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Land for Peace

By TorahLab

War is an expensive exercise. The Arab – Israeli conflict has not only cost us billions of dollars but thousands of lives. Is this loss justified in Jewish law?
The Torah makes itself very clear. The mitzvos are a way of life, they determine our business dealings, the words we choose in conversation, the terms of relationships, our diet, and our schedule. We are instructed to live by 613 mitzvos of the Torah.
What happens if performing a mitzvah will cost me my life? The answer is that we don not perform the mitzvah. The only exceptions are three mitzvos for which one must be prepared to die if necessary – not to worship foreign gods, not to murder, and not to do certain acts of immorality. For these one must be prepared to sacrifice his life. Fighting for the Land of Israel however is not on the list. How do we justify our pride in putting our lives on the line on a daily basis for the realization of Eretz Yisroel?
The answer is that in fact one other mitzvah, other than the three cardinal sis, involves risk of life. War. The very nature of war risks one’s life. There are many incidents in the Bible where God commanded us to go to war. If it would be forbidden to risk our lives, then the prospect of war would be impossibility. When one goes to war then we are not risking our life to do a mitzvah, we are doing the mitzvah of risking our lives.
Today we are fighting a war in the land of Israel. Although there is presently no active battle per s’e, the war began in 1948 when the Arab nations vowed to push the Jews into the sea, and it continues until today when the same conviction is alive and well.
Of course, one may question if this war is in fact a mitzvah. To wage an offensive war is a relatively complex matter from a halachic point of view. We are no longer living in Biblical times, where God commands us through His prophet to wage war against the Midianites or the Moabites. We have no prophets. Without the prophet, the Sanhedrin or the Urim VeTemumim, it is not permitted to wage an offensive war. However, two points must be considered in deciding whether this war is indeed justified or not.
1. Are we fighting in self defense? It can be argued that this war is a counteroffensive war (which I believe is different then a defensive war, which is clearly justified).
2. According to the Rambam even if there is no mitzvah to go to war to acquire land or domicile, and even if our campaign is offensive, if the question is retention of territories, it is by all means a mitzvah to go to war to prevent the giving up of land. Two explanations are given for this. First, even if there is no mitzvah to actually acquire land, it is an aveiroh to give land to gentiles in Israel. Second, once we have this land, it has attained a certain level of holiness. Giving up the land would reduce its holiness, which is forbidden. So, according to the Rambam’s standard, the present war certainly qualifies as milchemet mitzvah, a battle that is a mitzvah to fight.
Having established that the present risk of life seems to be justified, it is necessary to look into Jewish history to find Halachic precedence for our current situation.
One of the most trying epochs in the history of the Jewish people took place in the year 3828, better known as year 68 of the Common Era. The Jews lived in the Land of Israel. Jerusalem was our religious center. The Temple in Jerusalem stood gloriously and a renaissance of scholarship was under way. However, the Roman Empire was growing daily and the dreadful time had come when the Roman Emperor decided to conquer Jerusalem. The Jews in Israel were in a state of shock, fear, and controversy. A group known as Beryonim, militant nationalists, decided to fight until the bitter end. The rabbinic leadership felt that the right thing to do was to make peace with the Romans. There were apparently many groups in the middle. The Beryonim used force to prevent the rabbinic leaders from leaving Jerusalem to speak to the Romans.
The religious leader at that time was Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, a man of unusual qualification. He was an authority in Torah as well as a secular scholar, and a business man for 40 years. Jerusalem’s Jewish population was literally starving to death. Reb Yochanan felt strongly that negotiation and peace talks we the only way to go. He circulated a rumor that he had died; he was smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin. He managed to secure an audience with Vespasian, the Roman General in charge of the Roman campaign in Jerusalem and found favor in his eyes. The General, after an interesting exchange of witticisms and profound parables, permitted Rabbi Yochanan to put forth an offer.
Suddenly the rabbi was speaking on behalf of all of Israel. He had to judge exactly how much he could ask for. He had to prioritize the needs of the people of Israel in terms of their continuation and the fulfillment of their natural mission. Rabbi Yochanan put forth his historic plea: “Give me Yavneh and its scholars!” His request was granted.
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, single handedly, gave up Jerusalem, the Temple, our headquarters. Rabbi Yochanan decided that if there is to be a future to the people of Israel we must cut our losses. Jewish survival is first and foremost dependent on Jewish learning. The land, the geography, a place of worship and everything that Jerusalem stood for was of vital importance, but survival is dependent on Torah. “Give me Yavneh and take the rest.”
The rabbi came home and was criticized by his own colleague Rabbi Akiva. Why didn’t he ask for more? The argument wasn’t whether to negotiate or not, but only whether he could have negotiated more. (Lest we think that the rabbis were generally dovish in their political attitude, it is significant to note that 50 years later, when the Jews were under the intolerable Hadrian rule, the rabbis supported Bar Kochba to wage offensive war against the Romans.)
Land for peace: we have not only an historical precedent but a halachic one. But still the question resounds. Didn’t the rabbi know the halacha? It was noble of him to want to save lives but the people of Israel were at war. The war could be classified as a mitzvah, to protect the boundaries of Jerusalem. War is risky business but this is its nature and it is a justified risk. Why did the rabbi negotiate and not fight?
The answer is that of course Reb Yochanan ben Zakai understood the halacha well. He realized, though, that fighting the Romans was a losing battle. Yes, we could be proud and put up resistance but ultimately he felt we may win the battle and lose the war, and at great human loss. There is certainly no mitzvah to fight a losing battle, and if there is not mitzvah it indeed becomes a sin.
Today, the situation may be different. So far we are winning. We have maintained the occupied territories for more then 25 years – a long time in our lives, a drop in the bucket of world history. If we can win, then we must fight; if we can’t, then we must negotiate. This decision can only be made be the Rabbinic leaders of the generation in consultation with the military and the government.
A final caveat. Many of the rabbinic resolutions in this area are purposely left ambiguous for a very obvious reason. In the words of one of America’s leading rabbis, if someone would break into your house and hold you at gunpoint, it might be a very wise decision not to resist and give the thief whatever he may ask for. At the same time, it would be most unwise for the home owner to post this decision on a board for every passing thief to see. It follows logically that a published public policy statement on this issue would be unwise and very counterproductive.
Oseh shalom bimromav, may He who has the ultimate peace making power; yaaseh shalom aleynu, may He create peace for us and for all of Israel. Amen.

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