We do really choose life.
By Rabbi Shmuel Klatzkin
Chabad of Greater Dayton
The year was 1939.
Britain was closing the gates of their mandate in the Holy Land to the Jews just as the Nazi regime Britain had placated was about to conquer Eastern Europe and enslave and slaughter its Jews.
German Jews had been suffering already for six years of ever-increasing oppression.
Martin Buber had been one of those who made it out from Germany in time. In 1938, he left to accept a professorship at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
In 1939, as Britain’s White Paper took effect and Hitler was preparing the war that would start in September, Buber wrote a long letter to Mahatma Gandhi.
The Jews in their anguish expected to find in Gandhi an ally in their own fight. They asked only that Britain not shut off their only escape from Hitler’s hell.
But Gandhi was strangely unsympathetic and primly found the Jews not meeting his standards. Though he rejected Britain’s conqueror’s claim to India, he accepted the claims of Arab imperial conquest, even though it had been superseded by the conquests of first the Ottoman and then the British empires.
Buber was for a binational state. Not only did he abhor the strategy of the Irgun, but even the way of Ben-Gurion was far too belligerent for him.
Buber didn’t feel an entirely Jewish state was necessary. What was necessary was that the Jews have an equal right to settle in an Arab-Jewish state.
But on the right of the Jews to come to their ancient home again, Buber would not budge. It seemed to him merely the same as Gandhi’s assertion for the Indian people: to rule themselves in their home, in a state that would be home to Hindu and Muslim equally.
Gandhi clearly saw Hitler’s violent intentions, but his counsel was for suicide, not immigration.
He wrote: “The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer…But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imaged could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy.”
Gandhi was hostile even after the war. After the extermination of most of the Jews of Europe, Gandhi should have rejoiced to see his dream come true, and that he could join in celebrating the accumulated good karma from their sacrifice and their dream of peaceful independence.
But in a 1946 essay still opposing Jewish immigration to the Holy Land, he did not mention the Holocaust once.
Gandhi’s achievement in freeing India by applying Indian values is very great. But it is properly honored, not by accepting Indian values as imperial, but by standing true to our own values.
Jewish law and teachings command us to choose life and put preservation of life above 610 of the 613 commandments. As Churchill said, “Jaw jaw is better than war war.”
But Jewish law sees the world as it is. There are people who love death more than life and who will deal death out as much as they can. If we can stop them short of their own methods, we must do so.
But it happens that sometimes there is no way to protect lives from murder and sexual violence.
Our law is very clear on that. The classic text is in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 72a): The Torah stated a principle: If someone comes to kill you, rise and kill him first.
The English here does not preserve the full meaning of the Hebrew, which literally may be translated as: If someone comes to kill you, rise up to kill him first.
The difference is subtle but important. “Rise up to kill” requires being prepared to use violence in defense of self or others and teaches that the resolve to use whatever force is necessary can be enough to deter the would-be murderer.
We do really choose life. Only when the offender forces us to choose between his life and the life or body of his victims, do we employ violence. And the effect of our resolution to do so creates a better option – deterrence.
Gandhi’s methods did not stop the Holocaust, nor did those deaths bring joy. It took an incredibly violent struggle and lengthy occupation before Nazism was uprooted. But our demonstrated readiness to employ such massive force pushed deadly hate underground for many years.
But now it is back. In our response to it, we must reject imperialist values. Stand firm and true to our own deepest insights as a people, to our mighty spiritual heritage.
May our firm resolve to do whatever is necessary to stop murder and sexual violence re-establish deterrence.
And in that respite from violence, the forces of peace can create facts on the ground, so that violence nowhere again will find funds or rationalizations from the evil, the foolish or the weak.