Virtual Talmud

Virtual Talmud

Walking Out is Unethical

To the chagrin of many of my friends, being ethical does not entail defenselessness. Power, like anything else, can be ethical; it must be ethical.

From a Jewish perspective, it’s tempting to make powerlessness a pre-condition for ethics. Jewish liberals are fond of pointing to the biblical prophets’ ability to speak ethical truth to power. As if truth and power are at opposite sides of the spectrum. They thrive on the prophets’ persecution and their howling in the wind.

While I agree that there is a time for prophetic politics, what these Jews sometimes forget is that a) the prophets may have been right but usually ended up being ignored because their policies were simply way beyond peoples’ present capacity, and b) if the kings (against whom the prophets railed) were themselves just and ethical, we would never have needed the prophets in the first place.


It’s tempting to spend this post ranting and condemning Bush/Cheney, etc. (God knows how long we could do that.) But I would rather deal with the painful reality of the present, recognizing the ethical complexity of the situation. Arguing that we must jump ship from Iraq because this war is unethical is, simply put, far too simple to be the ethical solution to the problems we are facing.

The great 20th-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once remarked, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Niebuhr coined the term “Christian realism” to describe his sober views about the nature of man, sin, and politics. More than anything else, Niebuhr realized the dangers of absolute political ideologies. Most notably, he spoke out against absolute pacifism and those who stood on what they thought was the moral high ground looking down on power and coercion as unethical.


While for Christains, Niebuhr’s position was somewhat of a hidush (a new idea), for Jews spiritual realism was no new idea. The Bible is packed with ethical complexity. Nonetheless, Niebuhr’s ideas greatly influenced theologians across the the spiritual spectrum. In Judaism, those such as Rabbi Irving Greenberg developed their own brand of post-Holocaust Niebuhrian Jewish realism, arguing that power and ethics can be compatible. The challenge of the modern age–what Greenberg calls the third millennium– is to harness power for ethical means.

Which brings us to the question of the ethics of the war in Iraq and the broader war on terror. Was the President wrong in going after Saddam Hussein? As I wrote three years ago in an op-ed in the New York Jewish Week, probably. (I will spare you the myriad reasons why).


The war on terror will never be won by just attacking nation-states, especially those nation-states that have nothing to do with radical Islam (Iraq was a secular state!!). We should have attacked Iran, Syria, or Saudi Arabia well before we went anywhere near Iraq. But that is not what happened. As it now stands, we are three years into this mess with no exit plan in sight, and each day, human lives are being sapped. Iraq has been nothing but trouble and disappointment.

Nonetheless, now that we have gone in and torn apart the social fabric of the country, we can’t just walk out leaving Iraq to eat itself up alive. To use a biblical analogy, you can’t take the people of Israel out of Eygpt and leave them to wither in the desert! To do so would make us guilty of nothing less than a hit and run. Responsibility and ethics go hand in hand. Imagine if God had washed his hands of the Jewish people after the sin of the golden calf.


We as a country must take the responsibility for finishing what we started. Simply put, Iraq is still incapable of functioning day-to-day. Whether we like it or not, we have an obligation to its citizens to be there an ensure day-to-day social and political stability.

Yes, it would be nice if we could just walk out of Iraq, forget about this whole episode, and go on trying to hunt down the real terrorists. What we forget, however, is that the act of hunting down to capture, kill, and coerce puts us in a most precarious and ethically risky situation. Almost always, when one lifts up one’s fist, ethics, in some sense, are suspended. But that is how politics and power work.

Politics is a messy business that has no neutral ground. Every decision is a lesser of two evils. Still, at every moment there is a more ethical and less ethical option to choose from. While it is hard to say that staying in Iraq is ethical, leaving Iraq is unethical.

Comments read comments(27)
post a comment
Julie Beth Boe

posted March 24, 2006 at 4:18 pm


report abuse

Dianka H. Fabian

posted March 24, 2006 at 4:30 pm

Thank you to Rabbi Eliyahu Stern and others who so eloquently expressed the feelings of so many Americans. Polls usually ask, simply, if we should stay in Iraq or leave, and that isn’t the isse that we are dealing with. This war was not only started, but continued on a series of lies. We have the highest moral responsibiity now to immediately end all aggressive military actin and immdiately work toward rebuilding what we have destroyed, regardless of costs. And we must thoroughly examine how and why we did this sothat we never again commit these atrocities. On a political level, of course I can recognize Iraq as a potential danger and an obstruction to peace. If I’m walking down a dark street and see someone walking toward me, I can rightly recognize that person as a potential danger, and be prepared, but this does NOT give me the right to shoot him on the theory of “pre-empting” an attack. The horror in Iraq is that WE became the very thing our government claimed we were fighting.

report abuse

Esther Nash

posted March 24, 2006 at 4:38 pm

The Iraq War(s) are the craziest wars ever fought! As I understand it, first, (Iraq War No. 1), we went in to protect Kuwait, told the enemy, (Sadam Hussein) to behave himself, then left! But Sadaam didn’t behave himself, so, we went in for a second time, (Iraq War No. 2). After many hard months of fighting, and the loss of many American, British, and allied lives, we finally caught Mr. Hussein hiding in a hole, arrested him, and are now holding him for trial. But–we didn’t leave Iraq then…because we were afraid of nuclear weapons, (which, it turned out, weren’t there), and bands of insurgents, (still loyal to the captured Sadaam?) which presumably still are there. (Yet how can they win, with their leader in jail, and the entire rest of the world against them????) In my opinion, we should stay in Iraq as long as it takes us to teach the Iraqis democracy….much as the US, and its allies, did at the end of World War II with Japan. (Japan is, of course, now one of the world’s leading democracies,,,,with an economy so strong the US, at the end of WWII, may just have done its job TOO well! But, better to have a democratic, economic powerhouse in Japan, than an meglomaniacal empire, bent on world domination, which Japan once was, but thankfully is no longer.) Let us show, BY EXAMPLE, the true rewards of democracy! How people flourish, multi-culturally, in democracy….respecting others while also respecting themselves. Tradition and modernity do not have to be at odds….they can enrich each other! Forward-looking Jews and Christians, (and forward-looking Moslems, too), can prove this to the fanatics whom, (I hazard to guess), shame the gentle words of the Prophet Mohammed, by twisting his words to their own ends. I hope, too, that the US is not in Iraq just for the oil. Let’s use and research synthetic fuels…while allowing the Iraqi people to rule themselves in a democratic manner. There is much that the best of Judaism, the best of Christianity, and the best of Islam can teach each other. We are, after all, all Human Beings! Let fanaticism die a natural death….and the simple, basic truths of love, learning, and faith, common to all three religions, (and the best of other modern religions, too!) prevail!

report abuse

Rev. Dr. Ronald F. Piper

posted March 24, 2006 at 4:48 pm

Thank you for your opinion. Now here’s mine. The war in Iraq was based on the arrogance of one man…President Bush, who went against the advice of the entire world, excepting, of course, Great Britain. He proceeded under the pretext that we were subject to the severe threat of Iraq’s nuclear weapons build up. Which premise subsequently proved wrong. Yet he proceeded and switched tactics and said that our reason for being there was/is to bring the country to a politic of democracy. All this at the cost of millions of deaths of innocent people, both of America and Iraq. Any country that desires or has desired a change in its form of government has had to fight its own civil war. History has proven this. We should all hang our heads in shame for allowing ourselves to be represented by a President who hides behind a mask of altruism, when, in fact, he is an actual threat to democracy itself.

