Society's Institutions and the Human Condition

Religion, Politics, and the Lessons of History

Rabbi David N. Saperstein, 1985

Rabbi David N. Saperstein is co-director of the Religious Action Center of The Union of American Hebrew Congregations in Washington, D.C. He is the editor of Preventing the Nuclear Holocaust: A Jewish Response. Today, he shares some of his central views on the quest for peace.

Whiteley: Rabbi Saperstein, what is the Jewish perspective on the problems of seeking peace in a nuclear age?

Saperstein: Well, for 3000 years the Jewish tradition has affirmed the necessity to seek peace in the sense of going after it, not passively accepting it, but pursuing it vigorously as a central value that the Jewish people have sought throughout their history. The word 'Shalom', the Hebrew word for peace is a very interesting word. It does not mean the absence of war the way the word 'pax' in Latin means. Rather, it is the root of the word 'Shalom', is the word 'complete,' to make whole, 'shalem', the shalem. And the Jewish tradition has always believed that peace is not just the removal of war, but making whole the lives of people. And I think that sets the context for the question of the Jewish perspective on peace. And to analyze it further, you really have to look at three separate issues: the religious issue, the historical issue, and then the question of political self-interest of the Jewish community on this issue.

Whiteley: Well, let's take them one at a time and start. What's the religious perspective?

Saperstein: The Jewish tradition has regarded peace as the highest of values that the religious tradition should be aimed at pursuing. It is not in its mainstream form a pacifist tradition. Judaism believed that force could be used for defensive purposes. But it also set out as long as 2000 years ago in the Talmud, the first Geneva Convention of warfare, trying to impose and limit the use of force in an ethical structure, so that it said you can use force primarily, and some would argue exclusively, for defensive purposes. It had to be used as a means to an end, never an end in and of itself. It had to be used in such a way as to inviolately protect civilians. It could only target military personnel and military targets. It had to be used in such a way so as not to destroy the ability of the earth to renew itself afterwards, so you could not tear down fruit bearing trees in the Book of Deuteronomy in order to build ramparts. You had to, because fruit sustains life, you had to tear down non-fruit bearing trees.

These were some of the rules and regulations. The opportunity for civilians to be safe, for the earth to renew itself, and also before any war could be launched, there had to be an effort at peaceful reconciliation. And only when that failed, could war be launched. Now that set a religious context to war. When we apply it to the nuclear issue, it's quite clear that nuclear weapons which cannot distinguish between military and civilian personnel, that would radiate the earth in such a way as to make it unlivable for generations or centuries to come, that offers so little time on missiles that take just a few minutes to reach their targets, to negotiate peaceful reconciliation of differences, that nuclear weapons and many of the nuclear strategies we pursue today would be considered in violation of the moral structure and the religious values of the Jewish tradition.

Whiteley: In reflecting in your writings on the religious values, you've distinguished between those based on Jewish laws, those based on legends. What are the differences, and what is derived from each?

Saperstein: The Jewish legal tradition to which I was referring when I laid out the regulations of war are those rules by which traditional Jews govern their lives. In addition to that, all of Jewish literature, from the Bible through the Talmud, through all the writings in the last fifteen hundred years, all contain non-legal writing: stories, legends, all aimed at elucidating the moral as well as practical lessons of particular issues and challenges confronting the Jewish community. The two are woven together. Since America and the Soviet Union, neither of them are Jewish states regulated by Jewish law. In both cases the laws of the Jewish tradition and the moral aphorisms of the Jewish tradition, both are useful not as the end all and the be all, the only answer to our problems, but are useful as a guide to people today grappling with perhaps the keenest moral challenge that has ever been placed before the human race, in terms of determining ethical ways of finding a path out of this dilemma. And I think underlying all of them, to give you an example of a non-legal approach of the Jewish tradition on this issue, I think underlying all of them is this pervasive, as we call it, aggadahic ('aggadahic', meaning tales and legends), aggadahic value of the Jewish tradition, so central to Judaism that God has distinguished humanity by giving us freedom of choice. God has taught us the difference between good and evil, life and death, even told us which we should choose and why. In the words of Deuteronomy, 'I've set before you this day life and death, a blessing and a curse, therefore choose life in order that you and your descendants may live.' But ultimately, God has said we are partners with God in the act of creation. We complete creation by making God's values and God's vision and hopes for humanity real on this earth. And I cannot believe that God has entrusted us with the gift of wisdom, the gift of ingenuity, so that we could create weapons that would destroy God's creation. I think that is the moral value underlying the entire traditions to us on the nuclear issue.

Whiteley: But from a religious perspective, both in Jewish law and in Jewish legend, in centuries of writings, there has been a theme of peace and a set of prescriptions for how people may live, applying it to the nuclear age, what would we need to do differently?

