In deciding whether the United States should attack Iraq, rabbinic leaders from the different streams of Judaism are drawing upon Talmudic and biblical sources such as the Exodus story in which Moses and Aaron ultimately resort to "force" to win freedom for the Jews.
And while the rabbinic leadership appears largely behind President George W. Bush, the Jewish community as a whole is deeply divided. Except for the Orthodox, leaders of the other movements said there was no consensus among their congregants about whether to go to war now.
Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Reform movement’s ARZA-World Union, North America, cited the Talmudic principle that "if one seeks to kill you, rise early in the morning and kill him first. The whole notion propagated by various people that you have a moral obligation to absorb the first blow is not Judaism’s perspective at all. Judaism considers that position to be morally ambiguous because innocent people as a result may die. And the premise of that principle is that while my life is no more valuable than my neighbor’s, it is no less valuable: especially if he seeks to kill me."
Rabbi Hirsch said also that although he is "sensitive to the moral cautionary sentiments coming from so many quarters around the world, if the risks are as the president articulates, that to me is morally compelling."
"I’m very sensitive to the oppression of the Iraqi people," he added. "They have a moral claim to be liberated: and by force as a last resort. That is the lesson of the Exodus. Moses and Aaron tried to persuade Pharaoh [to free the Jews] and the only thing that worked was force."
Rabbi Hershel Billet, president of the Orthodox movement’s Rabbinical Council of America, said Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is an "evil" man and that there is a "fundamental commandment in the Bible to eradicate evil" from our midst.
"Bush is trying to do a principled thing and stand up to evil," he continued. "This is a moral war and not a war against Iraqi children. We are not going to murder civilians."
Rabbi Richard Hirsh, executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, said he believed the threat from Iraq is "serious enough to warrant intervention." He said Judaism acknowledges that there are occasions when "you have to engage in war" and that the belief that all religions are against war "flies in the face of Judaism, which has a whole series of legal teachings about how war is conducted."
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm, said one could search for biblical and Talmudic texts to justify a war against Iraq or simply say "it is something the United States has to do because of a perceived or real threat."
"There is no exact fit [in Jewish texts] for this because nobody who was teaching in the time of the Talmud had Iraq in mind or the terrorist threat in mind," he said. "One can extrapolate, and that is why there is a disagreement among Jews" about a war.
"I would hope that we give Iraq as much time as we think is reasonable … to follow the guidelines of the U.S. and the allies," Rabbi Epstein said. "But at a particular point, sometimes you have to take steps to preserve yourself and to prevent massive genocide. I am not going to quibble with March 17 or March 24. I have to trust that the people who have the information will use it intelligently to make the right decision."
He added that two months ago he favored allowing the United Nations to develop a consensus on Iraq and that if that was not possible, taking action anyway.
"We are in a position to do it and I believe it may be time to do it without the United Nations," Rabbi Epstein added.
But Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, who last September expressed concern about an American attack without international consensus, applauded Bush for seeking United Nations support but criticized him for "becoming impatient for no reason."
"There is nothing urgent about going to war tomorrow," he argued. "Iraq is not a threat at this point, either to the United States or its neighbors. The evidence simply is not there."
"It’s not a question of a just or unjust war," Rabbi Schorsch insisted. "The alliances we forged since the Second World War are in tatters, we are estranged from France and Germany, and the international mechanisms that the United States worked so hard on since the Second World War are also in shambles.
"We have chosen a foreign policy of do it alone," he continued. "That is the kind of world in which we lived after the First World War and it brought on the Second World War. Weíre returning to an international situation where the only law is might makes right."
He added that North Korea is a "much greater danger to world peace than Iraq, and this administration has yet to focus on that threat."
Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Reform movementís Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, said he believes President George W. Bush has "built a plausible case that Iraq and its regime pose a real danger to persons in the Middle East. It is a regime that oppresses its own people and promotes terrorism. Therefore, from all of these perspectives, it seems to me that a war against such a people is justified from the vantage point of Jewish teaching."
Rabbi Michael Broyde, associate professor of law at Emory University School of Law who specializes in Jewish law and ethics, said Jewish law permits preemptive wars and "if one believes everything the American government is telling us (which I do) the war appears to be justified."
Broyde has written that the Bible requires an effort to seek peace as a prelude to any military action and that before starting war, the goals must be detailed to the enemy to allow him to evaluate the costs of war and to seek a rational peace.
"I think the United States’ activities have fulfilled the activities of warning one’s opponent of the consequences of defiance and giving them an opportunity to change," he said.
Rabbi Billet said the Orthodox community is generally more conservative politically than other Jews and that he suspects they support Bush.
"I have a shul of 850 families and the overwhelming majority of congregants agree" with the president, he added.
The executive leaders of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements’ congregational arms all said their members are split on the need for war now.
"The Jewish community is very ambivalent and divided," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations. "The notion that it is united in favor of the war is a gross simplification."
Judy Wortman, executive vice president of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, said: "Our congregations are all over the continuum. … There is not a consensus within the congregations."
Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said congregants have "mixed reactions and are somewhat confused.
"But deep down I believe they will support the president in the war," he said.