“That Israel should not go up as a wall” (Talmud Bavli Ketubot 111a) is the first of what are traditionally known as “The Three Oaths,” administered by God to Israel and the Nations upon Israel’s journey into exile 2000 years ago. Talmud commentators understand this first oath to prohibit Jews to organize a military conquest of the Land of Israel. The second oath forbids Israel from rebelling against the nations and the third, administered to the nations themselves, prohibits them from oppressing the Jews too much and thus forcing God’s hand to end the exile. Indeed, the Satmar Rebbe, and many other ultra-Orthodox leaders point to the three oaths as theological evidence against the Zionist project. Over 100 years ago, they warned that violating the oaths would lead to endless war and bloodshed.
As I sat in my Modern Orthodox synagogue’s Tekes Ma’avar (transition ceremony from Israel Memorial Day to Israel Independence Day) Monday night listening to a haunting Israeli song memorializing the three boys kidnapped and killed by Hamas in 2014, I thought of the three oaths. Accompanying the song was a montage of images that blended religious observance with military power, highlighted by an Ethiopian Jewish soldier praying in the foreground with two large Israeli tanks standing silently behind him. As a life-long, ardent Zionist I’ve always dismissed the three oaths as null either because the nations violated their oath by oppressing us too much (eg. The Holocaust) or because we are in a period of Jewish history that calls for increased secular action to bring the messianic era. In that moment, watching the montage of military might, I realized how prescient the Satmar Rebbe was about the consequence of violating the oaths resulting in bloodshed.
If I believe in the necessity of a sovereign Jewish state in Israel, I must also support a strong military in which human beings will proactively kill and be killed. There is no way around this. Recalling the three oaths reminded me of the tectonic shift Jewish ethics have undergone since 1948. For 2000 years we were a people living under domination and forged bullet-proof ethical sensibilities, basing hope for our redemption on our goodness, care of the vulnerable and God’s compassion. Indeed, Hitler disparagingly claimed that the Jews were responsible for such “reprehensible” ideas like mercy. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg has convincingly argued (see the article above) that, after the Shoah, power itself is an ethical value. Had there been a powerful State of Israel, millions of lives would have been saved. Yet, military power is a different kind of sensibility than what we carefully cultivated for 2000 years of diaspora living and calls for a meaningful recalibration of the matrix of Jewish values.
The collective Jewish soul does not recalibrate easily or quickly. The ethic of the three oaths — that the Jewish task is to arrive at the messianic era through peaceful means — must be understood if we are to understand the deep unease that many young, progressive Jews feel about the State of Israel. I teach these Jews and I hear their yearning for a diasporic Jewish identity that embraces millennia of Jewish culture and values and dispatches with the militarism of the Zionist project. It is not helpful to dismiss their yearning for a Judaism that is suspicious of nationalism and militarism as self-hating and ignorant. Rather, the Jewish spirit beats deep in the heart of these young people for a peaceful and faithful way toward redemption. Although they are hardly Ultra-Orthodox, these young progressives resonate with the same messages in the tradition about non-militaristic path to redemption as do the most extreme Haredim. It is tempting to shout that the quietism of the Ultra-Orthodox contributed to Jewish deaths in the Shoah and that era is over. It would be wiser to take another look at the Satmar Rebbe and appreciate the thousands of years of cultural sensibilities he draws on regarding issues of war and peace. I’m not sure how to integrate his strain of thought with the real military and economic needs of modern Israel, but I do know that recognizing and appreciating the deep cultural and spiritual roots of a non-violent approach to redemption could bring thousands of young Jews into our millennia long conversation about the Jewish future.
Rabbi David Jaffe is the author of Changing the World from the Inside Out, winner of the 2016 National Jewish Book Award for Contemporary Jewish Life. He is the Founder and Principal of Kirva Consulting, which helps individuals and organizations access Jewish wisdom for creating more healthy and sustainable relationships and communities.