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Véra Nabokov, preemptive strikes, and the Talmud

Friday, May 20th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — i personally am better acquainted with “innocent until proven guilty”, but.. ]
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Contemplating this:

in light of the Talmud:

Obviously if Véra Nabokov intended to protect her husband, she intended to shoot his would-be assassin right before the assassination attempt, not right after it.

**

If Someone Comes to Kill You, Rise Up and Kill Him First:

Several days before the horror of September 11, 2001, Israel’s Foreign Minister Shimon Peres spoke to Conservative rabbis in an international conference call. Responding to a concern expressed about Israel’s policy of preemptive targeted killings of suspected terrorist leaders and the inevitable collateral damage, Mr. Peres defended the practice, citing an oft-quoted rabbinic legal dictum, “Im ba l’hargekha, hashkem l’hargo,” “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him (first).” The uproar last July by Israel-bashers and, more credibly, by the Israeli Jewish public after the Israeli army bombed a Gaza apartment building, inadvertently killing fourteen civilians, including nine children, along with arch-terrorist Salah Shehada, again focused attention on the issue of collateral damage in the implementation of “Im ba l’hargekha.”

File under preemptive strikes, targeted killings, drones, Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi, etc.

Strange empathy

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — is empathy really so very strange these days? ]
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When I saw this in one of my feeds this morning ..

strange empathy at Qaddafi death

I was strongly reminded of a remark I’ve mentioned before, found in the Talmud, Megillah 10b.

R. Johanan is responding to the question “does the Holy One, blessed be He, rejoice in the downfall of the wicked” and his response references the drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea — “For the horses of Pharaoh went with his chariots and his horsemen into the sea, and the LORD brought back the waters of the sea upon them” (Exodus 15.19) — as they pursued the people of Israel escaping on their way to the promised land:

The angels of heaven wanted to sing the usual song, and the Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing songs!

I have, of course, cherry-picked this particular comment from 6,200 complex pages of Talmud, and while I’m not competent (British understatement) to offer you a rich context for this remark, I can at least offer you R. Elazar’s response:

He Himself does not rejoice, but He makes others rejoice.

The Pillar of Cloud and the Pillar of Fire

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — IDF terminology and the Gaza conflict, explanations of Exodus, an IDF video, Megillah 10b and the koan “with God on our side” / “with God on all sides” ]
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photo credits: Schristia, Cloud; Chris Tangey, Fire

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I’m curious.

The IDF calls today’s Israeli operation in Gaza “Operation Pillar of Defense” in English, but as John Cook points out in Gawker, uses the term Hebrew term “Pillar of Cloud” in Hebrew.

There’s a great deal of interest here, apart from the difference between their use of non-Biblical terminology in English and Biblical terminology in Hebrew. One point that catches my ear, a poet being a poet, is that the phrase “Pillar of Cloud” is in fact only one half of a double reference…

Thus in Exodus 13.21-22 we read:

And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night: He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people.

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There are various ways of understanding the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire, but it’s pretty clear that there’s only one pillar —

And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the LORD looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud… [Exodus 14.24]

which is called a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, perhaps simply because we are speaking of theophany — the Divine Presence made visible — perhaps because smoke from a brazier is more visible in daylight and flames at night — perhaps because as Hans Goedicke, then chairman of the department of Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins, suggested, the source of both fire and smoke was the eruption of Santorini around 1600 BCE.

The difference in worldviews behind those explanations alone is a matter of considerable interest.

**

Linguistically, however — and this is where the poet being a poet comes in — there are two pillars, and I have to wonder whether the name “Pillar of Fire” is being saved for a later and perhaps more impressive (“shock and awe”) operation, or — in line with the “by day and by night” distinction — refers to the covert side of the same op?

Not that anyone would be likely to give me that information, or that I’d have any use for it if they did.

But the Biblical phrasing is powerful, and “Pillar of Defense” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense — besides, cloud and fire go together in Hebrew in much the same way smoke and mirrors do in English.

