Two weeks into the current Gaza conflict, I may be the only American rabbi left who has not sent any emails to his congregation about the matter. A number of you have expressed some distress about this, and urged me to say something.
My silence should not be construed as wavering commitment. I am a proud Zionist, unambiguously a believer in the worth and virtue of the modern Jewish state in our ancestral homeland.
So why have I kept quiet? Partly, this is because I have been up at Camp Ramah (where we talk regularly about the matter, especially with the Israeli staff delegation and the older campers), with my head out of the office. But mostly, I have kept silent because I just have not been sure what I should say.
Should I say that, facing a ruthless enemy, Israel has not only a right but a moral duty to protect its citizens from Hamas’ (before the war) estimated 10,000 rockets, now capable of striking Jerusalem and Tel Aviv? Not just a right but a moral duty to destroy the dozens of tunnels Hamas has built expressly to attack the residents of Southern Israel? I certainly believe this. And so I grieve for the Israeli soldiers who have fallen honorably in Operation Tzuk Eitan, giving their lives to defend our people in its homeland.
Should I say that the very first rule of moral warfare is to distinguish between civilian and combatant? Should I say that that although Israel faces tremendously difficult challenges – given the asymmetry of guerilla forces and Gaza’s urban concentration – nevertheless this most basic moral demand of a “just war” is simply not negotiable? That our hearts should grieve, that we should not be able to sleep at night, for the hundreds of Gaza non-combatants who died horrible deaths this week, yesterday, today, and are dying right this minute? I believe this too.
Should I concur with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he says that Hamas bears the moral responsibility for placing its missiles and launchers near hospitals, homes and schools? Yes, I do. Should I demur when he concludes that therefore Israel bears no responsibility for civilian casualties? I must demur.
Should I say that it is all a bit rich when Hamas – who send suicide bombers into cafés and onto buses, who lob missiles at city centers – bewail their civilian casualties? Should I say that being “better than Hamas” is no worthy standard for the people of the Torah?
In the end, Israel and those who love her face harrowing moral choices – the duty to act and the duty to refrain. There is no single satisfactory answer. It would immoral and foolish to expect Israel to expose itself to Hamas’ weapons without defending itself. As Rabbi JB Soloveitchik wrote (in his essay “Kol Dodi Dofek”): Zionism means that after the Shoah, Jewish blood will not be left undefended in the face of cruel enemies. Yet the suffering our forces cause in Gaza cannot be waved casually away as a kind of inevitable collateral damage.
This past Shabbat I was struck by an ugly verse in the parasha [Numbers 31.2]: “God spoke to Moses saying: Wreak Israel’s vengeance upon the Midianites.”
Vengeance is a brutal human impulse, never to be justified. Justice? Yes. Prudence, strength, deterrent capacity? Absolutely. But never revenge.
You may have noticed that when citing the names of terror victims – like the kidnapped boys Eyal, Gil-ad and Yaakov – or fallen soldiers or Shoah victims, it is common to write hey-yod-dalet, or HY”D. This stands for the phrase Hashem yikom damo “may God avenge his blood” (based on Deuteronomy 32.43).
Myself, I never use this phrase, not even for Shoah victims. Some people will tell you that the phrase implicitly stresses that God should exact vengeance, but we humans should not. I find that self-exculpatory and hypocritical. In fact, in almost all things in Judaism, we believe that we should be God’s partners in building the world, and so must put sacred values into practice. To pray for divine vengeance, it seems to me, is to goad people into acts of vengeance. I thought of this at the horrifying immolation of the Jerusalem teen Muhammed Abu Khdeir at the hands of Jewish terrorists, and at the calls for vengeance emerging from various circles in Israel, sadly including the rabbinate, and the politicians, even the Prime Minister.
Operation Tzuk Eitan will end in a day or a week. We will go on like before, rebuilding, re-arming. Thanks to heaven and thanks to their bravery and wisdom, the IDF will continue to protect the Jewish body with distinction. But every call for vengeance, every dehumanizing slur, every calloused reaction to Palestinian death, reminds me how equally crucial it is to care vigilantly for the Jewish soul.