On the Other Hand Ten Minutes of Torah: Everyone Thinks They Are The Good Guys - Parashat Ki Teitzei

Rabbi Rick Jacobs discusses Ki Teitzei, his Bar Mitzvah portion, which mentions the ethical constraints and restrictions that a person must consider, when going into war. Joining the conversation is this week’s guest, Rear Admiral Rabbi Harold L. Robinson, the highest ranking Jewish Chaplain in the history of the United States military, as they reflect on, among other things, how one’s values are tested, when faced with possibly endangering yourself, at the risk of doing what’s right.

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a new spin on a weekly Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. In some weeks, he is joined by a guest, as he was this week. Rabbi Jacobs speaks with Rabbi Harold Robinson, who is also a retired rear admiral from the US Navy. They're talking about Parashat Ki Teitzei.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Ki Teitzei from the book of Deuteronomy. "Ki teiztei" literally means when you go out. And it's not talking about when you go out to get some milk or eggs. It says, Ki teiztei la-mil-cha-mah, when you go out to wage war, here are the Jewish teachings. And this week's parashah begins with teachings about how one conducts war, the ethical restrictions. It follows from last week's parashah, Shof'tim, which also has a frame of Ki teiztei la-mil-cha-mah, when you go out to war.

And we have today on the podcast a great pleasure, and I'll just make mention that we're doing this podcast remotely so that we could have the great privilege of talking to Rear Admiral Harold L. Robinson, who is also my colleague, a rabbi, a amazing leader and teacher, and now holds the highest rank of any Jewish chaplain in the history of our military. He has held positions-- very important positions representing not only the Reform rabbinate but the Conservative, Orthodox, and even Agudah and has served in the capacity of not just himself being a chaplain but also being responsible as the Deputy Chief of Chaplains for Reserve Matters, also the Director of Religious Programs for Marine Force Reserve and most recently at the Jewish Welfare Board, which really oversees the chaplaincy altogether. Rear Admiral Rabbi Harold Robinson, it is a great pleasure. Welcome to the podcast.

[Rabbi Harold Robinson] A pleasure to be with you. It's an awesome honor.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Thank you. Thank you. And I know this is really-- this is the material that you know very best. So I'd like, if I could, just for you-- you've worn the uniform with such pride and with such distinction-- to say something when you hear the Torah giving its frames for the conduct of war, the conduct of those who give strength to those who are entering into war. Could you just offer just some reflections? I know-- and I'll tell you this, honestly, this is my bar mitzvah portion. And it was in the late '60s, and there was a war raging in Vietnam. And I have to say, it was a-- it was a hard portion to read and to understand as a 13-year-old then. But I would imagine for you this portion and last week's portion have a particular resonance.

[Rabbi Harold Robinson] It does. There have been times when I have been gathered very much in the biblical context with troops, with warriors who are about to enter battle and sometimes in large numbers and offering a prayer and sometimes one-to-one conversation. And then I will tell you that when I would look into the eyes of the potential warriors, again, whether it was in large numbers or individually, I would see a special-- I don't even know how to use simple words, not being a poet, but a special kind of stare as they contemplated two things-- the danger to their own life, because war is about fighting and killing or being killed. But they also contemplated in a very real way that they were being asked to weigh their life against their humanity, their human values, their sense of self, that they were being challenged as to how will I behave. Will I live up to my values? Will I-- will I be loyal to my comrades, but also to what I have been taught as a human being? Understanding that if I give up my humanity to save my life, I may be in another way sacrificing something far more valuable than the life. So that's the quandary that none of-- the people who have not had to face it really may say, oh, I understand that. But I challenge that they do just as there are so many circumstances, the loss of a loved one, that somebody says, oh, I understand how you feel. And the person sitting in the counselee chair says, no, rabbi, you really don't.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Yeah. Yeah, no, that's so powerful. And I think for many of us who read this portion, you read it, and you kind of nod and you keep moving. But as you describe that stare, that sense of really trying to fathom what you may encounter, and will it take away your core values, and will you be able to live up to the Torah sets out some pretty strict rules about how one conducts himself even in the time of war. I mean, one of the dimensions is this notion that somehow God is fighting with you, which I imagine, if you think about the prayer that you might have said to an individual or maybe to a group of warriors, here's this line from Deuteronomy 20 verse 4. It says, "For it is the eternal your God who marches with you."