Of the three choices, I’d have gone with “Pillar of Fire” myself.

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An IDF spokesperson, in a response to Cook’s Gawker article, claimed:

I think that every example of Bible quotes you cited has defensive connotations, rather than “vengeful.”

One of those quotes is Exodus 14:24, which I quoted above but will now give in full, along with verse 25:

And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the LORD looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and troubled the host of the Egyptians, and took off their chariot wheels, that they drave them heavily: so that the Egyptians said, Let us flee from the face of Israel; for the LORD fighteth for them against the Egyptians.

I think calling that “defensive” is a bit one-sided, but on the other of the two hands in question, so is calling it “vengeful”.

The Israelites saw themselves in the larger context as escaping Egyptian oppression, the Egyptians obviously considered themselves under attack in the short term — just as surely as the people of Gaza must feel under attack by the oppressive Israelis today, while the Israelis clearly feel under attack by terroristic Hamas and its rockets. But hey, the IDF spokesman only offered his explanation that the Pillar of Cloud and Defense was “defensive” as “Just my two cents”…

FWIW, those two verses from Exodus sound just a little like Quran 33.26:

And He brought down those of the People of the Book who supported them from their fortresses and cast terror in their hearts; some you slew, some you made captive. And He bequeathed upon you their lands, their habitations, and their possessions, and a land you never trod. God is powerful over everything.

That’s an ayat that has always interested me, because of the use of the word “terror” found in a number of translations including this one, by AJ Arberry — others have “awe” or “panic”, but “terror” is interesting in the context of its contemporary usage.

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Here’s the current strike counter strike in two tweets:

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Okay, let’s get as close to visceral as modern technological warfare permits. After the recent truce was broken and numerous rockets fired into Israel, the IDF fired a missile that killed Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari, and quickly put the video feed up on YouTube:

**

People are killing and getting killed. Should that be a matter for concern, or delight?

The narrative from which the IDF drew the name of their campaign in Gaza is taken from that of Israel’s escape from Egypt in Exodus, which also includes the parting of the waters and destruction of the Egyptian army:

And the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face, and stood behind them: And it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness to them, but it gave light by night to these: so that the one came not near the other all the night. And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided…. [Exodus 14.19-21]

And it came to pass, that in the morning watch the Lord looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and of the cloud, and troubled the host of the Egyptians, And took off their chariot wheels, that they drave them heavily: so that the Egyptians said, Let us flee from the face of Israel; for the Lord fighteth for them against the Egyptians. And the Lord said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand over the sea, that the waters may come again upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen. And Moses stretched forth his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to his strength when the morning appeared; and the Egyptians fled against it; and the Lord overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. [Exodus 14.24-27]

Here again we see an instance of what I have called the two-fold logic of scriptures: In the Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 10b, R. Johanan tells us:

The ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns, but the Holy One, blessed be He, said, The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and shall you chant hymns?

to which R. Eleazar responds:

He himself does not rejoice, but he makes others rejoice.

**

To my mind, what we’re looking at here is a global koan: the immediate and eternal paradox of life and death.

But more on koans shortly.

On fire: issues in theology and politics – ii

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — burning and blasphemy ]
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The question here is a simple one: which is the more blasphemous? burning holy scripture — or burning oneself, a human being?

Now I imagine you think the answer to that’s quite obvious, and I do too. But there are people with the opposite opinion to mine — and when we burn their scriptures, even by mistake, even making apologies afterwards, they get enraged, and kill people. There may be many other factors that contribute to their rage, but this is the trigger, the religious sanction, the thing that pushes them over the top.

Someone tweeted the other day:

Souls are being burned alive in Homs & others riot over ink & paper. Where’s the logic?!

It is not my purpose to attack or defend anyone’s beliefs or opinions here — what I would like to do instead is to see through the rage and glimpse that logic: I would like us to avoid needlessly triggering it.

