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On Nuclear Disarmament, A Jewish Perspective

Sample sermon by By Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs, Temple Kol Tikvah, Woodland Hills, California, from

As we begin the 21st century we must be alert and share our knowledge about the possible destruction of our planet. We have begun this century with words of forgiveness and reconciliation from the Pope. We have begun this century knowing full well the impact of the Holocaust on our world. We have begun this century preaching about “possibilities of peace” as differentiated from the century of violence and war and fear of the 20th century.

While words may be comforting and hopeful, let us not be naive.

We have 6,000 strategic nuclear warheads in this country on alert – just 15 minutes away from destroying any city in this world. Let us not be naive.

These nuclear bombs are being carried by “Peacekeeper Missiles” and are not to be confused as weapons of mass destruction. Let us not be naive.

Witness India and Pakistan. They could destroy not only themselves but could have devastating consequences for all of us if these enemies use their nuclear weapons. We have been witness in our lives to those who want to rewrite history and respond to matters of territory and religious and ethnic differences with weapons that destroy. From this rabbi’s reading of history, 100 million people have been killed in the name of totalitarian godless ideologies; 25 million by the Nazis and about 85 million by communism.

Weapons and nuclear arms are the way to achieve power. Perhaps until some major city disappears we will remain indifferent. Indifference, as Elie Wiesel stated, is worse than silence. We in the interfaith religious community must continue to speak out loudly and challenge the indifference that surrounds us.

Despite the end of the Cold War, there is a cover-up. For America’s policy is still a doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” that can end all life anywhere. Let us not be naive. Our policy under six former Presidents was to secure an effective worldwide nuclear nonproliferation agreement. This past fall our U.S. Senate refused to ratify the test ban treaty. Yet we urge other governments to stop and sign the treaty, which we have not.

There is a new special club at every airport. Show that you have nuclear weapons and you are admitted. The size of the once exclusive club is growing. The great challenge of this new century is to abolish nuclear weapons. It is the only way to save this earth at some future date. The bright promise of a new millennium is now being clouded by the nuclear threat to humanity’s future.

Whatever the gloom, there are signs of progress that should encourage us. Wind power, for example, is a $3 billion industry that is beginning to show its potential as a cornerstone of a new solar economy that may replace fossil fuels. If that encounter with environmental challenges can be met, so can the challenge to stop the potential nuclear destruction.

Just over three decades ago we broke out of earth’s field of gravity to journey to the moon. Few of us imagined growing so quickly from air travel to space exploration.

The stage is set to conquer one of the greatest challenges of our times. The future of civilization is at stake. As caught up as Americans are with the technology industry and its tremendous advantages in economic growth, we must develop the same excitement to save the world. More information instantly about our world does not lead to wisdom.

“From where, if not from us, will come the warning that a new combination of technology and brutality can transform the planet into a crematorium?” With these words, uttered before the Israeli Knesset, Holocaust survivor Samuel Pisar challenged the Jewish people to draw on their history and their tradition in preventing a nuclear holocaust. Rarely before in the history of humankind has the world needed the values and ideals of our tradition more than now as it teeters on the edge of the abyss of nuclear destruction.

We, of all people, must recognize that the unbelievable can happen. The world would not believe Auschwitz existed until the smoke ceased to rise from its chimneys. Today, despite claims by government and military officials that nuclear war is winnable, that “limited” nuclear war is feasible and that a U.S. first strike in Europe may be required, few of us believe that a nuclear war could occur. Yet here is where the analogy to the Holocaust ends. Auschwitz had not existed before 1940 – in reality or in the public imagination. Disbelief at that point was understandable. Our disbelief is not that Auschwitz did happen. Hiroshima and Nagasaki vanished in a flash. Perhaps the contemporary world suffers from what sociologist Robert Lifton calls nuclear “psychic numbing.” We cannot comprehend the effects of a nuclear blast. We refuse to believe nuclear war can occur.

The Jewish people are the bearers of a tradition of ethical monotheism that has transformed the history of humankind. Throughout the ages, the rabbis have drawn on that tradition in order to realize the commands and ideals of the Torah and to implement the vision of the prophets into their own time. Today, once again, we must search the tradition so that we may contribute to the change, which must take place – the change from the path of nuclear destruction to a world in which nations can resolve peacefully their differences.

My colleague and friend Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., observes the following. Two central religious ideas transformed the political history and social history of the 20th century. The first is the notion that we are created in the image of God, an idea that resonates with the foundation of democracy and of human rights. The second is that we are partners of God in shaping a better and more hopeful future for all God’s children, but especially for the poor and the weak and the vulnerable.

So it’s no surprise that religious leaders were at the forefront of the labor struggle, the civil rights struggle, the anti-war struggle, the environment, and the nuclear disarmament issues. All of these efforts resonated with those two profound ideas. And I think with all of the terrible things that have happened, “we end the 20th century with more hope for humankind, because of the acceptance of those ideas that we’ve never known in our past.”

We are becoming aware of the possible limitations of time to save this planet. We need the interfaith community to speak up and teach with passion as to how we must save this planet for ourselves and not from ourselves. Saving the world from nuclear attacks cannot be a spectator sport.

We must all learn and change the priorities of our government. There is no middle path. We must be the discontents with the civilization as it exists. The decisions for a nuclear-free world must be made by this generation. Another may not have the opportunity that we do.

When we saw the photographs of the earth taken in space 30 years ago we were in awe. From the Apollo expeditions we knew we were divided by politics but we were united by ecological systems.

Those photos inspired the first Earth Day. New environmental laws were passed. Now there must be a groundswell of international governments spearheaded by the people to reform and guard our planet in this new century, so that all of God’s children will live free from fear and that we will fulfill the prophet’s warning “that nation shall not lift up sword against nation neither shall we learn war anymore.” Let us not be naive!