As the war on Iraq entered its first Shabbat, reactions from area synagogue pulpits ranged from staunch support to somber reflections and prayer.
At the progressive-minded Conservative B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Rabbis J. Rolando Matalon and Marcelo Bronstein abandoned their weekly discussion before the Torah reading to read an anti-war essay by the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
"Tanks and planes cannot redeem humanity," wrote Rabbi Heschel, in remarks delivered at a conference of Quakers in 1938. "A man with a gun is like a snake without a gun. The killing of snakes will save us for the moment, but not forever."
At Temple Beth Ahavath Shalom, a Reform congregation in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, Rabbi Karen Bookman Kaplan read a "Reflection And Prayer for a Nation At War," posted on a Jewish Web site by Rabbi Jill Hammer: "God of hosts … you are neither for us or for our enemies. You are on the side of holiness … May you guard the innocents who are always victims of war."
There was a different atmosphere at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, where Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld invoked midrashic literature to make the point that the United States and Israel are involved in the same struggle but face different reactions.
Rabbi Schonfeld told the tale of a gentile who approached the Talmudic-era sage Rabbi Yochanan and ridiculed the concept of the red heifer, which was used as a sin offering during the Temple period. When the rabbi asked the non-Jew, an idol worshiper, how he atoned, he cited the burning of spices and incense. Rabbi Yochanan replied that this custom, too, can be considered strange.
"Rabbi Yochanan was delivering a message about double standards," said Rabbi Schonfeld. "When Israel does what it has to do, people get upset about civilians being injured. But when they [the U.S.] have to do the same, it’s a double standard."
Calling for support of U.S. forces and President Bush, Rabbi Schonfeld also cited a comment from Elie Wiesel that "the Hitler of 1938 was not the Hitler of 1942" because the Nazi fuehrer had grown more evil with time.
"If [President George H.W.] Bush and Colin Powell and [former General H. Norman] Schwarzkopf had stopped Saddam in the first Gulf War, we wouldn’t have to have a second one today," said the rabbi.
At the Young Israel of Avenue K in Midwood, Brooklyn, Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag substituted the weekly prayer for the welfare of the U.S. government with a special, detailed version that mentioned the president and vice president and the four branches of the military.
"The rabbis say when it comes to war, don’t look at the laws of nature," said Rabbi Ralbag. "Therefore we look at it as an act of God, and we say a special prayer for the president and vice president, that God should give them the proper decision-making powers." The rabbi called this conflict a "just war for the good of the world."
At the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, L.I., Rabbi Marc Schneier invoked the teaching in Leviticus that one who bears witness to a sin but does not testify shall bear the sinner’s iniquity.
"It is wrong to be silent when witnessing evil," said the rabbi, who is Modern Orthodox. "We are each responsible for every wrong we have the power to prevent and fail to prevent. The Bush administration came to the conclusion that they had to confront the evil of Iraqi despotism."
Rabbi Schneier announced that the synagogue’s memorial Kaddish prayer next week would be dedicated not only to congregants’ loved ones but to "Americans and coalition members who lost their lives in service of humankind."
Some rabbis felt that though they have gone on record against the war, it was not useful to criticize now that the battle has been joined.
Reform Rabbi Valerie Lieber of Temple Israel of Jamaica, Queens, simply urged congregants to pay close attention to the war and get "the full picture" by utilizing a range of media.
"I’ve talked a lot in the past about reasons to be pro or against," said Rabbi Lieber. "But the war has started. It’s a moot point now.
Despite its horrors, other rabbis posited, war sometimes was unavoidable.
At the Dix Hills Jewish Center on Long Island, Rabbi Howard Buechler called on his congregants to have the "spiritual audacity to recognize that war might be repugnant, [but] at times the consequences of not engaging in war against terror and weapons of mass destruction can have even greater consequences."
Signs of a Jewish community divided over the war were everywhere this week. Some 456 philanthropists, rabbis and activists signed a full-page ad in The New York Times declaring that "the Jewish obligation is clear: Pursue justice, seek peace and work unceasingly for tikkun olam: healing the planet."
One signatory, Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, noted in a statement that the Bush administration’s "shock and awe" bombing campaign to topple Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein "would be the worst violation" of Jewish and American values because of the potential for civilian casualties.
But at an Upper West Side rally Tuesday night at Congregation Ohab Zedek, the message was support the troops.
"This is a purely patriotic act for the Jews of America, praying for our soldiers," said Michael Landau, chairman of the Council of Orthodox Jewish Organizations of the West Side.
Those gathered at the event, sponsored by the COJO of the West Side and the Orthodox Union, prayed for the safety and success of American and Allied troops fighting in Iraq.
Jewish leaders were participating in a round of conference calls and emergency meetings in an attempt to reach a consensus on the war. Some feel there is a danger in the Jewish community of being too vocal in support of the war in light of recent comments by a Virginia congressmen that Jews were pushing the government to fight.
A contingent of Jewish leaders, led by the American Jewish Committee, was in Israel this week to show solidarity with its people in the event that Saddam again launches a strike against the Jewish state, as he did in 1991.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.