Saperstein: What makes the nuclear age different is that technology has shortened the time to make mistakes. Every other generation that lived before us had the ability to make mistakes and to learn from them. This is the first generation in human history that can no longer make mistakes, because if we make the same mistakes made before in human history, we will have destroyed the world. We've run out of time. Therefore, there are several steps that the Jewish tradition would say would be absolutely necessary. One is that every proposed nuclear strategic change, every proposed nuclear weapon system be tested by the sole question of, does it bring us further away from nuclear war or closer to nuclear war. Secondly, we have to work vigorously to find peaceful ways for nations to resolve their differences, through bilateral and multilateral negotiations and structures and new instrumentalities, that can make real the possibility of finding peaceful ways to resolve our differences. And third, again, the fundamental vision here is that we are not prisoners of a bitter and unremitting past. That past mistakes do not have to be repeated, past enmities are not constrictive on our finding new answers. We can be shapers of a better and more hopeful future. And it seems to me that that message of the Jewish traditional message of hope so integral to the Jewish tradition is vitally needed today.

Whiteley: Well, this gets us to the second of the three areas of expertise and knowledge and that's on the historical record. What is it?

Saperstein: I think there's one central lesson of Jewish history that helps illuminate the nuclear issue more than any other. That is that humanity has the capacity to do good and to do evil. If good people remain silent, evil will be done. Unimaginable destruction can happen. Throughout our history, time and again, Jews have been the victim of humanity's inhumanity to other of God's children. We have been the victims of that. It goes back - you can go back to the Bible to see examples of where good people standing by has allowed the world to be destroyed. The story of the Flood is a great paradigm; the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah - good people, remaining silent allows for suffering and evil to continue, but time and again, the Jews have been the victims of that. During the exiles and the banishments from Israel during - the restrictions against them in Christian Europe, and many times in the Moslem world, and time and again, the victim of pogroms, the victim of false accusations. Time and again, the world has stood by while the Jews have been made the scapegoats and the victims. Perhaps the central lesson for the nuclear issue is the great parable of good people standing by idly in our time, and that is the Holocaust. What makes the Holocaust unique is the realization that for the first time in the history of the world, humanity's silence in the face of destruction, can result in technology being used to destroy a whole people, or all people. That's what the Holocaust was all about. Technology, for the first time in human history, was aimed at destroying an entire people; because the world stood by, it almost happened. The world stood by until America and the allies responded. It almost happened.

Whiteley: And how do you draw the parallel to the nuclear issue today?

Saperstein: Well, being when we experienced the Holocaust, we saw, to paraphrase a great holocaust survivor by the name of Samuel Pisar, we saw a blueprint for the destruction of all humanity in the flaming gas chambers of Eichmann's creation. We saw a blueprint of the destruction of the world. If the world stands by idly, the entire world can go up in a nuclear holocaust, just as it happened in the gas camps of Nazi Germany. So the lessons that come out of Jewish history for us, is the imperative that we cannot stand by idly in the face of this nuclear issue. We cannot leave it for others to decide. We cannot leave it to the military and the political experts to decide. Every human being has a stake in speaking out; every human being must realize that technology will be used to destroy this world unless they stand together to say that technology must be used now to create life, and to perpetually improve the quality of life for all people. That is the fundamental choice of this generation, and every human being has a stake in its resolution. So that to me is the great historical lesson of the Jewish people, the quintessential victims exemplifying what will happen again to the entire world if the world remains silent.

Whiteley: What lessons do you draw about the nature of evil from religion and history?

Saperstein: Well, evil to me is not something imposed upon us. Evil is a choice that human beings make. We have the ability to choose between good and evil. When good people remain silent they become part of that evil. There's a story, an aggadahic story, told in the Jewish tradition about the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, about a righteous person that went to those cities and began to speak out against the evil and the wickedness and injustice. Day after day, week after week, the righteous person continued to preach that message of justice and freedom. It fell on deaf ears; nobody listened. Finally, one of the people in the city came up to him and said 'Fool, why do you bother? Nobody is listening, nobody is paying attention.' The righteous person responded, and said, 'you know when I first came here I began to speak out because I really believed I could change the people of Sodom. Now I know I must continue to speak out so that the people of Sodom do not change me.' Where people see evil in the world, and they allow it to continue through indifference, apathy, and the feeling they can't make a difference, it's too complicated, they become part of the evil. That is the great challenge to the majority of people in America, to the majority of people in the Soviet Union, and throughout this world. If we remain silent in the face of the potential evil of nuclear annihilation, we compound the problem, we become part of that problem rather than part of the solution

Whiteley: The Bible says the evil times will be with us till the end of days. What are the lessons in that?

