The Moral Price of A Justified War: A clarification of my position

Yesterday, I decided to post a facebook status, meaning it to be the last word on my thoughts on the current conflagaration in Israel. As evidenced by my writing of this blog post, it was not. But whatever. Man plans, God laughs. Anyway, here’s what I wrote:

I hereby completely give up on talking about what’s going in Israel, as I can’t stomach arguing against both sides. It’s clear to me that Israel’s actions in Gaza have justification, and that merely counting bodies to indicate who is in the moral high ground is not only inane, it plays right into the hands of Hamas PR, which is very clearly attempting to use its own civilian casualties as a pawn towards that end. Furthermore, there seems to be a vocal minority who believe the problem can only be solved by Israel ceasing to exist or else ceasing to attempt to protect its citizens, which is, at the very least, untenable, if not outright unfair. Such people seem to believe that all criticism of Israel is fair, there is no such thing as anti-semitism, and we would be better off if we were still persecuted in Europe, for at least there our body count would be sufficiently high to grant us the eternal moral high ground. Adopting such positions seems to me to be, in some respects, heretical, showing a lack of concern, even contempt, for the Jewish community. Whether you like it or not, the global Jewish community, with the exception of Satmar Chassidism, have pinned their hopes to a greater or lesser extent with the Zionist enterprise. Denying that enterprise legitimacy, seems to me to be tantamount to abandoning the Jewish people, particularly in a time of need. 
On the other hand, civilian deaths are not okay, and while I have no idea what Israel can or can’t do to prevent them, they should not be just waved away like David waves away the death of Uriah HaChiti, כָזֹה וְכָזֶה, תֹּאכַל הֶחָרֶב, and its something that should concern us, and something we should be asking questions about. Are we really so certain that every measure has been taken to prevent civilian deaths, or are we accepting that merely because we are told so? The answer may very well be that every measure has been taken; that does not preclude us from asking. Yes, we need to defend our homeland, but what kind of people do we wish to become in the process? We should be taking an honest look at our Israel’s policies and decisions, and questioning what type of country we want the first flowering of our redemption to become. Furthermore, the racism towards Arabs, the self-righteous triumphalism, the ignorance of geopolitical realities, and persecution complex shown by members of our community, despite the fact I find myself on their side, makes me extremely uncomfortable. We point to Palestinian rejection of two states, their preaching of violence and hatred of the other side, their ideological unwillingness to compromise, as proof of their unsuitability for negotiations, but how many of those criticisms can be lodged just as easily against our own community? Yes, there is anti-semitism, and yes, it sometimes is responsible for criticism of Israel, but no, its not responsible for every criticism, because Israel has its problems, that manifest itself in such things like the murder of an innocent Arab teenager. True, we have to defend ourselves, but we are not immune to mistakes and should not be closed off to criticism, and there is no way to defend what happened to Muhammad Abu Khdeir. This is true regardless of how much worse the other side is, or how imbalanced the criticism is. We should be moral because we should be moral, and act in a way that allows us to look in the mirror and like what we see, not out of some futile attempt to look good. 
I have compared the Jewish state to adulthood in the past, the independence and autonomy that come with newfound responsibilities and obligations, and we need to put our big boy pants on and be able to accept criticism, to take an honest accounting of our positives and negatives and morally refine ourselves without expectation of a shiny medal for our efforts. 
So I stand with Israel, I stand with my homeland and my people, and I will not budge in that regard. I just hope to God we deserve it.

The status hit a nerve, to say the least. On the plus side, it got a lot of likes and shares and wall posts and all the other nice things that I use as surrogates for self-esteem. On the negative side, I was condemned pretty harshly, including by a number of people I have a high level of respect for. I was accused of not supporting Israel, despite my explicit statements to the contrary. I was accused of aiding the enemy by implying that Israel might be at fault for something, and I was accused of being insensitive to the plight of Israeli citizens by focusing on moral reflection instead of unequivocal support. 

I’d first like to say that, before anything else, I don’t mean to offend people, and I don’t want people to be hurt by me. And I’d like to further say that, as I tried to highlight, my support for Israel, its right to defend itself, its right to exist, and the right to do what it is currently doing in Gaza remains steadfast and unwavering. And I’d like to additionally state that I do not necessarily have any specific criticisms of the IDF’s actions in Gaza. 

So, to clarify my position, I want to turn to a theoretical discussion of a halachic matter. This is all theoretical because, as you’ll see, R. Ovadia Yosef paskens against my understanding, which means its practically inoperable, but I think we can still gain much from a discussion of some of the conceptual underpinnings, and that theory would not invalidate practice or vice versa. At the very least, I will have given over a work of pure derash, the chosen medium of Jewish thinkers throughout the ages. 

The gemara in Brachos 32b states:

אמר רבי יוחנן: כל כהן שהרג את הנפש לא ישא את כפיו, שנאמר ידיכם דמים מלאו. 

R. Yochanan says, any kohen that kills someone, cannot lift his hands [to say birchas kohanim], as it says ” [And When you spread forth your hands I will hide my eyes from you, even when you pray I will not listen, for] Your hands are full of blood”

We have here a Gemara that states that a kohen who kills someone cannot say birchas kohanim. Well, at a very surface level, this may seem obvious. Why would you want a murderer to bless the people? But what if he’s not a murderer? What if it was an accident? What if he was defending himself? Does that count? What if he repented?  Probably not, if all we’re concerned about is an unsavory character blessing the people. But that’s not what we’re concerned about. In fact, the Rambam (Hilchot Tefilla 15-16), based on a Yerushalmi, goes and makes sure we know that’s not the reason:


כהן שלא היה לו דבר מכל אלו הדברים המונעין נשיאת כפים אף ע”פ שאינו חכם ואינו מדקדק ה במצות או שהיו הבריות מרננים אחריו או שלא היה משאו ומתנו בצדק הרי זה נושא את כפיו ואין מונעין אותו, לפי שזו מצות עשה על כל כהן וכהן שראוי לנשיאת כפים ואין אומרים לאדם רשע הוסף רשע והמנע מן המצות.
ואל תתמה ותאמר ומה תועיל ברכת הדיוט זה, שאין קבול הברכה תלוי בכהנים אלא בהקדוש ברוך הוא שנאמר ושמו את שמי על בני ישראל ואני אברכם, הכהנים עושים מצותן שנצטוו בה והקב”ה ברחמיו מברך את ישראל כחפצו.


A kohen… even if he is not wise and not strict regarding the performance of mitzvot, or the people gossip about him, or he behaves dishonestly in business transactions, he should still raise his hands… One should not tell an evil person  “Refrain from fulfilling mitzvot.”  Do not be puzzled and ask: how will the blessing of this common person help?  The blessing is not dependent upon the kohanim, but rather on Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu…  Kohanim should perform their mitzva as they are instructed, and Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu, in His mercy, will willingly bless Israel.


In other words, the moral quality of the kohen in question is not a determining factor in his suitability to say birchas kohanim. If so, what are the parameters of this law? Returning to the Rambam (Hilchot Tefillah 15:3)


כהן שהרג  את הנפש אע”פ שעשה תשובה לא ישא את כפיו שנאמר ידיכם דמים מלאו וכתיב…

…ובפרשכם כפיכם וגו

…A Kohen who kills someone, even if he does teshuva, cannot lift his hands, as it says “Your hands are full of blood” and says “When you spread your hands,…

The Rambam holds that regardless of his moral culpability for this killing, regardless of whether he has the guilt of this murder on his record or not, he is still disqualified for the priestly blessing. Though he says nothing here about an accidental murder, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 128:35) does in fact rule that even an accidental murder would disqualify a kohen from reciting birchas kohanim. The Rema there differs only in regards to someone who repented, and only for the purpose of not closing a door in the face of the repentant. So we have a law here that murder, even accidental, even repented for, regardless of the moral culpability of the perpetrator, nevertheless disqualifies a Kohen from reciting birchas kohanim. What concept underlies this law? Rav Soloveitchik, in a footnote in Lonely Man of Faith (page 73 in my copy)  addresses this issue:

…The Talmud treats the problem of disqualification; whoever committed murder forfeits the prerogative and right to bless the people. In Halakhic terms, I would say the murder results in a “pesul gavra”, in the emergence of a personal inadequacy. Indeed, in Maimonides’ view, it is not the moral culpability for the sin of murder but the bare fact of being the agent and instrument of murder which causes this disqualification. Hence, the disqualification persists even after the murderer has repented…


In other words, the Kohen is not disqualified by virtue of having a moral flaw or having necessarily done something wrong, but merely by being an agent of this horrific act of murder. To understand this idea, I’d like to propose that killing, regardless of whether it is right or wrong or justified or unjustified, has an effect on one’s whole personality. To use a Harry Potter analogy, it rips one’s soul into shreds. Yoni Netanyahu, (The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu: The Commander of the Entebbe Rescue Force, 288), describes something of that sort:

To kill at such very close range isn’t like aiming a gun and pulling the trigger- that’s something I had already done when I was young. I’ve learned since how to kill at close range too- to the point of pressing the muzzle against flesh and pulling the trigger for a single bullet to be released and kill accurately, the body muffling the sound of the shot. It adds a whole dimension of sadness to a man’s being. Not a momentary, transient sadness, but something that sinks in and endures.


