinic control over Jewry as a whole came about only in the medieval period.)
    But, my main point still concerns classical rabbinic literature itself. You seemed to agree that in the European context, there does not seem to be evidence of either political group violence or non-political group violence on the part of Jews. And, I posit that this non-violent approach accords with the normative attitudes put forth in the classical rabbinic texts. The one passage about a ‘border town,’ which could potentially justify a certain type of non-political group violence, seems largely to be the exception–in general, we don’t really see mention of Jews serving as soldiers, or of Jews training themselves in skills of martial defense, etc. Rather, what the overall attitude seems to be is: Israel is to carry out the non-violent commands of Torah, and even more strongly is not to engage in political/’redemptive’ violence. Instead, they are to wait faithfully for God to carry out the redemption Himself.
    Are we in agreement here? This still wouldn’t answer the question of contemporary issues of sovereignty, of course. But, hashing out issues of classical rabbinic attitudes seems to be an important first step.

  25. Briefly (sorry I am on cellphone), I will agree with you wholeheartedly that at present, Jews are prohibited from employing violence for redemptive messianic ends. This is why the creation of Israel was contested by rabbinic authorities in Europe.
    This, however, is really the crux of the matter. No Jewish religious movement that I know of – even Rav Kook’s religious zionism – says that the political State of Israel is equal to the messianic Kingdom of Israel that we wait for. At most they say that it could be a path to the return of the messiah.
    In other words, the exile is not over. Golus continues, the messiah is not here, and the State is Israel is not the legal inheritor to the Davidic dynasty. It happens to be a state, yes, but governed not by halacha, although elements of halacha are incorporated in its laws.
    However, if golus remains in effect, then the laws which govern Jewish behavior in golus also remain in effect. So, you have a state with a large number of Jews, who are physically threatened with violence. Moreover, these threats are not hypothetical, but have become a tragic reality numerous times, claiming many Jewish victims. The situation here is equivalent to that of the Jews of Babylon of which the halacha speaks.
    Under these conditions, Israel is not a Jewish State, it is a State with a lot of Jews, and the Jews of this State are obligated to defend themselves per the halacha earlier specified. The primary purpose of their self-defense and communal violence is not to enhance or defend the political power of the State, but to safeguard Jewish lives.
    As you said, we don’t see Jews developing warfare skills in the villages of Poland. Although there is a martial art that the Jews of Yemen are said to have developed. However, training soldiers is really a very recent concept. Who trains the Druze of Lebanon? No one. When the time comes they pick up a gun, or a knife, or a stick, or whatever, and they go to fight other villagers (Sunnis or Maronites or Shiites, etc.) who also picked up a gun or a knife or a stick. The professional army is an oddity in history. Even under Jewish kings, soldiers were taken from the villages and given minimal training.
    All this, of course, is for a time of exile. Were someone to claim that Israel IS the legitimate halachic heir to the Davidic dynasty… well, in that case Rambam outlines the laws of Jewish warfare in Hilchos Melachim – the laws of Kings – in which case communal violence can be exercised either to enhance the political power of the Kingdom (optional war), or for self-defense (obligatory war). But that’s a separate discussion.
    Not bad for a blackberry! Let’s hope it doesn’t erase everything now when I click submit…

  26. You make a compelling point about this halacha not being used in Europe, at least to the extent of my knowledge. I’ll have to think and do some research on this, as I’m not satisfied by my own explanation.
    Surely there were European Jewish communities under siege many times. How could the rabbis of the time have permitted such docility in the face of certain death? You could say that they didn’t have the tools, but they didn’t make tools either. They could have prepared for Cossak raids, made weapons, instead of just being slaughtered. Seemingly halacha obligated them to do so no less than in Israel today. So why was this halacha not used then?
    I’ll find out.

  27. The professional army is an oddity in history
    I couldn’t let this one fly. Sorry, Victor, but the professional army has been a mainstay of imperialism for thousands of years. Non-professional armies (almost) always serve in a defensive capacity. Non-professional soldiers don’t go out looking for a fight.

  28. Fair enough. Expeditionary campaigns rely on professional officers, but not trained soldiers (look at Russia, Ottomans, Arabs for examples). However, plenty of tribal and sectarian wars are fought without professional cadres, and I think that’s more of what we’re discussing, as opposed to wars of imperialism. In a way, you’re supporting my argument. Yes, Jews in exile have not traditionally had trained warriors looking for a fight, ala greeks or Romans. That does not relieve them of the obligation for communal defense, per the halacha. I think we’re losing focus here.
    We’re agreed that self-defense is a permissible case for exercising communal violence (?), even though implementing self-defense in exile has not always been possible or ideal. Today, however, sufficient Jews have gathered sufficient material in one place to make self defense viable. The halacha stands. The question becomes, is the situation in Israel a case of communal self defense, or an exertion of political violence for purposes other than self-defense. Objections?

  29. I think ML’s point is important–I’d say that, historically, violence tends to be greatly exacerbated in the (almost always political) context of professional armies. Groups not linked to professional armies are not likely to initiate or even engage in as much violence–especially if they face the prospect of contended with actual professional armies.
    And, this seems directly connected to the situation today. It cannot simply be described as “sufficient Jews have gathered sufficient material in one place to make self defense viable.” It seems clear that the violence today is not simply for the sake of ‘defending lives,’ but is intimately tied up with preserving a specific political regime of ‘Jewish sovereignty.’
    So, I would say that it does indeed involve “an exertion of political violence for purposes other than self-defense” (while situations of actual self-defense could also get thrown in the mix, they are inseparable from the overarching political violence).
    And, in a previous comment, you made a statement about “[not] even Rav Kook’s religious zionism.” But, I’d say that Rav Kook represents an important example to the question at hand. According to Kook, statecraft in the pre-messianic era necessarily requires violence and bloodshed. Because of its valuing of human life, Israel is forbidden to engage in this sort of violence. But, Rav Kook was convinced that a messianic moral transformation of humanity was at hand (he saw WWI as the birthpangs of this change), so that would make it possible to engage in statecraft without violence.
    As such, his support of Zionism was dependent on his strong conviction that this transformation would occur prior to any establishment of a state. If this world is still in its unredeemed state, he argued, then Israel is forbidden to engage in statecraft and the bloodshed it necessarily entails.
    In this attitude, I think he lines up closely with the classical rabbinic position toward bloodshed and violence vis-a-vis desires for political control.
    What do you think?

  30. Here are Rav Kook’s actual words:
    “We abandoned world politics under duress but also out of an inner desire, until that joyous time should come when it will be possible to administer a state without evil and barbarism: that is the time for which we yearn…But the delay is a necessary delay, our soul abhors the appalling sins of statehood in evil times…It is not fitting for Jacob to engage in statehood when it involves bloodshed, when it demands a talent for evil…Lo, the time has come, and very soon the world will become fragrant and we shall be able to prepare ourselves, for it is now possible for us to administer our state on foundations of good,
    wisdom, integrity, and clear divine illumination.”
    From his Orot, cited by Elie Holzer, “Attitudes Towards the Use of Military Force in Ideological Currents of Religious Zionism,” in War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition, ed. Lawrence Schiffman and Joel B. Wolowelsky (New York, Yeshiva University Press, 2007), p. 350.
    I’m not sure what Rav Kook’s basis was for his grounding presupposition that such a ‘time has come,’ but the world sure doesn’t look that way to me…

  31. I’m not a follower of Rav Kook. I think Jonathan1 is, although I could be wrong. Maybe he could lay down that school’s philosophy with relation to Zionism and the State of Israel.
    However, I don’t think what you said is at all inconsistent with what I’m saying. Israel – the Jewish people – may very well be prohibited from engaging in political violence, but Israel – the Jewish people – is not doing so; the State of Israel is. The State of Israel, not a Jewish country, but a country with many Jews, is engaging in the warfare.
    I think you can make a case that the State of Israel may be engaging in violence other than that strictly permitted for self-defense. However, there is no difference between the State of Israel, in this respect, or the US or France. This is why the very orthodox and hassidic movements which spurned Zionist efforts to set up a state simultaneously are highly vigorous in promoting a robust Israeli military posture. The State is not halachikly Jewish.
    The State of Israel’s geography carries too much baggage and muddies the waters. Let’s mix this up and consider a different scenario.
    Poland. Suppose Jews constituted 51% of Poland (it wasn’t so hypothetical two generations ago). Would we call Poland a Jewish state? Would Jews call Poland a Jewish state? It would be a state with a lot of Jews, but it would still be called Poland, home of the Polish people, at least in my mind. Maybe Jews would even push through some legislation with relevance to Jewish law. Would Poland now be a Jewish state? It would still be Poland, home of the Polish people, with a Jewish majority that pushed through some legislation relevant to Jews.
    Now suppose that Poland was repeatedly attacked, invaded, etc., by a neighboring state. You would claim that Jews who are active in Poland’s defense are engaging in political violence, as they’re furthering Poland’s sovereign interests. I would say that, no, Jews who are acting in Poland’s defense are doing so out of self-preservation, per the halacha cited earlier.
    Would you allow Jews to act in Poland’s defense, based on the criteria we outlined of self-defense?
    Let’s add to the mix another hypothetical, which is that Poland’s enemies, while really disliking the fact that Poland is blocking their view of the Carpathian Mountains, also happen to really dislike Jews. So, their beef with Poland is primarily territorial, but there is a specific anti-Jewish component as well, meaning the danger to the Jewish community itself is clear.

  32. Victor,
    I think your thought-experiment about Poland is quite helpful for exploring the issue further. But, I should also say that your description of the State of Israel seems problematic–yes, it is not technically a ‘halakhically Jewish state,’ but to say that it is ‘not a Jewish country, but a country with many Jews’ seems a bit strange–it specifically wants to define itself as a ‘Jewish and democratic’ country/state, and the ‘Jewish’ part seems to play into many aspects of politics. And, I don’t see that much effort on the part of Orthodox and Hasidic groups to push the state to redefine itself as a ‘state of all its citizens’. For this reason, it seems different from the US and France, and in a way that would seem to make a difference for these theo-political/halakhic questions we’re discussing. Or do you not agree?
    But, yes, let’s look at the hypothetical example of Poland. You’re right that a Jewish majority wouldn’t necessarily make it a Jewish state. So, on that basis, we should distinguish between two types of ‘political violence’: ‘Jews engaging in violence for the sake of a state that happens to be contain many Jews’ and ‘Jews engaging in violence for the sake of a state that is structurally defined in terms of Jewish sovereignty.’ I think we agreed that the second seems to be in tension, at the very least, with the theopolitical conception of classical rabbinic Judaism. In the first case, it seems less clear.
    I’d posit (though please challenge me on this, as I’m not sure of it) that the classical sources not only think that Israel should not engage in political violence ‘for Israel’s own sake’, but also that they think of Israel as remaining separate in important ways from the political powers that rule in this pre-messianic era. They seem to think that a community directly ruled by God is the proper mode of political life, and that the political powers of states and empires represent idolatrous forms of usurping God’s proper role as the sole king. So, in this regard, it would seem that they would reject not only the violence that would go along with Jewish attempts at political sovereignty, but also the violence and bloodshed that necessarily accompanies large-scale forms of state-sovereignty generally. In this case, Jewish involvement in ‘Polish political violence’ would also be problematic. But, the question of where precisely one should draw the line in terms of ‘involvement’ is not entirely clear. What say you?

  33. I’m not a follower of Rav Kook. I think Jonathan1 is, although I could be wrong. Maybe he could lay down that school’s philosophy with relation to Zionism and the State of Israel.
    I respect Rav Kook, but I’m not an expert on him or a “follower.”

