Lessons of the Lebanon War: Teaching Humility During a Summer of Raw Emotion–A Rabbinic Perspective

Categories: Jewish Identity
By Leonard Gordon

From The Jewish Frontier
Winter 2007

The war between Israel and Hizbollah this summer actualized many of my deepest and longstanding fears. I saw Israel’s increasing vulnerability, a lack of progress towards peace with the Palestinians, a world community seemingly oblivious to Israel’s impossible bind, and the frightening implications US reckless foreign policy has for Israel’s future. As a congregational rabbi, my task was to help my community deal with anxiety while facing the complex reality of America and Israel’s behavior in war. Looking back over my teaching these past months, I see a theme underlying a variety of messages: The conflicts in Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq are complex and have a very long, interwoven history that we need to understand more fully. At the same time, we need to appreciate that America’s arrogant abuse of power has had terrible consequences for Israel and must be opposed by the Jewish community.


One of my first talks concerned the mythologies that are battling one another along Israel’s northern frontier. Hizbollah takes its name from a 7th century Islamic sect destroyed in battle in 680 c.e. The date of this defeat is still marked on the Shiite calendar. When the contemporary Hizbollah movement chose that name, they inserted themselves into a historic narrative where death in battle gains immortality and military loss wins favor in God’s eyes. The problem of asymmetrical warfare is not limited Israel’s conventional army facing a non-state army dispersed among civilians. In the context this historical narrative, today’s Hizbollah cannot be defeated; Hizbollah already was defeated over a thousand years ago, only to persevere through the centuries and return stronger than ever.
On the other side, the importance to Israel of recovering hostages cannot be understood through the contemporary political or military balancing of costs against objectives. . For Jews, the redemption of captives is a basic moral obligation and communal responsibility. The value Jewish history and tradition places on the redemption of captives weighs heavily on any Israeli government. Nasrallah clearly misread his enemy.


The public debate this summer, leading up to the mid-term election, focused on our involvement in Iraq and the legitimacy of attempting to build a new Middle East that embraces democracy and Western political values. In another of my congregation’s communal discussions, we traced this debate back in Jewish sources to ”Just War” theories of Maimonides (1135-1204) and Nachmanides (1194-1270). Maimonides taught that fighting for an enemy’s freedom was legitimate and commendable. Nachmanides thought that the goal of changing the morality of an enemy state was utopian and in all ways problematic. Today, we face these same issues as we disagree about whether it is appropriate to impose our political and moral standards on others.


Each year on Yom Kippur, Jewish communities take time to think about the martyrs of Jewish history—those who died in wars against Rome, during the Crusades, in Europe during the Shoah, and in Israel’s wars for independence and survival. The service that focuses on this theme is traditionally called “The Martyrology”. In the post 9/11 world, where martyrdom is so closely associated with terror against innocent civilians, how can we exalt those who died to uphold their faith? During the service this year, our community confronted this issue. . We used stories and poems to inspire us to transcend the modern association of “martyr” with a cult of death and instead find a new meaning for “martyr” as witness in life.


In the aftermath of the Shoah, the Jewish tradition of anti-Zionism has been almost entirely rejected. Once the dominant stream in secular and religious Jewish politics, today anti-Zionism is affirmed only in marginal ultra-Orthodox and far-leftist circles. This summer, as part of the teaching of humility, my congregation studied some of the classic texts of pre-Holocaust Jewish anti-Zionism. We found a tradition that is rich and varied, nuanced and strikingly contemporary. For example, the historian Simon Dubnow’s affirmed Jewish stateless nationalism as a model for our world’s future. The Sfas Emet was concerned about the role of Zionism in increasing anti-Semitism. And the liberal theologian Hermann Cohen made the trenchant remark, “Those fools – they want to be happy!”


In these desperate months, I have urged my community to three diverse actions:

•Tzeddakah: I urged my congregants to support groups helping the peoples dislocated by the fighting. Our congregation gave financial support to an Israeli educational travel group that transformed its operations to help Israelis who lost work and homes during the war. Finding ways to help the displaced Lebanese while ensuring that the money would not pass through Hizbollah was a more difficult challenge. I turned to the American Jewish World Service and the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center to guide us in this task.

•Travel to Israel: Even though we cancelled our planned congregational trip, I encouraged congregants to continuing travel to Israel. Many people signed up for the congregational trip were going to Israel for the first time and very uneasy about undertaking this journey while missiles were falling. However, for those familiar with Israel or with more intrepid souls, I reiterated that avoiding Israel in a time of danger is tantamount to telling our Israeli family and friends it would be prudent to leave – a message I will not send. Those of us who have traveled to Israel during times of war or frequent terror attacks explain our calculations with others with the bottom line that the first way to support Israel is with our presence.

•Finally, I reminded everyone of the need to listen to one another, absorb multiple perspectives, and pray for a turning back to the path of peace. This was not the moment for sticking to our long-held positions and repeating our “truths”. New thinking is needed. We can only hope that leaders here and in Israel take this message to heart.                

About Leonard Gordon

Leonard Gordon serves as rabbi at the Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia, PA. This fall, he is teaching Talmud at the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College where a version of this article was presented at a pre-High Holiday workshop.
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