[Rabbi Harold Robinson] Yeah, I want to-- I want to be clear that I have never prayed that God is on our side. Dear God, be on our side. First of all, who-- God is God, who does not need my advice. However, the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines want to assure themselves that we are struggling to be on God's side, that we are striving to do that which is right. And that's not always so easy. You represent the Vietnam War, but in every war every side has wanted to say, God's on our side. Well, clearly not possible for God to be on-- however God goes, in my mind, having been at very limited but real battlefield experience the sense that God is with me, helping me preserve who and what I am, and that without that sense of God's presence I am less than human. I'm less than why I went to war. I am simply in the animal struggle of fear, fight or flee, and kill or be killed. And with God there, to the degree that God is there with me, I am above-- I am more than that.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] I think that's a very eloquent way to describe it. The dilemma is biblical, right, because in the biblical text there is a notion of would say the religious war. This is-- some wars are obligatory wars in our tradition. It kind of ties in a little bit with just war theory. There's a religious component. But as you describe it, entering into battle with our troops whether it be in Afghanistan or Iraq or Qatar or Kuwait to be able to presume that somehow God is on one side and all the human beings lined up on the other side are somehow not is not part of our ethical moral Jewish. But I think the eloquent way that you say God can be with you, helping you to be your best self, doing what you know is right.

[Rabbi Harold Robinson] When I-- there's some other tendency that we haven't discussed. When I diminish to the humanity of the enemy, then I diminish humanity itself and, therefore, diminish the humanity within myself. If I cannot see the other as also being in the image of God, then-- and by the way, that's always the struggle, whether we have despicable names for the enemy in World War II or in Vietnam or in Afghanistan, in Somalia, and in Iraq we-- Bosnia-Herzegovina, we diminish ourselves when we diminish the humanity of the enemy. And the chaplain, when we are at our best, which we we're not always, but when we're at our best is there to preserve that. I mentioned in one of my emails to you, Rick, Picasso's the Rape of the Sabine Women. And it pictures a Sabine warrior and a Roman warrior battling against each other under the hooves of their-- and they're totally focused on live or be-- kill or live, fight to the death-- beneath that the hooves of their horses is a woman and her infant child being trampled to death. They're both impervious, unaware of the presence of those two human beings, supposedly the raison d'etre for the war. And the chaplain is the one that says, hold it. We are-- we are more than this. By the way, that's a very-- I would love to see the biggest response on Google to this podcast that everybody go and search out the Rape of the Sabine Women by Picasso. It's very powerful.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] And that's a beautiful image. Thank you for giving kind of almost a concrete way for us to see when you can preserve, again, sometimes with the help of a chaplain, sometimes just summoning something was planted deep within you to act in the most ethical way even in the most difficult of circumstances, which again you can be a family person in a academy of learning to do that on a battlefield.

[Rabbi Harold Robinson] There's one other avenue that I want to interrupt to make sure that we have time to get. There's been a lot of discussion in our society of PTSD, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. I take exception to that, as do a lot of our colleagues, and that it is post-traumatic stress response. To not have a-- it's not a disorder to be profoundly disturbed by the post, by the stress, by the trauma, and to have that linger with us. That's a post-traumatic stress response and is perfectly normal and human and happens in many circumstances.