report abuse


posted March 24, 2006 at 5:13 pm

The problem with politics could be they are driven by religion and culture and the problem with religion is they are driven by politics and culture. THe dog chases it’s own tail. THe problem with humanity is they cant mind their own business. Govt and Religion try to order man’s life as if man could not put his own life in order. The cry from the public is LEAVE US ALONE. No PUBLIC ever started a war or a Religion. Bill

report abuse


posted March 24, 2006 at 5:14 pm

Hopefully that last brilliant speech got thru. Bill

report abuse

TG Fleener

posted March 24, 2006 at 6:22 pm

Thank you Rabbi. I have forwarded this on to my son who will start at the Citadel in the fall. He has been raised to look at both sides but is having a hard time wading through the right’s retoric. Again, thank you.

report abuse


posted March 24, 2006 at 6:22 pm

While I agree with Rabbi Sten that “it is hard to say that staying in Iraq is ethical, leaving Iraq is unethical.” I disagree with the reason we are there. I wish that God had prompted us to attack Germany before WWII in a premptive strike. We would have been spared a great deal of death. Especially the deadly Holocaust. Tomorrow there will be peace and freedom in Iraq. A peaceful middle east will be contagious and others will follow. Isreal is much safer today with the colilition forces in Iraq. No two democracies have ever attacked each other. The more we have in the Middle East, the safer the world will be.

report abuse


posted March 24, 2006 at 8:08 pm

Dear Sirs: It is very intersting to say that we should “stay the course”,and keep getting more embroiled,and further mess up Iraq,since what got us there,was erroneous intelligence in the first Place. So,instead of responsibly and honestly saying we screwed it all up,and leave,we’re going to further screw it up,since there is an upcoming civil war that is going to engulf Iraq,and perhaps set the whole MiddleEast on fire.Great. That’s very ethical and responsible,is it not? And since we are spending trillions of dollars on the war,which we do not have,thus setting our own country up for a sure Depression or Recession,thus causing our own people great suffering and pain,that is very responsible and ethical,too,is it not? There is one thing we can do;get out now,and not cause anyone else any more pain,bankruptcy,suffering,and major civil war,and our own country a sure-coming Depression or Recession. This road to Hell was not really paved with Good Intentions;it was paved with selfishness and stupidity,and it’s being followed with more stupidity and ignorance.Do what Nixon did;Admit we screwed it all up,stop now,and get out,as we are only going to screw it up more and more(as we are doing at this time,right this minute)and admit we were stupid idiots and willful power-nuts who think we know what the rest of the world should do,and force them to do it. Butt out Now.Before we light the whole world on Fire.That’s my prediction,and I’m sticking to it.

report abuse


posted March 25, 2006 at 3:40 am

I believe the spiritual principles that our lord Jesus intended for the world is love not war. I also believe that man need to stop trying too play God we have only one God and its not man.The only thing we can do is pray all together the the war will end very soon and if it was my country i would NOT leave it either

report abuse


posted March 25, 2006 at 4:13 am

I must say I enjoy these forums. They’ve become a possible alzheimers preventitive, what with their byzantine, philosophical, labryntine forays into the rationalization of various human behaviors. Bill has got the right feeling though. Unfortunatly, humans gave up a shot at “idyllic” existence with the invention of civilization. Iraq is now a “fait accompli”. And it doesn’t matter whether the US stays or goes or whether the Iraqis get americanized or more or less iraquisized not. Nothing will change. Not ever. Every morning somebody somewhere gets up with a plan to change the world – usually for the worse. It doesn’t matter what the Talmud says or the Koran says or the Bible says or the drunk on the 3rd barstool on the left says. This whole “war on Terror” reminds me of a bad high school romance with the scripted showdown in the corridor. The best that I hope for each day is to stay on the fringes like Andorra or San Marino and enjoy what I can. Who knows maybe the Aztec were right and the world as we know it ends in 2012. Way Cool!