  34. To me, the terms of involvement are more clear, as I see Jewish lives and state power intertwined in ways that are impractical and really quite dangerous to disconnect, because they’re not disconnected in reality.
    So, just as I live in America, and share a common security with 300 million Americans – and so a risk of life to any of them is a direct risk of life to me, as I could be “any of them” at any given moment – so too it is with the Jews of Israel, and Jews everywhere, actually. I want state power (both in the US and Israel) to reflect the principles halacha holds valid – among them the necessity of establishing just courts, for example, and the basic necessity and obligation to engage in self-defense, and even pre-emptive self-defense.
    In that sense, all of the State of Israel’s wars, for example, conform to the principle of self-defense, to me. Nor do I think that every action taken need be entirely consistent with the whole for the overriding principle of self-defense to remain valid. I think Torah law recognizes that war is messy (as it does in the case of yifat toar, the beautiful captive).
    I think the type of proscribed political violence you’re describing, contrasted with the self-defense principle, is related to a state’s glory and honor-seeking, an attempt to increase in size for the sake of doing so, or to capture resources at the expense of neighbors – what we might term “empire building”. I would agree, of course, that this is proscribed. However we should recognize that for a true Jewish sovereign, non-obligatory war IS permissible (such as to extend the boundaries of the state, per Hilchos Melachim).
    From a Jewish theocentric viewpoint – I think this is also in Hilchos Melachim – the nations are not allowed to engage in war, except for self-defense, and even then (my memory is fuzzy on this point) they should really get permission from the Jews (presumably from the Sanhedrin?).
    I’m very interested in your final paragraph, as I’ve been meaning to pick your brain on a similar issue.
    I am not familiar with sources for the concepts you mentioned, although it’s very possible that they have a source. I think construing kingship as idol-worship is not a Jewish concept, and seems to me to have a familiar but alien flavor (where have I heard this concept before?). What is the inherent problem with non-Jews structuring their societies as kingdoms, so long as those kings fear and serve G-d per the Noahide laws?
    There are many ways to interpret the statement, “a community directly ruled by G-d is the proper mode of political life”. In other words, we’re not led around, in daily physical terms, by divine prophesy. Torah structures political authority in the courts, the priesthood, the kingship.
    These are very real modes of political expression, and they have what we might term today near totalitarian powers, even with respect to “direct rule by G-d”. For example, a Jewish king doesn’t have to respect property law, and in fact can violate certain Torah laws when necessary – that’s actually part of Torah law, that a Jewish king can violate Torah law. A Sanhedrin doesn’t simply enforce the will of G-d, its decisions make the will of G-d, bring the will of G-d into being, so to speak.
    There is a real, practical, physical dimension to life, even to our prospective messianic age (which, let’s remember, will only last 40 years after the in-gathering of exiles). Our tradition does not force us to choose between faith in G-d (or as some may say, lofty principles) and hard-nosed pragmatism, but to choose both. There are only three “nevers”: idol-worship, forbidden sexual relations and murder. Everything else has a “maybe” and a “sometimes”, including communal violence for the purposes of self-defense, or by extension, state-directed violence for the same end.
    Let’s bring this home.
    Although we’re not really in an authority to make such decisions, but suppose we were, I can agree with you that certain individual situations may benefit from the application of non-violence. At the same time, I’m still struggling to understand how someone can categorically reject the option of communal violence under any hypothetical situation, or to square such pacifism with Jewish law, which in specific instances obligates(!) Jews to practice violence.
    And if you do accept communal violence under some hypothetical situation, I think it’s splicing hairs to make the distinction between communal violence in self defense and the violence of a state entrusted with the defense of that community – so long as the purpose is self-defense, of course.
    Jewish law permits killing and prohibits murder, whether for an individual, a community or a state. We can splice those hairs, and we have, and we should, but my feeling is that when our families are on the line, and G-d forbid that they should be, our obligations are clear.
    Please try to think of a source for the philosophy you described in your last paragraph. It’s so familiar to me, but I can’t put my finger on it.

  35. More generally, more forcefully, outside the discussion I’m having with ben azzai, and directed at no one:
    I would argue that Ghandian non-violence philosophy, which today very much influences, if not dominates the non-violence movements, is inconsistent with Jewish law. It is an extreme utopian philosophy, like European Marxism, a fine concept, but incompatible with the will of G-d as expressed through the Torah and Jewish law, and ultimately unresponsive, and irresponsible to the human condition.
    When Ghandi urged the Jews to happily die with dignity, certain that their death will arouse empathy from their oppressors, it was a natural extension of the principles he believed in. This is patently abhorrent to and in the most profound way incompatible with Jewish law. As trial-by-experimentation would have it, Ghandi’s theories of non-violence also failed to deliver in practice, and it’s ok to say that. Ghandi was wrong – non-violence in the face of aggression doesn’t eventually bring empathy and peace, only death. Ghandi is not a Jewish hero, and his teachings have nothing to teach the Jewish people.

  36. I think construing kingship as idol-worship is not a Jewish concept
    Please read the first book of Samuel and reconsider.
    Also, you say that Ghandi failed. Really? Sources?

  37. Jonathan1, you’ll have to be more explicit.
    1) I’ll read the first book of Samuel as you suggest. Anything specific you want me to be looking out for?
    2) Did I say that Ghandi failed? Read what I wrote again, please. Then read this. Then scroll up, scroll down, enjoy.

