Open Letter to My Students 26: A Religious Response to War

With Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, I am newly obsessed with war. War is like chess, I once thought, but a better analogy would be chess with neither board nor rules; not just pieces captured but their human players maimed and killed, with collateral damage along the way: “White (Player A) takes Black (Player B’s) bishop, and bombs Player B’s home; Black (Player B) threatens White (Player A’s) queen, and slaughters Player A’s family. Chess is a game; war is not. 

Experts have their own explanations. Former diplomats supply the geopolitical logic; retired generals map military tactics; pithy columnists give it their own spin. I find myself devouring it all, hoping that someone will make sense of it. 

I have learned a lot. Putin is either rational or mad. A thermobaric (or vacuum) bomb is a clever device that uses not just one but two detonations, so as to maximize the blast-wave to the point where it can even vaporize human bodies. The little arrows showing Russian incursions into Ukraine are called salients. I can pronounce Kharkiv and spell Kyiv. How does any of that help me? 

What, I wonder, would a religious response look like. I do not mean the anodyne sort that declares war evil, life sacred, and peace desirable; nor platitudinous prayers for the victims (which won’t help) or for Putin to discover a conscience (which won’t happen); and not a facile treatise on the ethics of war from sacred sources, as if ethics and war are words that somehow go together.  

A serious religious response would have to admit the existence of sin. Liberals abandoned the word “sin,” as an outmoded throwback to religious fundamentalism. And they were wrong. Surely we need some word for a Hitler, a Stalin, and now, a Putin; for the mobile killing units (the Einsatzgruppen), who followed Nazi troops into Eastern Europe to massacre helpless civilians, mostly Jews, but others also, the Roma, for example; and the people who tortured and lynched so many black men and women, sometimes selling sordid picture postcards of the event as souvenirs: “Wish you were here!” 

Sin, an “outmoded throwback”? Hardly. 

I remain a philosophical liberal in other ways, however (some would say, against all odds). After all, the wars that we thought were over have returned. So too has nationalist and religious tribalism: white supremacy, here; anti-Semitism, everywhere; and creeping global totalitarianism. But I persist as a card-carrying believer in long-term human progress, most recently evident in global connectedness; a worldwide web of commerce and communication; and international collaboration in science, medicine, and art. 

I call it liberal, but classic 19th-century liberalism was more like contemporary republicanism, and in that sense, the dream is not at all a political-party matter. It arose with modernity; celebrated reason; drew hope from science; opposed slavery; applauded a free- market economy, and staked the future on personal freedom. I’m not blind to the shortfalls of the dream’s realization in practice — it has taken a couple of centuries to care a whole lot about anyone other than white, mostly Protestant, landowning men – but that’s the thing about a dream: it is precisely about the future and the faith we ought to have in it. I have conceded the reality of sin. What I will not concede is the futility of the liberal dream. 

Despite what it seems, there is no evidence whatever that the evils of our time, capped off so horridly by Putin, are predictors of what we can expect in fifty years, or a hundred, much less a thousand. When terrible events make us doubt the plausibility of a rosy human future, but when, as well, we recognize that those events, however vile, cannot predict the long term,  we ought, as a matter of strategy, to believe in a better human future anyway. For that choice, religion provides another word that liberals mistakenly gave up and shouldn’t have, “faith”: not defiant faith in the face of reason, but reasonable faith in the face of disappointment. And only in the long run. In Judaism it is forbidden to rush the messiah. 

I sometimes think that the more we increase our life span, the more we decrease our imaginative capacity to see beyond it. The life expectancy for someone born in 1893, the year of Chicago’s world fair, was 48.5 years. Eric Larson, the fair’s historian (The White City), recalls how the fair’s planners had decided to hire Frederick Law Olmstead, the architect of New York’s Central Park, to plan its gardens. “I’ll be going to New York in a few months,” someone volunteered, “I’ll talk to him about it.” What? A few months to pose the question; and a few months more before returning to share the answer? Compare that to an Apple smartwatch buzzing with an instant txt and an answer due now. No wonder we cannot imagine the long run. 

We are not the first generation tempted to give up hope. A particularly poignant passage in the Talmud (Sotah 49a) pictures a world where “One day’s curse is worse than the next. Each morning people pray for evening to arrive; each evening, they pray for morning to come.” How can such a world continue? On what does such a world depend? The Talmud cites two prayers as the answer: one that begins, “A redeemer shall come to Zion” – part of a long-term prophecy by Isaiah; the other, the Kaddish, with its affirmation, “God’s kingdom will dawn” (v’yamlikh malkhuteih) – akin, not by chance, to the Christian Lord’s Prayer, from the same era, promising “Thy Kingdom come.” Not now, of course, but someday: in Christian language, the eschaton (“the last, or final, things”), equivalent to the Jewish “end of days.” “May it come,” Jews have prayed, “speedily and in our time,” but they never really believed it would arrive so soon. Misplaced hope in immediacy only spawned false prophets and dashed expectations. So they settled for “in the end,” the secular version of which is the evolution of human history, and the liberal dream that we are on our way, and part of something much larger than ourselves.  

I know nothing about war. I don’t even play chess. I cannot save Ukraine. I send money for relief; I retain my moral outrage; I rally others to do the same – I do, that is, what little I can, remembering that all the people through history about whom I like telling stories did the same. 

The story is told of a stonemason in a medieval town, who is asked on his death bed what he has accomplished in his life. “See that?” he exclaims, looking at a half-built cathedral in the distance, “I built the base of that large window over the arch that my father finished building, the same arch that his grandfather began; my children will finish my window; and their children will begin a new one above that.”

I too am building a tiny part of a window above an arch that my parents and their parents constructed: a window through which I can see both past and future. Looking back into the past, I see how incomparably better off we actually are than, say, the Roman empire’s gladiator games to the death; the Spanish Inquisition’s incinerating live heretics at the stake; and the public dismembering of political enemies, after torturing them on a rack in the Tower of London. These atrocities and the like occurred every day for centuries, with no widespread moral outrage at all. At least today, such horrors take place with much less frequency; when they do, we are surprised; and moral outrage is increasingly universal. 

When I look through the window in the other direction, so as to see the future, I cannot make out as much detail. But I stake my faith on the far-off distance when all the good we have been constructing over time will add up: but only someday.  

2 responses to “Open Letter to My Students 26: A Religious Response to War

  1. Thank you, Rabbi. This is perfect.

  2. Dear Larry, Much like you, I refuse to see our future in diminished light. I see it with promise and renewed vision. It will not be perfect; we humans remain imperfect. But each day will bring us closer to the vision we imagined in Eden. Thank you for helping to validate my optimism, even with its warts.
    Warmly, Rosanne Selfon

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