War is topic of Jewish Learning Project
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War is topic of Jewish Learning Project

WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP – "Struggling Back From War’s Once-Deadly Wounds." "Pakistan’s Push in Border Areas Is Said To Falter." "1′ Killed in Iraq; Reporter’s Fate Is Unknown."


Dr. Michael Walzer

As these headlines from Sunday’s New York Times recorded the reality of international conflict, local residents gathered at the Bergen County YJCC to explore Jewish perspectives on the rules of war. Guest scholars Drs. Michael Walzer and Marc Gopin led the opening symposium of the 1’th annual Jewish Learning Project. Throughout the next three weeks, follow-up study sessions will be led by area spiritual leaders at the YJCC and three Bergen County synagogues. Each year, this interdenominational program is cosponsored by the YJCC and ‘1 local congregations.

Neither scholar at last weekend’s event explicitly commented on the U.S. involvement in Iraq or on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The two preferred to deconstruct this year’s topic from a more theoretical vantage point that drew on biblical, rabbinic, and medieval Jewish commentary. What followed was a detailed presentation that lay bare the complexities and contradictions within Jewish law and lore regarding a rationale for war and sanctioned behavior among enemy combatants.

From Walzer, a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, member of the Board of Governors of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and co-editor of Dissent, participants learned that there are enough veiled references and innuendo in sacred text to extrapolate some rudimentary, practical guidelines. The statement "a city may only be surrounded on three sides," for instance, appears to be a ban on siege warfare that would prevent civilians from escape, said Walzer, referring to Maimonides’ summary based on Sifre to Numbers; a draft exemption for soldiers who are thought to be "weak" or "soft-hearted," found in chapter ‘0 of Deuteronomy, has been interpreted, he said, as a basis for a statute of conscientious objection.

"Don’t violate treaties, don’t kill civilians, don’t engage in ethnic cleansing, and don’t engage in expansionism," Walzer asserted, form a "rough, interesting set of rules" that emerge from prophetic literature that "presupposes a form of international law" operating in a society where there existed "ongoing interaction among nations [engaged in a cycle of] fighting and making peace [with one another]."

Gopin, the James H. Laue professor and director of religion, diplomacy, and conflict resolution at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and a senior researcher at the Fletcher School for Law and Diplomacy’s Institute for Human Security at Tufts University, has come to understand the Jewish perspective on war as an outgrowth of family dynamics. And in this, he said, the tradition is rich, with thousands of sources that illuminate human relationships, choices between life and death and how to act as a responsible citizen. Halachic wisdom literature in particular, he said, is infused with the challenges that arise from competing ethical values and provide a moral compass for "how to deal with violence and conflict in the struggle to do more right than wrong."

Gopin disagreed with Rabbi J. David Bleich’s contention, quoted by Walzer, that the tradition does not find the likelihood of civilian casualties morally problematic. "You are commanded to defend yourself and the lives of others. [Therefore], if you shoot someone in the heart instead of in the legs, is that murder? Or, if you [accidentally] kill ‘her’ [an innocent bystander] instead of an enemy soldier, is that murder? These are questions to grapple with that are implicit to the issue of collateral damage," said Gopin, citing Pirke Avot, Mishleh, Kohelet and the last chapter in the talmudic tractate Derech Eretz among the sources that offer relevant lessons. Harking back to the Bible, Gopin referred to Leviticus 19 as a seminal text. "’Love your neighbor as yourself,’ [but] who is your ‘neighbor’? When Jews were doing well, ‘neighbor’ meant ‘everyone.’ In Eastern Europe, ‘neighbor’ meant only other Jews." Another instructive verse in that same chapter, said Gopin, is the biblical injunction against putting a stumbling block in front of a blind person, which he explained, may prompt communal as well as individual self-reflection: "Are my relationships leading to more saving of lives or am I helping to kill people or torture them?"

Walzer’s called his presentation a talk "against the grain," highlighting the tradition’s "deficiencies, weaknesses, and omissions" when it comes to addressing war head-on. This he attributed to the Jewish people’s lack of a sovereign state for ‘,000 years, the better part of its history. "There is a long tradition of Jewish political argument, but it is incomplete," in the absence of a government "from the time of Bar Kochba to [that of] Ben-Gurion. Orthodox Judaism is a religion of exile, not statehood," he said, adding, "We have no lack of experience with war, although we were victims, not agents," notwithstanding earlier biblical accounts of warfare, such as those found in the prophetic literature. The first two chapters of Amos, for instance, contain a string of indictments of countries surrounding Israel and Judah for their "war crimes."

In seeking a more comprehensive rationale for war and the limits of just conduct by enemy combatants, contemporary Jewish thinkers might benefit, Walzer suggested, from studying Catholicism’s "Doctrine of Just War," developed in the Middle Ages and based on centuries of existence of Catholic states and experience with warring among nations. Among the document’s four critical features, Walzer first cited inclusiveness, derived, he said, from natural law or human reason, which adopts a universal standard of morality and legality, meant to apply to wars whenever or wherever they are waged. Mainstream rabbinic literature, by contrast, based on passages from Deuteronomy of laws revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai, contains parameters for two types of warfare applicable only to the Jewish people: those commanded (for self-defense and battles to rid the land of idolaters, by Joshua and Saul, for example) and those permissible (as in King David’s incursions to expand the prestige of the ruler through territorial expansion). There existed no explicit ban on fighting, i.e., the sages did not rule out any particular reason for going to war; however, the talmudic tractate Sanhedrin noted that "nothing is permitted to Jews that is prohibited by gentiles," implying a disapproval of wars fought purely for materialistic, expansionist aims, deemed unjust by church fathers.

Yet, Walzer noted, Judaic thought blurred the distinction between religious and secular wars, so, while, according to Maimonides, conquered peoples were not to be coerced to accept Torah, fighting for "the oneness of God," was considered commanded. Thus, holy and just wars existed under a single banner, a concept Walzer described as "dangerously close to Islamic jihad." Curiously, Catholic doctrine of the 11th and 1’th centuries, written contemporaneously with the Crusades, said Walzer, drew a clear distinction between the wars of the crusaders and conflicts without a religious purpose, which could only be justified to redress an injury.

Walzer and Gopin appeared to agree that with the rise of the State of Israel new opportunity has arisen for Jewish leaders to take on the mantle of statesmanship. Walzer argued for a Jewish revision of the rules of engagement to fill in early gaps, while Gopin emphasized the need to discern wisdom over justice. He said, "Israel makes decisions about who to trust and not to trust when dealing with enemies. What’s the wisest course of action? That is something to consider at every moment — and is the hard reality of calculating different halachic priorities."

For more information about the Jewish Learning Project, call (’01) 666-6610, ext. ‘6’, or visit www.yjcc.org.

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