Bt Yehuda Kurtzer, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute and co-editor of The New Jewish Canon. The following is an excerpt from Sources: A Journal of Jewish Ideas, Israel at War special issue. To read the full essay and more from Sources, click here.
In the first few fragile days following the Hamas assault on southern Israel on October 7, it was hard to know what to think, much less what to do. The magnitude of the tragedy was so enormous and its brutality so savage that those of us who could only watch from afar—who could not participate in burying the dead, building a support network for displaced Israelis, or preparing for battle—could only sit in shock and in grief as an unimaginable story unfolded before our eyes.
Over those first few days and then weeks, I found meaning and solace in the Jewish tradition’s legal and customary framework for death and mourning: aninut, the period before burial, when the Mishnah teaches that one who has a dead body for whom they are responsible to care and to bury, is exempt from the obligation to pray; shiva, the strangely social but still hushed week of visiting mourners and creating a cocoon of comfort and community for them; and, at thirty days after burial, when shloshim marks the next step in the mourner’s return to regular life.
I also found myself using traditional interpretive frameworks to give shape to those first frightening and furious days; I defaulted to the language of Jewish collective memory as a means of to make a small degree of sense out of an anti-Jewish barbarism that I recognized from studying Jewish history but had never seen before in my lifetime. It is a normal Jewish activity to wonder, I wrote that week, where we have seen stories like this before, and what the present reminds us of in our past. These are coping mechanisms and a means of strengthening our resolve to survive.
But for better or worse, October 7 was bigger than the halakhic and liturgical prisms of mourning and more than another lachrymose moment in a terrible history. October 7 started a war; October 7 constituted another violent chapter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; October 7 signaled a major volley in what could constitute a massive regional conflagration, initiated and ignited by Iran; October 7 is another crucible for Israel’s contested leadership, and an interruption in a yearlong domestic battle about the future of its democratic norms and institutions; October 7 triggered major efforts to sustain global Jewish solidarity, as well as a spike in global antisemitism and some increasingly tense dynamics between Zionists and others across liberal institutions.
We now need a complex way of thinking about the diverse and intersecting set of issues raised by the war, and a heuristic that enables us to make sense of what it means to be a Jew right now. We need a “torah,” a teaching, for this war. I offer the following as a “moral map”: a framework for ethical thinking that consists of a set of concrete moral commitments that can define the uncertain terrain of issues raised by the war. I am thinking more prescriptively than descriptively and so, for this exercise, I am interested in commitments to concrete Jewish ideas and values. I hope that we as Jews can confront what is before us more comprehensively, and that the language of our tradition can help us hold ourselves accountable.
The metaphor of a map helps us to see that having core commitments means that though the war in Israel could last for longer than we think, and though its consequences and ramifications are still unknown, we will be able to find our way forward. It also recognizes that we will be pulled in different directions, and that our moral voice will be needed on multiple fronts at the same time. By placing our commitments on a map, we know that they are shared and interconnected commitments, even if we find ourselves at different locations on the map at different times.
The moral map I am offering consists of four overarching commitments: peoplehood, or solidarity, and what it demands from us; sovereignty, and the responsibility of the State of Israel for what transpires in and at its borders; democracy, as an operating system, as the aspiration of the state, and as the essential infrastructure for the safety and security of Diaspora Jews; and power, for both the dignity it offers and the restraint that it demands.
The First Stop on the Map: Peoplehood & Solidarity
The response of most American Jews to the October 7 attacks was an overwhelming outburst of solidarity and the expression of a commitment to Jewish peoplehood. In retrospect, this was not a given. Many of us have argued for decades, with concern and urgency, that the sense of Jewish peoplehood—and with it, the experience of shared fate, or a sense of having a shared destiny—that characterized American Jewish attitudes after the Holocaust and during the birth of the State of Israel was eroding as a result of geographic difference, ideological difference, and the passage of time. I was energized by the massive visceral response of American Jews to the tragedy in Israel, almost like a muscle memory of shared suffering; and I worried, almost simultaneously, whether it would fade as the narrative shifted from “pogrom,” with Jews as victims, to war, with Jews having agency. Would the moral impulses of American Jews be able to sustain a commitment to Jewish solidarity even as we would surely be stretched into assuming a more critical posture as the war continued? Would liberal American Jews resume their distance?
I have been pleasantly surprised, and relieved, to see that the culture of solidarity has been sustained. Attendance at Jewish communal gatherings, whether at rallies supporting Israel or regular synagogue services and Hillel Friday night dinners has been massive and unprecedented, signaling that Jews still possess an instinct to seek community in times of crisis. Together with approximately 289,999 others, I attended the March for Israel rally in Washington on November 14, which appears to have exceeded the high-water mark of the 1987 rally in Washington on behalf of Soviet Jewry, long understood by Jewish communal leaders as the last great time when American Jews were capable of uniting, mostly, with one voice. The rally managed to attract a wider tent on Israel than I would have thought possible, incorporating both evangelical Christians and the “peace bloc” of the Zionist left; and it proceeded without inflammatory rhetoric and without incident. Fundraising campaigns for war relief in Israel undertaken by legacy American Jewish organizations have been staggeringly successful, even reaching levels last seen in 1947. These demonstrate that our ability to organize the Jewish community in a time of crisis remains intact, despite mounting threats to “the establishment” that we have seen and heard over the past few decades. The Jewish community has also shown its strength politically, as public officials have overwhelmingly expressed support for Israel and the Jewish community and provided funding for Israel’s war effort and for the Jewish community’s fight against antisemitism.