The Other Cries of War and Peace
About me: I’m a judicial officer. I’ve served on presidential and gubernatorial campaigns, and as counsel to my state Senate. I earned one academic degree in international relations, a second in public law and a third in public policy, and I’ve taught graduate law and policy courses. Even so, in my current role, judicial ethics bar me from publicly discussing most political issues. As such, this Jewish spiritual leader—trained for and steeped in public affairs—can’t publicly discuss the Mideast’s blow by blow. For talk of peace plans, war crimes, two-state solutions, one-state solutions, human shields and human pawns in Mideast politics, please look elsewhere.
Freed from adding my political voice to the Mideast cacophony—and given that most of us don’t readily absorb perspectives challenging what we already believe about the Mideast—my focus here can only be spiritual. So, in good rabbinic tradition, I’ll tell a story.
At bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, clergy typically say nice things about young adults stepping into tradition. When I became bar mitzvah, I received a surprise. As I sat in front of my family and friends assembled for my bar mitzvah, the rabbi told them that, a few weeks earlier, he’d watched me punch another kid in the face. My blow broke the kid’s nose, which flowed with blood. For emphasis, the rabbi repeated the punch line: I broke the kid’s nose and his face flowed with bright red blood. My teenaged face must have turned bright red to hear this story, at my bar mitzvah, from my rabbi.
The rabbi’s point, he continued, wasn’t that I punched a kid or even that I acted in self-defense. What most got the rabbi’s attention was that he saw me cry while I delivered the knockout blow.
We’re called to cry when we cause pain. We’re called to cry for the fact that causing pain can be necessary in an imperfect world. We’re called to cry for the pain we inflict. We’re called to cry that we ourselves cause pain. We’re called to cry for the humanity of anyone who receives our blow.
Modern culture seems conflicted on crying. Once society held that “real men don’t cry,” but now some romantics seek “men who aren’t afraid to cry.” Some tears are bitter, but “laughter through tears” is a Steel Magnolia’s favorite emotion. Tears connote vulnerability; and often the real issue—the risk in crying—is the vulnerability and inner authenticity that tears depict. That’s one reason we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah—to simulate if not stimulate tears (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 33a). On the other hand, often we judge an action wrong if it brings tears: in Hillel’s famous words, what is hateful to oneself, don’t do to another (Talmud, Shabbat 31a).
War is different, we’re told: “all’s fair in love and war.” It’s military gospel that waging war requires objectifying and dehumanizing people as “targets”: otherwise, most would find it impossible to fight. To be blunt, if purveyors of war let themselves cry, they might not be able to wage war or send others to battle. Psychologists understand this phenomenon in two ways. The first is social identity theory, by which we unconsciously tend to define ourselves by group affiliation. Even if groups are artificial (the classic experiment concerns color war teams at summer camp), in-groupers learn to dislike and even detest out-groupers, subconsciously deeming them inferior. The second, as Milgram’s classic experiment depicted, is conformity: we tend to defer to authority and view ourselves as conformist instruments of their will. Together group identity and conformity can reduce one’s sense of moral responsibility for behaviors that harm others. Such, in a nutshell, is the psychology of war.
Lest we cast scriptural tradition in more pious terms, even the Bible depicts war as psychological dehumanization. Steeling the Israelites for the military challenge of conquering Canaan’s peoples, Torah records God to instruct, “You will smite them. You will utterly destroy them … and show them no mercy” (Deut. 7:2). No mercy, no tears.
But if Jews must fight, Judaism asks more than merciless steel. To the Slonimer Rebbe (1911-2000), it was the Israelite slaves’ very “cry” under the weight of bondage (Ex. 2:23) that began the road to liberation – so Jews must cry for others, for Jews once were slaves in Egypt. One who steels oneself to another’s tears will “cry and not be answered” (Prov. 21:13). Even amidst destruction, the gates of tears never close (Talmud, Bava Metzia 59a). And one mustn’t glorify another’s demise: at the Egyptians’ defeat at the Sea of Reeds, God rebuked the celebrating angels: “My children are drowning and you sing praises?” (Talmud, Megillah 10b; Sanhedrin 39b).
Fast forward to 2014. At the moment of this writing, Mideast missiles stopped flying for now, but cries for war and peace continue to resound across social media, newspaper editorial pages and Cairo cease-fire talks. Meanwhile war’s innocent victims cry plenty.
But how about the tears from the rest of us, safely distant from the war zone, who either cry for war or cry for peace? If we defend the current Mideast violence, do we shed tears for its victims, or do we objectify them as out-groupers for whom suffering and death somehow are less tragic? If we condemn war’s spasms, do we shed tears for the grief that preceded it, or do we take moral refuge behind the price of war as if the status quo ante bellum caused no tears of its own? In short, are we crying the right tears of war and peace?
Crying isn’t enough, of course—the Mideast needs far more than our tears—but spiritually we each begin where we are. A Jew who throws a punch or advocates throwing one, but doesn’t cry for its resulting pain, misses Judaism’s higher calling. Conversely, a Jew who withholds throwing a necessary punch, or condemns throwing one because it would cause pain, might be no more justified because right action sometimes causes hurt. We dehumanize ourselves—we become less capable of moral choices—whenever we steel ourselves to pain we cause or decline painful acts that are necessary.
As a judicial officer I can’t take public sides on Mideast politics. But this much I can say: one who sheds no tears for victims of war has no right to advocate war, and one who refuses to cause necessary pain doesn’t know what real peace is. Those are truths for all of life’s battlefields – home, work, school, synagogue, family, everywhere.
And as for war and peace, if more of us cried the right cries of war and peace, then maybe soon there’d be less to cry about.
Originally published at My Jewish Learning.