Rabbi Michael Rothbaum: A Picture's Worth a Thousand Lives
When the most recent Iraq war began, I was serving as student rabbi at a wonderful little synagogue in New England. One of the regulars at our monthly Torah study was a World War II veteran – let’s call him Sam. Sam would always bring consideration and deep insight to text study. But more than that, Sam was – and is – a mensh.
I didn’t just see Sam at Torah study. Sunday mornings, too, after I taught Hebrew School, Sam and I would meet up at the village green. There, we joined about a dozen regulars, holding peace signs and placards, protesting the war.
I was against the Iraq war – and the Afghan war – so I saw it as my duty to join in. But, privately, I also went to those demonstrations to hang out with Sam. We would talk about all the things you’re not supposed to talk about – religion, politics, bourbon – everything from the burning bush to President Bush.
And, sometimes, Sam would talk about his time serving in the Pacific. Sam’s a modest guy, so there were no tales of heroism. He talked about the mundane, everyday life of a soldier. And sometimes he would tell me things that he didn’t talk about much. About the time that he and his buddies destroyed a fishing family’s tiny boat, just for the hell of it. Just to blow off steam.
I once asked Sam, in a way only someone who’s never served could, if he felt guilt or regret about the things he’d done. His normally open and kind face screwed up into an angry scowl. “Well,” he barked, “you see me out here every damn week, dontcha?”
I thought about Sam this week, as the LA Times decided to publish pictures on Wednesday taken by members of the 82nd Airborne, with the dead bodies of Afghan insurgents. The Pentagon sought to block publication of the pictures, arguing they could put troops in danger. But, of course, these aren’t the first horrific images to come out of American escapades in the Middle East. It was just this January that a YouTube video surfaced of Marines urinating on Afghan corpses. And, of course, there are the infamous torture photos from abu Ghraib.
I am grateful for Sam, and for all those who served with him, that there was no YouTube in World War II.
While Army brass expressed regret about the photos, some defended the soldiers in the pictures. Retired Sgt. Maj. Herbert Freidman, a 26 year veteran, said such pictures are typical wartime trophies. “I’m not saying it’s a good thing,” said Freidman, “but … the guys are just grunts being shot at all day long and they have a very dark sense of humor. A lot of that humor is about death.”
As awful as the pictures are, that sounds right to me. Put college-aged young people face-to-face with mortality, and it’s hardly surprising that the way they cope is not always pretty.
Jewish teaching, I should say, is much less ambiguous about this. Even when death is prescribed by Biblical sources, human beings, created in God’s image, must be shown respect – even in death. In the case of an execution by hanging, for instance, the Torah teaches that the body must be buried immediately, for a dead body that hangs in public is a “curse to God.” (Deuteronomy 21:23)
But there is another teaching in Judaism. Our sages of blessed memory teach that pikuach nefesh – saving life – takes precedence over just about all other religious obligations. Yes, those pictures are ugly and horrifying. But if Sgt. Maj. Friedman is right, images like that have been staged in every war. And while we’re the ones who send our kids off to war, they’re the ones who have to live with the decisions they make there – sometimes for decades.
So what if, the next time yet another policymaker or pundit tries to gin up support for yet another war – based on questionable intelligence or trumped-up accusations, or even a measured presentation at the UN – what if we all took a good look at those photos, at the images that come out of war?
Maybe it wouldn’t make a difference.
But what if it did? It might save a life. Or a million lives. Or, at the very least, it might save a young man from having to live his whole life knowing the worst that lives within him. And within all of us.
Rabbi Michael Rothbaum is Director of Congregational Learning for the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, in Woodstock, NY. The synagogue website is www.wjcshul.org. He lives in Hudson with his partner, Yiddish singer Anthony Russell.
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