Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Jewish Perspective on War, Scripture, and Moral Accounting

Geoffrey Claussen, “A Jewish Perspective on War, Scripture, and Moral Accounting,” The Journal of Scriptural Reasoning, vol. 14, no. 1 (2015).
Full text here, shared with permission of The Journal of Scriptural Reasoning.

In this piece, I explore how biblical texts (and the Jewish tradition more broadly) might inform decision-making about the initiation of war.  I focus on the musar tradition and the sort of moral accounting (cheshbon ha-nefesh) practices advocated by Menahem Mendel Lefin, inspired in part by Ben Franklin.  Here is the core of my argument:
Self-examination is an essential activity for everybody bearing the weighty responsibilities that come with warfare—citizens who contribute to decisions regarding war and peace, soldiers who make key decisions in the heat of battle, and especially the civilian and military policymakers who bear ultimate responsibility for decisions about whether or not to initiate wars. Politicians, perhaps above all, are often untrained in the virtues and may be especially in need of the sorts of reflective exercises that Franklin and Lefin urged. Like the Biblical kings who were easily led astray by the temptations of war, contemporary policymakers need all the scrutiny that they can get. As part of their work, policymakers grounded in the Jewish tradition might benefit from Lefin’s model of moral accounting—regularly assessing their equanimity, their justice, their humility, their honesty, and their diligence, among other virtues.
I give particular attention to the need to be “wary of the temptations that Biblical texts may offer." For example:
A policymaker seeking to take account of how well he or she acknowledges the destructive power of war might turn to one ancient understanding of the Biblical character of Abraham as he participated in the first war described in the Bible, a war which he joined in order to rescue his nephew Lot from captivity (Genesis 14). According to one midrashic interpretation attributed to Rabbi Levi, Abraham was deeply afraid that he might have killed an innocent, righteous individual in the course of the war. God affirms the validity of this concern, while reassuring Abraham that he has been miraculously shielded from such a misdeed—“Fear not, Abram,” God says. “I am a Shield to you” (Genesis 15:1). God, in this model, affirms Abraham’s misgivings, and would want future policymakers to share Abraham’s concern for innocent lives destroyed by war.
A policymaker’s accounting of one’s sense of justice should follow this Abrahamic precedent; even when military action seems to have a just cause, one should be extremely aware of the new injustices that a war might produce. And even if one can honestly anticipate that a war will save more lives than it will destroy, such that the war can be justified, one should still join Abraham in “being afraid” for every innocent life destroyed.
But a policymaker holding the midrashic narrative of Abraham before one’s eyes should be aware of the ways in which the midrash can also be used to discourage this sort of moral accounting. After all, one might understand God’s reassurance to Abraham as offering a promise that God will always shield Abraham—and his descendants—from causing injustices. Abraham’s faithful descendants, in this view, can always be assumed to be righteous, whereas their enemies will be wicked. Thus, in Deuteronomy 33:29, God can be described as Israel’s “protecting Shield”—such that “your enemies shall come cringing before you, and you shall tread on their backs.” Meditating on the description of God as a shield, then, may produce a triumphal assertion of one’s own justice rather than a critical investigation into one’s justice. The policymaker who takes an accounting of his or her sense of justice should proceed carefully when reasoning in light of scripture, wary of the temptations that Biblical texts may offer, cautious not to proceed ahead “like a bird rushing into a trap” (Proverbs 7:23).
 The complete article is here (or here on the JSR website).