Sermon, Congregation Beit Simcha, Shabbat Ki Teitzei 5779
September 13, 2019
I seem to go back East every couple of years to drop my daughter Cipora off for something she really, really wants to do. This year it was taking her to Boston to start college; a couple of years ago I took her to New York to drop her off at a music camp in Ithaca. It’s truly amazing what we will do for our children, isn’t it?
On that trip two years ago, I took her and her oldest brother Boaz to some Broadway shows, a kind of family passion. One of the most interesting shows we saw was called “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.” It is a most unusual musical, based largely on a section of the greatest work of Leo Tolstoy, the extremely long Russian novel War and Peace. The show itself is a fascinating amalgamation of complicated storylines from the book somehow combined with a wild Russian nightclub setting, operatic music mixed with electropop, singers also playing instruments and dancing wildly. It’s mostly about romance and rogues and scandals and love-triangles, the human mess that people make out of their lives, all set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars.
In other words, it’s War and Peace as an expression of both the outer world of battles, emperors, czars and death, and also, and perhaps more directly, it’s about the way that people act in the hothouse environment of wartime.
That bring us, naturally, to this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, which begins with an exploration of the laws of warfare. How are we supposed to act in wartime? This portion’s subject raises the whole issue of war and peace in religious thought.
Of course, we all prefer to think of our religious doctrines as being dedicated to creating peace, not war. Much of Jewish liturgy, and general religious language, is focused on peace. Yet here we have a Torah section beginning with an assumption we will engage in war. That’s true even in the wording of the first phrase: Ki Teitzei lamilchama al oyvecha—when you go out to war against your enemy, not if you go out to war.
Nothing turns someone off to religion more quickly than hearing about religious wars, and I have had many people tell me that they think the greatest cause of war in human history is religion. While that’s certainly not factually true—World War I and World War II, the greatest, most extensive and most terrible wars in all human history, which resulted in the deaths of more people than all previous wars combined, were not religious wars at all. Still, many people have been slaughtered in the name of God over time, and Jewish people at a higher rate than others. It certainly strikes an ugly, discordant note to hear about warfare and religion blended together.
Since 9/11, which we commemorated this past week with sadness, the concept of jihad and Islamic warfare and terrorism have become distressingly familiar to us in America, and 18 years after 9/11 we are still trying to extract ourselves from some of the longest conflicts in American history in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both wars were provoked by acts taken in the name of religion, and both have been filled with perverse, ugly forms of religious motivation. Many people see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a religious war between Islam and Judaism, and there are areas of religious terrorism and warfare in nearly every part of the world right now. Thinking about this combination of war and religion is both distressingly common and kind of depressing.
No one who respects the positive role religion plays in our world likes to think about a linkage between the kind of wholesale slaughter that war entails and the pious belief in God. And yet there it is.
Lest you think this tendency is restricted to Western religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam, you might recall the violent Buddhist monks who encouraged brutal attacks and expulsions of Muslims in Burma and Sri Lanka. It seems to me that this is very much the antithesis of how we expect religious leaders to behave, but especially so Buddhists. Buddhism has the reputation of being a religion dedicated to enlightenment and non-violence. If Buddhist monks encourage religious terrorism what’s next? Peace symbols used as nunchuks? Switzerland declaring war on Sweden? Genocidal tyrants quoting Gandhi to justify slaughter?
And so, when our Jewish Scripture, the Torah, teaches us about warfare the tendency is to want to wash our hands of the whole mess. How can we advocate for peace and claim our God is “oseh HaShalom” the Maker of Peace, how can we pray the Shalom Rav prayer requesting of God great peace in the world, while at the same time calmly discussing how we are to go about slaughtering other people in God’s name? Isn’t it the duty of religion to advocate for peace and to denounce all war?
In general, this is true. But the sad fact of human civilization is that a war is almost always going on somewhere, and sometimes everywhere, in the world, and that the number of years in which this planet has been free of war is very few. One calculation I found says that of the 3400 years of recorded human history only 250 years have been free of a documented war—that is, once every 15 years or so we have a year without a war. To be honest, that seems wildly optimistic. In my lifetime I cannot recall a single year in which warfare has not been waged somewhere on the globe.
Which makes the agenda of the opening section of our Torah reading sadly and strangely appropriate at any time. For it does not begin “If you go out to war against your enemy” but “when you go out to war against your enemy.” Pragmatically, the Torah treats war as the tragic but inevitable result of human conflict. We hate war; we seek to avoid war at all costs; we know that war is destructive to much of what we believe in and pray for. But we also know that there simply are times when it cannot be avoided, when in our fallible human ways we will fall into war. Perhaps the best translation here is “When you have to go out to war…”
The great theorist of warfare, Karl von Clausewitz, wrote that, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” It is, but of course the “other means” are brutal and terrible. But Clausewitz also wrote, “A conqueror is always a lover of peace.” Meaning that war is not something anyone, even a great conqueror, can really grow to like. Yet it remains a depressing inevitability of human existence.
If that is so, and we are destined to end up at war, does it mean that we can engage in any kind of conduct to further our military aims?
There is an old platitude, “All’s fair in love and war.” But the Torah, right here in Ki Teitzei, informs us that all is not fair in war, and that we need to restrain ourselves both in our military conduct and in the ways in which we re-enter society. That restraint is essential to our moral claim to serve God through our own actions, to “fight for the right.” We are obligated to act in ways that sustain and reinforce holiness, even under the exigencies of military necessity.
Our section of Deuteronomy scrupulously outlines the ways in which we must restrain ourselves when forced to engage in warfare. We are not to destroy the productive capacity of the land of our enemies. We are not to exploit captives, women especially, as though they were subhuman. We are to have a cleansing process after battle before we are to reengage in civilian society.
This code contrasts with, for example, the torture used at American prisons like Abu Ghraib during the Iraq conflict, or at Guantanamo. It contradicts the massacres of non-combatants perpetrated by the Assad regimes in Syria, and throughout the long, terrible civil war in Iraq by ISIS, or by the Taliban in Afghanistan, who nearly had a summit in Washington last week. None of these would have been accepted in ancient Israel 3,000 years ago. Even in warfare there must be limits, and it is painful to recognize that in some ways we are more primitive than our ancestors were three millennia ago.
The contemporary Israeli Army, the IDF, has its own code of conduct, the “Tohorat Neshek, the purity of arms.” It is a serious effort to interpret the concept of “fighting only the right way” into practical terms. And when Israeli soldiers fail that test, they are held accountable, put through a review process, tried, and sometimes jailed. While the IDF’s rules and laws today are certainly not the same as those of Ki Teitzei, the concepts remain valid. Even while engaged in the violence of warfare, the dehumanizing experience of seeking to fight, suppress, and kill others, we must try to maintain our humanity, restrain ourselves within limits based on principles.
But perhaps the greatest lesson, for those of us fortunate enough not to be engaged in military conflict or trying to negotiate Israeli/Palestinian peace, is that if rules can be applied to the harshest form of human interaction, to warfare itself, they can certainly be applied to the lesser friction and human interaction tzoris that we experience in our own lives. If our ancestors managed to avoid the worst excesses of warfare, we too can learn to avoid the worst excesses that our society presents to us—the conflicts and arguments and disputes that damage us, those around us, and our world.
And if can learn from Ki Teitzei to moderate our responses and our behavior, and to structure our organizations and our lives to avoid that kind of reactivity, free of these excesses of conflict we can resume our task: creating a world of holiness and blessing. Ken Yehi Ratson. May this be God’s will. And ours.