The Netziv, in a comment on the “brit shalom” given to Pinchas (Bamidbar 28:12) also notes the adverse affect even legitimate violence has upon the perpetrator, seeing the “brit shalom” given to Pinchas as a divine guarantee that the violence he committed would lead him to become a violent person. The danger of even the most legitimate violence is in fact a theme in the Netziv’s thought. (It is interesting to note that the Chizkuni sees the “brit shalom” as allowing Pinchas to recite birchas kohanim). From these sources, the Netziv’s theory, Yoni Netanyahu’s experience, and Harry Potter’s illustration it would appear that even the most justified and legitimate violence still has an effect on the perpetrator, desensitizing them to death and violence and reducing the natural recoil human beings have to the prospect of violence. And I would venture to say that this concept finds partial expression in the law that a Kohen cannot do birchas kohanim when he has been an agent of murder.

To be fair, both Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Ovadia Yosef did not practically pasken this way (though I have seen it quoted from one of Rav Shachter’s books that Rav Soloveitchik did), and thus, it does not have any practical application for that specific law. But I will say that this concept has value to keep in mind when we go to war. It is, to my mind, absolutely true that Israel’s actions are moral and justfied, certainly in its killing of terrorists, and, provided that it has exhausted all realistic and practical options to spare civilian lives, which I believe is the case, in its inadvertent killing of civilians as well. But just because something is morally defensible and justifiable, even absolutely necessary, does not mean that we are unaffected by it. When we kill, even when our reasons are good, we become desensitized to violence and death, and we take steps towards becoming violent people. If that is true even when we kill terrorists, that is all the more truer when we kill innocent civilians and children, when our natural horror at the concept of dead children takes a backseat to the political realities. This is not to say that we should stay at home and not fight, allow rockets to fall on our heads and terrorists to attack our borders, rather than risk our moral sensitivity. Such an approach would be foolhardy, even cruel, and I believe Gandhi’s suggestion that the Jews of Europe do just that during the Holocaust cements his place as one of the most overrated human beings of all time. But that desensitization is something to be aware of, and something to guard against, and our reaction to innocents dying, even when we are not morally culpable, should be tempered by a horror at the thought of violence, and the full knowledge that this is not a l’chatchila situation. 

My great-great uncle, R. Baruch Rabinowitz, in an essay entitled “Dor V’Dor”, attempts to compare the Biblical epoch with our modern era of Zionism and the state of Israel. His account of the biblical era concludes with what he calls “the tragedy of David”, that a great, righteous leader such as David, whose commitment to his nation was unparalleled, who risked his life in battle numerous times, could not build the Beis HaMikdash because, as Divrei HaYamim I 22:8 relates, he had fought too many battles, spilled too much blood, become too accustomed to violence for the Beis HaMikdash to be built by him. And he concludes his account of the modern era with this (my translation from the Hebrew):

With blood and fire the State of Israel has protected its existence, and a generation came that was educated in war, a generation that will soon be victorious. But, the world as it stands, instead of seeing the righteousness and justice, calls out on Israel as a conquering nation, a militaristic nation, a nation of murders.
And the tragedy of David returns. Am Yisrael, born for greatness and nobility, will not in this generation, that is like King David’s, become a light unto the nations, not in this generation will we turn our country into a model society. But there will come a generation, a generation similar to that of Shlomo, a generation that knows rest, a generation that does not need to lead wars, a generation that knows to put the power of wisdom before that of strength-that generation will establish the state as a model, a state in which there is knowledge of Torah, Ethic, Righteousness, and equality will serve as basis for all life of humanity, and then Mashiach Tzidkenu will come, a offspring of David our king, and from Zion shall come Torah, and the word of God from Yerushalayim.

In our imperfect and unredeemed world, we must fight for our existence, and we are necessarily tainted by the violence we have justly committed. But we must yearn and prepare for the day that we will be able to be have peace and be peaceful, that we will no longer need violence. My goal for myself is to try, to best of my ability, to ensure that the people who will emerge victorious from this war will be able to adjust back to peace. Which entails, to my mind, keeping people aware of the desensitizing nature of violence, trying to keep alive a small flame of compassion for when we need it. That is all I am trying to do. May we see the need for such a fire sooner rather than later. 


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