Judaism: Power and Interpretation

Sep 19, 2002

Report on a 09/19/02 Carnegie-Georgetown Forum, cosponsored by Georgetown University.

Chair: Rabbi Arnie Resnicoff, Director of Intereligious Affairs, American Jewish Committee

Discussant 1: Professor Regina Schwartz, Department of English Literature, Northwestern University

Discussant 2: Professor and Rabbi Reuven Kimmelman, Department Near East Studies, Brandies University


The Carnegie-Georgetown Forum on Ethics and International Affairs launched the 2002-2003 program year with a discussion on Jewish perspectives on conflict and violence. The event, the first in the Forum’s "In the Name of God: Religion and Violence" series, provided policy makers and scholars a chance to better understand how the Jewish religion tradition has addressed violence and war. Chaired by Rabbi Arnie Resnicoff, a former Navy Chaplain who served as Command Chaplain for the US European Command during the Kosovo campaign, the session included presentations by Professor Regina Schwartz on the role of interpretation in justifying and limiting violence and Professor Reuven Kimmelman on the relationship between power and war in the Jewish tradition. Participants included Congressional staff members, executive branch deputies, former ambassadors, think tank presidents, and scholars from Georgetown University and surrounding universities.

Discussion revolved around two, interrelated, issues: interpretation and power.
Professor Schwartz, a literature professor who specializes in Biblical interpretation, highlighted the importance of contesting interpretations of sacred texts – a theme that will certainly run throughout the other sessions as well. In uncovering a Biblical perspective on violence, one could look to numerous passages that promote both peace and conflict. Rather than pick and choose form a single text, however, Jewish thought has strongly emphasized the importance of scholarly interpretation of key passages, an emphasis that has made Rabbinic commentary as important as the sacred texts themselves. Schwartz explored the ways in which the Biblical image of God moves between one of a giving, abundant provider, and a jealous, withholding authority. The first image leads to an ethic of peace and fecundity, while the second image tends to create an ethic of competition and conflict. These contrasting interpretations lead to radically different ethics of war and peace, challenging believers and scholars to think carefully about the lessons they draw from these texts.

Interpreting the Jewish tradition on war was the task of the other discussant, Rabbi and Professor Reuven Kimmelman. Kimmelman provided a typology of wars in the Jewish tradition, a typology that includes defensive and discretionary wars, but not holy or even just wars. Defensive wars are the province of the executive to determine, but discretionary wars (wars of choice to accomplish a political goal) must be determined by a broader consensual process within a polity. Jewish thought includes an understanding of the role of power in decisions to use force, both how power can manipulated by those in authority and how it can be constrained by an expansive decision making process. In the Jewish political tradition, the decision to use force in support of a discretionary war must include consultation with the Sanhedrin, the equivalent of a legislature in Ancient Israel. A further constraint on power can be found by understanding the role that various exemptions to military service provide in a Jewish law. Ironically, those recently married or who have just built new houses are exempt from military service – those very people that would constitute a military. By creating these exemptions, Kimmelman argued that citizens and potential soldiers have the ability to constrain the decision to go to war in their ability to invoke their exemption or not. This creates a series of limits on the power of the executive to wage war.

Rabbi Arnie Resnicoff led the discussions with policy relevant questions for both discussion leaders. To Schwartz, Resnicoff asked what her interpretative method would mean for those who invoke the Biblical claim to land made by modern day Israelis in justifying their occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Schwartz noted that the Bible suggests two potential responses: One, the Bible states that God leases the land to Israelis provided they conform to the law. Two, the Bible provides an alternative image of the Jews as those not rooted to any single land but as wanderers and nomads. Through creative interpretations such as these, Schwartz sought to demonstrate the potential for alternative readings of contested sacred texts.

Resnicoff’s question for Kimmelman concerned the current US debate over invading Iraq. Kimmelman pointed out that although he himself supports a preemptive strike against Iraq, the Jewish ethical sensitivity to the dangers of power would caution against the way in which the process of debating is currently taking place in the US context. Rather than a consultative system in which the power of the president is formally limited by Congress and public pressure, the current debate over war is one in which the assumption is that the executive has the right to wage war with little or no consultation.

Discussions that followed covered a wide range of issues. Some questioned whether or not a focus on sacred texts makes for good public policy especially in matters of war. Others raised question about the role of “outsiders” in interpreting sacred texts, especially if those texts become weapons in an ideological battle. The group struggled to find the right perspective on the role that sacred texts and interpretation should play in formulating and evaluating decisions to use military force.

Others raised questions about how to evaluate legitimate and abusive uses of power. The relationship between power and authority remains in flux in matters of military force, with some arguing that only the international community has the right to wage war while others believe that only the domestic political system can generate right authority. Realizing that the Jewish political tradition places an emphasis on limits to power, no matter what the source was an informative lesson for the group.

Rabbi Resnicoff concluded the session by asking what does Jewish ethical thought have to teach the global community. For Schwartz, the lesson that contesting interpretations will continue to structure our views on war and violence within religious traditions can be drawn from the Rabbinic tradition of debate and contestation. For Kimmelman, the lesson political leaders should avoid moral certainty when it comes to defining their position virtuous and the enemy evil. The Jewish traditions emphasis on limits on power suggests that anyone person in a position of power needs to be constrained in how that power is exercised, for no single person can surmount the authority of God. For the participants, these lessons were reinforced by a lively exchange which combined ethical debate and policy evaluation. University of Chicago Divinity School.

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