The Limits Of Collectivity

Martin Kavka,
Florida State University

As usual, John Kelsay does us a great service in reading these Qur’anic verses into their religious context. It is a mistake to read them simply about statecraft, although that’s certainly an important part. Rather, we should read them “in connection with God’s drive throughout history to form a people willing to walk the straight path” of shari’a. Note that contextualization, for Kelsay, never means the same thing as universalization; to understand these verses means to understand them in the context of the Islamic view of history. The kinds of reasoning about war in which Muslims engage is always shari’a reasoning: one mode of reasoning that has its own particular sets of premises and which also lays out possible moves from those premises to various consequences, moves which are accessible to non-Muslims. Attending to this is part and parcel, I think, of the goal of the movement of scriptural reasoning to break out of what Peter Ochs has described as the dialectic between secularism and orthodoxy into which religious reasoning has been straitjacketed in modernity. [1] For Kelsay, once we attend to shari’a reasoning – and only when we attend to shari’a reasoning – can we begin to compare religious traditions, “us” and “them.” As he stated in a wonderful response to Jeffrey Stout from 2005, comparative religious ethics does not have conflict resolution as its aim; this would be a universalist move that we should reject precisely because it does not solve the problems of thinking of religion only through the context of modernity. Instead, comparative religious ethics might perhaps be “a way of engaging in healthy conflict.” [2]

I find this phrase tantalizing, and I have long wanted to know more about what is at stake in the distinction between healthy and sickly conflicts. But instead of asking John whether, or how, his paper is an example of this, I would like to try and perform this engagement in healthy conflict, and then ask him whether I’m getting it right.

Let me start by citing one of Kelsay’s theses about what it means to read texts about warcraft into their religious contexts: we must read them as part of a set of statements “about the various disciplines that constitute Muslims as a community.” At this point, he turns to Durkheim in order to say something about Islam. What “catches the drift of the Qur’an’s view of salvation history” is Durkheim’s presentation of religion as an “eminently social thing” in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life . [3] But if this is the case, how do we then talk about the concept of social stratification in a community? How do we talk about the various ways in which individuals relate to the larger social group (or how sub-communities relate to the larger community)? For it is the case that while religious forces are everywhere collective forces for Durkheim, there are texts about war in the Jewish tradition which seem to acknowledge other forces in play.

In my mind, this is most apparent in the various texts in the Jewish tradition about exemptions from the obligation to fight, texts that have been analyzed in scholarship for at least two decades now, but which have gained renewed force in the context of the movement of Israeli soldiers’ conscientious objection to serving in the occupied territories.The relevant verses in the Bible are Deuteronomy 20:5-8:

Then the officials shall address the troops as follows: “Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another harvest it. Is there anyone who has paid the bride-price for a wife (i.e. betrothed her), but who has not married her (i.e. taken her into his home)? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another marry her.” The officials shall go on addressing the troops and say, “Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his.” [This is the Jewish Publication Society translation; a more literal translation of the last clause would be “lest he not melt the heart of his brethren like his heart.”]

There are two basic points to make about this text. First, it seems that at least from these verses, the community structured as a people of God seems, in an important respect, not to be the fundamental unit of consideration here. While it would not quite be precise to say that the family, or the homeowner, or the individual is primary — or even that the community exists for the sake of the any of these — what one can say is that the agency that exerts force in ancient Israelite religion is not simply a collective agency in the sense that Durkheim understands it. After his definition of religion as an eminently social thing, Durkheim goes on to claim that “religious representations are collective representations that express collective realities.” However, here we have a religious text that is the sacred text for a collective, but which speaks to a reality in which the entire collective does not take part. Warcraft is a religious act in Deuteronomy 20: “in marching to battle, it is the Lord your God who marches with you to bring your victory” (20:4). But this presence of God is denied to certain members of the Israelite community. Secondly, the Bible seems to recognize that there are some men in the community who are constitutionally not fit for battle. For them, fighting is not a measure of faithfulness.

