From the First World War to Operation Protective Edge – The Value of Life in Jewish Thought

During the Oslo process of the mid-1990s, as the Rabin government faced furious opposition from the religious right, Rav Ovadia Yosef, the greatest Jewish legal authority of the generation, was asked for his opinion regarding the halachic permissibility of giving up sovereignty over parts of the land of Israel in exchange for peace.

In an article in the journal Techumim, he concluded that the mitzvah of yishuv eretz yisrael, of settling the land of Israel, although of very great importance, does not take precedence over pikuah nefesh, the preservation and saving of life, which is to be considered the ultimate value relevant to the discussion. If a meaningful and lasting peace, which would save lives, could indeed be achieved then the withdrawal from parts of Israel was both permissible and obligatory. If however such a treaty would not however bring the conflict to an end, then the mitzvah of yishuv eretz yisrael still stood, and such a withdrawal would not have halachic sanction. The decision, Rav Ovadia concluded, as to whether Oslo would indeed produce a true and lasting peace, must remain in the hands of the military and political experts.

The article, as to be expected from a posek, such as Rav Ovadia, is of a completely halachic-legal nature rather than of a philosophical-theological one, yet at the very end of the piece, a footnote appears relating a story of the great Reb Chayyim of Brisk, (1853-1918, the grandfather of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik). The story presents a sharp statement of Jewish belief, as relevant to our current predicament now, as it was to the context of the First World War when the original exchange took place. The footnote reads as follows:

והנני להזכיר כאן מה שכתב הרה”ג דב כ”ץ בספר הגות ודעות בשם הגאון האדיר רבי חיים סולובייצ’יק מבריסק זצ”ל, שבימי מלחמת עולם העולמית, אשר רבים חללים הפילה ועצומים כל הרוגיה, ונהרגו גם כן הרבה מאחינו בית ישראל, אמרו לו להגר”ח בתוך כדי שיחה, שאילו לפחות המלחמה הזאת היתה מביאה את הגאולה אולי כדי היה הדבר. גער בהם הגר”ח ואמר: מוטב שידחו כמה גאולות מישראל, ואל תאבד נפש אחת מישראל. ואילו היתה באה שאלה לפנינו, שאם על ידי קרבן של אדם אחד מישראל יבוא המשיח, בודאי שהיינו פוסקים, שמוטב שלא יבוא המשיח, ולא ימות אדם אחד מישראל. כי הלא פיקוח נפש דוחה כל מצות שבתורה ובכלל זה אף משיח והגאולה.

And at this point I must mention that which is found in Rav Dov Katz’s book ‘Hagot v’Deot’ in the name of the great Gaon, Reb Chayyim Soloveitchik of Brisk of blessed memory. That during the days of the World War, when so many multitudes had fallen and the dead were so numerous, including many of our brothers in Israel, it was said in passing to Reb Hayyim, that if only this war would bring the redemption perhaps it would have been worthwhile. Reb Hayyim responded with fury saying: better for numerous redemptions to pass us by rather than a single life be lost from Israel. And if the question were to come before us (at the Beit Din), that if through the sacrifice of but one Jew moshiach would come immediately, most certainly we would decide that better for moshiach not to come at all, rather than a single life be lost from Israel. For pikuach nefesh – the mitzvah of preserving life – overrides all mitzvoth in the Torah, even moshiach and the redemption.

This is an astonishing piece, and when trying to unpack its significance, we should be wary of defining its meaning too narrowly, lest its message be confined only to its original context.

In essence Reb Chayim’s position is as follows: war in itself is not a good. On the contrary, in itself it is a terrible evil, whose definitional content is suffering and loss of life. No goal, however elevated, desirable, and sublime, can provide a justification for such loss of life, not even the ultimate dream for which we wait every day, the coming of moshiah. For even if they were to come before the Bet Din and say that all it takes for moshiach to come – for an end to suffering, an end to injustice, a time of harmony and completeness – is the death of a single individual, we should respond let the messiah be delayed a thousand times over, rather than a single life be lost. For the ultimate value, the value that overrides all others is the value of life and its preservation.

On the face of it Reb Chayyim’s position appears to be a pacifist one: the fundamental rejection of any sort of violence as a means to any conceivable end, no matter how desirable that end is. Yet it is hard to believe that this could really be Reb Chayyim’s position, if for no other reason than it is a position nigh-on untenable within the large range of possible views on the matter offered by Jewish tradition. Wars, whether commanded or voluntary, undoubtedly play a legitimate even if limited role within Jewish history, law and thought.

It seems then that Reb Chayyim’s position should be read as follows: the only possible legitimate justification for war is the very same value, which makes all other justifications for war illegitimate – that of pikuah nefesh – protecting the value of life. If the prosecution of a war will serve to prevent an even greater loss of life, then that war is justified, and even mandatory. Yet if the goals of a war extend beyond those boundaries then no comfort or legitimation can be drawn as the value of life is trampled.

And this leads us to Reb Chayyim’s fundamental insight. It is the value of life which is primary and through its prism are events to be judged.

Its message during the Great War, a hundred years ago, when Reb Chayyim originally spoke, was that no light at the end of the tunnel, even the light of redemption, could justify or provide comfort to the incredible loss of life that was taking place.

Its message twenty years ago during the Oslo Peace process of the 1990s, that a secure smaller Israel was to be preferred to a larger conflict-torn Israel, gave Rav Ovadia courage, to support the Rabin government’s position for a lasting peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, a brave and honourable stance even if the process ended in failure.

And its message today? That facing an enemy who resists every opportunity for accommodation and de-escalation we are fighting for our ultimate value: the value of life, of the right to live in peace and security. Its message prohibits us from falling into glorifying or romanticising war and heeds us to remain aware that this war, like any other takes a terrible toll on both sides of a conflict, yet even so, is justified and necessary to defend our society’s sanctification of life against those who promote violence as both means and ends.

Beyond our view of conflict, Reb Chayyim provides us with an important reminder of the nature of Jewish faith. Unlike so many other ideologies, both religious and secular, whose pursuit of sublime goals brought about, in Isaiah Berlin’s phrase, ‘oceans of blood that never led to the kingdom of love’, Reb Hayyim’s Judaism is one that prioritises everyday life and its preservation, the here and now in all its imperfection, over even the coming of Moshiach.

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת מִשְׁפָּטַי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם אֲנִי ה

“אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל: ” וחי בהם – ולא שימות בהם“. 

And you shall keep My statutes and laws, which if man performs, then he shall live through them – I am the Lord. (Vayikra 18)

Said Rav Yehuda in the name of Shmuel – ‘Live through them – and do not die through them’ (Talmud Bavli, Yoma 85b)

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