[ by Charles Cameron — on the godliness of collateral child slaughter, viewed from the perspective of “he will become cruel to the compassionate” ]
At the end of my second post in this series, I quoted the words of the rabbi, Jesus, as an appropriate transitional figure between Judaism and Christianity:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous….
I have mentioned that Anglican Christianity is my own “home” tradition, and it is. But I am a citizen of the world, and cannot afford to be bound by my own assumptions. As I consider Israeli actions in Gaza, therefore, I want to recall that Judaic assumptions may differ markedly from those I was raised with.
Thus Eliav Shochetman recounts the midrash, “He who becomes compassionate to the cruel will ultimately become cruel to the compassionate” and quotes Maimonides as explaining its meaning in his Guide of the Perplexed thus:
compassion towards the wicked – is cruelty to all beings
Here is Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, writng in First Things under the title The Virtue of Hate:
During my regular weekly coffees with my friend Fr. Jim White, an Episcopal priest, there was one issue to which our conversation would incessantly turn, and one on which we could never agree: Is an utterly evil man — Hitler, Stalin, Osama bin Laden — deserving of a theist’s love? I could never stomach such a notion, while Fr. Jim would argue passionately in favor of the proposition. Judaism, I would argue, does demand love for our fellow human beings, but only to an extent. “Hate” is not always synonymous with the terribly sinful. While Moses commanded us “not to hate our brother in our hearts,” a man’s immoral actions can serve to sever the bonds of brotherhood between himself and humanity. Regarding a rasha , a Hebrew term for the hopelessly wicked, the Talmud clearly states: mitzvah lisnoso — one is obligated to hate him.
Amos Oz, the Israeli novelist and writer, put it pithily in an interview with Deutsche Welle:
I never agreed with Jesus Christ about the need to turn the other cheek to an enemy. Unlike European pacifists I never believed the ultimate evil in the world is war. In my view the ultimate evil in the world is aggression, and the only way to repel aggression is unfortunately by force. That is where the difference lies between a European pacifist and an Israeli peacenik like myself. And if I may add a little anecdote: A relative of mine who survived the Nazi Holocaust in Theresienstadt always reminded her children and her grandchildren that her life was saved in 1945 not by peace demonstrators with placards and flowers but by Soviet soldiers and submachine guns.
To understand further the differences between Judaic and Christian attitudes to what Soloveichik termed “The Virtue of Hate”, it may also be helpful to research the difference between the two faiths’ understandings of love. Soloveichik’s own God’s Beloved: A Defense of Chosenness would be a good place to start.
For a non-Judaic western position comparable to that of Amos OZ and Meir Soloveichik, consider this passage from Machiavelli in his The Prince, XVII. Of Cruelty and Clemency, and Whether It Is Better to Be Loved or Feared:
I say that every Prince should desire to be accounted merciful and not cruel. Nevertheless, he should be on his guard against the abuse of this quality of mercy. Cesare Borgia was reputed cruel, yet his cruelty restored Romagna, united it, and brought it to order and obedience; so that if we look at things in their true light, it will be seen that he was in reality far more merciful than the people of Florence, who, to avoid the imputation of cruelty, suffered Pistoja to be torn to pieces by factions.
And for a modern similitude to the apparent difference between Judaic and Christian emphases explored in these last two posts, consider George Lakoff‘s analysis of American politics in terms of the Strict Father vs Nurturant Parent mindsets:
Well, the progressive worldview is modeled on a nurturant parent family. Briefly, it assumes that the world is basically good and can be made better and that one must work toward that. Children are born good; parents can make them better. Nurturing involves empathy, and the responsibility to take care of oneself and others for whom we are responsible. On a larger scale, specific policies follow, such as governmental protection in form of a social safety net and government regulation, universal education (to ensure competence, fairness), civil liberties and equal treatment (fairness and freedom), accountability (derived from trust), public service (from responsibility), open government (from open communication), and the promotion of an economy that benefits all and functions to promote these values, which are traditional progressive values in American politics.
The conservative worldview, the strict father model, assumes that the world is dangerous and difficult and that children are born bad and must be made good. The strict father is the moral authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to do, and teaches his kids right from wrong. The only way to do that is through painful discipline – physical punishment that by adulthood will become internal discipline. The good people are the disciplined people. Once grown, the self-reliant, disciplined children are on their own. Those children who remain dependent (who were spoiled, overly willful, or recalcitrant) should be forced to undergo further discipline or be cut free with no support to face the discipline of the outside world.
Thinking as I so often do in terms of koans, real life would seem to demand an admixture of both — and the question of how to move between them, one that only wisdom can answer.
Good luck with that.
The image at the head of this post illustrating the verse “Upon the willows in the midst thereof we hanged up our harps” comes from Ilia Rodov, With Eyes towards Zion”: Visions of the Holy Land in Romanian Synagogues, in Quest: Issues in Contemporary Jewish History, Journal of Fondazione CDEC, n.6, December 2013. It shows an early 20th century wall painting from from the Great Synagogue of Iasi, photographed by Zussia Efron, from the collection of the Center for Jewish Art of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
By the bye, Amos Oz also has a “balancing acts and mirror images” quote in that interview he gave:
I believe the majority of the Palestinians are not in love with Israel, but they do accept with clenched teeth that the Israeli Jews are not going anywhere, just like the majority of Israeli Jews – unhappily and with clenched teeth – accept that the Palestinians are here to stay. This is a basis not for a honeymoon, but perhaps for a fair divorce just like the case of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
How’s that for balance with requisite nuance?