Friday, August 26, 2022

Where Fundamentalism Fails


Is the entirety of rabbinic law a violation of the Torah? Two passages in Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy) seemingly prohibit any additional laws beyond those found in the Torah. Moshe declares, "You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it" (4:2), and "Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it." (13:1) These passages indicate that the Torah is complete, and it is forbidden to add laws to it; every rabbinic law should be a violation of this prohibition.


These two verses played a critical role in the Karaite schism, which took place in the 8th century. The Karaites rejected the Talmud and rabbinic law in favor of the simple reading of the Biblical text; and Karaite polemics brandish these two verses as proof that the Talmudic tradition is wrong, because it adds many rabbinic commandments.


Multiple commentaries grapple with this very question and wonder how one can justify rabbinic law. Some, like Rashi, reject the very premise of the question. They argue these verses don’t refer to adding commandments to the Torah; what they prohibit is adding an element to existing commandments, such as adding a fifth species to the four species of lulav, a fifth fringe to the four corners of tzitzit, a fifth section to the four sections of the tefillin. Rashi’s interpretation says the question posed by the Karaites isn't a question at all; what these verses prohibit is modifying an existing commandment.


The Rambam offers a different answer. Unlike Rashi, the Rambam accepts that there is a prohibition against adding rules to the Torah; however, these additions are only prohibited if the additional laws are treated as “something that is from the Torah." The Rambam claims that rabbinic law never pretends to be the same as Torah law, that rabbinic commandments were always presented as having a lower status; and rabbinic law is generally implemented to prevent people from mistakenly violating biblical commandments.


On the surface, these two approaches both reconcile the rabbinic tradition with the text; one, by saying the Torah says nothing about adding commandments, and the other by saying that rabbinic law is clearly labeled as such and therefore is not considered an addition to the Torah. But these two answers represent dramatically different ways of looking at rabbinic authority.


Why should one accept rabbinic laws? One possibility, suggested by the Rambam, is that the rabbis are the authorized guardians and interpreters of the Torah, and the Torah explicitly commands that one listen to the rulings and interpretations of the judges (Deuteronomy 17:11). The rabbis make no claim to divine insights and are merely legal experts whose role is to safeguard the tradition.


Other authors take a very different approach. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi offers a lengthy response to Karaite polemics in the Kuzari. In it, he explains that the rule "you shall not add" only applies to the layman. However, rabbis are a continuation of the prophetic tradition, whose additions to the Torah are divinely inspired. And this may very well have been the rabbis' own perspective; the Ravad points out that (unlike the Rambam's assertion), the Talmud often presents rabbinic laws as being based on a verse in the Torah, and call this an asmachta, “a support” for the commandment. This implies the rabbis of the Talmud saw their own decrees as part of the divine plan. Indeed, the Ritva offers the following explanation of asmachta:


Every rule that has an asmachta from a biblical verse is one that God testifies that it was worthy to legislate…. and was given over to the rabbis to decide if they choose to implement this rule, …and therefore the rabbis always offer an ‘asmachta’ from the Torah, as if to say that they have not innovated this matter from their own hearts…


In other words, from the very time the Torah was given, God intended the rabbinic laws to be discovered at a future time by the rabbis. Even long after the Torah was given, divine inspiration is available to those who search for it.


Both the Kuzari and the Ritva see rabbinic authority as self-evident, because the Rabbis are charismatic, divinely inspired heirs to Moshe's authority, able to intuit new divine insights.


The Karaites rejected these claims of rabbinic authority and saw the Talmud as a foreign addition to Judaism. Early Karaites refused to vest authority in teachers or customs; Anan ben David, the 8th century teacher who is often referred to as the founder of Karaism, urged his students to "search Scriptures well and do not rely on my opinion." Divine guidance could only be found in words of the Torah. 


Because they rejected the rabbinic tradition, Karaite practices diverged in significant ways. They were more lenient than rabbinic Judaism in some ways: no tefillin, no prohibition of mixing milk and meat, no shofar, no mikvah. But in many ways their practices were far more extreme. They did not use any fire on Shabbat, did not have sexual relations on Shabbat, didn’t eat anything fermented, including wine and yogurt on Pesach, and early Karaites did not eat meat in mourning for the destruction of the Temple. Most significantly, the Karaites rejected the precalculated calendar of the rabbinic community. Instead, new moons were declared by visual observation, and early Karaites declared leap years based on observing whether the barley crop had nearly reached maturity before the month of Nissan. This meant that Karaites often observed holidays on different days than Rabbanites.


