Torah from Around the World #5

By: Rabbi Dr. Mark L. Winer, Ph.D., D.D.,

West London Synagogue of British Jews

As we read


this week, it is just a year since the end of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.  Progressive Jews in Israel and around the world continue to agonize over the war and its aftermath.  Although some progressive Jews felt that Israeli action might have been disproportionate, most defended Israel’s right to respond militarily.


portrays the beginning of the Exodus and the crossing of

Yam Suf

.  Our portion depicts us Jews as a people of action.   “Adonai said to Moses, Why do you cry out to me?  Tell the Israelites to go forward.” (Exodus 14:15)  Ultimately, God judges us by our actions.  When the Israelites received the Torah, they said “We will do and we will understand.”  The doing comes before the understanding.  Action comes before faith.  Soren Kierkegaard spoke about his Christianity as a “leap of faith.”  In response, Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke of a “leap of action.”

Standing by the sea, pursued by the Egyptians, Moses stood with his people praying, when God spoke to Moses.  Enough prayer, go forward already.  According to one Midrash, Nachson ben Aminadav plunged into the sea.  When the water rose up to his neck, the sea parted and the Israelites were able to cross (Mechilta BeShallach 5).

Taking the leap of action in defense of our people has always involved collateral damage, the deaths of many others – soldiers and civilians.  “The waters turned back and covered the chariots and the horseman – Pharaoh’s entire army that followed them into the sea; not one of them remained.” (Exodus 14:28)  “I will sing unto Adonai, God’s glorious triumph, horse and driver Adonai has hurled into the sea.”  (Exodus 15:1)

Despite our triumph, God never allows us to forget the humanity of even our most implacable enemies.  In a passage in


, the Egyptians were drowning in the sea, and the angels of God started to sing songs of praise.  God reprimanded them, “My children are drowning, and you sing songs of praise!”

Within the context of Progressive Jewish values, studying


a year later, what do we think in retrospect about Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza?  Most Progressive Jews agree that the war resulted from years of Hamas bombardment of the nearly one million inhabitants in the Israeli cities within rocket range of Gaza.  Despite its signature on ceasefire agreements, Hamas unilaterally abrogated its commitments.  Israel could not avoid military response any more than Britain could, if rockets were being launched on a daily basis from Channel Islands in the direction of Southeast England.  Unthinkable today perhaps in Europe, but it was the daily reality for the Southwest region of Israel adjacent to Gaza.  Hamas openly advocated the destruction of Israel and rejected – and continues to reject – the Two State Solution.

We Jews hate war.  In the Jewish tradition, no matter how justified, military action may take place only within very narrow moral guidelines.  We suffered with the inevitable deaths of women, children and men killed inadvertently as the Israeli military targets rocket emplacements, arms depots and other strictly military targets placed in deliberately close proximity to schools, mosques and hospitals.  No matter how cautious Israeli military action was, the television coverage of civilian suffering in Gaza won Israel few friends in the world, and enflamed the Arab street in ways which make peace seem less easily attainable.

As progressive Jews we have always been both unequivocal proponents of Israel’s right to exist and of Israel’s responsibility to seek peace seriously with its Arab neighbors.  We nuance our support for Israel, reserving the right to criticize those Israeli government policies with which we conscientiously disagree.  By and large, we progressive Jews around the world align ourselves with those of our Israeli brothers and sisters who have opposed the “settlements” and with those who have opposed the hijacking of the Jewish People by those who use Torah to defend the most expansionist elements.  We refuse to let Judaism be perceived as authentic grounds for expansionism.

We urge the Israeli government to manifest as much expertise in making peace as in its military defense.  When war is unavoidable, we advocate every effort to minimize civilian casualties and deaths.  We recognize that military victory will never secure peace on any kind of lasting basis.

The war resulted in the virtual cessation of the Hamas rocket bombardment.  But Gilad Shalit remains a prisoner, and perceptions of Israel’s moral standing throughout the world have sunk to even lower levels than before the war.  Objective analysis would conclude that Hamas won the war from a public relations standpoint.


speaks eloquently to our quandary about Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza, both in its Biblical text and in the rabbinic commentaries on the text. As religious Jews, we have to wonder whether there might have been other ways, in retrospect, to secure Israel’s survival.  We debate the Israeli government’s tepid response to President Obama’s peace initiatives in the Middle East and his call upon Israel to freeze settlement expansion.

And yet, the foes of Jewish survival remain implacable – from Pharaoh to Amalek to Haman to Hitler to Ahmadinajad.  Just to survive Israel has had to become a modern Jewish Sparta.  Most of us Progressive Jews feel proud of Israeli military prowess, and few of us would apologize for Israel’s necessity of defending itself over the sixty-two years of its existence.

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