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9-11 and Making Holy War

The Bible’s Book of Deuteronomy, which Jews are in the midst of reading, details the laws about making war. It is worth noting that although we might prefer to cling to the words of the prophets and their lofty visions of peace: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation” or “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb,” the Jewish tradition is not a pacifist tradition. It allows for war. The Book of Deuteronomy in fact recognizes that this will be the Jewish people’s lot when they cross the Jordan and conquer the land of the Canaanites. It most especially recognizes that sometimes we must fight wars of self-defense. Of course, before attacking an enemy terms of peace must be offered.

The Bible continues. The priest speaks to the troops and says: “Sh’ma Yisrael—Hear O Israel! You are about to join battle with your enemy. Let not your courage falter. Do not be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them. For it is the Lord your God who marches with you to do battle…” (Deuteronomy 20) This refrain of “Don’t be afraid, God is with you” is often repeated. Such words make us uncomfortable. This week we are marking the 15th anniversary of 9-11, a day that continues to wound and a day in which our country, and our city, were attacked by people who believed that they were likewise doing God’s bidding, that their heinous acts had God’s blessing. So how do we read our holy books and not cringe at even such vague similarities?