War in Iraq: One American Jewish Perspective

Sermon given April 18, 2003, by Rabbi Barry H. Block


At our Community Seder last night, a girl came up to me, very respectfully, and asked me an interesting question. She wondered about the last of the four questions: “On all other nights, we eat either upright or reclining; tonight, we all recline.” This young lady had heard of the tradition that we would lean back on pillows at the Seder. Being a very knowledgeable Reform Jew, she even seemed to know that the custom had arisen in Roman times, when citizens would eat while reclining, but slaves would eat sitting up straight. What she could not understand is why we were celebrating the Seder while sitting on the rather straight-backed chairs of the Barshop Auditorium!

I stammered out some kind of answer about not having enough pillows for everyone, and said that people would be welcome to use pillows if they wished, in keeping with the tradition. I gave her permission to slouch in her own chair.

On further reflection, though, I realized the real answer: As my young inquirer knew, the Seder was devised in the ancient Roman Empire. Jews were not citizens of Rome. Our ancestors did not enjoy the luxury of reclining at their meals. Only on Passover did they lean back on cushions, expressing in ritual their wish to be truly free.

We American Jews, on the other hand, know and live the blessing of freedom every day. While we celebrate Passover faithfully, and some do put pillows in their chairs, most of us sit up straight at the Seder table. We don’t need to enact a ritual to imagine being free. We live that reality every day.

And yet, at our Seder tables, we did taste the bitter herb, to remind us of harsh slavery. Then, we ate our Hillel sandwiches, matzah and bitter herb, together with the sweet harosis, and we recited these words: “Together they shall be: the matzah of freedom, the maror of slavery. For in time of freedom, there is knowledge of servitude. And in time of bondage, the hope of redemption.”

This Passover, even in our freedom, we are indeed aware of fellow human beings, subjected to cruel tyranny in many parts of the world. In the week leading up to Passover, as the fighting stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom drew to a close, we increasingly learned about the bitter repression that the people of Iraq suffered under Saddam Hussein. We know that life is no better for average people in other nations that our President has branded part of the “Axis of Evil,” North Korea and Iran, not to mention Syria, along with other countries that have escaped our government’s public reprimand. At the same time, we are mindful of our brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisrael, Jewish men, women and children living under the constant threat of terrorism. We are also aware of the suffering of Palestinians. Even here in America, we know that slavery continues, be it physical servitude in some particularly reprehensible quarters or enslavement to poverty or disease, gun violence or domestic violence; sexism, racism or homophobia. Yes, at this Passover, this season of our freedom, even though we don’t need to recline to feel free, we do recognize that oppression yet lives.

Our Haggadah teaches: “Our redemption is bound up with the deliverance from bondage of people everywhere.” We may not find true freedom, until all of God’s children are free. Perhaps the deepest commandment of Passover, then, is to work for the liberation of the persecuted, wherever and whoever they may be.

Arguably, Operation Iraqi Freedom has permitted the American people, citizens of the United Kingdom, and our allies to participate in freeing slaves. A few years ago, our nation and its partners seized a similar opportunity, with far less controversy, in Bosnia and Kosovo. In the last week, necessary American warnings to Syria led some people to wonder whether that country would be next in a series of American-initiated wars of liberation. Surely, if the purpose of Operation Iraqi Freedom were limited to the liberation of the oppressed people of Iraq, then arguments could be made to justify wars, not just in Syria, North Korea, and Iran, but also in China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and numerous other countries, as well.

Now, then, would be a good time to review Jewish teaching on just war. Not long ago, a group of leading Reform Rabbis, the Responsa Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, wrote a legal ruling in response to a question about preventive war, anticipating the war in Iraq. If you are interested, I’ll tell you how to find the entire Responsum on the Internet. Like any good Reform legal opinion, the piece is based on traditional Jewish law. The ancient Rabbis, we are told, distinguished between two types of wars: milhemet mitzvah, a “commanded,” or required war; and milhemet reshut, a “permitted” war.

War is required when we are attacked by an aggressor. The Responsum’s authors include also preemptive wars, “launched against an enemy that has mobilized or is engaged in obvious and active preparation for war.” For example, Israel’s strike to begin the Six Day War really was a defensive effort against an aggressor, and therefore was required. Operation Iraqi Freedom does not clearly fit in this category.

Other wars, though, including those intended to stop another nation from unjustly expanding its boundaries, are merely “permitted.” Waging an optional war requires additional consultation, and the power to make such wars is limited.

An analysis of one ancient Rabbi’s opinion suggests that the strongest reason for making an optional war is to weaken the power of a potential enemy that would otherwise be likely to attack. Such a war may even be regarded by some as nearly commanded, “as serving the purpose of ‘mitzvah.’”