It is easy to imagine the Karaites as anti-establishment rebels, determined to overthrow the rabbinic leadership. But there is another element at play as well; to borrow a term from the contemporary study of religion, the Karaites were fundamentalists. They were returning to the biblical text in search of authentic religion.


Like other fundamentalisms, the Karaite focus on the biblical text reflected an anxiety that the larger community had lost their way; they turned to the Tanakh to recover what was lost. Many early Karaites were focused on bringing about an immediate return to Zion and saw improper interpretation of the Torah as the cause for exile. Yefet Ben Ali, the influential Karaite author, writes the following in the introduction to his commentary on Exodus:


…Exile is like darkness and the shadow of death, and men walk in it like the blind... This is the state of the scholars of exile…At the end of exile however, there awakened a people who fixed their intention upon the Lord of the Universe, and they did not seek knowledge for the purpose of political leadership in this world. Rather their quest was to attain the truths of scripture and to comply with them in all their might…


Exile is a darkness of the mind and the spirit. Redemption will occur once scholars can read the Torah properly again.


One can see the attraction of Karaism; it claims the Jewish people have lost their way, even though the truth is right here before their eyes. And if only the Jews read the Torah more carefully, they would find the road to redemption.


It is difficult to disagree with fundamentalists. They don the mantle of authenticity and claim to have all the answers. And in times when there are worries about the direction of a religious community, fundamentalism offers the clearest solution.


Ultimately, the Karaites dwindled in size, and today are a community of about 35,000 people. Yet the spirit of Karaism lives on in a most unlikely place: the Orthodox Jewish community.


In a published lecture, Rav Yehuda Amital decried the fixation on halakhah in the religious Zionist community. He says that “just as Judaism fights against the Karaite relationship to the written Torah…So too it needs to fight against the Karaism of halakhah. Halakhah without an interpretation of reality is a form of Karaism.” Rabbi Amital sees this “Karaite-like” approach as a reason for disaffection in the Orthodox community: 


This Karaite approach has brought us to the point that halakhah has turned, in the eyes of the younger members of our community, into an (absurdly detached method) that has no connection to reality…. This is why we hear today from young religious people that: “the Torah doesn’t connect to us,” is “not something realistic” and “not my thing.”


This is a dramatic assertion. But the phenomenon Rabbi Amital is complaining about is very self-evident; one need only look to the collection of "chumras jokes'' in the Orthodox community that mock absurd stringencies, to recognize how perceptive Rabbi Amital's words are.


Prof. Haym Soloveitchik, in his essay Rupture and Reconstruction, offers a similar observation. He argues that in the last century and a half the Orthodox community has become a “text culture,” deciding practice based on books alone. This new focus on halakhic texts leads to increasing stringency; each book has its own view, and when these views are collected, it becomes natural to adopt every stringency, or what he calls "maximum position compliance."


When the book becomes the focus, then one scrambles to ensure that the book is properly obeyed; and when there are many authoritative books, each with multiple possibilities of practice, then compliance becomes a halakhic treadmill, a constant pursuit of the perfect way to do a mitzvah. In this new halakhic Karaism, keeping every chumra is the pathway to redemption.


But fundamentalism fails because it is fundamentally disconnected. Rav Amital points out the disconnection from reality; Professor Soloveitchik points out the disconnection from parental and communal practice. And ultimately, fundamentalism is disconnected from God.


Fundamentalism doesn’t fail because it’s extreme; it fails because it is soulless. While fixating on reading every word of the text correctly, it forgets to listen for the voice of God. The Torah is essential for our relationship with God; but when the Torah is detached from love, compassion, and community, instead of being a remedy, it becomes a poison.


Ultimately, the text cannot come first. In a famous responsa from July 1802, Rav Chaim of Volozhin grapples with a difficult case of a woman whose husband was presumed dead but there was a dearth of clear evidence to permit her to remarry. (Chut Hameshulash 1:8). All the local rabbis had issued a stringent opinion, but then they then turned to Rav Chaim, who was acknowledged to be the foremost halakhic authority of his time. In page after page of careful legal reasoning, Rav Chaim disputes many halakhic precedents, and allows the woman to remarry. At the very outset of the responsa Rav Chaim explains his process. He says that he issued a lenient ruling because “I have deliberated together with my Creator, and saw it was my obligation to use all my might to find a solution for agunot; may God save me from mistakes.” 


