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Abraham Lincoln and the Jewish Laws of War
By Stephen M. Astrachan
The two hundredth birthday year of President Abraham Lincoln provides an opportunity for greater insight into the Jewish laws of war as they may well have contributed to the development of his controversial Civil War policy on pardons. The laws are contained in Deuteronomy XX, 5-8:
And the officers shall speak unto the people, saying: "What man is there that has built a new house, and hath not dedicated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in battle, and another man dedicate it. And what man is there that has planted a vineyard and hath not used the fruit thereof? Let him go unto his house, lest he die in battle, and another man use the fruit thereof. And what man is there that has betrothed a wife, and hath not taken her? Let him go and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man take her." And the officers shall speak further unto the people, and they shall say: "What man is there that is fearful and faint-hearted? Let him go and return unto his house, lest his brethren's heart melt as his heart."
The first admonitions, to return home to undedicated house, un-harvested vineyard, and fiancé, emphasize the primacy of the peaceful and constructive even amid the chaos and destruction of war. The classical Jewish scholar Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch gives this insight:
Clearly here the Torah brings, at a time of war, the peace-time tasks of life into prominence in their predominant importance; and in as much as the reason given for the return home is not given that if he should get killed in the war, the house might remain unlived in, the field unworked or the wife a widow, but it strikingly
lays value on the peacetime tasks being accomplished by every individual personally and hence, for one who was just engaged in the course of carrying out any of these tasks in fresh fixed conditions has primacy over the call to army duty.1
The final admonition has to do with the "fearful and faint-hearted" giving them the opportunity to quietly leave before their own fear affects others. Classical commentary dwells on issues of adequate faith and hidden sin and the pragmatic need to prevent the demoralization of soldiers running away.2 However, a more contemporary view delves further into the psychology of the soldier before battle. Fear is normal, and, normally, it is overcome. Sometimes it isn't and can then affect others. Such is human nature. The great Jewish scholar Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz gives such a psychological interpretation. The officers' admonition gives the soldier the chance to come to grips with and overcome his fear leading to the "contagion of courage." Those who cannot deal with the fear can then leave without public shame3
President Lincoln may well have relied upon his deep understanding of these laws, in both their morale and utilitarian aspects, to formulate his very controversial policy of liberally pardoning deserters and others sentenced to death by military tribunals. Soldiers and the public generally approved of his policy. However, the pardons were an anathema to the generals, the Secretary of War, and the Attorney General, who viewed them as undermining military discipline. Historians consider his decisions a sign of his deep humanity and astute political instincts. But their origin may lie in the earliest period of his development and growth.
Abraham Lincoln was born to the poorest of the poor in a backward section of the Kentucky frontier. But difficult circumstances did not discourage his ambition to better himself and his place in the world. With no more than one year of formal education, he set out to educate himself. The few books he found to read included the complete Works of William Shakespeare and, of course, the Bible. He read them again and again, until they became of part of him. During the Civil War he would sometimes entertain his staff with long extemporaneous recitations of Shakespeare. While never having any formal religious affiliation, he showed his deeply spiritual and Biblical foundation in many of his major speeches. One example is the Thanksgiving Proclamation which ends "Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purpose to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and Union." There are many more.
His own references to the pardon policy are particularly intriguing. On courage and cowardice, "I put it to you and I leave it to you to decide for yourself. If Almighty G-d gives a man a cowardly pair of legs, how can he help their running away with him?" Do we hear an understanding of the Torah's release of the "fearful and faint at heart"?
Moreover, he was also deeply concerned with trying to limit the destructive effects of the War:
"When neither incompetency, nor intentional wrong, nor real injury to the service is imputed in such cases, it is both cruel and impolitic, to crush the man and make him and his friends permanent enemies to the administration, if not to the government itself.
The government has a difficult duty to perform. At the very best, it will by turns do both too little and too much. It can properly have no motive of revenge, no purpose to punish merely for punishment's sake. While we must, by all available means, prevent the overthrow of the government, we should avoid planting and cultivating too many thorns in the bosom of society." 4
Do we hear a reflection of Rabbi Hirsh on the primacy of "the peace-time tasks of life"?
Finally, in the vein of Rabbi Hertz's "contagion of courage" Mr. Lincoln recognized that men can overcome fear, for many of those he spared from the gallows returned to the ranks of the Union Army, and contributed both to its military victory and to the principles of freedom and human dignity that that victory represented in the world at that time.
Challenged with overcoming the greatest crises in the history of the nation,
Abraham Lincoln had to rely upon the strength in every fiber of his soul, on the power of a spirit nurtured from the earliest days on the Bible. He knew Deuteronomy XX. His deeds and words seemed to reflect it. His early study of the Bible including our Torah contributed to his becoming the man he was.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Pentateuch, Volume Five Deuteronomy, Rendered into English by Isaac Levy, Second edition (completely revised), Judaica Press, LTO, Gatesleal, 1989, p. 390
Talmud, Sotah, Ch 8
Dr. Dr. J. H. Hertz, C.H., The Pentateuch and Haftoras Hebrew Text English Translation and Commentary, second edition, Soncino Press, London 1960, p. 831-2
Phillips, Donald T, Lincoln on Leadership, Business Plus New York, Boston, p. 59-60
from the April 2009 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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