Kedoshim — The Hard Truth About Moral Choices

Posted on May 10, 2024 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck

Kedoshim means “holy ones,” and refers in Jewish tradition to those who live holy lives — as this week’s parashah calls us to do — and those who give their lives as martyrs for a sacred cause.

As we discussed last Shabbat, Jewish tradition has long struggled with the choice of martyrdom, as ours is a religion of life that teaches us to do almost anything to preserve life.

This is why the most painful and agonizing choices Jews face is when we are forced to choose between killing and being killed. Our bottom line is that self-defense is a mitzvah and a moral obligation. But this is much easier said than done.

My friend and colleague Rabbi Ken Chasen recently recounted the experience of a mutual friend and mentor, Rabbi David Forman, of blessed memory, that sheds light on the terrible dilemma of choosing one life over another.

Rabbi Forman was an American oleh, an immigrant to Israel. He was among the founders of Rabbis for Human Rights and a crusader for Arab-Jewish peace and reconciliation. And, like most other Israelis, he served in the IDF. It was in this context that David was forced to choose between who would live and who would die.

It was during the first Lebanon war in 1982, and David was the commander of a tank battalion ordered to lead his men into battle across the northern border. Upon their arrival, they found a scenario that Israel’s military intelligence had predicted: terrorists situated behind civilians who were deliberately being used as human shields. As commander, David had to decide what to do.

Should he order his men to fire, knowing that innocent lives would be lost? Or should he order his soldiers to hold fire, knowing that some of them would be killed as a result? A decision had to be made, and quickly. What should he have done? How did he resolve this horrific conundrum?

During a visit to Rabbi Chasen’s congregation in Los Angeles in 2005, Rabbi Forman described the scene, but rather than reveal his decision, he asked the community what they would have done in his place.

One person suggested that he would have taken steps to avoid being in that situation (this was received as an attempt to evade the question). Another said he would have ordered his soldiers to hold their fire as he could not in good conscience cause the death of innocent people.

Then an older member of the congregation spoke up. He was a veteran of WWII who was a tank commander in the Battle of the Bulge. “They should all be court-martialed,” he said. “Anyone who ordered the men in the tanks to hold their fire should be court-martialed and imprisoned. The time to decide not to follow the order to lead that battalion on this mission was before the mission, not during it. If you want to be a conscientious objector that is a fair moral stance to take — and you should be prepared to accept the consequences that come with taking it. But to accept the mission and then refuse to fulfill it is to ensure that other soldiers, who placed their lives in your hands, will die. Will the morality of your refusal to order fire hold up when you are explaining to their spouses, their parents, and their children why their father is dead?”

At this point Rabbi Forman interjected, saying:

I didn’t tell you this story to reveal the “right answer” — that is, to reveal what I did in that situation …I told the story to demonstrate something about morality that most people don’t want to accept.

You see, most of us want morality to be about choosing between right and wrong. But I have learned that moral choices are never between right and wrong — because right and wrong is easy. You do what’s right.

Moral choices are between right and right…and between wrong and wrong. It is wrong to open fire and kill innocent Lebanese civilians. And it is wrong to hold fire and rob an Israeli family of a loved one who courageously put his life on the line for his family and his people. It is right to kill terrorists who declare their genocidal intent, along with their preference to die instead of negotiating a peaceful solution. And it is right to preserve the lives of innocent people trapped by a regime that weaponizes their deaths.

Forty-two years later nothing has changed. Today, IDF soldiers who are ordinary citizens of the State of Israel — Jews raised on the same Jewish values as you and me — are faced with the same dilemma, only now the situation is even more complex. More than 1,200 Israelis were brutalized or lost their lives at the hands of terrorists who have declared their intention to do it again and again. More than 200 Israelis were taken hostage and more than 100 remain in Gaza in horrific conditions. And Hamas has turned thousands of innocent Palestinians — too many of them children — into human shields.

What path will bring the release of the hostages who are still alive? Will a ceasefire that ends the war and leaves Hamas in power in Gaza mean sacrificing more Israeli and Palestinian lives? Is there a future for the Palestinians in Gaza if Hamas’s fighting force and leadership are not eliminated? Who will pay to rebuild Gaza only to have it destroyed in the inevitable next round of the conflict? Whose hands will be stained by the blood that will be shed then? And will Iran and its proxies — most notably Hezbollah in Lebanon — be emboldened by what would surely be seen as a Hamas victory?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. They are not black and white. They are not between right and wrong. All of them entail making choices between wrong and wrong and right and right, and no facile answers are morally acceptable. Strident judgments in these matters are more of a judgment of those who make them than of those they would judge.

So where does this leave us? How are we to live with such painful realities?

First and foremost, family is family, and we owe our sympathy first and foremost to our own people. Our fate is bound up with Israel. If we have learned nothing else since October 7, it is surely this. And yet, just as the heart has multiple chambers, so we can, and must, be sensitive to and help alleviate the anguish of all who are suffering.

Israel’s right to exist is not debatable. It was founded on the basis of international law and is no more subject to question than the legitimacy of the U.S., Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, or Egypt. Moreover, Israel is not a colonialist venture, but the return of an indigenous people to its ancestral homeland.

Israel has the right and obligation to defend its citizens from threats to their lives and land. Anything less constitutes an unacceptable moral failure.

Acts of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and indiscriminate killing are judged by actual criteria. Israel is not guilty of any of these. Hamas, on the other hand, is guilty of all of these and has sworn to continue to commit them.

The act of killing in self-defense is a stain on our souls. What Golda Meir said to Israel’s enemies decades ago holds true today: “We can forgive you for killing our children, but we cannot forgive you for forcing us to kill your children.”

I recognize that what I have shared with you today may be unsatisfying. Nevertheless, I urge you to continue to wrestle and ask hard questions, for we are called to be kedoshim, a holy people. My prayer is that our pursuit of holiness be in life and not death.

Please join us for services this evening as we celebrate 76 years of Israel’s independence, followed by an open conversation in which we will ask our questions and share our feelings about Israel today.


Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Arnie Gluck