Rav Chaim recognized that to truly follow halakhah one must first look to serve God; therefore, he had to look for every possible way to alleviate the suffering of a bereaved widow. To simply offer a response without offering love for the crying widow would be a failure. A halakhic ruling without heart and soul is flawed. 


Fundamentalism might be loyal to the text; but the goal of Judaism is to serve God. And that is precisely where fundamentalism fails.

Friday, August 19, 2022

Heroic Gratitude

Gratitude is good, and good for you. Researchers have found that recognizing life’s blessings can transform a person’s attitude. Martin Seligman, one of the pioneering researchers in the field of positive psychology has found that practicing gratitude on a regular basis decreases the incidence of depression and makes people happier; and there are many psychologists who practice “gratitude interventions,” to improve the mental health of their patients. Gratitude is good for you.


Gratitude is also good, and one of Judaism's moral foundations. The Torah tells us there is an obligation to recite Birkat Hamazon, Grace after Meals, and that "When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God…" After each meal, we thank God for the food we have eaten.


The Talmud and the Midrash take this obligation to recite Birkat Hamazon a step further and add other blessings of gratitude. Another blessing is added before eating food as well; we thank God when we are hungry and needy, and we thank God again when we are comfortable and full. Hizkuni says that the redundant Hebrew word et in this verse teaches us that when eating at another’s table, the guest should offer a blessing for the host during Birkat Hamazon; the full text of the "guest's blessing" is found in the Talmud. The obligation to offer gratitude has many applications.


There are those who argue that faith itself is based on gratitude. Rabbeinu Bachya cites a Midrash that says, “Anyone who fails to appreciate the gifts they receive from a friend, will in the end fail to appreciate the gifts given to him by God." Authentic thankfulness leads us to appreciate everyone and everything around us. By reflecting on the goodness in this world we come to an appreciation of God. Gratitude is the gateway to godliness.


We teach lessons of gratitude at a very young age, and drill children to always say “thank you.” But because of this, we're left with an immature understanding of what gratitude is, and think of it as a mere phrase, a quick string of words meant to be charming and sweet. This immature form of gratitude can become an exercise in public relations, more about the person saying “thank you” than the person being thanked. True gratitude is a lot more than an automatic response.


The word gratitude has two meanings: appreciation and thankfulness. Tony Manela, who has written extensively about the philosophy of gratitude, has labeled them “gratitude that” and “gratitude to.” “Gratitude that” is simply appreciating good fortune; one can be grateful that it's a sunny day, or that they caught the subway just on time. “Gratitude to” is a specific sense of indebtedness, the need to thank someone who has done good for you. When someone provides you with an umbrella on a rainy day, or gives you directions on the subway, you owe “gratitude to” the person who helped you.


“Gratitude that” is important psychologically; people who can learn how to appreciate the world around them will be happier and more balanced. “Gratitude to” is the focus of philosophers and theologians, who discuss how to define the moral obligation of thanking another for a gift received.


In rabbinic Hebrew, gratitude is called hakarat hatov, “recognizing that which is good.” This phrase underlines that “gratitude to” is a two-part process; it is both having a sense of appreciation of the good in our lives, as well as recognizing the benefactor and thanking them. “Gratitude to” almost always includes “gratitude that”; every time we thank someone, it is because we both appreciate the gift we have received and the kindness of the benefactor. (And in Judaism, “gratitude that” and “gratitude to” are never completely separate; the world is God’s handiwork, and that is why we thank God for every blessing we experience.)


But both appreciation and thankfulness can be very challenging.


True thankfulness is emotionally demanding. People take pride in being self-sufficient and prefer being givers to being takers. “Gratitude to” is humbling. Included in every thank you is an admission that the recipient couldn't do it themselves, that they are lacking, and need the help of others.


Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner notes that the same word in Hebrew, hoda’ah, is used both for the expression of thanks, and conceding to another person in an argument. Rabbi Hutner writes: "The explanation for this shared terminology is that within the human heart there is an aspiration to be independent and not to need the help of others. When a person expresses his gratitude to his friend and offers him thanks, at that time he is also offering an admission that he couldn't do it himself, and that he needed the help of others."


Gratitude is a confession that you can't do it on your own. That is uncomfortable. We generally put the self-made man on a pedestal and aspire to be one ourselves. But once we take gratitude seriously, we realize the role parents, teachers, friends, and even random chance have had in our achievements. How difficult is the admission that we are indebted to others for almost everything in our lives! Ultimately, the lesson of Rabbi Hutner is that the more we consider for what we ought to be grateful, the more we realize how much of our accomplishments belong to others. “Gratitude to” forces us to confront our egos.


“Gratitude that” can be even more challenging; and at times, it is absurd. There are instances when life is too bitter to appreciate anything. Rabbi Yehuda Amital, who lost his family in the Holocaust, sharply criticized those who asserted that faith is based on gratitude; he found it shocking that people could make this argument after the Holocaust. Rabbi Amital says, "The question is this: after the terrible destruction that occurred during Holocaust, can one still say that our service of God is built on gratitude for what God does? Is it possible that a Jew who lost his wife and children can serve God based on gratitude? Is a Jew, whose job was to take the burnt bodies out of the ovens in Auschwitz, able to serve God out of gratitude? This is absolutely impossible."


In this lecture, Rabbi Amital is focused on the structure of belief; and he finds gratitude to be a fickle foundation for faith, one that very much depends on a person’s circumstances. Coincidentally, Rabbi Amital also offers a challenge to our understanding of gratitude. What meaning does gratitude have in a world of misery? How can you be thankful for blessings when life has become a curse? Appreciation makes no sense in the midst of an overwhelming tragedy; it is absurd to offer praise for the goodness of life, when life is not at all good.


It is in situations of tragedy that gratitude moves from being an ordinary moral obligation to a heroic act of personal transformation. Usually, we see gratitude as a reflection of the world, a reaction to the goodness that we have experienced. But when there is little for which to offer thanks, gratitude is not a reaction to a beautiful world; it is a vision of future goodness. By the sheer force of determination, this type of gratitude magnifies whatever good can be found and expresses an aspiration to repair a broken world. This is heroic gratitude.


Rabbi Yisrael Gustman was a brilliant Torah scholar who lost his 6-year-old son during the Holocaust; he later managed to survive by hiding in the woods. He eventually moved to Israel and started the Netzach Yisrael Yeshiva in Rechavia. Outside the Yeshiva was a small garden. Every day, Rabbi Gustman would go out to water the plants and tend to the garden. When new students would ask in astonishment why the dean of the Yeshiva was doing the gardening, someone would explain to them that Rabbi Gustman insisted on caring for the garden himself, because he felt he owed a debt of gratitude to the plants and trees for giving him a place to hide from the Nazis and offering him sustenance during the war.


Instead of being a painful reminder of the worst moments in his life, Rabbi Gustman saw the plants and trees in his garden as a symbol of hope. It takes a great deal of optimism to see the good in a forest filled with lurking evil. Offering thanks for the small glimpses of goodness that appear during the worst of times is an expression of faith in the possibilities of life. And by thanking the plants and trees, Rabbi Gustman was cultivating a better world for the future.


This is precisely what heroic gratitude is.

Friday, August 12, 2022

Consolation, Not Closure


Der Neunte Ab. Maurycy TREBACZ (Warsaw 1861- 1941 Łódź Ghetto).
 “Closure” has become part of our everyday vocabulary. While the word has its origins in psychology, today it refers to the popular notion that there are rituals and practices that can rid one of grief. What exactly one must do to achieve closure is unclear, but closure is purported to banish the anguish of profound loss and allow one to start over again.
Certainly, there are times when we truly need to let go of the past. After ending a relationship or leaving a job, one needs a fresh start. Whatever helps with accomplishing that is certainly useful.
But closure is now considered to be the ultimate goal of mourners as well. Those who have lost beloved relatives are counseled to quickly get over their misery, whether they like it or not. That’s why I dislike the word “closure”; it is often applied in ways that are self-centered and superficial. Closure comforts the mourner by forgetting the one who is being mourned.
Closure's popularity has a lot to do with our therapeutic culture, which focuses more on comfort than meaning. Even Jewish mourning rituals are judged by their effectiveness in achieving closure (i.e., shiva is good because it helps with closure, but 12 months of abstaining from celebrations gets in the way of “moving on”).
Champions of closure view grief the same way a child looks at a rainy day: an obstacle to fun that is best removed as soon as possible. I’ve seen good-intentioned people advise grieving families right after the funeral that “they have to move on.” Those who are more psychologically adept will talk about the need to work through the five stages of grief to achieve closure, as if you need to get your psychic passport stamped five times before getting released from grief. 
The grief-stricken cannot help but remember; for them memory is a compulsion, the central thread in a recurring loop of bereavement. But as the tragedy ages, memory becomes a choice and forgetfulness a possibility. The Talmud remarks that one begins to forget the deceased after 12 months; the mind begins to erase the past to make room for the future. In many ways, closure happens on its own.
Yet there are many Jewish rituals that specifically counter closure. Kaddish, Yizkor, and Yahrzeit are customs meant to reawaken our memories of the deceased. It is not uncommon during Yizkor to see people weeping for parents who had passed away decades earlier. Rav Akiva Eiger suggests that the very purpose of placing a tombstone is to arrest the instinctive process of forgetfulness, which stands as a memorial to the deceased. We always remember, and never move on.