My colleagues who wrote this Responsum remind me and my colleagues that we Rabbis are in no better or worse position than any other American to judge whether the war in Iraq fits these criteria. We may study and teach Jewish law of just war. We must do our best to analyze what we are told by our national leaders. And yet, they emphasize that, if the evidence truly does equal the arguments for making war in Iraq, if Saddam Hussein’s regime was indeed “building and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, . . . then there is also good reason to believe that this regime, which has complied a record of aggression against other countries and against its own citizens, continues to harbor aggressive intentions. We would therefore judge Iraq to be a threat to peace and security, if not today or tomorrow then surely at some point in the realistically near future. Under these circumstances, we would be justified in viewing an attack on Iraq as a ‘preemptive war,’ as a strike against a real enemy engaged in the early stages of a planned military offensive, rather than as a ‘preventative’ war against a nation that ‘might’ one day pose a threat but which does not do so now.” In such a case, we are taught, war in Iraq might even be a mitzvah, an obligation. My colleagues conclude: “We deem such a strike to be morally justifiable.”

In the days and weeks ahead, we will be able to learn more about whether Operation Iraqi Freedom was actually morally justified. Before the war, we could not demand that sensitive intelligence be shared with all American citizens, for doing so might have endangered our troops and those of our allies, or given aid and comfort to the enemy. However, as soon as our troops are reasonably out of danger, we must insist that our government disclose its intelligence to us, providing us with evidence that Iraq did indeed constitute the threat that was claimed in advance of the war. Going forward, we need to know that, when our leaders give us a justifiable case for war, we can trust that the war is indeed justified.

As the fighting stage of the war comes to an end, we may reflect that the diplomatic road to the war seemed to have been much more complicated than the war itself. The greater challenge, as all the pundits say, is yet to come, in making the peace in Iraq.

Yesterday morning, I reflected on the liberation of Iraq with the folks who attended our Passover morning service. During Passover, we are particularly well prepared to think about a people who have been freed. When our ancestors were liberated from slavery, they were taken directly to Mount Sinai, receiving the Torah just seven weeks after their liberation. They passed from servitude under Pharaoh to service of God.

The key difference between being Pharoah’s slaves and God’s servants is that Pharaoh’s laws are meant to serve only Pharaoh; God’s commandments are meant for the benefit, not only of God, but also of God’s creation. As we scrutinize the justification for the American war effort in Iraq, let us examine most carefully the way that our nation takes the lead in the more difficult stage of the liberation of the Iraqi people. Will the new regime in Iraq serve the people of Iraq, or will it serve the American government that helped to put it in place? This question will not be easy to answer. Certainly, if the new Iraqi leadership is good to its people, that will also be good for America, and that would be fine. At the same time, our government would be well served to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest, to the extent possible, such as lucrative contracts going to American corporations. If the Iraqi people get the impression that our goal in Iraq is to enrich our own country, the morality of our war effort will be undermined.

Some weeks ago, at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I spoke at our Early Shabbat Service, with thoughts and prayers at a time of war. That night, I prayed for our troops. I asked God’s guidance for our President, and also for those who oppose the war. I expressed the hope that those who oppose the war would not be seen as anti-American, even as I pled with anti-war activists never to forget the basic goodness of America. I stand by every one of my statements that night, and my prayers continue.

For our own Temple member, Capt. Jeffrey Goodie, and for every American military man and woman stationed in the war region, I pray for a safe and speedy return to home and family. For those of every nation who have been lost in this conflict, I pray for God’s eternal love and mercy. For the Iraqi people, I pray for true peace and liberation. For all Americans, I pray for the strength and willingness to sacrifice, of our power, of our wealth, and of ourselves, in the cause of goodness. For those who disagree about this war, I ask God’s blessing upon our diversity of opinion and expression, so characteristic of what is good about America, even as I pray that each side will increase its respect for the opinions of the other.

At our Seder, we concluded: “Next year in Jerusalem!” For the Jewish people, especially this year, that prayer is meant literally. We hope that Passover 5764 will be celebrated in a Jerusalem at peace and security. And yet, those words mean so much more. “Next year in Jerusalem!” means: Soon, may we live in a world free of war, liberated of all oppression and tyranny. We, who are so free that we don’t even bother to recline, let us turn our hearts and our minds, our hopes and our dreams, to those innocent men, women and children of Iraq, and of every corner of the globe, who can not imagine the leisure of leaning on a pillow in freedom. “Next year in Jerusalem! Next year, may all be free.”

Amen.