The Mitzvah of Serving Our Country

Sermon given June 28, 2002, by Rabbi Barry H. Block


When I tell my rabbinic colleagues about our Armed Forces Shabbat, they are often puzzled. When I inform rabbis who live in other cities about the large number of military personnel who live in our city, many are surprised. When I emphasize the very significant number of Temple members who are military retirees, that demographic fact of our congregation is met with a significant degree of confusion, by my peers who live in cities where the United States military is less prominent.

Here in San Antonio, Air Force and Army are a way of life, with other service branches represented in our ranks, as well. We are quite accustomed to seeing women and men in uniform, at religious worship services, at committee and Board meeting, and waiting in the carpool line after weekday Hebrew. To be sure, a disproportionate number of our own members in the military are physicians, San Antonio being the home of military medicine. Non-military folks may be surprised, as I once was, by the extent to which military doctors view themselves as military officers, just as significantly as they see themselves as physicians. Others of our members have more traditional military roles. In fact, almost all of the men of our Temple, who were of military age during the early 1940s, are veterans of World War II, and nearly all of them saw battle.

I have endeavored to reflect on the reason for the surprise among my colleagues, when I talk about our military presence. Not long ago, I was offered excellent insight, as I read and reviewed an interesting book with members of our Temple Brotherhood. Together, we studied Searching for My Brothers: Jewish Men in a Gentile World, by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin. Rabbi Salkin discusses the meaning of masculinity among Jewish men. He asserts that Jewish machismo is based on intellect and study, Torah and respect. Salkin disdains what he views as the measure of masculinity in the non-Jewish world, namely physical strength and conquest. To oversimplify his point, Rabbi Salkin argues that Jewish men gain victory by outsmarting their opponents; non-Jewish men beat up their opponents or shoot them.

As I said, I have grossly overstated Rabbi Salkin’s thesis. And yet, at the heart of his book are common stereotypes, familiar to us all. Jewish men don’t hunt. Well, here in south Texas, many do. Jewish men don’t drink or beat their wives, right? Well, in fact, studies may show that we have lower rates of alcoholism and domestic abuse. Unfortunately, one consequence of those statistics is that Jewish substance abusers face shame and denial, preventing them from seeking treatment. Victims of domestic violence, at the hands of Jewish men, often are not believed when they report abuse. And Jewish men don’t take up arms.

That last stereotype finds its roots in almost 2000 years of Jewish history, and especially in one tragic event. In the year 135 C.E., 65 years after the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews in the Land of Israel staged a desperate revolt against the Romans. They were led by a general named Bar Kochba, who was declared by Rabbi Akiva to be the messiah. Hundreds, even thousands, of Jewish men went to their deaths, in a terrible slaughter, in an absolutely futile attempt to liberate the Promised Land.

The Rabbis who wrote the Talmud, living in the decades and centuries after the Bar Kochba revolt, defined the Jewish people as non-military in nature. For example, in describing the story of Hanukkah, the Talmud says little about the Maccabean Revolt, emphasizing only the miracle of the oil. The ancient Rabbis had three reasons for de-emphasizing the military roots of that holiday. First, they did not want to raise the hopes of the Jewish people, who might again enter a war that could not be won, leading to massive and unnecessary loss of life. Second, the Rabbis did not want to give their oppressive foreign rulers the idea that Jews might be a military threat, provoking anti-Semitic violence. Finally, the Rabbis wished to encourage their fellow Jews to the pursuit of Torah study, as the ultimate virtue, rather than physical endeavors.

The Rabbis achieved two of their three goals. For some 1800 years, Jewish men did not bear arms in a Jewish cause. To be sure, our ancestors were periodically used as canon fodder by their cruel foreign kings, but nobody would call that honorable military service. Since we did not stage large-scale armed revolts after the year 135, we were not slaughtered in the act of doing so. Also, Torah study flourished among our people throughout those centuries.

And yet, as we know all too well, the reluctance to bear arms did not bring greater safety to our people. No pretext was required; the nations in which we sojourned rose up and persecuted us, even though we never presented any military threat.

Moreover, the truth be told, the Rabbis fabricated our non-military image out of whole cloth. If we read the Torah honestly, we will see our ancestors as a rather warlike group. In this week’s portion, Pinhas, as in much of the Book of Numbers, Moses is taking a census, which God has enjoined upon him. The principal purpose of the tabulation is explicit: The Children of Israel, wandering in the desert, are preparing to conquer the Land of Israel. In preparation for the battle to come, they must number and muster the soldiers needed for the conquest.

As we read further in the Bible, we encounter a plethora of military leaders. The heroes of biblical Israel are Samson and Deborah, Saul, David, and Solomon, victorious warriors all. Perhaps we’re not all so familiar with their triumphs, for the Rabbis emphasized other virtues and other stories. And yet, from Joshua through Judah the Maccabee, the idols among our ancients were fighters.

In the last century, the image of the Jewish warrior has been significantly rehabilitated. During World War II, service in the United States military was a patriotic duty, incumbent upon every healthy young man, and many young women, as well. Some Jewish American soldiers did not think of their military service as a specific Jewish obligation; it was an American responsibility. And yet, this congregation, like others across the nation, regularly expressed pride at the service of the sons and daughters of Temple Beth-El.

To be honest, service by Jews in the United States Armed Forces was not a new phenomenon of World War II. I am the privileged owner of a book that lists Jewish soldiers in the American Revolution and on both sides of the Civil War. My own ancestors are in both the Revolutionary and Confederate groups, and the lists are not small. And yet, the Second World War was a unique moment. More than ever before, Jewish Americans were fighting alongside their fellow Americans in great cause. Even as they approached the war as an American cause, it was also a Jewish mission.

The need for Jews to raise arms, as Jews, tragically also became clear, as never before, in the 1940s. To be sure, no amount of arms, no measure of military training, could have protected our people against the Nazi slaughter. There was no shame, only anguish, in the deaths of millions. And yet, where there was armed uprising, as in the Warsaw Ghetto, our people died with an added measure of dignity. There was, too, the idea of Zionism, the dream of a Jewish people, reborn in our own Land, responsible for our own defense and capable of preserving Jewish life against those who would oppress us.

Israel was born in blood, in the dramatic military victory of 1948, against all odds, defeating an enemy seemingly so much stronger than what appeared to be a rag-tag assemblage of Jewish soldiers. On further examination, though, we know that the Israeli army of 1948 was led by brilliant and experienced tacticians. They were prepared by fighting alongside the British in World War II, in special Jewish brigades, and they developed their competence, fighting against the British, attempting to bring Jewish immigrants from Europe into Palestine during and after the Holocaust.

Since 1948, Israel has enjoyed a number of stunning military victories, the greatest being the legendary Six-Day War of 1967. That conflict might have changed the Jewish self-image of two millennia, as well as our portrait in the eyes of the world. Now, Jews could be seen as real warriors, and Jewish men could be regarded as “real” men. At the same time, throughout the history of Israel, and especially more recently, we have tasted the bitterness of Jewish men, women and children, losing their lives at the hands of Israel’s foes. Also painful has been the ambivalence born of being a military conqueror. The Jewish people, so long dominated by others, now holds dominion over another people in the Land of Israel, with so many wrenching and difficult consequences.

Today, both in America and in Israel, Jewish men and women serve their nations with pride. This year, especially, we salute the soldiers and marines, sailors and airmen, who sacrificially give of themselves to free our world from the tyranny of terrorism. The battle fought by the men and women of the Untied States military today is the cause of the Jewish people throughout the ages: to liberate the world from injustice, to bring peace and security, even when those goals require military action.

Now, more than ever, service of the United States of America, like sacrifice for the State of Israel, is a mitzvah, a religious obligation. We all serve our nation in different ways. We pay our taxes. We work through the political process, to assure that American liberties and opportunity remain strong and vital. Some labor in the Peace Corps, or in programs that bring teachers to inner city communities. Others, whom we honor tonight, serve in the United States Armed Forces. Theirs is a just cause, a mission to bring peace and freedom to the world.

Earlier, I said that our Bible is full of warriors. Our biblical mighty men and women, though, were not just fighters. As they made war, God was their guide. As they engaged in battle, the Torah was their compass. We are taught that our ancestors were victorious when they served the Lord, vanquished when they sought only power and might. Yes, military service may be a mitzvah, as long as God is righteously served.

May God bless our military men and women. May God find favor with our nation. May the cause of the American Armed Forces ever be just, and the aim of our nation ever be peace. God bless the Jewish people. God bless the State of Israel. God bless the United States of America.

Amen.

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