My colleague, Rabbi Ken Chasen, has suggested a very good answer to a question that has been weighing on my mind and on the minds of our entire family: What would my father-in-law, Rabbi David Forman, z”l, tell us about what is happening? In what way would he be speaking out, as he always did in his newspaper columns and in his work with Rabbis for Human Rights?
Rabbi Chasen reminds us of something that Rabbi Forman once taught him about the moral dilemma of being a tank commander in the 1982 Lebanon war, in which he was wounded. He had received orders to advance in the tank. There were terrorists and civilians in a field they had to pass. The order was to shoot anything that moved.
When they arrived, everything was exactly as the military intelligence had indicated. Indeed, there were the terrorists, and there were the human shields deliberately placed in front of them. And David was left to decide – do I order my men to fire? If I have them fire, we will absolutely kill innocent people. If I have them hold their fire, it is all but certain that one or more of us will be killed. There is no time to decide. What should I do?
Rabbi Chasen demands that we ask ourselves this question – what would you do?
“Morality, taught Rabbi Forman, is about choosing how to navigate the real world, not the simple world we prefer to imagine. It’s about living in the world where we won’t even fully know whether the choice we made was moral. The world where we will struggle forever with the decision we made, principled though it might have been, because the matter so obviously defies moral clarity…”
He quotes Rabbi Forman: “[M]ost of us want morality to be about choosing between right and wrong. But I have learned that moral choices are never between right and wrong – because right and wrong is easy. You do what’s right. Moral choices are between right and right…and between wrong and wrong. It is wrong to open fire and kill those innocent Lebanese civilians. And it is wrong to hold fire and rob an Israeli family of a loved one who courageously put his life on the line for his family and his people. It is right to kill terrorists who declare their genocidal intent, along with their preference to die instead of negotiating a peaceful solution. And it is right to preserve the lives of innocent people trapped by a regime that weaponsizes their deaths.”
Rabbi Chasen concludes after weighing many questions of right vs. right and wrong vs. wrong in regard to the war going on today:
“Force is ugly. Grotesque. Wrong. I hate it as much as you do. But I’m a Jew, and I know I’d be dead without it. Talk about a choice between wrong and wrong, right and right!
This doesn’t make me a war monger. It makes me someone who won’t pretend he doesn’t value his own kids’ lives as much as he values all children, wherever they may live. I’m not sure if you would refuse to physically defend yourself and your family if someone came to your door looking to kill you or a loved one, God forbid – but this is the kind of thing Jews have no choice but to think about.
Does that sound hyperbolic to you? Maybe we should ask the Jewish peace activists who live closest to Gaza and somehow managed to survive the baby-incinerating, senior citizen-decapitating rampage they just witnessed. Answers that are unsatisfying, that do not relieve the soul’s thirst for absolution. Answers that leave me wondering if I’m even right for saying them. But if silence isn’t an option, the stained canvas of morality is all I can attempt in humility to offer. Join me, with your heavy heart, in painting that canvas of wrong and wrong, right and right, with the colors that stand the best possible chance one day, may it not be long off, of enabling peace to breathe free.”
Please take a half hour this weekend to hear the entirety of Rabbi Chasen’s talk on this topic, found here .
Rabbi Michael Schwartz