See Rabbi Edward Feld’s agonized sermon on the state of ethics of Israel’s military chaplaincy that encouraged war crimes in Gaza. This is a reflective sermon that brings into sharp relief the choices of religious people between violent texts to justify their violence and nonviolent texts to articulate their deepest values, hopes and aspirations. The rabbis who have taken control of the Israel Defense Forces have made their choice, and other rabbis like Rabbi Feld have made theirs. Here is Rabbi Feld:
“When you have mercy on a cruel enemy you are thereby showing cruelty to innocent and honest soldiers. It is a terrible immorality……This is a war against murderers.”
The above excerpt is from Go Fight My War, a booklet published by the Jewish Awareness Department of the Chief Military Rabbinate in Israel, and distributed to soldiers in the fighting units before they entered Gaza as part of Operation “Cast Lead.”
One of the most memorable moments of the Passover Seder is the point at which we pour out some wine from our cups as we mention the ten plagues brought on the Egyptians, the plagues which achieved our liberation. Though we rejoice in our victory and sing songs of praise, the ritual asks us to remember that our freedom was gained at the cost of the suffering of others and therefore our joy must be mitigated.
The symbolic act we engage in is based on a remarkable midrash. We are told that as the children of Israel crossed the Sea of Reeds and sang the Song at the Sea, the angels in heaven began to join in singing God’s praise. God responded, “My children are drowning in the Sea and you want to sing?” Every nation celebrates its victory in war, but there is a religious perspective which understands that we are all children of God and that even the slaughter of the enemy is a diminution of the image of God. Though war may be justified, killing is tragic.
Among the activities I participated in during a year of study in Israel in 1966-7, was a visit to an army camp where we witnessed the swearing in of soldiers who had completed basic training. Each received a Bible and a rifle. The army chaplain spoke and said, “Do not call the people you fight, ‘Arabs’ for these people are not your eternal enemy, simply call them ‘opponents.’ Today you may have to fight against them, but know that ultimately you will make peace with them and live side by side.”
Armies must train their soldiers to fight and kill. Training officers say that it is actually hard to teach people to kill – soldiers must be taught to overcome feelings of conscience that are deeply engrained in all of us. Yet the armies of democratic nations are also trained in ethical behavior: aid must be given to the enemy’s wounded, prisoners are not to be mistreated, civilian populations need to be protected, no one may exercise cruelty or use the chaos of wartime to engage in thievery, rape or wanton destruction. The Israeli army calls these values tohar haneshek – purity of arms. Wars are tragic, but they must not become free-for-alls in which no limits are placed on behavior.
How shocking then to learn that the Israeli army’s rabbinate has disseminated educational materials which preach against any feelings of empathy. “He who has mercy on the cruel is thereby being cruel to the merciful. When you have mercy on a cruel enemy you are thereby showing cruelty to innocent and honest soldiers. It is a terrible immorality,” reads the booklet distributed by the army’s chaplaincy to the soldiers in the field who were preparing to march into Gaza. Against the notion of taking into account civilian casualties when engaged in firefights the rabbinate urged, “…As far as possible we must act from a distance in order to spare the lives of our soldiers.”
What is the role of religious leaders? Is it to spur hatred, to urge nationalist pride and to cut off the wellsprings of empathy? Or is it to remind us of the worth of every human being and make us realize the tragedy of war? The Talmud refers to Jews as empathic people, descended from a long line of empathic people. “This is my God whom I would glorify,” reads a central passage of the Song at the Sea and the ancient rabbis comment, “How do you glorify God? Just as God is merciful and kind, so you should be merciful and kind.” Are we now called upon to put an end to empathy?
Ethical values have to be fought for. “Be among the students of Aaron,” says the ancient Rabbi Hillel, “Loving peace, pursuing peace, loving all human beings and bringing them closer to God’s teaching.” The Hebrew emphasizes the work needed in pursuing peace – it literally should be translated, “run towards peace.” Peace is not simply a value to which we passively pay lip service, rather it must be actively sought, engaged, pursued with vigor.
And peace necessarily involves compromise. There can be no peace unless each side realizes the pain that has been inflicted on the other. So long as each insists on the rightness of its cause and insists on the ‘evil’ nature of the enemy, there will never be agreement between the two sides. It is only through the expression of empathy that real peace is achieved. So once again it is shocking to find that the army’s chaplaincy has included in the booklet distributed to soldiers the message that Jews are “…forbidden by the Torah to give up even one millimeter of it [the Land of Israel] to the Gentiles, in the form of any kind of impure and foolish distortions about autonomy, enclave or any other national weaknesses. We shall not leave it under the control of another people, not even one finger of it, not even a piece of a fingernail.” Thus the rabbinate expresses its absolute opposition to any plausible peaceful negotiation. Only the absolute capitulation of the enemy will do.
We live in a time when the great religions of the world find themselves at a moment of choice. Are democratic principles and advocacy of universal human rights critical to our enterprise or are we to be triumphalist and exclusive? Are we tied to ethnic nationalism or are we open to the world around us? Buddhists, Hindus, Moslems, Christians – Jews, and others all face forces in their camps which respond to either side of these questions. People of faith must take their stand, for the fate of nations, the fate of the world, is being decided.
The reading of Jewish tradition taken by members of Rabbis for Human Rights is that Jews, who have so often been victims, must not lose the power of empathy; Jews, who have so often suffered through war, must actively pursue peace, “run toward peace,” for as the ancient rabbis taught, “Peace” is one of the names of God.
Go to to read the article in Haaretz that broke this story.
Rabbi Edward Feld is the editor of the new Conservative machzor for the High Holy Days and lives in Northampton, MA.