OU Dialogue on Waging War Now Available to a World-Wide Audience on Web

06 Feb 2007

A Moral War? Three Rabbis Say That’s No Contradiction:

With its “ripped from the headlines” timeliness, three Orthodox rabbis grappled with how to bring Jewish thought and ethical teachings to the modern battlefield. These discussions are now available to a world-wide audience on Orthodox Union Radio, www.ouradio.org and www.ou.org/public_affairs.

Leading the discussion was Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, an adviser to the Israeli army on combat ethics. He was joined by Rabbi Shaul Robinson, Senior Rabbi at New York Lincoln Square Synagogue and Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Union, the two co-hosts of the event.

Contrary to the oft-repeated politically correct sound bite, said Rabbi Cherlow, not all war is immoral. To win against terror is a moral imperative. Still, he stated, soldiers and commanders must ask ethical questions.

Those foundational principles were echoed by Rabbis Robinson and Weinreb in the discussion, which was held at Lincoln Square Synagogue on February 1.

Rabbi Weinreb argued forcefully that war can change a person’s psyche, and that the combatants must always be careful that while they must do what they need to, there will be a time when they will go home changed. Asking ethical questions and trying to act morally could help steady them and ground them to come through battle with their convictions intact. Quoting from both psychological literature and Jewish texts, he stated: “After the actions, the heart follows.”

Rabbi Cherlow was the only participant to bring real life war fighting experience to what could have been a theoretical exercise. A retired major in the Israel Defense Forces, he has been consulted by pilots of unmanned drones, known as UAV’s, who have just seconds to decide whether to target terrorists, often when they are taking refuge among civilians.

In a nuanced and thoughtful, yet no holds barred presentation, Rabbi Cherlow defended his premise that the role and mission of the army is not merely defense but victory, and that essentially, it is a moral duty to kill terrorists. The army as well as a nation must take this mission seriously and fight with the intent to win.

But, cautioned Rabbi Cherlow, the army must always ask questions. It can never take any human life — even an enemy or a civilian noncombatant — for granted.

This caused some discomfort in the audience. Some felt he was placing too high a burden on soldiers making split second, life and death decisions. In the question and answer segment, clarification was urged. Said one member of the audience: A soldier “doesn’t have 25 seconds to call his rabbi” responded one of the attendees, adding, “If he [takes that time] he’s in trouble.”

Rabbi Cherlow declared “Chayecha kodem (Your life takes precedence)” and elaborated, “This [the advice of rabbis reached by commanders in the field during an operation] isn’t a psak halacha (legal ruling).”

Formerly a practicing psychologist and a pulpit rabbi before assuming the top professional post at the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Weinreb drew repeatedly on his psychological training, and quoted author William James and former Israeli premier Golda Meir as well, who was supposed to have said to the Arab nations, “We can forgive you for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours.”

Rabbi Robinson, a European émigré, was able to take some stock of the event from a different angle. Echoing a statement by Rabbi Weinreb, he stated how proud he was to be a part of such a discussion. It could of course be easy, he said, to use war as an excuse. But the worth of a people in asking such tough questions is summed up by the Talmudic dicta, “Mi k’amcha Yisrael (Who is like your people [God] Israel)?”

Rabbi Robinson also praised Rabbi Cherlow, for taking what he termed “courageous” stands that are not politically correct on either side of the political aisle.