Parshat Matot: On Militarism and Pacifism

A Zionist dispute between Yitzhak Tabenkin and Moshe Unna encourages us to shatter social norms and allows for a more sophisticated way of thinking about the status of war and the need for war nowadays.

Rabbi Dr. Michael Ben Admon is the Director of the Maarava Program for Rabbinical Emissaries to Sephardic Communities

Our Parsha tells the story of the war against Midian, without leaving out any of the details that extolled the radical approach towards dealing with the Midianites, which involved the killing of men, women and children, not to mention looting and pillaging. Torah commentators often dwelled on the justifications for this savagery, while modern scholars were able to make important yet subtle observations used when deliberating justified and unjustified wars, as well as permitted wars versus those that are forbidden.

In general, we can say that the Talmudic tradition had largely candy-coated the violence used in the biblical battles, from the war against the Amalekites and the Midianites to Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, by moralizing these texts. Usually, the exegetical strategy that was adopted was to turn the biblical narrative into a negative paradigm. By doing so, these wars couldn’t be considered archetypes for Jewish wars at other times. Those biblical wars would only be considered legitimate in their biblical setting. Over the ages, this is how Jewish tradition, which often felt morally uncomfortable with the brutality described in these texts, choose to cope with this phenomenon.

I’d like to mention a Zionist dispute that surfaced during the 1940’s between two great philosophers, Moshe Unna (a philosopher, political activist and member of the religious kibbutz movement who lived from 1902 to 1989) and Yitzhak Tabenkin (a resident of Ein Harod, a leader of the Labor Movement and one of the Kibbutz Movement’s foremost activists and thinkers, who lived between 1988 and 1971).  The dispute centered on the status of militarism and pacifism in the Jewish and Zionist world. It’s a fascinating debate, since it essentially presents the mirror image of the current political debate between the left and right wings and between the secular and the religious, and this confusion could contribute greatly to shaping the way we think about this issue.

Yitzhak Tabenkin, a secular kibbutz resident, makes his position exceedingly clear:

Educating Jewish settlers in Palestine and each and every one of us in the spirit of militarism must begin in kindergarten, or even from the babies’ house [the common living quarters for infants maintained by the kibbutz], and not wait until the children are in school. Persecuted nations can be more powerful than the wicked, and Soviet Russia exemplifies this. Biblical characters such as Saul and David educate us to appreciate and espouse the virtues of war, heroism and camaraderie forged in battle. There was this as well: “Can Judaism raise its sons for a period of war between peoples, to develop the ability to prevail in such wars?”

Tabenkin espouses the well-known Latin adage: “Si vis pacem, para bellum”. If you seek peace – prepare for war. He felt that “… whoever isn’t prepared for war brings war upon himself… educating for war means fighting for what is the exact opposite of war”. Tabenkin believed that those who espouse pacificism are simply naive. They place trust in their opponents, oblivious that those opponents are simply exploiting this misplaced trust as part of their strategem, aimed at weakening and defeating them.

Pacificists don’t truly understand these strategems. They break the rules, and in doing so, they endanger themselves and their societies. He concluded that pacifists must be fought against, albeit not as fiercely as one should fight one’s enemies. This is a philosophical view. Tabenkin also held his own view of education, which claimed that a child’s education should be adapted to the reality in which that child will grow up, and should give the child the tools needed for survival in a hostile environment. As such, the child should be “educated for war, a war that we anticipate, one that was imposed on us”. Ultimately, Tabenkin equated this realization with the demand rooted in socialist patriotism, which is building a new man and a new society. Undoubtedly, times have changed.

Taking a opposing view to Tabenkin’s, Moshe Unna took a firm stance against his position, and even found his comments deplorable. First, he responded to the philosophical argument regarding the necessity of war in the lives of humans. He begins by rejecting the naive pacifist view, justifying going to a justified war at certain times, in light of ethical and practical considerations and other circumstances. However, he takes it one step further, claiming that the decision to actively participate in an armed struggle is not merely the result of weighing practical considerations or just being drawn into it.

He [Tabenkin] disregards one thing, which is perhaps even more important [than the rest] – that history has demonstrated that there is no better or more proven way to go to war than to prepare for it. The vast majority of wars originate in preparations for war.

He believes that Tabenkin wrongly understood the nature of good and evil, following a binary model.

Unna supported familiarizing oneself with the enemy’s positions, and with the moral imperative to strive to understand the reality that others live with. According to Unna, understanding others is “one of the great mysteries, a miracle recurring daily in the spiritual life of the human race”.  Therefore, says Unna, we ought to look for the roots of war in the cultural changes affecting human beings and preventing them from opening up to “other people’s worlds”. People go to war not only because of their flawed disposition, but also because of moral depravity:

A thousand mines are planted along the path of mutual understanding. We must get to know the other side, not as the object of our curiosity or another subject to gossip about. We need to master the language, overcome spiritual and physical weaknesses, and more. Not understanding is often more convenient than understanding. There are thousands of ways that people evade pursuing understanding – as in any moral demand.

This is also where he refutes Tabenkin’s pedagogical views, according to which children need to be educated into the reality in which they grow up. Unna wishes to shape children’s personalities based on moral values that stem from the Torah – the same values inherent to what he terms “Jewish Humanism”.

What, then, is “Jewish Humanism”? Humanism is a cultural position based on universal moral and cultural values that produce a way of relating to the world and to humanity at large. It has a Jewish character deriving from the Jewish sensitivities learned from our Torah. The word “humanism” must be stressed. It isn’t enough to simply state “according to the Torah”, since many different things can be learned from the Torah. “There are seventy facets to the Torah”. We can also learn from the Torah that we are obligated to commit acts of terror, as someone [Tabenkin] has already tried to demonstrate. The word “humanism” is used to interpret and clarify which of the many values expressed in our literature we strive to base our education on.

Unna stresses that after reading Tabenkin’s approach on educating for war, although this approach takes its inspiration from the Hebrew spirit and biblical personalities, he feels that the principle of humanism is manifestly absent from this approach, and even though Tabenkin views it as a continuation and an interpretation of Jewish tradition, it essentially produces terror. Ultimately, Tabenkin stands in opposition to Tabenkin’s ideological claim that militarism is a necessity in the socialist reality.  He believes that this attempt will “necessarily end up undermining all of the moral underpinnings of the Labor Movement in the Land of Israel, if it succeeds, God forbid”.

Unna, who was religious and kept the laws of the Torah, extolled the pioneer-Torah scholar ideal, a far cry from today’s religious Zionist mainstream, just as Tabenkin, a secular kibbutznik, wouldn’t garner too much support for his ideas within the Kibbutz Movement of today. There is something charming about this dispute, which evokes the complexity of the situation we’re currently in, and allows us to think in a more sophisticated way about the modern-day status of war in the Jewish-Israeli world. It also beckons us to break with social norms that keep us caged within separate social groups and may even lead to a schism within our people, or even civil war. Yet the most important take-away is that our real challenge is to avoid infighting when deliberating any subject tied to the ways of peace and the ways of war, in the Torah and in our modern-day lives.

(The quotes appeared originally in the book Rebellion and Creation in Religious Zionist Thought, Bar Ilan University Press, 2013, pp. 32-41).


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