report abuse


posted March 25, 2006 at 10:40 am

Really enjoyed this and hope to visit here again! I know, I know: this Republican bunch is terribly arrogant, and their arrogance upsets so many of us, but what if we went to war because 1) George Bush, scion of oil wealth, was really not-so-foolish and saw that China will eventually encroach on world oil supplies; its energy demands will out-strip even our use. We went into Iraq to keep our hand in a tenuous oil-rich situation and to “stabilize” the Middle East by being the situation there with our presence. We will no more “get out of” Iraq someday than we got out of Korea, Bosnia, etc. Absolute Power corrupts absolutely. 2) Saddam would have continued to do mischief, eventually coming with atomic weapons of mass destruction. True, our intelligence was spotty, even incorrect, but he wouldn’t have backed down from this plan, especially since his enemy Iran was so busy with atomic plans. Mssrs Rumsfeld and Cheney in their arrogance thought we could just do a quick war, in-and-out. We went in far understaffed with no way to save the country’s infrastructure and thus gain the acceptance of the wary Iraquis there. There is a good chance that Iraq will end up three countries just as Yugoslavia did . . . and we’ll peace-keep forever there. Why can’t we learn?

report abuse


posted March 25, 2006 at 1:04 pm

It doesn’t matter why we’re in Iraq, here’s why; 1. Let’s be fair while they didn’t have WMD’s this doesn’t negate the fact Hussein at the time is actively doing to his people what Hitler did to the Jews. Can’t get it all right as far as intelligence goes that’s reality. It’s also reality that people are morally compelled to stop- tyrannts. If Jews aren’t then you deserve the holocaust…and I’d have to say to bad they didn’t get more of you. 2. Arrogance is a goods thing. It means that a person can take care of themselves. 3. If it’s about oil so what. This country runs on oil. While I agree we need energy independance real fast, only ugly get’s people to change. 4. If Bush bashing is your only arguement. Grow up.

report abuse

Mike Schoenberg

posted March 25, 2006 at 2:30 pm

John, I agree that the best we can hope for is to see Iraq split up in 3. Right now the Kurds are minding their own business and happy to see Muslims killing Muslims. Just a repeat of all the Catholic/Protestant wars several hundred years ago. So let them divide and hand over peace keeping to the U.N.

report abuse

Rev. Andre R Boulanger

posted March 25, 2006 at 9:27 pm

Whether its moral or immoral to stay I don’t know; but, I’d sure get the hell out of there.

report abuse


posted March 26, 2006 at 12:23 am

Being in a No Win situation – at least that is what many (most) people now see, what is the use of staying.Iraq will eventually have it’s civil war. The Shia will win. They will join with Iran which is shia and both countries will have a fundamentalist union. Pakastan will also become a fundamentalist Islamic State. As will any country which does not have a monarch… Get real and get out – now… Their are other ways to ensure our freedom…

report abuse

Patrick Nowak

posted March 26, 2006 at 1:32 am

Bush was right to take out Hussein. Bush did not lie. WMD was only one of several sound reasons for going into Iraq. Will the WMD be found? Yes, probably in the Bakaii (sp?) Valley in Syria where the Russians helped hide them. Bush is right to ignore the NYT and the “polls” because they’re just part of a non-stop propaganda campaign to weaken American resolve and the US Military’s morale. The Europeans who oppose our policies and the terrorists must be quite thankful for all the American media and universities who promote their cause. The terrorists must also wonder why we think democracy is such a great system when they see our own citizens foolishing using freedom of speech to undermine the legitimate actions of the USA. You may not care for Bush but you do care for the USA, don’t you? Maybe not. Perhaps you would rather do anything for a short term political advantage. Perhaps you would rather we lose in Iraq if it would help elect a Democrat president. The enemies of the USA know they cannot defeat us militarily but can defeat us by infiltrating the univeristies and the media and waging a non-stop war against American ideals on honor and integrity. You think you’re going to win. It doesn’t look very good right now for the decent people in America but we will prevail.