Saperstein: The Jewish tradition believes very strongly that the end of days, the normative Jewish tradition, means from the Jewish tradition believes very strongly that the end of days refers to that time that will be brought about not by some mystical supernatural event, but by the work of good people and the deeds of good people. We can create that time that God talks about as the end of time. And therefore, it is imperative upon all of us to be involved in bringing about those end of days when nations shall not lift up their swords, and shall not learn war anymore. That won't happen mystically because God makes it happen; God has given us the gifts to allow us to make that happen. Similar to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is the story of the Flood, the only time in the legends of the Jewish people that the entire world was destroyed. It was clearly destroyed, according to the Bible, because it was evil times. God selected Noah to perpetuate the human race because Noah was a righteous person in his generation, Noah and his family.

The legends of the Jewish people draw two conclusions for the nuclear arms race. The first is that Noah gave - Noah was given a blueprint by God to build the ark that took twenty years to build, hoping that the rest of the world, seeing what was happening, and seeing the path to safety, would follow Noah's example, become righteous people themselves. But they didn't; they mocked him, they ignored his warning, and so the world was destroyed. We must not ignore the warning. Our blueprint here, being the blueprint of modern technology, with the potential for both good and for destruction. The second lesson is that at the end of the Flood God made a contract with Noah, saying if you obey my laws, if you create a moral world, I will never destroy this world again. God has stood by that contract. Today if it is destroyed, it will not be because God has destroyed the world, but because humanity has destroyed the world.

And it seems to me from both the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah and the Flood, comes the lesson that if we are to change the world, if we are to bring about the end of times that the Bible talks about, it will not happen because God makes it happen mystically, but rather because we use those tools and gifts that God has given us to create that better world which we dream about for ourselves and our children. And in allowing us to be part of creating that better world, God has allowed the human race to ennoble ourselves to become part of the act of creation. That's a wonderful opportunity, perhaps the greatest most holy effort that people, human beings can have. And there's never been a generation before where such activity has been needed more than today.

Whiteley: You said there were three elements of the Jewish tradition that were relevant to the quest for peace. The first was derived from the religious and moral teachings, the second from the lessons of history, and the third was political self-interest. What is that?

Saperstein: Well, by political self-interest, I use that in its broadest terms, and I think here the moral and the self-interest come together for the Jewish people. You find them in certain ways. First, we're concerned about the rights of the oppressed, a remnant of our communities in the Soviet Union. Two to three million Jewish people were denied the right to live as Jews, were being persecuted, thrown into jail for teaching Hebrew, for trying to translate their tradition to the next generation. We know from past experience that the plight of not only Jewish dissidents, but all dissidents, all religious groups, and all political dissidents in the Soviet Union has been better at times when the Cold War has warmed up, when relations between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. have been better. Therefore, we are concerned about the plight of human rights in the Soviet Union, the American people concerned about that, including the Jewish community there that has become a symbol of the human rights movement in the Soviet Union. Then we have to be concerned about toning down the vitriolic rhetoric of antagonism and confrontation. Jews and the American people have long been committed to providing Israel with the ability it needs to defend itself from those surrounding countries, all of which, with the exception of Egypt, are committed to its destruction, still in a formal state of war with Israel.

Whiteley: What are the political self-interest issues with Israel?

Saperstein: Well, there are two. The first is that, time and again to build these incredibly costly capital-intensive major new nuclear systems, the United States Congress has constantly caught areas of the military budget that are much more important for our viable self-defense: the issues of basic armaments, conventional arms, resupply of arms, spare parts for transportation vehicles and conventional arms, transportation of troops to allow us to move troops into problem areas quickly. These are the areas they cut all the time, and these are the areas that Israel needs. When Israel defended itself in the Yom Kippur War from that surprise attack, one of the lessons the Pentagon learned was that our stockpile of basic spare parts in Europe were totally inadequate, depleted by our resupply of Israel's army within four weeks of warfare. We have not yet rebuilt the stockpiles to levels they were in 1973 because we keep taking money to pay for weapon systems that are destabilizing, extremely costly and bring us to the brink of nuclear war.

More importantly, nuclear proliferation to other countries, not only threatens the world as a whole, but Israel in particular. While SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) tells us that by the end of the year 1990 thirty-five countries in the world will have nuclear weapons, the CIA reassures us that it won't be until the year 2000 that even thirty countries have a nuclear capability. I'm not particularly reassured by that, but we're both agreed that in the next seven years there will be seven or eight countries that will get a nuclear capability: Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Taiwan, Pakistan, Libya, Iran, and Iraq. Where would Ghaddafi's bombs be aimed at, but at Israel, the most anti-Semitic leader in the entire world today. Who can Iraq use its nuclear capability to blackmail, but Israel? What hope will there be for peace in the Middle East that Israel pursues so desperately once Khomeni and his followers have the nuclear capability. So for Israel, nuclear proliferation probably raises the most dramatic threat, and therefore, that also reversing the nuclear arms race becomes a major concern to the Jewish community.

