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Not for the Weak of Heart

  • Not for the Weak of Heart

    Shof'tim, Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9
D'var Torah By: 

Focal Point

Then the officials shall address the troops, as follows: "Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another harvest it. Is there anyone who has paid the bride-price for a wife, but who has not yet married her? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another marry her." The officials shall go on addressing the troops and say, "Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his." (Deuteronomy 20:58)

D'Var Torah

One of the wonderful things about Torah is its ability to simultaneously dwell in the worlds of possibilities and realities.  Just prior to these words we read that a priest comes forward to address the troops as they prepare for battle. He says to those assembled, "Let not your courage falter. . . . For it is the Eternal your God who marches with you to do battle for you against your enemy, to bring you victory" (Deuteronomy 20:3-4). Our biblical ancestors believed that God accompanied them into war. Indeed, they envisioned God as a warrior, fighting with them.

Nonetheless, they understood the reality that in war not all soldiers return home, even if the mission is ultimately victorious. Our ancestors also accepted that even with the promise of victory, not everyone is prepared to go into battle.

In a defensive war, service was obligatory and exemptions were not applicable. But the Torah does create several categories, in the case of a nonobligatory war, of deferment from military service. A nonobligatory war might be one that involves a preemptive strike. Civilian officials were put in charge of mobilizing troops and determining who might be entitled to deferments. It was believed that civilians, as opposed to military officers, would better safeguard the rights of those entitled to defer their service for a later time.

Three of these categories apply to young men embarking on specific new ventures, which they are allowed to complete before going to war. The first recognizes that a man who has just built a new home should be allowed to live in it before risking his life. The second category relates to Leviticus 19:2325, which states that the fruit of a new tree should not be eaten until its fifth year. Thus, until a man could harvest the fruit of his crop, he is permitted to defer his military service. The third category concerns marriage: Once a man pays the bride-price for a woman, the couple is considered legally married even though they may not live with each other yet. Such a man is allowed to defer his military service. In addition, when a man first marries his wife, he is entitled to a one-year exemption from military service (Deuteronomy 24:5).

The final category of military deferment is for one who is disheartened, or literally, "softhearted." He, too, is exempt from military service, not so much for his own good, but for the good of the other soldiers. The text indicates a concern that a fearful soldier will spread his fear to others. Though exempt from battle, these soldiers serve in noncombat roles.

It is difficult to imagine even the bravest man or woman going into battle without some level of fear in his or her heart. It may be fear of what might happen to them, or fear of what they may have to do. The Rabbis understood this fear. In Mishnah Sotah 8:5, Rabbi Akiva explains that the one who is fearful and fainthearted is one who cannot endure the rigors of warfare and face a drawn sword. The medieval commentator Ramban says of one who is fainthearted "that it is not in his nature to see the stroke of the sword, and slaughter" (Ramban, Commentary on the Torah , Deuteronomy 20:8).

Into this last category of military deferment we might place the conscientious objector one who refuses to serve in the armed forces on the grounds of moral or religious principle. Judaism has always respected the institution of government and the authority of law. At the same time Judaism understands that there may be those rare times when one's understanding of God's expectations will come into conflict with the demands of human law.

One such time was during the war in Vietnam. Then, many religious organizations advocated on behalf of those seeking exemption from military service (with provisions of alternate types of service) as conscientious objectors. In a resolution of the 50th General Assembly of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism), the United States government was called upon to recognize the "principle of selective conscientious objection to a particular war as a ground for exemption from military service." In 1976 the Central Conference of American Rabbis adopted a resolution calling upon "Congress and the President to grant unconditional amnesty to all who refused to serve in the Vietnam War."

Jewish tradition has always placed a high value on peace. In Psalm 34:15, we are taught to "seek peace and pursue it." We have made the words of Micah (4:3) into our own prayer for peace: "Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war." Our history celebrates peacemakers, not warriors.

Yet, while always working toward the possibility of peace, Judaism understands that in our present reality, there are times when nations will take up the sword against one another. In balancing the need for protection with each individual's responsibility before God for his or her actions, we pray for the safety of those engaged in combat, and we support the rights of those whose conscience compels them to refrain from battle.

By the way . . .

  • The greatness of peace may be seen from Scripture. Even when it deals with war it commands: When you make war, first proclaim peace. (D'varim Rabbah 5:15 on Shof'tim )
  • We concur in the proposal for an end to decentralization of selective service, in favor of national and uniform administration, operating under the rule of law, rather than discretion, accompanied by standardized and clarified policies, improved appeals, procedures and wider information on rights and obligations. (UAHC Resolution on Selective Service, adopted at the 49th General Assembly, November 1967)
  • But if the Vietnam War was immoral and almost destroyed two countries-Vietnam and America-did that mean that every war was wrong, that force was never justified, that the spilling of blood was never necessary to avert an even greater evil? (Albert Vorpsan and David Saperstein, Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice: Tough Moral Choices of Our Time [New York: UAHC Press, 1998], p. 170)

Your Guide

  1. Even in the face of war, our tradition urges us to make peace. In 2002, the Executive Committee of the UAHC endorsed a proposal in which the UAHC would support military action by the United States against Iraq only after exhausting all nonmilitary avenues. Under what conditions would you support military action?

  2. Our text from Deuteronomy tells us that civilians were put in charge of mobilizing soldiers in order to safeguard the rights of those being drafted. Thousands of years later, the UAHC 1967 resolution alludes to a similar problem. Should civilians have a role in recruiting for the armed forces?

  3. Do different wars carry different moral value? Does one need to be a conscientious objector to all wars, or can one object only to certain wars?
Reference Materials: 

Shof'tim, Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,456–1,477; Revised Edition, pp. 1,292–1,315;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,141–1,164