report abuse


posted March 26, 2006 at 4:52 pm

My thoughts, did anyone ever consider this is a covert Holy war ? Why the evangilists and Bush are standing by waiting to transform Babylon, to capitalize on it. ( to much salt boy, in the soil) Bush and Co. will never loose just the patriotic, frightened, brainwashed foolish nation, Bush and Robertson’s, will always have food, clothes and money to carry on after this war. We won’t, and look who’s getting money from Bush now, Evangelists. The war between the Irish protestants and catholics has and is going on in Ireland and US, they have jobs, catholics get blackballed. By promice software? (Just remember Dixie.) You also need about $250 thousand dollars to get a fair house in Ireland, is that right Mr. McCaffery? And the worst part is the relationship of fundamentalist protestants and the ties to Muslim nations that hate Catholics and Jews. (Soon the Evangilists plan to convert the Jews, so I understand.) I think we have serious business here, let Iraq fight their own war, there are 35 million of them. War is dangerous, let our boys come home with some dignity and take care of business here. I have never seen so much greed and crime and lies in all my life, they could make a difference in this run away nation. Right Wolfritz?

report abuse


posted March 27, 2006 at 3:49 pm

i understand your reasoning but i dont think you understand that iraq had weapons which were transferred to syria. should we have attacked syria or iran we would have been more of a radical to the world who hates the hand that feeds them. by eliminating the power of iraq from sending money to palasitine to pay for bombs into isral we eliminated that issue somewhat and should we preserve iraq as a benevlant dictatorship something like sinapore, then we have a center base of power in the middle east which may help defend against and show the rest what freedom can mean to these extremist who only follow fools and hate. Delano Hill Mount Olive, NC

report abuse


posted March 27, 2006 at 3:58 pm

i think it interesting that so many jews have such thinking as i read their comments. dont they realize that the weapons (now proven) were sent out to syria? dont they realized that iraq was supplying $$ to the sucide bombers to kill jews? i think some are so ignorant of what is happening over the world with these so-called muslem extremeist and those others who SAY they dont support them but will not say anything against them is an abomination against humanity. it is good that isral doesnt lay down and play dead. bush is the cause of floods, hurricanes, the problems of the middle east and all the bad history in the world. he is the only man in history that has said he would do something and not swayed by every poll. you negative people dont realize that all muslems to the right will not rest until isral is pushed into the sea. Delano Hill MountOlive, NC

report abuse

Pam Sawchuk

posted March 27, 2006 at 4:44 pm

The imperative debate before us is what do we do NOW in Iraq. Why can’t eveyone see the TRUTH presented in these words of the Rabbi: “We as a country must take the responsibility for finishing what we started. Simply put, Iraq is still incapable of functioning day-to-day. Whether we like it or not, we have an obligation to its citizens to be there an ensure day-to-day social and political stability.” All the extenuating circumstances are therein boiled down to the bottom-line. It’s the simple, clear, logic behind “you broke it, you own it;” how can that NOT be clear to all? Personally, I entirely agreed with Pope John Paul II: the pre-emptive strike against Iraq was immoral. (I wonder how many Americans voiced their objections to Pres + Congress BEFORE the strike–when it mattered–was it ALL those who so clearly see the error NOW)? Let it go–the decision has already passed you by—just learn from it for the future. Understand now that our country, in taking out a corrupt regime, has currently left a vaccuum in its’ place—and we OWE the Iraqi’s SECURITY while they attempt to fill that vacuum (police, military, energy resource management–the infrastructure of society) in a new, democratic manner. When so many Iraqi’s turned out to vote, under direct threat of life and limb, you have to KNOW that they desperately want secure governance of their own choosing for their future.

report abuse


posted March 27, 2006 at 5:21 pm

The US did know that Saddam had WMD because we turned a blind eye to their use during the Iran-Iraq war. And Saddam is a waste of reusable carbon. But was he more of a threat to the US than Iran, or Syria, or North Korea — or just the easiest target? But now that we are in there I am waiting for the US government to recognize that this is a 50-60 year mission. We have to rebuild infrastructure neglected by Saddam (as well as what we did to it) and raise a full generation in self-government. Look how long we took before handing Germany back over to Germans after WWII. We hamstrung the Japanese defense capability as well. It took 5-10 years for our own Reconstruction to run. If we leave now the terrorists (of all groups) win. The West loses. We cannot leave until an Iraqi government is functioning. We cut and ran in Afghanistan and got the Taliban, we were slow to step into the Balkans and got Al-Qaeda. Those were irresponsible and unethical acts that resulted in more death that if we had been forceful.