  38. As ML says, the book of Samuel (in particular 1 Sam. 8) is one source for the idea of human kingship as a form of idolatry. Also, Gideon’s statement in Judges 8:22-23 draws a sharp separation between God being king and humans being king. In other words, ‘God as king’ is not simply a ‘theological’ idea, but has radical political implications. There is an strong anti-kingship, anti-centralization, anti-standing-army theme that runs throughout the Hebrew Bible. This theme is not about excluding violence per se, but it is about a rejection of certain types of human political structures. (For more on this theme in the Hebrew Bible, see Martin Buber’s study Kingship of God).
    To be sure, there is also another stream within the Bible that affirms human kingship and statecraft. However, the thing that is really interesting about classical rabbinic Judaism is its ability to hold onto both streams in an ingenious manner: they fully affirm kings, centralized high courts, armies, etc.–but only for the messianic future. For the period of exile, they functionally align themselves with the anti-kingship theology. Essentially, the only human king that they want is the divinely sanctioned, perfected messianic king.
    The rejection of non-messianic human sovereigns comes out strongly in the Aleinu, where worship-orientation of ‘the nations’ (whose gods were linked with their kings) is contrasted with that of Israel, who only serves ‘the king of kings of kings’–i.e. God, who is above all human kings and emperors (on ‘king of kings’ as a human emperor, see Ezek. 26:7 and Dan. 2:37).
    So, while other nations bow down to their kings or emperors (or, in the present-day equivalent, to their collective self-will), Israel bows down only to God, and *not* to its collective ego/self-will. Again, the specific way that is to be worked out is not fully determined, but it does not correspond to ‘normal’ support and identification with sovereign state powers. There are many ways in which we in contemporary Western culture have unconsciously absorbed the supposed ‘justness’ of state-structures–whereas the classical rabbis had a sharp sense of the difference and conflict between God’s rule and the rule of human states.
    So, overall, my claim about classical rabbinic texts was not simply about classical rabbinic non-violence ‘on its own,’ but rather about a strong abhorrence of bloodshed, leading to a heavy emphasis non-violence (though, to be sure, not conceived of in absolutist terms) combined with a radical politics that views God as king in a very real and practical way. As such, state violence remains very different–in a non-hairsplitting way–from the ‘local self-defense’ that could the classical texts could conceivably be seen as supporting.

  39. Whoops, for some reason the system transformed the ‘8’(in ‘1 Sam 8’) followed by right-parenthesis in a shades-sporting smiley. Is this a divine rebuke of my biblical interpretation?

  40. ben azzai,
    When you refer to “rabbis”, do you have a specific time period in mind (it seems that you do)?
    I’ll read Samuel before responding further, as it seems central to your points. Where are you extracting the commentary on the Aleinu and the related thoughts on the relationship between Jews and political order? You don’t have to explain. Just do a source dump for me and I’ll wade through it. Thanks.

  41. Victor, to be fair you wrote: As trial-by-experimentation would have it, Ghandi’s theories of non-violence also failed to deliver in practice, and it’s ok to say that. Ghandi was wrong.
    Thank you for that link to Ghandi’s writings. I had never been introduced to those before.

  42. When you refer to “rabbis”, do you have a specific time period in mind (it seems that you do)?
    Yes, you’re right–throughout, I’ve been referring to ‘the texts of classical rabbinic literature’, and by ‘classical,’ I’ve meant to restrict my claims to the texts of the time period from the enclosed by the Mishnah through the Babylonian Talmud.
    It may well be that many of the same modes of thought can be found in later rabbinic texts, but there may also be differences. To take just one example, Rambam (influenced by certain anti-corporeal philosophical perspectives) may not have the same sense of the infinite value of individual embodied human life, and may be more comfortable with the idea of ‘justified killing.’
    However, I might still say that in practical terms, it seems that many of the same theopolitical stances would carry over to later periods. But, I’m not basing my claims on that.

  43. In terms of the political connotations of the Aleinu, I don’t remember one specific sources, but descriptions of ‘king of kings of kings’ as contrast to human emperors can be seen here:
    or here:
    One talmudic example where the phrase is use as a direct contrast to human kings is in BT Berachot 28a.

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