Jewish tradition cant justify a pre-emptive strike on Iraq

Mourning the Columbia astronauts, we have embraced the seven fallen heroes as our brothers and sisters, our dreamers and explorers. Yet in the steady drumbeat for war against Iraq, I fear similar compassion toward our brothers and sisters, worldwide, who will inevitably lose their lives is sadly absent.

We would do well to remember the words of the Talmud: "One who preserves a life, it is as though he saves an entire world. And one who destroys a life, it is as though he has destroyed an entire world."

Columbia University's Rabbi Charles Sheer connected the astronauts' shattered dream to the passage in Deuteronomy detailing exemptions from the military draft. Those who have constructed a home but not yet dedicated it, planted a vineyard but not yet harvested it, betrothed a spouse but not yet married, are instructed to return home.

There is a particular appreciation for those whose lives, at a critical juncture in their dreams, are at the cusp of accomplishing something of enduring value. Their loss in the battlefield would be especially unjust at such a moment.

Last February, the world waited anxiously for news of Wall Street Journal writer Daniel Pearl. Every report mentioned that Daniel's wife, Marianne, was pregnant with their first child. That anticipation of joy made the horror of his capture so much more poignant. Daniel, too, was about to bring forth something of enduring value.

How many pregnant wives, how many scientists exploring the mysteries of the world, how many writers searching to reveal the truth, how many betrothed couples who have not yet married, how many who have planted vineyards but not yet harvested them, how many who have built homes but not yet dedicated them, will be sacrificed if we go to war with Iraq?

Even in the aftermath of Secretary of State Colin Powell's appearance at the United Nations, so much of the world remains unconvinced that all other avenues have been pursued in an effort to avert war and troubled by the Bush administration's newly promulgated doctrine of pre-emptive war. So many Americans fear that this war will transform the character of our country.

Jewish philosopher and physician Maimonides delineates two categories of war: obligatory wars and discretionary wars. Obligatory wars are wars of self-defense; discretionary wars are expansionist. In an obligatory war, a ruler can go to war on his or her own initiative and military responsibilities take precedence over all religious obligations, including biblical military exemptions. Everyone must go out to fight, "even the bridegroom from his chamber and the bride from her wedding canopy."

In contrast, discretionary wars are constrained. The ruler must make a compelling case for going to war before the Sanhedrin, the court of elders. Should the case not be utterly persuasive, he cannot ignore their wisdom and go it alone. The officers must ascertain whether anyone has built a house but not yet dedicated it, planted a vineyard and not yet harvested it, betrothed a spouse but not yet married, and if anyone is fearful and of tender heart, and if so, send them home. Consequently, the war will be fought with a significantly reduced army, forcing further consideration about the advisability of initiating the conflict.

As we consider this administration's argument for a war with Iraq, the two categories can be instructive. In an obligatory war, everyone potentially must be mobilized and personally committed to participate.

In a discretionary war, the ruler must persuade a community of leaders, abiding by their will. If they remain unconvinced, they can prevent a discretionary war from taking place. The thousands of demonstrators gathered across America as well as public opinion polls reveal that this war lacks universal support. This is not a war for which many Americans are willing to put their own lives or the lives of their sons and daughters at risk.

There have been suggestions from some lawmakers that the draft be re-instituted. Advocates of this war have met those suggestions with derision and charges of political manipulation. But the conclusion is inescapable — this is not an obligatory war.

The rules caution that if we are to choose war, we must do so recognizing that we potentially diminish the value and fragility of every single life. In his poem "The Diameter of the Bomb," Yehuda Amichai writes of the full measure of a commitment to use political violence in modern times, through the example of a young woman's death:

"…and the solitary man mourning her death/ at the distant shores of a country far across the sea/ includes the entire world in the circle./ And I won't even mention the crying of orphans/ that reaches up to the throne of God and beyond, making/ a circle with no end and no God."

We have mourned the loss of the astronauts, just as last year, we mourned for Daniel Pearl. And we continue to cry as the specter of war looms over us.

When Marianne Pearl gave birth to her now- fatherless son, she named him Adam and offered these words of hope:

"For us, Adam's birth rekindles the joy, love and humanity that Danny radiated wherever he went. The name Adam symbolizes the birth of humankind and the connectedness of civilizations. We are grateful for the support and love we have received from thousands of people throughout the world, and are hopeful that Adam's generation will see the emergence of an era in which tolerance and understanding reign."

If we are to value each human life, if we are to bring to fruition an era in which tolerance and understanding reign, we cannot do so through pre-emptive war, discretionary war or political violence. We can do so only by measuring the value of human life, Iraqi lives as well as American lives, and by remembering the dreams of those on the cusp of doing something significant for humanity.