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Those Who Dare to Speak in the Name of Morality

September 1, 2015

This month, I would like to share with you a wonderful article that was published in Hebrew in a weekly newspaper that I read faithfully, Makor Rishon. The author is Dr. Shalom Rosenberg, Professor Emeritus in the Jewish Philosophy department at Hebrew University. He is not only a highly-respected philosopher but a man of faith and a true Bible scholar. I have taken the liberty of translating and slightly editing his words and hope you will find them both inspiring and educational:

When you go out to war against your enemies” (Deuteronomy 21:10). Before we discuss the issue of war, I would like to quote a verse from Proverbs (14:34) which has had commentators arguing for generations: “Righteousness exalts a nation and the kindness of nations is sin.” Can kindness be a sin? Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai (1st century rabbi) asked his greatest students this same question and they responded with a number of possible interpretations (Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 10:2). Rabbi Yochanan identified with the explanation of Rabbi Nechunya Ben HaKaneh: “The same way that the sin offering atones for Israel so righteousness atones for the nations.” He translates the Hebrew word “Chatat” not as sin but as sin offering and explains that kindness atones for sin.

What a wonderful humanistic explanation! But other students, whose views were rejected, dared to interpret the verse as a criticism against the nations. Having experienced the worst of the Roman Empire, they stressed that the kindness done by the nations is damaged and false. It is not true kindness but rather serves to mask corruption and crime and to secure power. This was the interpretation adopted by many rabbis for generations. And indeed, the pessimism of these students was well-grounded for much of our history.  Sometimes, kindness indeed masks sin.

But now let us return to the opening statement from Scripture: “When you go out to war.”  War presents us with many difficult moral dilemmas. One of them, of decisive significance for us today, concerns the problem of harming civilians, their bodies, their cities, their buildings and their infrastructure. The 4th Geneva Convention was created to address this issue and indeed forms the basis of international law on the subject. It would seem that international law has achieved a stunning victory: kindness has overcome evil and has realized the dream of generations. Or at least, that is the opinion of the international community. Only one voice stands outside this chorus, listening to these voices. It is the voice of common sense, which identifies the absurdity which has overtaken the law and turned morality into hollow moralism.

It is forbidden to harm innocent civilians. A wonderful statement but devoid of context. Is a nation which enables the cancer of terrorism to grow within it, a cancer whose extensions threaten its neighbors, an innocent? Moreover, is the prohibition against harming innocent civilians valid when the enemy whom I am fighting against does not honor this principle and defends itself from behind civilian hostages, either of his own people or of mine? How are we to respond to this situation?

Legal experts respond that the crimes of the enemy do not give us license to behave in the same criminal fashion. Purist intellectuals add that we dare not stoop to the level of our despicable enemies. They will not succeed in corrupting us. Strong but hollow  words. They cover up a lie. Accusing Israel of war crimes paradoxically results in the use of civilians as human shields by terrorists with no conscience.

International Law is blind to this. It has still not learned to distinguish between normative wars and wars against terrorist organizations. In practice, international law punishes those who try hardest to be moral and righteous, thereby protecting criminals and strengthening evil. Moralism thus cooperates with evil and “kindness” becomes sin.

The time has come for common sense to fight back against the legal bindings created by intellectual cleverness. People of culture, the academy and the arts convince themselves that they are fighting the war of justice and peace against a “dirty” and noisy rabble, but in fact they are fighting against straight thinking which has not yet become corrupted. 

Ordinary people are not familiar with legal nuances so there is a need for intellectuals to create a moral system that is coherent and consistent. But when it comes to moral feeling, to religious feeling and sometimes even aesthetic feeling, these are found more often intuitively among ordinary people with a healthy moral spirit. The magic and the charm of the intellectual’s language is a trap. They create the kindness that becomes sin. We should never stoop to the level of our enemies, but what right do you have, “guardians of purity” to send our brothers, soldiers and civilians, to die on the altar of false and hollow moralistic pretensions. Our people have enough fear to deal with. They do not need to be made to feel guilty that their acts and their courage are tainted. 

Professor Rosenberg has elucidated in an intelligent and moral way the basic instinct we all have that Israel is fighting a just war in as moral a way as possible. But true morality does not shy away from “dirty” situations. We must face those situations and respond to them in the most ethical way possible. Tying our hands with principles that are taken out of context is, in essence, masking sin with supposed kindness.




Sondra Baras
Director, Israel Office