But it is through memory that consolation arrives. At the shiva, visitors sit with the mourners and share memories of the deceased; and when it all ends, they stand up and say, “May the Lord console you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” How does consolation suddenly appear amidst the gloom of a shiva house? By allowing the mourner to continue their connection with the deceased. Mourning is not just an inconvenient emotion; it’s our way of continuing to love, even if the only way we can love is with a broken heart. That love is what offers us consolation.

Rav Zadok of Lublin and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch both note that the Hebrew word for consolation, “nechama,” can also mean regret. And they explain that the similarity between regret and consolation is that both involve reconsideration of what has occurred. For mourners, the realization that someone is gone, but not forgotten, is profoundly comforting. Even after death their legacy lives on. And at every shiva house, at every yartzeit, we reconnect to those we love, and we are consoled.

Seven months after my mother’s death, my niece gave birth to a baby girl; the baby was to be named on Shabbat morning. That Saturday night, we got a call informing us of the baby’s name. As expected, the baby was named after my mother. I sat down in a corner and cried, overwhelmed by the twin realizations that my mother was both gone, but not forgotten. I cried for my loss, yet at the same time, took enormous pride in the legacy my mother had left us.
It was a moment of grief and consolation. And I am not alone in this emotion; at baby namings and brises, look at the faces of the grandparents, who are crying. These are tears of joy and grief, the tears of true consolation.
This search for consolation is part of the Jewish calendar. We spent the three weeks leading up to Tisha B'Av reenacting the tragedy of the destruction, and then, for the following seven weeks, we read haftarot of consolation.

We spend more time emphasizing consolation than grief because consolation is a far more challenging task. It is easy to seek closure and leave the past behind. But to carry grief with you and simultaneously have hope and optimism is a far more difficult task.

Yet this is what the Jewish people have done for two millennia. We made sure never to forget; we continued to mourn the churban, the destruction, as if it just happened. We consoled ourselves with memories of Israel and Jerusalem, and dreams of a future redemption.

After 1900 years of exile, we did return home. Israel honors the legacy of two millennia of Jews who kept the memory of their homeland alive. And for the Jewish people, it gives us consolation that their dreams have finally been achieved.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin tells the following story about an acquaintance, Rav Schwartz, who was a Holocaust survivor who had lost his first wife and children during the war. After the war, he remarried and had two sons; and in 1964, the family made aliyah and moved to Israel. Tragically, the first son was killed in the Six Day War. And toward the end of the Yom Kippur War, their second son, their only remaining son, was killed in action as well. Rabbi Riskin was in Israel, and describes the shiva visit:
The Schwartzes lived at 8 Shimoni Street in a small apartment, and there must have been close to a hundred people who had come to try to console them. The Rav and Rebbetzin, who looked much, much older than I remembered them, were sitting on cushions on the floor. Everyone else was standing. The room was heavy with the press of the people and with an ominous and shrieking silence, a silence that seemed to scream out to the very heavens.
The Rav and his wife were sitting and not speaking, so no one was speaking. I stood in the back of the room for about twenty minutes. I didn’t even know if Rav Schwartz remembered me at all. … I began to leave, and, as I did so, I walked past Rav and Rebbetzin Schwartz, saying what one always says when one leaves a house of mourning: “HaMakom yenachem etchem betoch she’ar avelei Tziyon vee’rushalayim. May the Almighty console you among the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
Rav Schwartz looked up at me. “Rav Riskin, yes?” “Yes,” I replied. “Rav Riskin,” he said, “why is the subject of the prayer that you express to a mourner, ‘HaMakom’? ‘HaMakom’ means place. Yes, in this context it’s a synonym for God because the whole world is God’s place. But wouldn’t it have made more sense for consolers to say ‘HaShem yenachem etchem, ‘May the God of compassion console you,’ or ‘May Elokim, the God of creation console you.’ Why use ‘HaMakom,’ the place?
“I’ll tell you why,” he continued, “I understand it now for the first time. When my family was destroyed in the Holocaust, there was no comforting me; it was so senseless, so absurd. But now that I have lost my only remaining sons and have no chance for other children, I am sad, sad beyond even the ability to speak, but I am comforted nevertheless. At least this time my sons died so that the Jewish people could live. They died in defense of Israel. They died in defense of Yerushalayim. They died in defense of the Jewish future. ‘HaMakom,’ the place: Jerusalem, Israel, the Jewish State. HaMakom menachem oti, the place comforts me among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
Every time we walk in Israel, we don’t walk alone; there are myriad souls accompanying us: those who prayed for this land, those who dreamed of this land, those who fought for this land stand alongside us every step of the way. The great consolation of Jewish history is that the State of Israel is their eternal legacy. And it is this makom, this place, that truly honors their memories, and they continue to live on in the hearts of those who love Zion and Jerusalem.

