Sermon – Will the Chilcot enquiry teach us anything?

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 5 February 2010

Anyone arriving in the UK this week from abroad might be forgiven for thinking they had stepped into a strange parallel universe.  It is a bizarre world in which the biggest concern of the people is not apparently a continuing economic crisis, but whether a tall millionaire from Barking is allowed to remain as captain of the national football team.  And vying for the front pages with John Terry?  Not the deaths of current servicemen in Afghanistan, but the rights and wrongs of a war that was launched seven years ago, with the grilling of Alistair Campbell, Lord Goldsmith and Tony Blair.

It has felt a little like stepping back in time. To find ourselves once again in the world of WMDs and regime change, of UN resolution 1441 and the Bush-Blair relationship And I have found it especially odd because of the question that seems to be at the heart of the Chilcot enquiry – was the Iraq war legal or illegal under international law?

It seems a funny question to ask of such an event.  Not was it right, was it ethical, but was it legal.  As the Catholic author and journalist Clifford Longley has pointed out: “It says something about our culture that we turn to lawyers for answers to our big ethical questions rather than to philosophers or religious teachers. Yet does anybody seriously think the legal issues are more important than the moral ones?” It is as if the language of morality has become such difficult ground, so fraught with potential for conflict, is now so subjective, that we can no longer ask about ethics but only about law.   Yet if the Chilcot enquiry is to teach us anything it must surely ask not only the question was it legal to go to war but was it right?  It must make a moral judgement about the biggest decision any politician can ever make. And to do this it would need to turn to those philosophers and maybe even to those religious teachers to whom Longley refers, or at the very least to make reference to ethical and religious traditions which are not scared of the word right.

So, in the terribly unlikely event that Chilcot decided to call a rabbi as a witness, how might Judaism help with this question? What framework might Judaism give for thinking about the rights or wrongs of a war?

The first thing to recognise is that Judaism does allow for war.  Ours is not a pacifist tradition, not one which proclaims an absolute teaching of non-violence.  Those who have given evidence where the underlying subtext is essentially that war is always wrong, that war is the greatest possible evil, would not find an ally in Jewish sources.  Indeed, there are circumstances in which Judaism not only allows for war but understands it as a religious duty.  The rabbis understood some wars as falling into a category of Milchemet Mitzvah, an obligatory war in which all were bound to be involved, as distinct from another category the milchemet reshut the permitted war.  When life is at stake, as Jews we are not merely allowed to defend ourselves, or indeed to defend others, but are commanded to do so.  Immediately before the section of Torah that Haley read for us this morning we read of the battle with Amalek – a classic example of a Milchemet Mitzvah.  The concept remains current in Jewish Law in how we might understand the legitimacy of a war – terrible as it might be, where the alternative is worse, Judaism demands that nations act.

In such a case, where war is understood as a terrible necessity, Judaism of course still recognises its horror.  In all cases, war is never to be glorified. War is never to be celebrated – a midrash on last week’s portion in which the Egyptians are drowned in the Reed Sea has God chastising the angels for wishing to celebrate their defeat – how can you sing while my creatures are dying? There is a metaphor that war has an effect on God.  This is nowhere, I think, better expressed than by the Israeli writer Shai Agnon in his Kaddish for Yom HaZikaron – written of Jews but applicable to all: When a king of flesh and blood goes to war against his enemies, he sends his soldiers to kill and to be killed. He may love his soldiers or he may not love them. He may have regard for them or he may not have regard for them…When he is cut down…another man is put in his place. The king does not feel that someone is missing. After all, the nations are many and their troops are many. If one of them is killed, the king has many replacements. But our king, the King of Kings, the Holy one, Blessed Be God’s name, wants life and loves peace and pursues peace… God does not have many replacements for us. If one of us is missing, heaven forfend, then the king’s forces are diminished.

Our tradition also recognises the effect that war has on the nature and the reputation of those who pursue it.  In the biblical narrative, King David who defeats the Philistines in battle is not allowed to build the Temple.  He reports that ‘the words of the Eternal came to me saying: You shall not build a House in My name for you have shed much blood on the earth in My sight”.  With his knowledge of scripture, the parallel with the reputation of Tony Blair is, I imagine, not lost on him.

So our rabbi witness will point out to Chilcot that Judaism allows for war but also hates it.  And that Judaism loves peace.  The demand for peace is found throughout our tradition.  It is there in the prophetic writings; It is there in our liturgy where we pray daily for the strength to make peace.  And it is there in Jewish law where the Halachah is that one can not wage war with anyone until first seeking a peaceful outcome.  And it your enemy agrees to peace it is forbidden to kill him.

But Judaism also recognises that peace is not a stand-alone virtue.  As Rabbi John Rayner wrote: Above all, Judaism sees peace as something that is contingent upon other things: truth, freedom, justice and neighbourly love… You can’t just suddenly decide, “Let us have peace”, while tyranny still reigns, while minorities are oppressed, while human rights are trampled upon, while the strong exploit the weak, while children die of starvation.  Judaism teaches us to aim for peace, but it also reminds us that there is no easy way to its attainment. This is why I, unlike, I think, the author of these words, do believe, with trepidation about how it could be applied, in a doctrine of liberal interventionism.

If the Chilcot enquiry is really to teach us anything it should not only attempt to answer the question of whether the war was legal, but bigger, more important questions.  Do we still believe in a concept of Milchemet Mitzvah?  In what circumstances would it be right for us to go to war?  Legality is not the only question we need to address as a society.  If there were ever an enquiry into the morality of war rather than its legality, then our rabbi witness would point out that Judaism does not believe that war is wrong in all cases, but that ultimately it can only ever be an instrument in the pursuit of peace.

And that even where it is understood to be necessary, God weeps, and so should we