Ancient war
Ancient war iStock


Ask the Rabbi

WARS & WEAPONS

Q. Can any modern war be regarded as a "just war" (Aquinas’ phrase) or a "permitted war" (to use the Talmudic terminology)?

A. First, a disclaimer. My answer to your question addresses the moral issues and is not necessarily dictated by the war in the Ukraine.

The concept of war was always difficult. The Bible did two things at once. It reported wars and believed there were wars which God would approve; it also yearned for the day when nation would not lift up sword against nation and people would no longer learn how to wage war (Isa. 2:4).

War in those times was at best an interim ethic, acceptable until human civilisation could outlaw it for good.

Has the problem been exacerbated by modern weapons technology?

When nuclear weapons were developed, the English historian, Arthur Bryant, said, "If the nuclear weapon is ever used, those who survive will almost certainly live in a wilderness, and civilisation, as we know it, will end, at any rate for many years or generations.

"And if the nuclear weapon is not used, it may well be that liberty, as we know it, will also perish from the earth. The real problem is not how to ensure the survival of the human race, but how to ensure the simultaneous survival of both civilised society and human and political liberty."

Modern weaponry has moved even further ahead since Arthur Bryant wrote, and the stakes are even higher. But the dilemma remains the same. If we use the weapons that are now available, we risk turning civilisation into a wilderness. That would contravene the Biblical principle, "God created the world not to be laid waste: He formed it to be inhabited" (Isa. 45:18). If on the other hand we refrain from using these weapons, human and political liberty may not survive.

Facing this dilemma, Jewish ethics would be likely to say that until higher standards prevail in the world, failure to act would be tantamount to moral abdication, and some wars have to be regarded as morally permitted.

But there is a "but". War must always be a last resort. It must never be regarded as an inevitability. It must be at best an imperfect method of addressing human problems.

The long-term aim must always be to work towards a world where "none shall hurt and none shall destroy" (Isa. 11:9), a world where swords become ploughshares and spears become pruning hooks (Isa. 2:4), where our energies and abilities are harnessed for peaceful ends.


AS OLD AS ADAM

Q. Why do we need the Seven Laws of the Sons of Noah when we already have the Ten Commandments?

A. The Seven Noachide Laws came first. Rabbinic discussion even includes the view that six of the seven were given to Adam in the first instance, making this a universal code meant from the moment of Creation for all mankind (Gen. R. 16:6, 24:5).

A great deal of attention is given to whether there are differences in applicability between Jews and gentiles.

One opinion is that ancient pre-Sinaitic commandments which are not repeated at Mount Sinai apply only to Jews. Some post-Sinai commandments also devolve only upon Jews, such as, for example, laws that arose out of Israelite history (such as eating matzah on Pesach and blowing the shofar on Rosh HaShanah) which are not obligatory on gentiles.

It should be noted that the Sinai versions of laws which are repeated in the Revelation are generally much more extensive than the Noachide versions.

For the Parasha:

AUDITED ACCOUNTS

Checking the income and expenditure of the Tabernacle-building project required careful auditing, which is the major feature of the Torah passage this Shabbat.

How interesting it is to see God as an accountant, one more area of His professional expertise to add to literary references to God as a doctor ("Ani HaShem rofecha"), God as a lawyer ("E-l orech din"), God as a shepherd ("HaShem ro’i") and so on.

None of these descriptions can be taken literally. They are metaphors which acclaim God’s wisdom and His headship in every area of life.

We may be good with words but we are unable to find words to define the nature of God. We cannot articulate His attributes of essence. All we can do is to suggest His attributes of activity – not what He is but what He does.

God in Himself is unique: as the prayer book says, not even if all the seas were ink and all the feathers were pens could we describe His true nature.


INTO EGYPT & OUT OF EGYPT

The Book of Exodus (Sh’mot) which we conclude this Shabbat begins with Israel coming to Egypt. The final haftarah of the Book ends (I Kings 8:21) with them coming out of Egypt. Sefer Sh’mot is in that sense the Book of Egypt. This was not just a country but a civilisation.

Its drawback was not its education but its ethics, not its culture but its callousness. Human rights were limited to the indigenous Egyptians, and not extended to the alien residents or the mixed multitude who made up the rest of the population.

Throughout history the Jewish people encountered several places of that kind. Pre-Nazi era Germany was one of the worst – cultured but callous, literate but ethically questionable.

Jewish teaching always finds it hard in a place where the ethics are unreliable, where human beings are not accorded rights or dignity, where the Ten Commandments are not taken seriously. Egypt without the Almighty is hard to take.


PEOPLE POWER

The Tabernacle was the people’s achievement. From the initial command, "Speak to the Children of Israel… and let them make for Me a sanctuary" (Ex. 25:2, 8 ) to the final assessment, "And the Children of Israel did according to all that the Lord had commanded Moses" (Ex. 39:32), this was the people’s project.

The architects and project managers were skilful members of the people, and they were supported by craftsmen and artificers, by "wise-hearted men" and "wise-hearted women", with everyone feeling a sense of participation by bringing their gifts and offerings.

One category, however, says the Midrash, at first kept aloof; the princes of the tribes thought that their rank and station should have been recognised before the task was thrown open to the ordinary members of the community, and before it was too late they now hastened to supply the vestments and ornaments of the high priest.

The Or HaChayyim derives from the fact that it was the people who deserved the credit for the work, the general principle that with everything in Judaism, every task, every commandment, it is the community to whom the credit should go.

Each contributes time, effort, skill and resources, like a mighty orchestra in which every instrument contributes to the overall harmony.

In Judaism there are tasks for certain groups, some for Kohanim, some for Levi’im, some for men, some for women – but all are part of one overall achievement, and the achievement is that of the people as a whole.

Who keeps today’s community going? The rabbis or the lay people? Both. The learned or the unlearned? Both. The rich or the poor? Both. The men or the women? Both. The old or the young? Both.

The mitzvot are "Speak to the Children of Israel" – all the Children of Israel, with each one giving their own contribution and carrying out their own responsibility, and rejoicing in their fellow workers.

Rabbi Raymond Apple was for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Judaism. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at http://www.oztorah.com