Friday, August 05, 2022


On December 10th, 1978, Menachem Begin received the Nobel Peace Prize for signing the Camp David Accords with Egypt. In his Nobel lecture, Begin made the point that peace is a foundation of Judaism:
The ancient Jewish people gave the world the vision of eternal peace, of universal disarmament, of abolishing the teaching and learning of war. Two Prophets, Yeshayahu Ben Amotz and Micha HaMorashti, having foreseen the spiritual unity of man under God – with His word coming forth from Jerusalem – gave the nations of the world the following vision expressed in identical terms:
“And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Begin's lesson has deep biblical roots. While the Jews in the desert made military preparations to enter the land of Israel, they were commanded to first offer negotiations: "When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace." It is a mitzvah to search for peace before going to war.
Ramban and Rambam explain that the obligation includes the initial war of conquest; they quote a passage in Talmud Yerushalmi that says Yehoshua sent letters offering peace to the inhabitants of Canaan before crossing the Jordan River. Rashi however disagrees and explains that the Biblical command to offer peace is limited to elective wars that would take place later in history.
At first glance, Rashi seems to limit the obligation to seek peace. But a look at all of Rashi’s writing on this subject offers a very different picture; Rashi is actually making a far more dramatic claim about peace. In our Torah reading, when the Jews approach the boundaries of Sichon the King of the Amorites, Moshe sends messengers with “words of peace," looking for a way to avoid war. This request is difficult to explain according to Rashi's view; the war against Amorites was a war of conquest, and there should have been no obligation to make an offer of peace. So why did Moshe send these messengers? Rashi explains that Moshe thought “Although the Omnipresent had not commanded me to proclaim peace unto Sihon, I learnt to do so from … when the Holy One, blessed be He, was about to give the Torah to Israel, he took it round to Esau and Ishmael, …and opened unto them with peace. Another explanation… Moses said to God, “I learned this from You, …You could have sent one flash of lightning to consume the Egyptians, but instead, with much patience, You sent me from the desert to Pharaoh saying, ‘Let my people go.’”  At Mount Sinai, God reaches out to all of humanity, not just Israel; and in Pharaoh’s court, God follows paths of pleasantness. Clearly, His ways are the ways of peace.
Without any divine command, Moshe decides on his own to pursue peace with Sichon. He does so because we don’t need to be commanded to pursue peace - we should understand the importance of peace on our own. Peace is not just another halakhic obligation; it is a moral foundation of Judaism. Even when we don’t “have” to make peace, we want to make peace. Rashi is offering an even more radical view, obligating one to pursue peace even without a command.
One could stop here. Peace is often the subject of edifying lectures and inspirational sermons. But in the real world, the pursuit of peace is far from simple. The willingness to extend goodwill to one’s enemies can lead to failure. Moral scruples, including the willingness to make peace, are often a strategic disadvantage. There is an asymmetry when the moral and immoral engage in battle because ethics on the battlefield can be exploited as a weakness.
The ruthless can misuse diplomacy and negotiations to buy time, and barbarians have no limits on how they conduct war. They see cruelty as a source of strength. Indeed, authoritarians and fanatics often mock those who desire peace. Ismail Haniyah, the former Hamas Prime Minister of Gaza would often proclaim: “We shall (be)….educating the future generation to love death… as much as our enemies love life.” This refrain has been repeated by many others. To love life and pursue peace is seen as unmanly and cowardly, a weakness born out of decadence.
This reality makes war far more complicated for those who pursue goodness and peace. One must be shrewd with the devious (II Samuel 22:27); it would be disastrous for the nice guys to always finish last. But how shrewd may one be? Michael Walzer, in his book Just and Unjust Wars, describes what he calls the "realist argument," that all is fair in war, because wars are fought to be won. Even in Western democracies there have always been those who dismiss or diminish the need to consider battleground ethics. They believe that the ends justify the means, and that the noble goal of defending democracy justifies the most ignoble of methods.
