In the wake of the horrific attacks of October 7, the language of this morning’s Torah reading pulsates with relevance and urgency. “And the earth became corrupt before God, the earth was filled with violence” – in Hebrew, hamas. “And God said to Noah, ‘I have decided to put an end to all life, for the earth is filled with hamas – I will destroy them with all the earth.” (Genesis 6:11, 13). A generation notorious for its violence, lawlessness, and lack of a moral rudder – an image that could describe our own time. So too, God’s decision to flood the world for its sins raises thorny questions of proportionality, collective punishment, and the death of innocents, questions on the docket of Israel and the world today. Wicked as they were, one wonders whether every human being, every living being, deserved death. “OK,” one might say, “punish the bad ones; maybe even wipe them out. But wipe out everyone?” As Abraham will say to God two weeks from now when the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah hangs in the balance, “Surely, you will not sweep away the innocent along with the guilty.” (18:23). But in the case of this morning’s flood story, that is exactly what God does, meeting the violence, the hamas, with a collective and crushing punishment – a punishment that, the careful reader will note, does not do away with the root problem. As God reflects post-deluge, “The ways of the human heart are evil from their beginnings.” The net benefit of all that death and destruction? An open question to this very day.
It is not easy to write a sermon in the midst of crisis, knowing that from the time of writing to the time of delivering, the facts on the ground may have changed and are likely not altogether known. When I pressed “print” on this sermon, the tanks of the Israeli Defense Forces were lining up at the Gaza Border, border communities in the north and south were evacuating if they had not already done so, and regional and global tensions were rising with every passing minute. Those of us with family members in the IDF have received the phone calls home; the next point of communication is unknown and uncertain. I assume that Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza will begin imminently if it has not happened already. This is not the beginning of this war. This war began – and this is a critical point to which we must return again and again and again – on October 7, when Hamas savagely attacked Israel, murdering over 1,400 innocents, wounding thousands, and taking hostage some 200 men, women, seniors, children, and babies. Burning families alive, raping women, slaughtering children and parents before each other’s eyes. On October 7, Israel was viciously assaulted, Hamas attacking not just Israel, not just Jews, but all of humanity. No matter what the world says, we must always remember that what is happening, or will happen imminently, is not the first stage of this war but a response to October 7. What Israel is doing or is about to do is no different than what America did after Pearl Harbor, what America did after 9/11, or what any country would do if attacked as savagely as Israel was.
The battlefront in this war is not just in the Middle East. It is in our schools, universities, workspaces, news media, and social media platforms around the globe. We are searching for the language to counter the claims of far too many that Israel is the aggressor, or even those who would and will question Israel’s right to take military action. This morning I want to provide you with tools and vocabulary to prepare you for this next stage, the moral deluge about to come. I want to give you a rabbinic and moral lexicon for thinking about the ethics of waging war – what philosophers from Augustine to Aquinas to Michael Walzer to Rabbi Elliot Dorff refer to as “just war theory.” War is horrible, but sometimes – and this is such a time – it is necessary. In this hour of necessity, it is not only fair but our obligation to ask if there is a way, in all the horror, that Israel’s aims can be achieved and can be characterized to the world as justified.
In a conversation about just war theory, the discussion falls into two categories: First, questions related to the initiation of war (jus ad bellum), and second, questions related to the conduct of war itself (jus in bello).
With regard to the first category – the terms by which war is morally justified – Israel, as noted, did not initiate this war. The first obligation of any state or sovereign authority, Israel or any other, is to ensure the safety and security of its citizens, be they at home or at risk in foreign territory. These obligations are altogether consistent with Jewish law. Building on Exodus 22:1, regarding the right of a homeowner to self-defense should a thief break in, the Talmud teaches “if someone comes to kill you, rise up to kill him first.” According to Jewish law, a nation has not just a right, but an obligation to defend itself – against actual attacks and against anticipated attacks.
The great twelfth-century codifier of Jewish law Moses Maimonides gave fullest expression to the different categories or kinds of war. For the purposes of today, we will divide them into wars of choice, milhemet reshut, and wars of obligation, milhemet hovah. The former, the discretionary category of war, is somewhat narrow, including efforts to enlarge a nation’s territory or prestige. The latter, the obligatory category, includes those wars conducted in self-defense – in Maimonides’s words, “to deliver Israel from an enemy who has attacked them” or preemptively – “so Israel’s enemies will not march against them.”
Judaism is not a pacifist religion. We do not stand idly by when our brother’s blood has been shed, nor when the life of our kin is at risk – what is referred to as the laws of rodef, the obligation to intervene to stop a pursuer from killing another person. Any nation, all the more so the Jewish nation, is permitted, if not obligated, to defend itself. It is an obligation that takes on an increased urgency when the matter of civilian hostages is added to the equation. The mitzvah of pikuah nefesh, the obligation to save a life, takes precedence over all else. The commandment to redeem captives, pidyon sh’vuyim, is considered a mitzvah of paramount importance in Jewish law and ethics, as seen in next week’s Torah reading, when Abraham goes to war to rescue Lot and his family; in 1976, when Israel rescued the hostages in Entebbe; or if you like, in 1980, in our own country’s failed attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran. So great is this obligation that it falls not just on individuals, but on the entire community. There is a rich literature of the heavy ransoms paid by pre-modern Jewish communities when one of their own was taken captive. Self–defense, anticipatory self-defense, defense against future attacks, the obligation to save Jewish lives hanging in the balance – long before October 7 these principles were well established in our sources to identify the circumstances in which war is morally justified.
