September 4, 2003
No Response at All
Parashat Ki Tetze (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19)
A rabbi's voice must often give expression to the feelings of those with whom he or she worships on Shabbat.
This was my experience recently following the horrific suicide bombing in Jerusalem when we prayed, as always, "Oseh shalom bim-ro-mav, hu ya-a'seh shalom alei-nu v'al kol Yisrael. Maker of peace in God's universe, may God make peace for us and for all Israel!"
By way of explanation, these words of prayer and song, "Oseh Shalom," point us toward the cosmos, stars and planets of our universe appearing to the naked eye to be orbiting one another in harmony. They suggest that peace is more than safety and security. It is not only the absence of violence or danger. Rather, peace is an arrangement of accord and stability. The respectful coexistence of different people is a Jewish vision of true peace.
Recent attacks in Jerusalem and elsewhere might have temporarily shattered current hopes of achieving such a peace. As a result, we discover beyond the painfully obvious that the most disturbing problem with suicide bombings is this: We have no response. We simply have no response. We read in newspapers that these murderous acts are "condemned in the strongest terms possible." What does that mean? What real response is verbal condemnation?
So now what? Military responses? We may see a lot of these. They can be deterrents. Israel's (or America's) military actions are more or less successful depending on circumstances, strategies and each particular moment. I think they are absolutely necessary. I do not shy away from a democratic government's responsibility to protect and defend its citizens. Although I also wonder if essential defense is ultimately an effective response.
Then there are other responses. Withdrawal and separation are advocated by some. Talking, looking for common interests and shared values, searching for moderates with whom truce or resolution might be discussed must certainly be pursued. But, as far as anyone can tell right now, none of these seem to be working either. We are stymied. We have no response. This is the deepest dilemma of this horrendous terror.
How do we conceive of a response to that which is in the first place inconceivable? The father of two children, a man who represents his faith traditions and sacred writ, puts on a belt and blows up children who were traveling home on a bus with their parents following prayers at the Kotel (the Western Wall). They were not military targets, not political targets, (not even Sport Utility Vehicles on a parking lot). They were people praying, studying their own holy book. What's our response supposed to be? Should a rabbi hold a Torah and a sword because an imam holds a Koran and a sword?
We have no response! That is our problem.
"When you go out as a troop against your enemies, be on your guard against anything untoward" (Deuteronomy 23:10). It is one thing to be forewarned, and quite another to know what to do.
At the conclusion of this week's Torah portion, Moses offers his generation this instruction: "Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt? How, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear?" (Deuteronomy 25:17-18).
In the law and lore of Jewish tradition, Amalek stands out as the paradigm of an evil enemy. Spanish Rabbi Isaac Arama comments that when an attack is aimed at innocent civilians, there can be no other motive than "pure hatred." The Hatam Sofer -- Hungarian Rabbi Moshe Sofer -- suggests that anyone whose attack is accompanied by joy and enthusiasm for what they have wrought suffers from an "inner hatred" that no religious tradition can comprehend nor condone.
According to Talmudic tradition, the Amalekites can no longer be identified. Their nature and their evil, however, is found in every generation and must always be opposed.
Reflecting on this unsettling memory, as well as the disturbing news of current events, we stand with Israel against acts that are truly evil. We support Israel's reluctant, defensive battle to safeguard her borders and her children riding on buses. No one I've met seems to have a better idea. Nevertheless, our understanding of Israel's fight does not exist without the ongoing struggle to find another way out. There has to be another way out.
Our best instinct, of course, is to live as we always should -- fully with purpose and integrity. Yet in caring about our people and all innocent people, in cherishing our heritage and our ethical values, we are stumped by this dilemma at the moment. We have no response.
Ron Shulman is rabbi at Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes.