We can scarcely imagine the scene of total devastation that young POW Kurt Vonnegut encountered as he emerged, bleary-eyed, from a meat locker after the firebombing of Dresden, Germany in February 1945. The utter destruction and loss of life were so overwhelming that he could only express its enormity years later through his iconic work of science fiction, Slaughterhouse-Five. Art piqued conscience, as the novel focused attention on this little known event toward war’s end, becoming a searing indictment of the cost of military conflict in innocent lives.
With the more probing perspective of hindsight, many questioned the necessity and morality of the totalized leveling of Dresden. Occurring weeks after the loss of 19,000 American soldiers at the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of Auschwitz, with its revelations of Nazi atrocities, many saw the extremity of the raid as driven by retributive vengeance. As with the dropping of the Atomic bomb on Japan a few months later, Dresden’s deadly toll was intended to shock and awe the Germans into submission. In essence, the immensity of the destruction of Dresden was seen as a justified response to Nazi aggression and barbarism, an act so dramatic as to leave the Germans no choice but to surrender.
Israel’s response to the Holocaust-evoking pogrom by the mass murderers of Hamas—who gleefully documented the mutilation of infants and the elderly for clickbait—was understandable to most observers. Its first bombing sorties in Gaza seemed a reasoned reaction, even as the full extent of the atrocities in Southern Israel were yet to be revealed. But soon—and always on cue—the narrative shifted for many, as the reality of fighting an asymmetrical foe amidst the squalid density of Hamas’ base of operations became apparent.
The strategic difficulty and moral quandary of attacking Gaza has always been exploited by Hamas, who purposely embed their fighters and weaponry in concentrated neighborhoods, mosques, and hospitals. And though Israel strives to avoid the collateral damage of Palestinian civilian casualties with a regard for life that far exceeds that of their terrorist leadership, the suffering and death of the innocent are inevitable and unavoidable.
But unlike other powerful militaries, Israel’s character as a Jewish State, founded upon the values of faith, compels a more stringent criteria for conflict. The ethos of Tohar Neshek—the purity of arms—has been a guiding principle emerging from sacred texts and rabbinic interpretation. And like Vonnegut reflecting upon the cratered remains of Dresden through fiction, the Torah’s story of Sodom provided the ancients with an artful way to process and express their struggles with the cruel vagaries of life in the Iron Age. It offers resonant and relevant insights into the challenges of prosecuting a war amidst a civilian population.
God shares with Abraham a plan to annihilate Sodom—-a city whose inhabitants are said to be uniformly evil and deserving of punishment. Abraham, knowing that his nephew Lot—a good man— lives in the city, challenges God with a temerity that becomes a basis for quintessential Jewish chutzpah: “Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked…Shall not the Judge of all the earth do Justice?” God is swayed, and enters into a negotiation over how many good people would be required to forestall the apocalypse. Ultimately, only Lot and his family are allowed safe passage before the city is obliterated.
The lesson is clear and compelling: Concern for the loss of innocent life collateral to a justified response to evil demands careful consideration and a negotiated balance of principles. Vengeful pursuits of the guilty are discouraged elsewhere in the Torah. But responses even to unmitigated evil must be measured against the cost to those undeserving of the fate of the culpable.
The lessons of Sodom are aspirational when meeting the depravity of demonstrable evil—a struggle with the intense emotions evoked and the compulsion to respond in kind. Wrestling with the morality of Dresden cautions us that we who stand at a distance in time and place from the chaotic maw of war have a rarefied perch from which to assess the decisions and actions of the embattled, and should rightly reserve judgment.
As Israel emerges from an unimaginable loss to engage an unprecedented defense, a lifting of eyes and heart to the call of better angels is the burden—-the obligation—of the just for their actions to be justifiable. It is a daunting challenge and a timeless trial—to contend as valiantly against the evils of the world as with the demands of conscience and the integrity of the soul.