Rabbi Steven Rein: A U.S. Air Force Chaplain On Chanukah And The Morality Of War

Rabbi Steven Rein: A U.S. Air Force Chaplain On Chanukah And The Morality Of War

Serving our country as a chaplain is, in many respects, about living with a great tension. Chaplains serve as visible reminders of the holy – the antithesis to war and conflict. Yet the very people I serve and the uniform I wear represents the harsh reality of battles and self-sacrifice, even if in the pursuit of freedom and liberty. Indeed, both to the soldiers I counsel and my congregants at Park Avenue Synagogue, I have long sought to reconcile our desire to pursue peace, in full knowledge that, as Ecclesiastes states: “There is a time for war.”

More than any other holiday, this tension sits at the core of Chanukah. The military victory, whose details we find in the Book of Maccabees, describes how Judah Maccabee and his followers, in one battle after the next, crush the viceroy of the Seleucid Empire along with his army and cavalry. Centuries later, the rabbis of the Talmud, in what is perhaps the greatest cover-up in rabbinic history, write the details of the Hasmonean Revolt and their successive leaders out of Jewish history. In its stead, Chanukah is a time to remember the Holy One and the miracle of a small cruse of oil. 

More than once, I have paused on the curious fact that on this festival marking a military victory of the few over the many, we arrive in synagogue on Shabbat Chanukah to read the famous words of Zachariah, “Not by might, and not by power, but rather by My spirit.” Who got it right – Zachariah or the Maccabees?  Is Chanukah about military prowess or spiritual uplift?

Perhaps the answer, both in those days and now, is not found in the “either/or,” but rather in the “both/and.” Embedded in Chanukah is the message that necessary as war may be, equally important is how military victory is won. In his reflections on the effects of war, the 18th century military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, explained that “the physical forces and the moral are completely fused, and are not to be decomposed like a metal alloy by a chemical process” (On War, 151).  In other words, when it comes to war – victory must mean moral success together with physical triumph. 

Military theorists have long known that failing to act with moral and political legitimacy creates enemies. Certainly in today’s social media driven world, legitimacy is based on moral perception.  While military action is invariably driven by the needs of the conflicting parties, the court of world opinion will inevitably render its own verdict, regardless of the outcome on the field of battle. Considering the overriding importance of war’s moral dimension, the most important indicators of a war’s progress are moral ones.

Through this prism, the U.S. Army Field Manual instructs soldiers to “legitimatize and limit the use of military force and prevent employing violence unnecessarily or inhumanely.” This is more than a legal rule; it is an American (and Jewish) value. We believe that each individual has worth; each person is endowed with unalienable rights. Both in the objectives sought and in the means by which those objectives are achieved, it is these “rights” in combination with the “might” of war that endows any combatant with the ability to declare victory.

In a self-conscious critique of the Romans in Britain, the 1st century historian, Tacitus, remarked, “where they make a desert they call it peace.” Indeed, be it the Continental Army in 1776, the IDF in 1967, or the battles of our own day, without ethical leadership and a moral compass guiding our efforts, Tacitus’ words ring true. To create legitimate outcomes from war, conflicts must follow what is perceived to be a moral trajectory.  Our job today is to combine the moral and the physical, the spiritual light of the chanukkiah with the physical prowess of military might. That individuals, a militia, or the military of a fledgling nation, will pick up arms and fight for the freedoms desired by all humanity is no miracle.

What is truly a miracle, and a triumph over our basic desire for survival, is the ability to go into battle carrying our moral compass. The divine light that continues to burn within guides members of our armed forces each and every day. It is with this understanding that I reread the famous words of Zechariah: “not by might, nor by power alone, but with My spirit.” This is the message I communicate to service members and this is the message Chanukah can offer to guide our desire to create an everlasting peace at home and abroad.

Rabbi Steven Rein is Assistant Rabbi, Park Avenue Synagogue, and Chaplain, Captain, United States Air Force.


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