On June 1, 2010, I had the privilege of being honored by the Respect for Law Alliance as their Military Leader Honoree. Below is the text of my remarks on that occasion. — Rabbi Bonnie Koppell
In the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 16, verse 20, we read, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, in order that you may thrive.” Jewish tradition is founded on many beautiful values- loving acts of kindness, humility, righteous giving to the needy- but justice is the foundational and fundamental value on which all others rest. We believe that we are formed in the image of God, and obligated to imitate the qualities we attribute to the Holy One, the Righteous Judge. Society will quickly deteriorate without a commitment to a system of justice and the means to enforce it.
I encounter many people who tell me that they are not religious, but they observe the Ten Commandments. When asked to name them, most people fail. We believe in, we pray and work for a messianic age, a time of universal peace, but, until that blessed time arrives, we recognize the need for law and for an impartial system of law enforcement. Sadly, we cannot rely on individual conscience. “The lamb may lie down with the lion, “ it has been said, “but the lamb won’t get much rest! We all rest better knowing our law enforcement professionals are on the job!
For 32 years, I have had the humbling privilege of serving in the United States Army Reserve as a chaplain. Now, you may wonder, how can a self-defined religious individual function in an environment such as the United States Army, whose stated goal is to “break things and kill people.” The answer is that Judaism is not a pacifist tradition. We believe not only in the right, but the obligation to self-defense. If someone is seeking to kill you, we read in the Talmud, rise up earlier and kill him first.
A contemporary Orthodox Professor, Michael Wyshograd seeks to define a category of what he calls “abnormal evil”. He writes that, “basically it comes down to recognizing one when you see one. . .When dealing with normal evil, noninterference, at least in the military sense, ought to be the rule. But when the situation reaches the level of abnormal evil, this principle of noninterference cannot remain absolute. . . We are commanded: ‘Do not standby idly at the blood of your brother’ (Leviticus 19:16). There comes a time when military intervention is justified and the religious community,” he concludes, “has a duty to speak clearly when that point is reached.”
While war may at times be necessary, as Jews we are taught never to rejoice in the suffering of our enemies- at the Passover seder, we spill a drop of wine from our cups, symbol of rejoicing, as we recall the 10 plagues which were a necessary part of our journey towards liberation. Our celebration is muted. We are adjured in Psalms (34:14) to seek peace and pursue it, and prayers for peace are a major focus of our liturgy. It was King Solomon, whose very name comes from the root “shalom”, meaning peace, who built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, not King David, the triumphant warrior. When Golda Meir was asked if she could forgive Egypt for killing Israeli soldiers, her poignant response was- “It is more difficult for me to forgive Egypt for making us kill their soldiers.” Ultimately, we must pray as if everything depends on God, and act as if everything depends on us. We give thanks this evening for the opportunity to come together in peaceful fellowship, and take a moment to offer prayers on behalf of our brave comrades who are, even now, deployed in harm’s way, away from their loved ones and prepared to lay down their lives in service to these United States of America, and for all of the courageous service members who serve in our military. How blessed are we all to live in this land of freedom and justice for all!
I will conclude by thanking you for this amazing honor, and to remind all of us of one of my favorite verses in Psalms, (29:11), “God will give strength to the people, God will bless us with peace.” Peace, we learn, must come from a position of strength.