I want to bring what may at first seem utterly incomprehensible to us, a little closer to our comprehension.

1.

In the Quran 5.32, we read:

We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.

On the one hand, that sets an extremely high value on human life — the Jewish equivalent is found in the Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 37a — and on the other hand, it can be claimed that that high value is set not by humans but by their Creator in his revealed Word, the Qur’an.

2.

What metaphor or analogy would allow me to understand that logic in terms of my own culture? Not the rage itself, not the killings — but the logic that potentiates them?

3.

If you think, as the melancholy Jaques has it in As You Like It, that all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players – and as Hamlet might think, pondering what more things might be in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in philosophy – why then —

How does one weigh the value of the life of a Jaques, or Hamlet, of one of us, one single human being – of whom Shakespeare, again through his Hamlet, said:

how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! ..

against the value of a single copy of the Works of one William Shakespeare – who then continued on, through that same Hamlet’s voice, to ask:

And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

4.

Shakespeare, the First Folio, Hamlet?
God, the Scripture, you or me?

5.

It is said the imperishable Quran is writ in heaven before time was, and there is a hadith of Tirmidhi that describes Allah reciting Suras 20 and 36, Taha and Ya Sin, upon hearing which the angels responded “Happy are the people to whom this comes down, happy are the minds which carry this, and happy are the tongues which utter this”.

I am not a literalist, I am a poet — so that makes poetic sense to me, the way Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage” makes sense.

In reading these words, I see for a moment the beauty, the devotion that is possible towards this book, the fervent dedication.

I am not about to kill people in the name of Shakespeare or the Gospels — yet I can understand a reverence for that which is greater than I, for that which is more than we dream of, and for that which “comes down” from thence.

6.

Suppose the body is a perishable scaffolding, and the book an eternal transcript written in the immortal soul…

And now recall what that eternal transcript says:

We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.

The paradox here, surely, is that we are each of us the quintessence of dust – each of us more than is dreamt of in philosophy.

7.

May the soul of Mohamed Bouazizi rest at last.

If a man comes to kill you, rise early and kill him first

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — selected quotes: Iranian, Israeli, US, UN Charter and Quranic, New Testament and Talmudic views on preemptive war ]

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The Iranians are threatening it:

As tension grew in its nuclear dispute with the West, Iran was reported on Tuesday to have struck an increasingly bellicose tone, warning that it would take pre-emptive action against perceived foes if it felt its national interests were threatened…

Without mentioning Israel directly, Mohammed Hejazi, the deputy armed forces head, said on Tuesday: “Our strategy now is that if we feel our enemies want to endanger Iran’s national interests, and want to decide to do that, we will act without waiting for their actions.”

The Israelis appear to be discussing it:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is looking for cabinet support to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran, according to a report in the Haaretz newspaper.

The story sources a high-ranking Israeli official who said that Netanyahu is hoping to build a consensus for striking the Iranian nuclear facilities believed to be part of a programme for building an Iranian nuclear warhead.

Recent weeks have witnessed an on going debate within Israel as to the possibility of a unilateral military strike against the Iranian regime, however Haaretz reported that the doves currently hold sway within the cabinet, including interior minister Eli Yishai and finance minister Yuval Steinitz.

President George W Bush suggested it to the cadets at West Point:

We cannot defend America and our friends by hoping for the best. We cannot put our faith in the word of tyrants, who solemnly sign non-proliferation treaties, and then systemically break them. If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long — Our security will require transforming the military you will lead — a military that must be ready to strike at a moment’s notice in any dark corner of the world. And our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives.

The UN Charter appears not to countenance it:

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.

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Compare Qur’an 22:40:

Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is made, because they have been wronged

and Matthew 5.44:

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

My title, If a man comes to kill you, rise early and kill him first, translates the words Haba lehorgecha, hashkem lehorgo which are found in the Talmud, Tractate Berakoth 58a.


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