Gershon Hepner

Prohibition of Moral Qualms

On the second day of Hanukkah 5783,

I recalled how Rabbi Haim Sabato explained

why Jews were all forbidden in the Book of Deuteronomy

to fear. It was, he wrote, because we’d morally complained

about the violence that we were expected to inflict

on enemies in order to protect our lives. Such qualms

the Bible doesn’t just implicitly predict,

but totally forbids to us, though we need arms

in order to protect our lives when there’s a threat

that’s made against us by our enemies. That’s why

we’re told both to remember and not to forget

the paradigm of Amalek, who’ll never die,

commandment that we famously fulfilled not just

on Purim but on Hanukkah, defending

ourselves, helped by our God in whom we all should trust

while fighting qualms that like our foes are never-ending.


That foes of Jews are never ending is extremely sad,

and qualms about retaliation leads to fear that’s won’t

end either, or be treated, pace Sabato, as bad,

because to have such fears is for the world a worthy wont,

one that in 5784 inhibits Jews when we retaliate

against a foe that on us a pogromic violence inflicted,

encouraged by the world our Palestinian foes to palliate

with peace, and turn our swords to plowshares as a prophet once predicted.

Though not all Palestinians ought to be conflated with Hamas,

it has inflamed too many like an anti-Hanukkiah’s shamash.


Deut. 20:1 states:

א  כִּי-תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה עַל-אֹיְבֶךָ, וְרָאִיתָ סוּס וָרֶכֶב עַם רַב מִמְּךָ–לֹא תִירָא, מֵהֶם:  כִּי-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ עִמָּךְ, הַמַּעַלְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.            1 When thou goest forth to battle against thine enemies, and seest horses, and chariots, and a people more than thou, thou shalt not be afraid of them; for the LORD thy God is with thee, who brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.

Isa. 2:4 states:

ד  וְשָׁפַט בֵּין הַגּוֹיִם, וְהוֹכִיחַ לְעַמִּים רַבִּים; וְכִתְּתוּ חַרְבוֹתָם לְאִתִּים, וַחֲנִיתוֹתֵיהֶם לְמַזְמֵרוֹת–לֹא-יִשָּׂא גוֹי אֶל-גּוֹי חֶרֶב, וְלֹא-יִלְמְדוּ עוֹד מִלְחָמָה.  {פ}     4 And He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

In “Filling the Artistic Void,” Jewish Commentary, January 2019, Meir Soloveichik writes:

Today, one of the most interesting cultural phenomena in Israel is that of Orthodox Jews—in both the national-religious and Haredi communities—engaging in artistic endeavors that are fueled by their study of Talmud texts and their experience of rigorous Judaic observance. A half century after Agnon’s Nobel address, Haim Sabato published Adjusting Sights, a novel drawn on his own experiences in the Yom Kippur War. The book was received with much acclaim in Israeli cultural circles, and to this day, because of the power with which Sabato brings war to life, the novel is used by the IDF for soldiers suffering from trauma. But Sabato’s résumé is unusual for a novelist; he leads a yeshiva in Ma’aleh Adumim, where he teaches Talmud and Jewish law, and his own intimacy with rabbinic texts pervades the pages of his story. In one powerful passage, Sabato ponders the transformation his autobiographical protagonist has experienced from Talmud student to soldier whose only duty is to focus on killing. Maimonides had codified the rabbinic ruling that soldiers are forbidden to fear when entering battle. Preparing for war, he realized how unrealistic this seemed. Then, rethinking “Maimonides’ always impeccable language,” he understands that the rabbis meant to forbid a moral fear of engaging in violence: “It is this that the Torah forbids. And the truth is that as soon as we were in combat, we thought only of destroying the enemies’ tanks.”

Paragraphs such as these show that the power in Sabato’s prose comes not despite his faith, but because of it, and his faith is made more sophisticated through his artistic expression. In the war, Sabato reflected in an interview, “a wondrous thing happened to us. The innocent religious belief of youth, which the sights and sounds of the Yom Kippur War lacerated so brutally, and filled with questions, did not shatter. True, it changed. It is filled with pain and sadness, but it’s more mature, deeper—and intact.”

About the Author
Gershon Hepner is a poet who has written over 25,000 poems on subjects ranging from music to literature, politics to Torah. He grew up in England and moved to Los Angeles in 1976. Using his varied interests and experiences, he has authored dozens of papers in medical and academic journals, and authored "Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel." He can be reached at