But the final reason has to do with priorities here in America. Jews have learned, as a matter of both morality and self-interest, that we have been most secure in nations that are free, that are democratic, that are filled with the sense of justice for all its citizens. If any group can be discriminated against, if any group can be deprived, that has a destabilizing impact on a society that leads to demagogues arising that have been bad for the Jews. What use are MX missiles or B1 bombers if we can't afford decent schools, and our cities are being destroyed by drugs and crime. What use are higher military budgets if we can't afford sewers and bridges and infrastructures of our cities, if people in America are out of jobs and out of hope, filled with angry frustration and despair. Jews do best in societies that are compassionate and whole; Jews are threatened in societies that are torn apart and angry. When so many millions of people today fight over the crumbs of the shrinking economic tide, where we are planning to spend two-trillion dollars, more than the value of all the stock on the New York Stock Exchange, on the military in the next five years, there is something wrong with the priorities of America that endangers America and endangers the Jewish community. These are the kinds of concerns that have motivated the Jewish community to be so deeply involved in efforts to reverse the nuclear arms race.

Whiteley: In trying to consider in your own mind why people, when they know that the course of action that they're on is fraught with danger, they fail to take action. You've gone back to Sodom and Gomorrah. What lessons did you derive?

Saperstein: There's a fascinating line in the Bible. It says when the angels of God came and told Lot that the cataclysm was just over the horizon, that he had to flee to the mountains of safety, the Bible says 'but Lot lingered.' So the angels had to take him by the hand and drag him out. And the Rabbis over the last two thousand years have seen in that line, 'but Lot lingered,' the fascinating dynamic of humanity. Lingering, even when they know that destruction is at hand, refusing to flee to the mountains of peace. And they give many answers to that, and I think those answers are instructive. People linger because they're certainly afraid and paralyzed by fear. Well, we're paralyzed by fear, fear of the Soviets, fear of an impending war, and so we do nothing. And that leads us - by doing nothing - it leads us in the direction of war. Another Rabbi said that Lot was just confused by everything that was happening, and so he did nothing. And we too are confused. These are technical and military and scientific issues that are at stake here. People say, leave it to the scientists, leave it to the military people. But those are just human beings like us. Every citizen in this country has not only the right, but the responsibility to help set directions and policies for this country that will pursue its highest values, including the value of peace. We shouldn't leave it to any so-called experts. It has to be a partnership of their expertise with our moral vision, and that is the role of the Jewish community. In the final consideration, the Rabbi says that Lot was worried about lingering because he had to leave everything he owned behind.

There's so much money to be made in building these weapons. That's why we continue to build weapons that can destroy the other person's weapons, and destabilizing the situation, and place weapons six minutes away from their targets rather than 30 minutes, and build weapons that are so small that they can't be monitored to verify arms agreements. And that's why we continue down the path of destabilzing the arms race and leading us towards destruction. We can take steps now to secure our military and defensive needs and still stabilize the arms race. That is what the American people must learn about, must not be afraid of, or afraid to learn, must not be confused about, and must make very, very tough decisions about the priorities of this nation. We can do it. God has told us that the future of the world is in our hands; It is up to us to be worthy of the trust that has been placed in our hands.

Whiteley: You've said that each generation has its own Sodom and Gomorrah to deal with, and that the Sodom for this generation is militarism and nuclear weapons. What do you want your fellow citizens to do differently, based on the knowledge and learnings from Jewish tradition?

Saperstein: Well, the three steps are first, learn about the nuclear arms race, and programs like this program are absolutely vital and indispensable towards that process. They have to learn the technical jargon; it's really not that difficult if people would just take some time. Secondly, they have to speak out on the policy issues. They have to make known their views, they have to elect people who represent their views, and once people are elected, they have to continue to communicate with them to let them know. And third, they have to begin to open up new avenues of dialogue when they travel abroad, when they meet with people who are different with them. We have to transform society, as well as policies. Those two changes have to go hand-in-hand. And every American citizen can help by learning, by speaking out, and by looking for new ways for human beings, and therefore nations, to resolve their differences.

Whiteley: Rabbi Saperstein, thank you for sharing with us today your insights and those Jewish traditions into the preservation of peace and its enhancement in the nuclear age.