And in the wake of October 7, they continue to serve as our north star. The fact that world opinion, in just a few short days, has turned Israel from victim to aggressor is a subject to which we must respond immediately and on which we will undoubtedly expend considerable energy in the future. But this morning, in this sanctuary, let there be no doubt. Let our moral clarity steel our resolve and that of our children and grandchildren. Israel was attacked – brutally. Israel has not only a right but an obligation to defend itself. Israel has an obligation to do everything in its power to redeem the hostages. Israel has an obligation to its citizens that they should dwell in safety – that the horrors of October 7 never be allowed to happen again. It is not complicated, and anyone who tells you that it is needs to be interrogated as to why they are holding the state of the Jews to a different standard than they would any other nation.
As for the second category – the ethics of conduct within war – here too Jewish law offers much guidance. Maimonides teaches that when besieging a city, those conducting the siege may surround it on three sides but not four, presumably so that those refugees seeking to flee the battle can save their own lives. Nachmanides, writing a century later, taught that one must deal kindly with one’s enemy – the enemy itself – and even the trees of the enemy’s fields. There is a fascinating passage regarding our patriarch Jacob’s anticipated, but never actualized, battle with the camp of his brother Esau. Jacob is described as both “afraid and distressed.” The sixteenth-century rabbi known as the Maharal of Prague asks: Why two adjectives – “afraid” and “distressed”? Wouldn’t one adjective have been enough? The Maharal answers his own question, explaining that Jacob was afraid for his own safety and distressed at the thought that the anticipated battle might force him to take the life of another. Even when it comes to redeeming captives, as Jacob’s sons did when their sister Dinah was abducted, the moral judgment of the Bible counsels against excessive bloodlust. Enemy lives are not worth more or less than Jewish lives. We are all created equally in the image of God. You may recall the famous rabbinic midrash of God castigating his hosts of angels, who sang as the liberated Israelites escaped and their Egyptian oppressors drowned in the sea behind them[MH1] . Abnormal evil is countered not by more evil but by an affirmation of what it means to be a human being created in the image of God – the very thing that makes life worth living and Israel worth defending. As Jews, we dare not let the inhuman actions inflicted on us prompt us to lose our own humanity.
In practical terms, all of this leaves Israel with a series of difficult choices. Again, the question is not whether Israel has the right to defend itself. It does. The question is whether Israel will be smart and moral in this war of obligation. Will Israel make sure the remedy does not cause more harm than the illness? In determining the extent of the war, the duration of the war, the purposes of the war, the number of lives that will be lost in order to save other lives, Israel must perform the impossible balancing act of self-defense, seeking to secure its borders, limiting the death of its own soldiers and innocent civilians, redeeming hostages, and pursuing peace. This is not the 1973 Yom Kippur War or any other conventional war fought on an open battlefield by opposing sides in tanks and military uniforms. All Israel can do is what it has always done: Make the best imperfect decisions based on the information it has knowing that any decision will come with a heavy cost.
And while it goes without saying, I will say it anyway: This entire discussion is made much more complex by the fact that in Hamas, Israel is fighting an enemy that does not follow any laws of warfare, that has proven itself barbaric beyond words, whose very tactics are, by design, lacking in humanity. What Israel understands, what we understand, but what the world seems to fail to understand is that Hamas neither represents nor serves the interests of the Palestinian people; rather, just the opposite. In comingling with civilian populations, in stealing humanitarian aid, in it its willingness to use Palestinians as human shields, in placing military assets under hospitals and beneath schools, in cutting off access to escape or relief – it is Hamas that is responsible for the death of civilian Palestinians. For a host of reasons, from sheer ignorance to things more nefarious, when it comes to war conduct, not only is the brutality of Hamas overlooked, but Israel is held to a different standard than any other nation, a difference that, if you peel away, betrays antisemitism in its suggestion that Jewish lives are worth less than other lives. It is a realization as uncomfortable as it is clarifying, and in our moral clarity, once again our resolve is made more firm.
The final thing I want to say about Jewish just war theory is that Maimonides, Nachmanides, the Maharal of Prague, and so many others had the curse and the blessing of contemplating an ethics of war before 1948, that is, when the Jewish people were exiled, persecuted, and powerless. For all of them, this was all just a mental exercise. Thank God, we have the problems we do. The Jewish people have a sovereign state and army and are able to fight a war and debate how to do it justly. Given the choice of making these difficult decisions versus the moral purity of exiled victimhood, I would choose the former over the latter any day, and so should you. It is actually the foundation of what this fight is all about – the right of Jews to self-determination.
The decisions of the coming days, weeks, and maybe months will be tortured. Sometimes Israel will get it right, and sometimes Israel will get it wrong. But the fact that Israel, unlike the other side, is asking the questions makes us who we are and makes Israel worth defending – in Israel and around the globe. May the soldiers of the IDF be victorious in their just cause, may we arm ourselves with the vocabulary, advocacy, and fortitude to defend their cause wherever they may be and wherever we may be, and may we all arrive soon at the day envisioned by the prophet Micah: “And each person shall sit in peace under their own vine and their own fig tree – with no one to make them afraid.”