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    The Jewish ethic of war – Ki Tetzei

    August 20th, 2023

    The Torah reading gives us the basic information about the Jewish ethic of war. It begins by saying “When you go out to war”… implying that there are two types of conflicts – those that are marked by going in and those that are marked by going out.

    Going in is civil war in which a nation is divided within itself. Going in requires an agreement to recognise that both factions share an identity and ought to be able to live together despite their differences.

    Going out is a war in which we confront and take up weapons against another nation or battle another worldview. It is not merely a fight which you take the initiative to start off or respond to, so that a group of weapons are at war with one another.

    The going out war must be avoided at all costs. There must be a serious initial overture of peace in which the other side is offered (Deut. 20:10-12) the opportunity of working out a modus vivendi. Only if the peace overture is rejected is it possible (and permitted) to take up arms.

    Whichever type of war we are thinking of, the fundamental ethic is Isaiah 2:4, “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”.

    Judges in Jerusalem – Shof’tim

    August 13th, 2023

    When Prime Minister Menachem Begin was given a hard time in the United States, he retorted, “There are judges in Jerusalem”.

    He was probably saying, “Don’t talk to me about Jews needing to behave with a sense of justice”.

    In the last few months we needed Beginesque ethics to provide Israel and the Jewish people with a balanced judiciary and a firm sense of justice.

    Here is not the place to lay down the sort of judiciary that Israel should have… but it is the right forum to agree on a compromise and formulate who should control appointments of judges and how the judiciary and the Knesset should interact.

    The ideal judicial system needs deep and wide scrutiny, and Parashat Shof’tim (“Judges”) is a suitable context.

    A month of refuge – Shof’tim

    August 13th, 2023

    Fleeing to a city of refuge

    This week we read about the cities of refuge to which a person who had inadvertently committed bloodshed could flee and find sanctuary.

    There is a Chassidic idea found in the writings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that – over and above the cities of refuge for an inadvertent lawbreaker – the month of Ellul is a month of refuge.

    People are never perfect and they commit transgressions without intending to. They need somewhere for spiritual refuge. Just as an inadvertent manslayer needed somewhere to escape to, an accidental sinner needed somewhere to sit and rediscover himself and rededicate himself to a life of honesty and goodness.

    This is a wonderful way of preparing for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.

    Prophets & prophecies – Shof’tim

    August 13th, 2023

    The concept of prophecy is a fundamental part of Jewish theology.

    It is found in the Torah in this week’s reading where we are told that any purported prophet who does not speak the word of God does not deserve the title of prophet (Deut. 18:19-22).

    Rashi says that a true prophet says only what God commands him; if he does not have a sense of responsibility towards God he is a fake.

    The word navi – a prophet – comes from a root that indicates “utterance”. But the utterance must come from God, not from an idol. Even if the prophetic message from an idol appears to be valid and true, the “prophet” must be put to death – the death penalty in this case being strangulation (Sanh. 89a).

    An alternative word, ro’eh (seer) denotes someone who sees miracles and whose spiritual sense shows him to be a Divine messenger.

    See & hear – Re’eh

    August 6th, 2023

    Recently when writing about the Shema I said that when we hear (“Hear, O Israel”), the verb is not always to be taken literally. We hear with our ears but also metaphorically, with our mind.

    “To hear” is thus to perceive with our mental capacity for understanding. “I read you” means “I comprehend what you are telling me”.

    Likewise this week (Deut. 11:26) when God says “See”, we do not limit ourselves to the literal meaning of the verb, but using our mind’s eye we grasp the situation.

    When we are told to walk in the path of the Almighty, the verb has two nuances, literal and metaphorical. The second nuance is where we get the idea of halachah, the Jewish way.

    Everything in Jewish life emphasises this principle; we think as Jews, we act as Jews, we do the Jewish thing. We are Jewish Jews.