I'm Jon Spira-Savett, rabbi at Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire. This website and blog is a resource for Jewish learning and Jewish action. It is a way to share my thoughts beyond my classes and weekly Divrei Torah. You'll find blog posts, standing resource pages with links and things to read, and podcasts as well.
The explosion at the Al Alhi Hospital in Gaza was unquestionably a massive tragedy, and why and how it happened in the context of war probably matters little to the families of the dead and wounded. To all of them, our prayers for healing and consolation.
For the rest of us, how it happened is in dispute. Why does it matter to get it right, or at least to try? It’s worth thinking about now also because this won’t be the last thing we have to learn about or assess in this war, and make decisions based on what we learn or assess.
One reason it matters to get it right is that especially in a chaotic situation, the truth matters. As much as the Israel-Hamas fighting is part of a continuing story, it’s emphatically not just a repeat. We can’t rely only on our preconceptions going in to interpret what’s happening now. Learning what actually is happening is part of how we honor the lives of people involved. It’s how we acknowledge that people are real, that they exist now in their unique individual lives; they are not just concepts or symbols. Responding to an event based on what someone just thinks happened compounds all of our cynicism. When the reaction is from officials or crowds or media, it can close off options for something better and it can lead to a cascade of even more violence than would otherwise happen.
Another reason it matters to get it right is because assigning responsibility and then holding people accountable -- morally and/or politically and/or legally -- matters.
At the moment, the reporting comes from sources that anyone might be critical of for one or another reason – Hamas, Israel’s military, the U.S. government, journalists with an anti-Israel bias. Hamas says the rocket is Israeli. Israel has furnished video and audio that it says shows the rocket came from Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another terror group, and was misfired. For anyone who wants to form our own opinion – whatever multiple sources we look at, we have to take a highlighter and pick out facts in one color, and then well-supported interpretations in another, and cross out all things that are mere opinion or leaps of logic.
Let me outline an ethical assessment process of all the scenarios. I am holding back my own current view on which of these scenarios is the truth.
If an Israeli rocket struck the hospital, intentionally or even indiscriminately – then the act is a crime of war committed within a justified war. It would reveal something disturbing about either the culture or skill of Israelis generally or a particular unit.
If an Israeli rocket struck the hospital in an attempt to strike a different target, a legitimate military target; or if it struck the hospital because there was an actual military target in the hospital – then we have a set of moral questions about civilians whose death was not intended but happens in any war that’s not in the middle of nowhere, even a just war. There is a whole complex ethics around human shields, trapped civilians, how much risk a military has to take on itself to extricate the civilians from the legitimate target. If this is what happened, I would want to know from Israel what the nature of the target was that it was trying to destroy. It would be important to reveal something substantial about that to its own public and to the world, despite the risk I imagine there would be to soldiers in revealing what the army knows and how.
If a Palestinian rocket struck the hospital unintentionally – then it would in all likelihood have been a rocket intended indiscriminately at Israeli civilians, and it would be a crime of war for that reason if no other. This part hasn’t been much commented on in the American press on a daily basis, but nearly all of the rockets fired at Israel from Gaza are indiscriminate attacks on civilians. They are fired all over the place, and they also kill and maim. Some of them hit hospitals as well.
If a Palestinian rocket struck the hospital intentionally, then the act is a crime against their own people, possibly by its leaders or some of those who claim to be, and would reveal a lot about those who fired it.
I hope writing this and reading this is worthwhile, and not a distraction from something more important. Thank you to everyone reaching out to anyone in support and trying to make any of this better.
Posted June 27, 2022 on Facebook, so not quite as tight as what I usually write.
This is what the top of my head looks like today and through next Monday at least, July 4. No matter what’s happened recently, I am celebrating our independence, freedom, and democracy, and wearing that above me as a kippah, the flag of my country and the star of my faith. I am proud to be American, and to be an American leader in my American community.
1. What bothers me about today’s Supreme Court decision about the high school teacher/coach leading a Christian prayer in the middle of the field after a game is not the individual teacher or the place. Viewed in itself, of course he doesn’t speak for “the state” which has repeatedly tried to disavow this one particular thing.
What bothers me is the majority’s consistent disregard of the overall context. It’s not the individual situation; it’s the pattern of one particular religious expression seeking to shape our laws overall (and our culture but I think that's not the constitutional issue). It’s their right to do so. But the majority says that the First Amendment only extends to guaranteeing the tolerance that would have been understood as “non-establishment of religion” by the Framers. Many (not all) of the Framers surely did feel that as long as there is some space for religious minorities and dissenters and atheists, and that the government is not paying the expenses of a church directly, then the First Amendment is satisfied.
That’s what the Supreme Court majority says is the standard today. I know that non-originalist approaches are problematic, but the originalist approach is too. We’ve come a long way and I believe our Constitution has helped that. Not so much if this is what can happen place by place.
2. I have thought about this for a long time, and now I am deciding for sure and declaring: I will no longer accept invitations to give prayers at government meetings. Not if it’s my friend in office, not if it’s the president of the United States. I just can’t, not consistent with what I’ve written here.
I will participate as a citizen and share my motivations when they are religious. I will identify as a leader, freely exercising my right to speak and teach and testify at hearing about what my faith says relating to public matters. I’ll participate in public and governmental things that are about religious diversity or cultural diversity. But no more benedictions and opening prayers, no more invoking the divine in an official capacity before a government body meets. My fellow citizens who are not religious or not religious in a style parallel to mine deserve their forums to respect them.
Yes, I realize no one ever thinks that my prayer means the state is endorsing Judaism. But when I say a prayer, I’m as much a ”clergy person” or a “religious representative” as a Jew specifically, and it’s all about a role for religion in government overall that I cannot endorse. So I have to follow my principle and set an example. If that means ceding the “pulpit” only to those who don’t have that principle – well overall they already have taken it.
On “The Good Place” Michael turns the famous trolley problem into another form of torture for Chidi, while Jason says being mean to someone who is being nice to you is bad but he can’t put his finger on why. On the podcast, Geoff Mitelman (rabbi/science guy!) and I discuss how philosophical models torture us and teach us, and how understanding our brains with the insights of neuroscience can help us become better at ethical decisions. Click here to listen and for show notes.
Chapter 20: Because Friends — And Lying Reframed
On “The Good Place”, Janet’s glitching prompts Michael and Janet to talk about the lies at the beginning of their relationship and now, and Michael realizes that they are friends. On the podcast, Myra and Ben and I overinterpret paper clips. Then we look for a broader view of lying and truth-telling, and discuss how friendship relates to speaking in error and learning truth. Click here to listen and for show notes.