Now if one were to remain simply with these points, my response to John would become a depressing conversation about communitarianism vs. liberalism, and I would argue that this text proves some kind of inherent liberalism to Judaism, because it acknowledges multiple conceptions of the good life, or multiple “rational plans of life,” to use John Rawls’s language in A Theory of Justice to speak of that framework from which judgments of value are made. [4] But to do this would be to imagine comparative religious ethics as unhealthy conflict. Part of what would make it unhealthy would be to claim some kind of essential status for those verses from Deuteronomy 20 in thinking about the Jewish tradition. This would be false on historical grounds (as well as simply impolite). Just as the verses in the Qur’an are historically diverse with regard to the conduct of war, so are texts in the Jewish tradition. The rabbinic writings of the first six centuries CE seek to limit the range of the exemptions that Deuteronomy offers. Accordingly, we read in tractate Sotah in the Mishnah, after a citation of Deut. 20:9 (“And when the officers finish speaking to the nation, they shall appoint leaders of legions in front of the people”), the editorial voice adding, “And to the rear of the people!” These warriors in the back of legions exist in order to stop those in the rear of the army from fleeing when defeat seems to be at hand. They are rear guards, if you will. Still, the power given to them by the Mishnah is immense: they have “iron axes in their hands. And anyone who would try to turn around, the authority was given (the guard) to sever his legs. [5] Furthermore, the Mishnah and the predominant current in the Talmud limit the exemptions from the obligation to fight only to the case of discretionary or optional wars ( milhamot reshut ), which the tradition understands as wars fought to expand territory or to enhance the greatness of the king. These exceptions are not valid in the context of obligatory wars ( milhamot mitzvah ), which the tradition understands as defensive wars against immediate threats. In obligatory wars, says the Mishnah in a famous passage, “all go out, even a bridegroom from his chamber and a bride from her bridal canopy.” [6]

The tradition becomes more complex from this point onward. Later authorities are unclear whether the exemption of the soldier who is unable to display courage applies even to discretionary wars. This is clearest in a strange passage from Moses Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah , written in the late twelfth century.

What man is there that is fearful and fainthearted? (Deut. 20:8) This is to be understood literally, that is, the man who is not physically fit to join the ranks in battle. Once, however, he has joined the ranks, he should put his reliance upon Him who is the hope of Israel, their Savior in time of trouble. He should know that he is fighting for the oneness of God, risk his life, and neither fear nor be affrighted. Nor should he think of his wife or children, but, forgetting them and all else, concentrate on the war. Moreover, he is accountable for the lives of all Israel. If he does not conquer because he did not fight with all his heart and soul, it is as though he had shed the blood of all, as it is said, “Lest his brethren’s heart melt as his heart.” [7]

The reason why this text is so strange is that although Maimonides is saying that this text is to be understood literally, he is not understanding the text literally at all. In the Mishnah, R. Akiva understands the person who is fearful in a way that appears to me indeed to be literal, as referring to the person who is terrified of battle, i.e. “unable to stand in the battle phalanx and gaze upon an unsheathed sword.” [8] Maimonides refuses to see this as a constitutive aspect of a personality; fear of battle is something merely temporary. For this reason, he elides analysis of that part of Deut. 20:8 in which the fearful warrior is commanded to go back home, and immediately goes on to talk about what the fearful warrior should do when in the ranks , viz. think about the nobility of his mission. So while the biblical text talks about the fellow warrior’s heart melting because the fearful warrior’s faintheartedness has a certain kind of contagious aspect to it as a rationale for the fearful warrior to go home, Maimonides takes this as a rationale for the fearful warrior to work even harder at extirpating his fear on the battlefield. (Maimonides here reads the verb translated as “melt,” masas , as “dissolve.” For a heart to melt – to lose heart – is to die.)