The concern for the chaplain is usually what we call PTSD, if we must, caused by the moral injury-- that is, having come away from the battle wondering if we have, in fact, preserved our own humanity or diminished, have we lived our values or not, and not being able to ever get back into that situation because God forbid one needs to go back into battle to make sense of it, right. A chaplain is the one person who the warrior can go to with some sense that, perhaps, the chaplain understands and can identify with the circumstances about which they're discussing.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] That's very important. Thank you for the nuance. As we start to wind down, I know that chaplains have died in the midst of these wars and battles. There's a very famous quartet called the Four Chaplains who died on the SS Dorchester on February 3, 1943, during World War II. You had this incredible-- the chaplains. You have the rabbi, our colleague from the CCAR, Rabbi Alexander Goode, and his colleagues who were there as well. And the four of them, the story is that there weren't enough life rafts for all the troops. And these four voluntarily gave up their life preservers and a chance to be in any of the lifeboats. And together, arms in arm, stepped-- prayed, and then stepped to their deaths. And they're not the only chaplains who died in war supporting our troops. I know there's a larger category. I wonder if, in concluding, if you would offer some reflections about the work that you do and the work that you've trained so many to do, inspired so many to do and kind of where the nobility is. It's not an accident. I'll just tell people that you received the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Meritorious Service Medal, Naval Commendation Medal with two Gold Stars. You're a person who has, probably more than anyone, and not just our Reform rabbinate but really in our Jewish community, led this. Reflect, Admiral, if you would, about that dimension, which is not every chaplain's fate but it has been for too many.

[Rabbi Harold Robinson] Let me tell you a story about how the four chaplains have influenced American life beyond that one terrible moment in February 3, 1943-- February 2 and 3, 1943. And it's an only in America story. So about 12 years ago, a Roman Catholic studying the priests who had lost their lives in service to our country was a chaplain in the Arlington National Cemetery. And saw there the monument to the fallen Roman Catholic chaplains and saw there the monument to the fallen Protestant chaplains. And knew because of Chaplain Goode and the story of the four chaplains-- one Catholic, two Protestant, and a Jew-- knew that a rabbi had died. And he said, why isn't there a monument at Arlington to those-- to Rabbi Goode?And he called me at the Jewish Welfare Board and said, why isn't there a monument? And the Jewish community had never considered creating one. And in the process, this Roman Catholic and the Jewish Welfare Board working with some others discovered that there were 14 rabbis who had lost their lives, given their lives, in service to our country and no monument. And we managed to raise the funds and to get permission from Congress, because we needed a joint resolution of the House and Senate, which, by the way, were controlled by different branches, different parties. And we were able to construct a monument in honor of those four chaplains, and it would only have happened because a Roman Catholic partnered with a rabbi. That's kind of only in America, but then the story doesn't end there because the rabbi and the Roman Catholic noticed that the Protestant memorial had not been updated since World War II. And we are now in the process of creating a new monument at Arlington for those Protestant chaplains who had not been memorialized, for 15 additional Protestant chaplains who have lost their lives. So there is a sense of American values in the chaplain corps and in the military that's hard to find.

We do our Thanksgiving Day interfaith service, but that's not the same kind of camaraderie that one develops living with and risking life with people from across both the entire religious spectrum but also the entire political spectrum of American life. In the old days, there used to be a section in Reader's Digest when there was a Reader's Digest, "Only in America," and this I think would have been a story for that section.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] That's an inspiring way for us to come to a close. And you give us not just an only in America but really something that really ennobles the human spirit. And the life of service that you have led, Admiral Robinson, is one that inspires all of us, and I know that the words from Deuteronomy, if I could just quote them, that would be said as the ancient Israelites would go into battle. And the priest would say it, but very often it would be a rabbi, a minister, a priest, or any one of the faith leaders that wears the uniform to say as they hear it this verse in Deuteronomy 20, verse 3, "Let not your courage falter. Do not be in fear or panic or in dread." And I know that you have given that kind of strength and inspiration to so many. And so grateful for not just your time and your insights and your deep, deep commitment on this podcast that you've shared, but the life of service that truly inspires us. So with deep gratitude.

[Rabbi Harold Robinson] Thank you, Rabbi Jacobs. I do want to add just that it has been my honor to serve. When somebody says to me, thank you for your service, I must respond that every moment of service has been an honor and a blessing.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Beautiful. Beautiful. Well, God bless you, and thank you for all you do and all you inspire. Thank you so much.

[Rabbi Harold Robinson] God bless.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend. For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit ReformJudaism.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJPresident.

On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

And until next week, L'hiroat!