Why as Jews, as Israelis, We Must Repent for Gaza’s Dead

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A grandfather of three Palestinian children who medics said were killed in an Israeli air strike, cries outside a hospital morgue in Gaza City, August 21, 2014. Credit: Reuters

My moral introspection – cheshbon hanefesh – induced by the forthcoming High Holydays would not make an engrossing tell-all autobiography nor a big Hollywood movie production. I hate to confess it would not even be material for a sensitive low-budget indie. My life is too staid. For a few years, I’ve had to make do with wondering if I had sinned by using a pencil on the Intermediate Days of the festivals, and the interpersonal stuff could mostly be chalked up to crabbiness – not permitted by halakha, but not on the 10 Most [Un]Wanted Sin List either.

The “good” news this year is that I – and you – have a lot to think about, and it is uncomfortably close to that sin Top Ten. We have just “been involved” (a euphemism) in the deaths of some 1,500 Arab civilians (including 500 children and 250 women) in the Gaza War. I say “we” because almost all of us supported our actions there – me also, metaphorically waving the blue & white, when I responded to a few men-in-arms who asked if they could hesitate in battle; I answered that they must not, and that Maimonides tells us that they must directly do what must be done.

But innocents were killed. And their deaths were done by us. Indeed, King David could not build the Temple because of the blood he shed in many just wars.

Maimonides concludes in his introduction to Avot that “we find that he possessed cruelty, although he only used it against idolaters and heretics, he was not worthy in God’s eyes because he killed so many.”

Writing this, even I get angry with myself: Was it not the fault of Hamas who put children directly in the line of fire? I have no trouble blaming Hamas. But we have a demanding religion, and an “Old Testament” God who expects us to search our actions, especially at this time of year, no matter what.

If you can think in terms of halakha then maybe you still imagine we might just have a free pass. After all, Maimonides fully expressed the idea that while we are culpable for things we do on purpose and at least partially responsible for those we do inadvertently through carelessness of action or ignorance of the Law, there is a third category where we are excused. Those are things done under ones (Hebrew for overwhelming compulsion or force): in that case one is exempt from repentance and confession.

So clearly here regarding Gaza where we Israelis were fighting in tunnels built to convey murderers to southern towns and stopping terrorists from launching rockets towards our heartland, the argument is: How can we be blamed for those innocents who were deliberately placed in the way of our response by a cynical enemy? And moreover both the enemy and the innocents were warned. We acted under coercion!

So I say yes, yes and we can also push aside charges of disproportionality regarding our casualties and theirs, because we do take care for our own by building shelters. But the ones question must haunt us, for in Jewish practice, it doesn’t go away. Indeed in the Yom Kippur confessional we seek atonement for deeds that we sinned both “through coercion (ones) and willingly.” The prayerbook of the Vilna Gaon (d. 1797, the “Maimonides” of early modernity) explains this disjuncture that even in an ostensibly coerced case we are indicted if we do the act eagerly, unblinkingly; or if perhaps we could have avoided the whole situation to begin with utilizing forethought, and finally that through rov tachbolot (much shrewdness), we could have extracted ourselves from the situation. These tough criteria for guilt or complete innocence make us pause as we consider Gaza.

Where does this leave us?

1) Ones or “a difficult situation” is not a complete free pass.

2) We therefore need a real and vigorous State Commission to investigate – in religious terms, a cheshbon hanefesh, not so we can save face but so that we can face ourselves. We need to know if this war could have been avoided or mitigated.

3) We need to examine difficult decisions that were made that run counter to halakhic morality – starting with: Can you wage war when the population has no place to escape to, in violation of Maimonides’ clear dictum that refuge must always be available even to our worst enemies – and certainly to a civilian population?

What is the Jewish justification – I see none – in dropping a bomb when it is known that it will certainly kill the wife and eight month-old baby of a terrorist leader?

4) We must ask ourselves why do we shrink from asking ourselves these questions? They are hard, but the fact that our enemies hurl terrible accusations at us does not excuse us from understanding our own deeds. That is the meaning of Ellul and the High Holidays.

Finally, halakha counsels us that any action that is either wrongful or equivocal such as those emerging from ones, upon repetition become “as if permitted”. As we undoubtedly will face new challenges in this area we need to refuse to acquiesce to the massive death of innocents as the New Normal. That, I confess, will be too dramatic for any filming and too traumatic for any true repentance.

Rabbi Landes is Director of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches the Senior Kollel Talmud class and Theology. The views expressed here are his own.

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