Objecting to Conscientious Objection

According to at least one scholar, Jewish tradition does not recognize the right of personal conscientious objection.

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The single most crucial difference between the two categories [of war] is this requirement [when it comes to optional wars] of authorization by the Sanhedrin, an aggregate of Judges with the best brains and the most heightened moral awareness in the nation. 

The Communal Conscience

The Sanhedrin was representative of the people, as the king was not. In fact, as noted by Rabbi Meir Simha Cohen of Dvinsk [1843-1926], in his Meshekh Hokhmah, a consensus of the nation, itself, could substitute for the formal Sanhedrin: zib'bur b'Erez Yisroel yesh lahem din bet din ha-gadol.

Whether it was a clear mandate of the national consensus or the formal approval of the Sanhedrin, the "Community Conscience," no war, except one of defense, could be declared simply by the Chief Executive. Milhemet Reshut required the validation of this "Community Conscience"--the physical embodiment of what Socrates called "the conscience of the laws."

This selective pacifism is a characteristic response of Jewish law to the harsh realities of this world. It is a pragmatic pacifism which determines each situation over against the eternal values. It avoids the pitfalls of absolutism and perfectionism and applies, positively, the Jewish quality of counter-power. Even more, opting for selective pacifism requires a more sophisticated level of moral discrimination as it seeks to balance values and choose among the competing claims of the soul. It requires a heightened awareness of the political as well as the military dilemmas in the context of moral values.

The Individual Has No Voice

conscientious objectionBut there is a sleeper in this affirmation of Jewish selective conscientious objection. It is true only on a national level, not on a personal one. Determination of the justice of a war was never left to individual decision. That burden devolved upon the state and, other than strictly for defense, war could not be embarked upon without the prior legitimization of the moral conscience of the community, the Sanhedrin.

Those who maintain that Judaism espoused personal selective conscientious objection as a legitimate draft deferment have based their argument on a 9-word addendum of the Tosefta [a supplement to the Mishnah] to Rabbi Akiva's explanation of the meaning of one category of exemption, the yarei verakh ha-levav, "the fearful and the faint-hearted" (Sotah 44a).

"Rabbi Akiva says: 'fearful and faint-hearted' is to be understood literally, viz., he is unable to stand in the battle ranks and see a drawn sword." Adds the Tosefta: "Even the most powerful, and the mightiest of the mighty--if he is a compassionate soul, he must return from the ranks."

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Rabbi Maurice Lamm

Maurice Lamm is the author of many books, including The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning. He is the president of the National Institute for Jewish Hospice, and Professor at Yeshiva University's Rabbinical Seminary in New York, where he holds the chair in Professional Rabbinics. For years he served as rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation, Beverly Hills, CA.