report abuse


posted March 27, 2006 at 5:53 pm

As told before by Tina God is love and peace not war, kill attack and capture. As we don’t accept it for ourselves and we still fight for our rights and claim our lost glory we shouldn t accept it to happen to others too! Germans thought that Jews were bad to the society and would even call them terrorists (using now a day s expression) so how do we give ourselves the right to call others the same and fight them for it?

report abuse

Ellen C. Lee

posted March 27, 2006 at 5:56 pm

It’s my understanding that the Jewish faith prohibits waging wars of aggression. It’s difficult to believe that the Iraq war is a war of defense, because Iraq did not attack us…the Saudis did. All terrorists on board the hijacked planes on 9/11 were Saudis, not Iraqis. Who are we to go into an independent nation and impose our will upon them, without even the basic understanding of their culture? Since when did the United States become the dictator of the world? All the billions of dollars being flagrantly wasted in Iraq could be much better used to support the people of the United States: we need health care, we need social services to be give the required funds to provide all of us with support. What do Jewish values have to say about that? Don’t we believe in taking care of human beings first before waging wars and providing more money to the rich? And just because people don’t pay attention to what the prophets have to say doesn’t mean they aren’t RIGHT! Thanks, Ellen

report abuse


posted March 30, 2006 at 8:35 pm

How convenient.

report abuse

Carlos Bahar

posted April 3, 2006 at 1:31 am

Rabbi Stern wrote: “We should have attacked Iran, Syria, or Saudi Arabia well before we went anywhere near Iraq.” Attacking innocent people living under the daily carnage of CIA-installed or maintained dictators or republics is not a Biblical teaching. In fact, we are cautioned by God via Rabbi Moses that “thou shalt not kill”. What we should have done is to sort out the Gang in Washington who are doing global mafia for the sake of a few elitist billionaires’ pocketbooks.

report abuse


posted April 3, 2006 at 10:30 am

George Bush and those whose yes-man he is are war-profiteers disguised into national saviors. The war in Iraq cost nothing to those who profit from it since the cost is fully paid by those who gain nothing from it. And George Bush and those whose yes-man he is did not miscalculate their profits; the only things they miscalculated are how long this war will last and how much it will really cost to those who pay for it.

report abuse

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to and may be used by in accordance with the agreements.

Previous Posts

The Task Is Never Finished
It has been heartwarming to read the warm responses to Rabbi Waxman's post asking Beliefnet to reconsider its decision to cancel Virtual Talmud. Virtual Talmud offered an alternative model for internet communications: civil discourse pursued in ...

posted 12:31:46pm Apr. 03, 2008 | read full post »

Some Parting Reflections
Well, loyal readers, all good things must come to an end and we’ve been informed that this particular experiment in blogging as a forum for creating wide-ranging discussion on topics of interest to contemporary Jews has run its course. Maybe ...

posted 1:00:29pm Mar. 31, 2008 | read full post »

Obama's Lesson and The Jewish Community
There are few times in this blog’s history when I have felt that Rabbi Grossman was one hundred percent correct in her criticisms of my ideas. However, a few weeks ago she called me out for citing a few crack websites on Barak Obama’s ...

posted 12:09:08pm Mar. 31, 2008 | read full post »

The Future of Race Relations
As a post-baby boomer, it is interesting to me to see how much of today’s conversation about racial relations is still rooted in the 1960s experience and rhetoric of the civil rights struggle, and the disenchantment that followed. Many in the ...

posted 4:04:41pm Mar. 25, 2008 | read full post »

Wright and Wrong of Race and Jews
Years ago, as a rabbinical student, I was one of a group of rabbinical students who visited an African American seminary in Atlanta. My fellow rabbinical students and I expected an uplifting weekend of interfaith sharing like we had experienced ...

posted 12:50:11pm Mar. 24, 2008 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.