On the traditional Jewish calendar, summer is the season of tragedy. To the modern ear, this may sound perverse. Summer is the season of vacation! Summer camp! Swimming pools! But there is a cold historical logic underlying this verity: summer is the high season for war. So it was that our ancient Temple and Jewish sovereignty in our homeland was destroyed twice, centuries apart, by mighty empires in their summer wars of conquest.
Sadly, to this day summer remains the prime season for war, and as I write there is every expectation of a season of bloodshed to come in Ukraine. Granted, it is the defending and democratic Ukrainians who are expected to be on the offensive this season, and if successful, they will be repelling an autocratic and repressive would-be conquering empire and perhaps deterring the temptation to exploit neighbors by force of arms for another generation or two in Europe. Even so, as anyone acquainted with war can tell you, even the most righteous war is a tragedy. “It is well that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it,” in the words of Robert E. Lee.
Speaking of treason, there remains a vocal minority here in this country who express a preference for violence and civil war over democracy as a resolution for political differences, and rule of the mob over rule of law as a resolution to alleged crimes. Shockingly, in response to the indictment of former president Trump, a United States congressman tweeted “We have now reached a war phase. Eye for an eye.” A United States congressman! And this is not the only such example.
Let’s be clear. That tweet is not a political comment. It is not a legal comment. It is not a moral comment. It is a call for violence – and we all, including the congressman, know from recent history that there are people ready to translate that call to physical violence, even if the writer later claims he meant a metaphorical war.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, this congressman seeks to bolster his call for civil war with a quote from the Bible. Ironically, Jewish legal tradition (Halacha) has always viewed this law as metaphorically phrased (but actually meaning the value of an eye for an eye), while the Christian tradition that the congressman comes from asserts that it is both literal and superseded by Jesus’ imperative to “turn the other cheek” (see Matthew 5:9).
It is not my business to judge whether the call for civic violence represents good Christian values. Nor is this the venue to discuss the political or legal questions at issue. None of these are my area of professional expertise. But I can comment on the moral questions at hand, viewed through the lens of Torah. In the following three parts:
1. The Torah tells us repeatedly that the law must apply equally to the powerful and to the poor (eg Ex. 23:2) to the citizen and the stranger (eg Ex. 12:49, Num. 16:15) and even to the king (eg Dt. 17:19). Perhaps most strikingly, the Torah commands: לא תכירו פנים במשפט כקטן כגדול תשמעון לא תגורו מפני איש כי המשפט לה׳. Don’t be partial (literally, “don’t recognize faces”) in judgment; hear the small and the great alike; don’t fear any person, for judgment is God’s. (Dt. 1:17)
Trump’s lawyers will argue his innocence (or choose some other strategy) in court, and a jury will decide the case, just as for any other defendant. If the evidence at trial supports his guilt beyond reasonable doubt, he should be convicted; if not, not. But those, from the political echelon down to the trash in neo-Nazi chat rooms, whose argument is simply “how dare anyone indict this man” are making an immoral and lawless argument.
2. The Talmud teaches that the First Temple was destroyed because of idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed (not coincidentally, the three sins forbidden to a Jew even at the cost of one’s life); but the Second Temple was destroyed because of שנאת חנם, baseless intramural hatred, and from this we should learn that the gravity of baseless hatred is as bad as the three “cardinal sins” combined. (Yoma 9b). Political disputes cannot destroy this country, but political violence can. The attitude that treats other Americans as enemies who must be destroyed, as a greater threat than terrorists or foreign enemies, as having less human value based simply on who they are or what they believe – this is the attitude that can destroy the United States, and that has in fact split the United States into warring factions once before.
3. Apropos of treating fellow citizens as the enemy in a war, I note the recent passing of Pat Robertson. While America has a long, healthy tradition of politics informed by religious values, Robertson was among the leaders of a late 20th Century movement to replace this with a politics subservient to religious dicta (but only of their own religious group, of course). In the process, they imported a certain religious tone to American politics. Specifically, they imported the idea and language that their political opponents were not simply fellow patriots with a different view on certain issues, but were literally in league with the devil. When your opponents are demonic, you can assume they are responsible for murders. When your opponents are demonic, you may assume they are all pedophiles. When your opponents are demonic, every conspiracy theory is believable. And when your opponents are demonic, you don’t negotiate compromises with them, you destroy them – even if it takes breaking a few rules, or a few bones, to do it; it’s spiritual warfare. So when a sitting congressman tweets about a “war phase” using biblical language, Robertson smiles from his grave.
I pray that over this summer, cooler heads will remember politics informed by religious values, not ruled by religious dicta. I hope the American People will remember to listen to and learn from the values and experiences of religious minorities like the Jewish People, who long ago saw our Temple destroyed and our nation exiled through rabid infighting and baseless hatred. At the conclusion of the Torah Service, the last words we say before the open ark are חדש ימינו כקדם, “renew our days as of old.” May we choose to live again as one people who resolve our political differences democratically and peacefully. Let us not choose a summer of war and destruction at home. After all, in the words of another man who fully understood what civil war means in this country, “War is Hell.”