And there have always been moments of necessity when realism is the only reasonable option. In the last century, nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan to end what seemed to be an endless war, and to prevent even more lives from being lost. During the Cold War, the democracies of the world adopted the policy of mutually assured destruction. They vowed to retaliate fully against any Soviet nuclear attack, even if the response would be pointless, and too late to save their own countries. Mutually assured destruction, if employed, would be an act of vengeful retaliation; but in an era of nuclear brinkmanship, it was a critical deterrent. This policy was a matter of necessity, because without it, militant dictatorships like the Soviet Union could simply take over the world.
One might conclude that if war by its very nature requires realism, then dreams of peace and concerns of ethics can be ignored. But even on the battlefield one must still place ethical concerns first. The Talmud Yerushalmi says that when besieging an enemy city, there is a commandment to leave a path open for people to flee. The Ramban explains that the reason for this commandment is because we must “learn to always act with compassion, and even (show compassion) to our enemies during battle.” An army must act in a humane manner, even if it is inconvenient; going into battle is not a vacation from ethics. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein said, “The most important thing that a person going into battle must know is that he is not passing from a world with a hierarchy of values to a world with a different hierarchy of values. One person, one nation, cannot split into two. And in every situation, on top of the hierarchy of values must stand peace.” A religious tradition that takes ethics seriously will not abandon its values during wartime.
This idea is referred to as just war; but how to define an army’s ethical obligations during wartime is often difficult. Walzer quotes Thomas Nagel, who in an essay entitled “War and Massacre” describes an ongoing problem in assessing wartime ethics, one of “means and ends.” On one hand there is a utilitarian perspective, for which the path to the quickest victory is what is most important; this is an argument of the ends justifying the means. On the other hand, is the absolutist perspective, which focuses not on outcomes but on actions, and is concerned with avoiding any morally distasteful behavior. These two perspectives are frequently in conflict; and even those who care deeply about ethics recognize that there are no simple solutions to battlefield questions. As Waltzer puts it, "We know that there are some outcomes that must be avoided at all costs, and we know that there are some costs that can never rightly be paid." But in between those extremes, answers become far less certain.
Pursuing ethics in wartime is like trying to ride two horses at the same time, endeavoring to fulfill the duty to protect one’s country while never letting go of the obligation to treat all human beings with compassion. This is sometimes impossible; Walzer acknowledges that "decent men and women, hard pressed in war, must sometimes do terrible things, and then they themselves have to look for some way to reaffirm the values they have overthrown." Ethical standards, even when breached, must continue to be honored.
In the real world, it often seems futile to pursue peace, and naive to offer enemies compassion. But we must continue to do so because it is a fundamental value. A well-known Midrash lists multiple ways in which the Torah emphasizes the great importance of peace. The list is quite varied, and the examples of Torah ordained “peace” relate to very different conflicts: friends, relatives, warring countries, and even the angels above. In it, the personal and geopolitical are all thrown into the same pot; fighting with your spouse and waging war with an enemy are listed one after the other, as if somehow the situations are comparable. But I believe the point of the Midrash is precisely that; peace is always important, at home and abroad, in heaven and on earth. We never stop caring about peace, no matter how big or how small, because we see the world through peace-colored glasses.
The Jewish tradition’s reverence for peace is reflected in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. In it, Israel makes a remarkable offer to its neighbors: “We extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help…. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.”
In 1948, Israel’s call for peace seemed futile; immediately after declaring independence, Israel was invaded by seven neighboring Arab countries. But 74 years later, this declaration looks prophetic; Israel now has peace treaties with most of its neighbors. Maybe the dream of peace isn’t that naive. After all, Moshe’s call for peace was finally answered, 3,300 years later.