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HOW DIRTY CAN WE GET OUR HANDS? Review by Rabbi Cary Kozberg

Ethics of Our Fighters: A Jewish View of War and Morality


By Rabbi Shlomo Brody (2024: Maggid)


The Bar Kokhba revolt against Rome (132-135 CE) was the last major war waged by Jews for political independence until Israel’s War for Independence in 1948. Occurring barely 60 years after the first revolt against Rome which resulted in the destruction of the second Temple, this revolt ended also with much of the population either being killed or exiled. According to Yehoshafat Harkabi, the Sages who lived immediately following this second rebellion refrained from discussing it or drawing any lessons from it (The Bar Kokhba Syndrome, 1983, p. 93).  But after over a hundred years, their spiritual descendants felt the need to deal with the trauma and its effects.

 

The response of these later sages took the form of political directives formulated as oaths.  They taught that a consequence of the Bar Kokhba rebellion was that G-d, as it were, had charged the Jews:


  1. not to rebel against the nations of the world, and

  2. not to immigrate back to the Land of Israel en masse (ibid. Cf. Exodus Rabbah, 30).


Harkabi writes that these oaths may have been “a preventative measure (italics his) against radical tendencies that the rabbis might have discerned or feared might be simmering among the people, courting disasters similar to the Great Revolt and the Bar Kokhba Rebellion, and threatening the future of the nations.  Accordingly, they sought to block the path to rebellion by means of the oaths before G-d, which are a stronger measure than a simple prescription.” (ibid.)

 

To be sure, these two oaths incumbent on the Jewish people were balanced by a third one addressed to the nations, adjuring them not to lay too heavy a burden on the Jews.  Both parties were to behave with moderation: the nations would not be overly oppressive, and the Jews would not allow themselves to be provoked to rebellion:

 

“The oaths called the Jews to political passivity in the form of withdrawal from history; this stance suited the situation of Jewish dispersion and the necessity of resignation to such circumstances.”  (ibid.)

 

This was the de facto arrangement until the advent of Zionism when, as a response to the nations’ “way-too-heavy” burden upon Jews in the Diaspora, some Jews began to conclude that the nations’ had violated their obligation, and therefore Jews were free of their obligation to remain politically passive and were now free to begin to return to the Land.

 

As we know, those who did return were met with heavy violent resistance which required them to learn self-defense—a skill that had not only been prohibited by those under whose rule they had lived, but over the centuries had come to be considered foreign (”goyish”) to proper Jewish behavior.

 

With the violent attacks on Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries (culminating in the Holocaust, attitudes about the use of physical force began to change.  Even religious Jews began to support using physical force when necessary, given the conclusion that the nations of the world had violated their oath.  Fast forward to today: in less than eight decades--to the praises of some and the intense criticism of others--Israel has earned a reputation of having one of the most effective, capable, respected and feared armies in the world.

 

But the question that continues to be raised, especially in the wake of October 7, is this one: is the Israel Defense Force a moral army?  Indeed, the praises and the criticisms are based on how that question is answered.

 

To be sure, many of these praises and criticisms come from sources that are outside of, or even antithetical, to Jewish teachings and values.  However, we now have a substantive source that chronicles how Jewish religious teachings have addressed the issue of war and morality, particularly since the beginning of the 20th century and into the 21st.

 

In Ethics of Our Fighters: A Jewish View of War and Morality, Rabbi Shlomo Brody gives us a comprehensive look at how questions relating to waging war and self-defense have been addressed by Jews who, by necessity have had to reacquaint themselves with the use of physical force.  The book’s title plays on that of the honored and beloved rabbinic treatise Ethics of our Fathers (“Pirke Avot”) and seems to hint that, given the threats to physical safety and wellbeing that modern Jews (both inside and outside Israel) now face, the time has come for Jews to confidently affirm that the use of physical force—as regrettable as it may be—has moral standing and is as legitimate a moral directive as the moral lessons of everyday living taught in Pirke Avot.

 

In the first part of the book, Rabbi Brody focuses on rabbinic ethical responses to issues that arose between the two world wars and its aftermath, demonstrating how Judaism offers a sophisticated moral framework that “takes into account several central values in approaching ethical dilemmas.”  The rest of the book covers events from 1940 to 2014 (a period of tremendous importance to modern Jewish history), discussing the “classical distinctions within just war theory that dominate contemporary discourse on military ethics: namely, the conditions that justify going to war…and behavior in war…”


There is of course a focus on important events in pre-1948 and post-1948 history that called for “proper” responses—the propriety of which was not often agreed upon.


NB: I write this review on the day after Parashat B’shalach was read in synagogues all over the world.  B’shalachconcludes with the narrative of Amalek attacking the Israelites, and Moses declaring that “the Lord will be at war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:16).  The viciousness of Amalek is mentioned later in the Torah text: “how he attacked you on the way, when you were tired and exhausted, striking down the stragglers in your rearguard, with no fear of G-d” (Deuteronomy 25:17-18).  Tradition understands these texts to be the reason for the divine command later given to Saul to wipe out the Amalekites (Cf. I Samuel 15).  Because Saul spared the life of the king, Agag, the throne was taken away from him and his family and…Haman the Agagite, archenemy of the Jews, was eventually born.


Indeed, in the wake of October 7, comparing Hamas to Amalek--identifying Hamas with Amalek—would seem to be a “slam-dunk”.  However, Rabbi Brody is careful to point out that while such a conclusion may be understandable, it is not necessarily one that is universally held.  Indeed, such a conclusion might require a response that would get our fighters’ hands much dirtier than they already are…and even dirtier than they would like them to be.


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