Seeking peace and harmony has always been a central Jewish value. Despite this, going to war has been far more characteristic of the reality of the Jewish people. Here, Leah Rosenthal and Meir Schweiger discuss the Jewish response to warfare and conflict.
LEAH: I am always deeply moved by this passage in Devarim. The reflection of the atmosphere of a community about to engage in battle, the psychological sensitivity reflected in the range of verbs used to describe fear, the presence of the Kohen, as a voice of spirituality and religious feeling, attempting to provide assurance and meaning to this difficult and challenging moment all move me in very deep ways.
Theologically, I am struck by the paradox of telling a people, as they prepare for imminent battle; they already see the enemy force with their own eyes. That it is, God who “does battle for you against your enemy.” The passage does not dismiss the terror and dread of battle, it is painfully aware that some, perhaps many, will not return from battle, and yet asserts, meaningfully, that God will battle for you, and assure you of victory.
How does one reconcile the fact of individual death and sacrifice, the sheer effort and heroism of battle with a sense of God’s active participation? The Biblical text requires the appointment and active participation of a religious figure to accompany the people into battle to frame the experience in spiritual and religious terms.
MEIR: As a follow up to your introduction, I would like to share two stories from my experience as a combat medic in the Israeli army. The first is from my training to become a medic. During our course, we had a lecture on what is battle shock and how it is to be treated. The speaker told us that whenever one goes to battle, there are two conflicting emotions that one experiences: fear and nobility. It is quite natural (and healthy) to be afraid to die in battle. On the other hand, there is a counter emotion to go out to war because, by doing so, I am protecting and defending my family, my friends and my country.
How does one deal with this conflict? There are three options: 1) Run away from battle and save your own life. In this instance, one’s fear overpowers one’s sense of loyalty and patriotism. 2) Go out and fight – give it all that you have. Here one’s heroism subdues the instinctual drive for self-preservation. 3) Go into shock, which is a way to eat one’s cake and have it remain intact. Someone who goes into shock really wants to run away because of his fear. By going into shock, he “runs away” in a more sympathetic and “elegant” manner, which removes the stigma of being labeled a coward and deserter. What could he do? He wanted to fight, but he became “ill.”
Given this analysis, what is the treatment? The Israeli army came to the conclusion (in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War) that rather than sending the shock victim back to the home front, it is preferable to keep him in the battle arena, not on the front line but in a relatively safe location, away from the actual fighting. In this way, the soldier is forced to confront his fears, in a “safe space,” and, hopefully, will overcome them.
My second anecdote is from the first Lebanon War in 1982. I was a newly trained medic for a crack bridge building unit that went into Lebanon on the second day of the war. All of the members of my unit were seasoned soldiers who had fought in the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars. I, however, was someone who had grown up in the Bronx as a typical American-Jewish youth. Warfare was not part of my experience.
I will never forget the emotions I experienced as we were about to cross the border into Lebanon. We were allowed one phone call (pre-cellphone) to make to our families, and I choked as I spoke to my wife, fearing that this might be the last time that I would ever speak to her. Many thoughts raced through my mind at that moment. If I die, how will my wife manage to raise our five small children? Who will fill the void in my children’s lives? What will this do to my parents, who were Holocaust survivors? They had lost all of their families and I was their only child.
As we crossed the border, I recited tefilat haderekh, the prayer for a safe journey, out loud for all the soldiers in my unit. When they responded Amen with such fervor and intensity, as one experiences on Yom Kippur at Neila (the closing service), I understood that they, too, were afraid and looked to God to bring them home safely. Ironically, I contributed much more to my unit in my unofficial role as chaplain than my official role as a medic.
Once we were in Lebanon we left our fears behind and focused our attention on the mission at hand – to build a bridge over the Litani River that would enable the Israeli army to move forward and distance PLO forces as far away from the border as possible. Thank God, we all returned intact. This was the only time in my life that I seriously thought that I would die.
LEAH: Your stories emphasize how, despite the centuries that have passed, the experience of preparing for war has essentially not changed. We still are called upon to step forward and overcome our personal instincts of self-preservation to fulfill a calling of deep significance and meaning. Yet, the Biblical passage continues immediately to exempt a number of specific individuals from active participation in battle.
Three categories refer to one who is caught by the events of war in a specific transitional moment in life (marriage, planting a vineyard and the construction of a home) and the fourth recognizes the existence of individuals who cannot overcome their fear and cannot function in battle.
The first group is extremely interesting. The Torah appears to find it absolutely unimaginable that these people should not be allowed to complete, to consummate, that which they have begun. Why is the possibility that this individual not return from battle more distressing than the death of one who has not even begun to construct his life, or alternatively, is well into establishing and cultivating his life’s projects and goals? What fundamental value is violated by the potential death of these specific individuals more than others? In any event, it is clear the exemption of specific categories of individuals from participation in the potentially life threatening activity of battle would certainly suggest that a very deep value is apparently at stake.
In the context of contemporary Israel, I am, of course, struck by the fact that the Torah does not suggest to exempt “Yeshiva students” from battle, and does not put forth the argument that studying Torah is itself a protection from enemy attack. Quite the opposite! The Rabbis identified the second category of exemption, the הלבב ורך ירא as one who fears battle because of the sins he has committed. The weakness of his fortitude is a result of his weak spiritual and religious stature. From the Talmud’s perspective, it is the God-fearing and righteous individuals that are called to the front, not the non-committed and non-observant. Historical circumstances have certainly played out in strange and ironic ways to produce the mainstream ultra-Orthodox position objecting to the draft of Torah scholars to active military combat!