What we see in the Maimonidean text is something that seems not unlike what Kelsay claims Qutb describes as “training in the virtues associated with submission.” Nevertheless, while to stay with this point–and to move away from the surface sense of the text from Deuteronomy–is to move from conflict to resolution with the predominant strand of Kelsay’s reading of the Qur’anic texts, it is also to move to from health to sickness. For one cannot say that the Maimonidean text – or any of the rabbinic texts about warcraft – speak to real situations. The elucidation of the laws of warcraft in the Jewish tradition are developed at a time when there is no Jewish army, much less a sovereign Jewish nation. And so the Jewish view of salvation history cannot be encompassed by Durkheim, for Jewish texts know nothing of what it means to think of religion as an eminently social thing. The rear guards must produce this social signification of Judaism for those warriors who want to flee; Maimonides must produce this social signification of Judaism for the fainthearted warrior (whom he does not let go home). It is true that Durkheim expresses something important about the communal aspect of Judaism, but with reference to these texts on warcraft, the truth of Durkheim speaks to how the Jewish community is imagined in Jewish texts. Jews must learn to be Durkheimians, and the study, expansion, and application of the laws pertaining to war are techniques by which communitarian habits and communitarian thinking can be ingrained. But the rhetoric of peoplehood which Jews should aspire to embody – in which each Jew sees himself (or herself) as “accountable for the lives of all Israel” – implies, by virtue of its very aspirational status, that for some individuals in the community this is difficult. And this difficulty is acknowledged openly by various texts in the tradition: by those authorities who see the exemptions for the terrified as extending to commanded wars, by current scholars who point out that even commanded wars need to have their validity grounded in the urim ve-tummim (the stones of the high priest’s breastplate, which no longer exist), and by the Hebrew Bible in the very verses of Deuteronomy under discussion. [9] This suggests that communal thinking is an aim, and not something that suffuses all of present reality. In some respects Jews form a community, and in others, some will say, quoting Monty Python’s The Life Of Brian , “we are all individuals.” Negotiating the boundary between those two concepts is the function of individuals’ giving and taking of reasons in the Jewish tradition; it is only in and through these acts of individual reason-giving that it makes sense to speak of Judaism as “eminently social.” And it is perhaps in exposing that religion as an eminently social thing does not speak to the most fundamental stratum of a religious tradition that we can have something like “healthy conflict” in scholarly acts of comparison – conflictual because the difference between traditions cannot be extirpated, and healthy because the proprieties of our norms are always revisable by individual interpreters of a religious tradition who judge others’ commitments to be improperly held. [10]


[1] Peter Ochs, “The Rules Of Scriptural Reasoning,” Journal Of Scriptural Reasoning 2:1 (2002), sections 3 and 4.

[2] John Kelsay, “Democratic Virtue, Comparative Ethics, and Contemporary Islam,” Journal of Religious Ethics 33:4 (2005), 698.

[3] For the phrase, see Émile Durkheim , The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life , trans. Karen E. Fields (New York: Free Press, 1995), 9.

[4] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice , rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 358ff. Also see 79-80.

[5] M. Sotah 8:6.

[6] M. Sotah 8.7; see also B. Sotah 44b. See also Geoffrey B. Levey, “Judaism and the Obligation To Die For The State,” AJS Review 12:2 (1987), 175-203, Noam J. Zohar, “Can A War Be Morally ‘Optional’?”, Journal of Political Philosophy 4:3 (1996), 229-41, and Elliot N. Dorff, To Do The Right and The Good: A Jewish Approach To Modern Social Ethics (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2002), 161-83.

[7] Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah , Melakhim 7:15. Cited in A Maimonides Reader , ed. Isadore Twersky (West Orange, NJ: Behrman House, 1972), 220.

[8] M. Sotah 8:5. See also B. Sotah 44a.

[9] For the extension of the exemption of the fainthearted from fighting even to commanded wars, see Rabbi David ben Abi Zimra (Radbaz), Hilkhot Melakhim 7:1, cited in Levey, 188. For the place of the urim ve-tummim , see Levey, 194ff.

[10] See Robert B. Brandom, Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing & Discursive Commitment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 643-49.