I Don't Know


One recent day on social media, comments from two people I respect crossed my transom within about an hour. One said (I'm paraphrasing both) that any rabbi who doesn’t call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza is morally bankrupt. The other said that any rabbi who would call for a ceasefire, given Hamas’ stated goals of destroying Israel, is betraying the Jewish people. 

I’ve been sitting with that tension, and it feels like a black hole inside my heart. How am I supposed to know which path is most likely to lead to a future of peace and justice and coexistence in that beloved land? How would I know whether more military response or a ceasefire is likelier to bring about the just peace both peoples need? I can’t possibly know.

In rabbinical school I studied a lot of things, but never political science, international relations, or military strategy. Granted, there are rabbis who do have this expertise – e.g. those who may have a background in international diplomacy or who have long studied geopolitics. But I don’t have the training, or the crystal ball, I would need in order to make these determinations wisely.

I know how to daven from the heart. I know how to sit with a mourner. I know how to teach Torah. I know how to help people ask, “how is what’s happening in Israel and Gaza impacting our Jewishness and our experience of God?” I want the killing and suffering to end: that’s a core moral position. But I don’t know how to discern if a ceasefire now would really get us there. 

I’m horrified by the dehumanizing rhetoric emerging from Netanyahu’s administration. I fear that after this military action nothing will really have changed, except that there will be more parents mourning their children, more families furious and despairing in grief. Is it even possible for a military action to “end” Hamas, or will it only create more hatred? More questions I can't answer.

A Hamas spokesman said, in the Times, that the thousands of Palestinian deaths (so far) are “the necessary cost of a great accomplishment.” In that same piece, they’re clear that they seek a permanent state of war between Israel and the whole Arab world. If there were a ceasefire, would Hamas just attack again? What is the best way to avoid that? How would I know?

Hamas wants permanent war; I yearn for permanent peace. “The real ‘revenge’ for murder is achieving peace,” as MK Ayman Odeh said, quoting Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish. Yitzhak Rabin z"l taught, “You don’t make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies.” Today’s hatreds feel too entrenched to bridge. Then again peace never seems possible, until it is.

But what would make it possible?

I can’t discount the possibility that a ceasefire would embolden Hamas and fuel more attacks like October 7, which would lead to more killing. I also can’t discount the possibility that a ceasefire is the only viable path forward; many Israeli organizations argue that military solutions have repeatedly failed and that the cycle of violence must stop. I do not know. 

I do know that I'm saddened by the ferocity of division over this in the Jewish community. Some Jewish musicians are asking those who seek a ceasefire to stop singing their songs. The North American head of the Jewish Agency for Israel says that he no longer considers those seeking a ceasefire to be Jews. Last time I checked, both doves and hawks are still Jews.

It is not obvious to me whether sustained military action or a ceasefire is the wiser path forward. But it is obvious to me that my hevre who are calling for each of these are doing so out of deep love and care and yearning for what they believe is best, and as an expression of their Jewish values. Surely our Judaism is not so narrow or so brittle as to exile one view or the other? 

Mishna (Makkot 7a) teaches that a Sanhedrin that executes one person in seven years is considered excessive. R. Elazar ben Azarya says: once in 70 years is excessive. R. Tarfon and R. Akiva say, if we were in charge no one would ever be executed! And then R. Shimon ben Gamliel says, that too would have increased the number of murders among our people. 

Shimon ben Gamliel’s point is, I think, that if we eschew all killing all the time, that choice also can lead to more killing. My heart is with Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon. But my heart may not be wise in that regard, if that stance allows harm to proliferate unchecked. And today’s Middle East realities pose a more complicated question than, “should capital punishment exist?”

The question here is which of two policy paths will ultimately save more lives in a conflict birthed in the dissolution of empire, simmering for decades, overlaid atop religious tensions and generational trauma, sometimes involving corrupt or unethical politicians, also serving as a proxy for other geopolitical tensions. It feels like hubris to imagine that I might know the answer.

The best thing I can hope is that this is so clearly a disaster of epic and world-shaking proportions that something, maybe everything, will have to change. I pray that once we reach “the day after,” there will be a rousing and thorough call for new leadership  – Israeli and Palestinian alike – who can together dream a way to something better than this.