MEIR: It should be noted that the Talmud (Sotah, Chapter 8) greatly extends the scope of the other exemptions and, in fact, says if one has consummated these life events, he does not go out to battle at all nor is he to engage in any support capacity whatsoever for the war effort. This is based on a verse in Devarim 24:5, which says that when a man marries, he shall not go out to war for a whole year so that he can rejoice with his new bride. Hence my understanding of these exemptions is that they are a celebration of life in the midst of a reality of death. In its essence, Judaism is a religion of life and does not put warfare on a pedestal. Even when necessity dictates that we go to battle, we must always keep in perspective the desire and the goal of promoting the joys of life. Moreover, this is a celebration of continuity. According to the Talmud, the exemptions of building a house and planting a vineyard apply only to those in the Land of Israel. Striking roots in the Land, establishing a homestead are expressions of permanence which have implications for generations to come.
I wholeheartedly agree with your statement that the God-fearing and righteous individuals should be in the forefront of the battle lines. I think many rabbinic sources can be brought to support this position. The best support text, in fact, is the verse you quoted at the very beginning of our discussion: “It is God who does battle against your enemy.”
There are many verses throughout the book of Devarim, and elsewhere in the Tanakh, that emphasize the role of God in waging our wars and bringing about our victory, and the logical corollary is that God will help those who are faithful to God and fulfill His commandments. I firmly believe that what was true in the days of the Tanakh is still relevant today, and hence I am opposed to “wholesale” yeshiva exemptions. But, to be fair, there is a precedent for the ultra-Orthodox position.
The tribe of Levi did not go out to war. In the beginning of the book of Numbers there are separate censuses for the general Jewish male population and the males of the tribe of Levi. This is based on a division of roles. The general population are referred to as צבא יוצאי, those who, collectively “go out,” which includes going out to war; the tribe of Levi are called צבא באי, those who “come in,” which refers to their role in helping the priests attend to the ongoing maintenance of the Tabernacle/Temple. On a number of occasions, I have heard ultra-Orthodox Jews refer to themselves as the present-day tribe of Levi, who devote themselves exclusively to the service of God and hence should be exempt from military service. Although I disagree with this position, I do not categorically dismiss it.
There is one last comment I would like to make about the secular Jews serving in the Israeli army, and this is based on my experience in the first Lebanon War. As I mentioned earlier, I was a combat medic, for 15 years, in a veteran bridge building unit. I was the only observant person in my unit, and there were times during the course of our reserve duties when I felt alienated from the rest of the group. It was as if we lived on two different planets. But there was one moment, during the Lebanon War, when that all changed. We spent 20 hours, non-stop, building a bridge over the Litani River. At one point, I sat down to rest, watching the other soldiers at work, and I had an epiphany. At that moment, I gained a completely different perspective on my comrades in arms.
Instead of focusing on their crass speech and behavior, I was suddenly inspired and overwhelmed by their total devotion to our mission, by their unswerving commitment, one to the other, by their concern for the Jewish people and their profound desire to bring peace and normalcy to the residents of the Galilee. Implicitly, these soldiers were displaying their love of God “with all their soul and all their might.” At that moment, I prayed to God to see their total devotion and watch over them. This illustrated for me the rabbinic saying that there are people who acquire their share in the world to come in a moment. Who, in fact, are the God-fearing and righteous individuals?
LEAH: As you mentioned above, the discussion of this passage by the Rabbis in the Mishna and Talmud of tractate Sotah, I would like to raise yet an additional point. The Rabbis emphasized the Torah’s wording of the introductory verse “ךאויבי על למלחמה תצא כי”- “when you go out to battle against your enemy”. They raise the point that the phrasing appears redundant. Obviously you are waging battle against your enemy, not your ally or brother! In the discussion that follows the Talmudic rhetoric emphasizes the fact that you are involved in a struggle against “an enemy”, one who is different than you, who is cruel, aggressive and violent. As you enter the battlefield you are urged to remember that “you are waging war against your enemy, not your brother, who, if you are taken captive by him, will have compassion for you. If you fall captive to your enemy he will have no mercy on you…” (Mishna Sotah 8:1)
The Talmudic discussion that follows is a striking example of creating an image of the “other” who is completely “other” than yourself. I find the process of dehumanizing the enemy as a necessary part of preparing one’s self for battle very disturbing. On the one hand, I understand the need to shift one’s moral and humane perspective in the context of warfare. On the other, the effect of dehumanizing, developing a rhetoric of “they are not like us,” is very problematic. I fear greatly the effect of this rhetoric on the community that adheres to and perpetuates it. This is, I feel, one of the greatest moral challenges facing us today.
MEIR: Although I understand your concerns about demonizing the other and becoming the victims of our own rhetoric, I think there is just as great a danger, if not more, of viewing the other as playing by the same “rules of the game.” I am against rhetoric but I am a firm believer in seeing a reality for what it is.
Perhaps the best illustration of this is ISIS. Any words used to describe their inhumanity will fall short of the mark. And, it goes without saying, that the same was true of the Nazis. I see both of these instances as examples of situations where there is no room for compromise or negotiation, and where the only solution is their total defeat. For me the challenge is how do we recognize their inhumanity, not allow ourselves to become victimized by it, and yet not become them.