Friday, 30 August 2013

On Whether to Bomb Syria - Laws of War

(these are notes for a sermon to be given 30th August 2013, the day after a Commons vote on whether the British Government should partake in military strikes against Syria in the aftermath of chemical attacks presumably perpetrated by the Syrian Govt against its own people)


Been in a Rosh Hashanah frame of mind,

Internal, spiritual, Jewish.

All of which is fine, unless one is being gassed.


Want to reflect on the gas attacks in Syria and the extraordinary scenes in the House of Commons last night.

Interested in what happens when confront a millennial old tradition with a very contemporary horror.

Actually the challenge is greater than that.

Jewish law came into formation at a time when Jews had no military power. All the discussion was hypothetical, no experience of real politik

How does Jewish insight hold up to the very ugly, very real challenges of the contemporary world.


For those not following.

Months of murder in Syria.

Most recently nadir, gas attacks – clear breach of International Law

Cameron came to Commons for general permission for some kind of military response, short of invasion, short of regime change, if intelligence further suggested what international community assume, that the chemical weapons were authorised by Assad and his govt.



Murder, image of God in every human form.

These videos of civilians being murdered by gas disturb us to our core.

Notion that this is a government doing this to its own people beggars disbelief.



We have obligation to respond.

Al taamod al daam reicha

Is this our fellow?

Don’t much like Assad and not entirely sure what welcome awaits, especially for Israel, an opposition whose connections to Islamist groups is unclear.

All irrelevant – we still have obligations to enemy, especially when their lives are threatened

Shmot 22:1 – see ass of enemy wandering off, bring it back to them.

Not so much turn the other cheek, but keep things distinct. If have an obligation to return the lost property of a person, then have that obligation to return the lost property even of an enemy.

If have obligations to oppose murder by chemical weapons then those obligations apply even if not sure whether those we hope to save will thank us for it.

An obligation to oppose use of chemical weapons is an obligation to oppose use of chemical weapons.



There are Jewish categories for military engagement.

Hilchot Rodef

Bible allows killing a thief who breaks into your house, on assumption that they will kill you if they find you there. Ex 22:1

‘If someone is coming to kill you, act first and kill them.’ Says the Talmud (Sanhedrin 72a) – doctrine of self-defence

Broadened further

If see someone going to kill, or for that matter rape another person, under an obligation to kill them first – din rodef.

Doctrine of intervention to save the lives of others – a sort of Jewish Blair doctrine of international intervention.

Dangerous stuff reined in by the Rabbis

Can’t apply din rodef

i)                   If could stop with less than murder

ii)                If might entail death of a third party

iii)              If using more force than minimally demanded

iv)               Killing after the act, as a form of punishment[1]

So din rodef isn’t really applicable to Syrian situation.

Noting that Commons vote last night wasn’t even about Rodef – putting an end to Assad.

I will come back to precisely what was proposed in the vote and the implications of that later.


Other permitted forms of war.

Rambam, MT Hil Milchamah

Two categories of Halachic, legal, war, obligatory and optional.

Obligatory, against enemy attacking Israel

Optional, broader, including prestige of the leader

Interesting, for optional, have to go to Sanhedrin – the court – vote on whether a leader, partic a leader who might be proposing war for the sake of prestige, should be allowed to risk lives of soldiers in that war.


How should the Sanhedrin decide

What are grounds for launching an optional war?

Rambam, Hil Mamrim 4

‘The sole aim and thought of a King who launches [optional war] should be to uplift the true religion, to fill the world with righteousness, to break the arm of the wicked, and to fight the battles of the Lord.’


How compare to Syria?

·         Some sense that, if let get away with it, could result in danger to us, certainly to Israel on the border.

·         Certainly the sense that this would be ‘breaking the arm of the wicked

·         Could poss make the case that this is fighting the battles of the Lord

But towards the edge


Certainly clear have to offer peace before launching war.

Vayikra Rabba Tsav 9

Said Rabbi Yosi Hagalili "How meritorious is peace? Even in a time of war one must initiate all activities with a request for peace"


Rambam ‘If they respond positively and accept the seven Noachide commandments, one may not kill any of them’ (Hilkhot Melakhim 6:1) 

7 Noahide laws e.g. legal process, robbery and crucially – shifchut damim – bloodshed. (Sanhedrin 56a)

Clearly there has been no accepting of the obligations not to spill blood.

The offer of peace has been rejected.


So where are we?

This is our problem.

There are grounds to consider that this might be a case where an optional war could be launched.

But should go to the Sanhedrin.

Should be voted on.

Shouldn’t be in the sole power of a political leader whose feelings might be influenced by questions of their own prestige.

All very contemporary.


So if I were on Sanhedrin, voting on whether to go to war against Syria, how would I consider whether to authorise?


This would be on my mind.

Torah mandates doing a number of ferocious things to deter people from acting badly.

Sotah –

Egel Arufah


In all cases, didn’t work.

Numbers grew and the initial bravado looks a bit foolish.

Left with more of a mess than expected at the beginning.

Empty out range of responses.

Not clear how the sort of limited engagement proposed would work.
Not defending Syria.

Not abandoning those who are suffering so terribly

Not even saying there isn’t a case for an Optional War to be made, but this wasn’t it.

This was an attempt to show a willingness to intervene and solve Syria’s problems, while simultaneously being very clear that there no willingness to intervene and solve Syria’s problems.

Poker analogy. If go to bluff, don’t raise by pennies.

The government seems to be doing precisely this.


And I think that pointing that out is precisely the point of a parliament, precisely the point of ensuring that the King has to go to the Sanhedrin before launching an optional war.

The Rabbis of the Sanhedrin, the MPs of our Parliament, are charged with thinking these issues through ore broadly, without the distractions of being the King, or Prime Minster, and having Obama on the phone, or thinking about poll ratings.


I think I would have said that a case for an Optional War could have been made, but this was not what was on the table last night.

What was on the table last night was a half-threat whose outcome could in no way be assumed to be the end of chemical attacks in Syria.


And for that reason we do well to be grateful that we live in a society with a legislature who take their obligations so seriously.

We do well to be grateful that our political leaders consider themselves bound by laws of constitutional propriety and despite their own wounded sense of honour acknowledge the voice of Parliamen.


And dear God, we do well to be grateful that we live in a society where our political leaders don’t attempt to gas and murder those who oppose their dictatorship.


May we always work to strengthen the democratic values of this society

May we work to support our leaders with the wisdom and insight to find other ways to oppose the murderous intent of leaders far away.


And may this new year come to all of Israel, and indeed those suffering the appalling treatment of the Assad regime in Syria, in peace,


Shabbat shalom

Shannah Tovah


[1] See generally Michael Broyde’s article

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