How does our Jewish community make a decision on an issue that is crucial to our own future and the fate of the world around us -- like the decision that faces us now about making sure that Iran adheres to its own claim that it does not intend to produce nuclear weapons?
To bring a specifically Jewish wisdom to this process, we could draw on the deep, ancient, and evolving wisdom of Torah, reading it anew in the light of the circumstances in which we find ourselves today.
The passage of Torah that leaps out as most relevant is Deuteronomy 20:10-11. It teaches that if and when we besiege a city (which is what the sanctions against Iran have been), we must proclaim SHALOM to it, and if it then agrees to decent terms that meet our conditions and fulfill our crucial needs, we must make sure it adheres to them and we must end the siege.
That is what the proposed agreement with Iran does. It does this by requiring Iran to abandon all the physical objects and scientific processes that could lead to nuclear weapons, and to subject itself to unprecedented intrusive inspections to make sure it is adhering to that regimen. It makes sure that if Iran's government were to change its mind, decide to go nuclear, and expel inspectors, the world would have at least a year to take action before Iran could make a nuclear weapon.
Yet we must test the Torah teaching against our present situation. In this case, what is an alternative approach that would make sure Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons?
The same Torah passage that counsels proclaiming Shalom to a besieged city and bending it to our own will sees that the alternative to agreement would be an utterly destructive war.
And in our recent situation, that expectation seems correct. If the Congress were to torpedo this agreement, the world-wide regimen of sanctions against Iran would almost certainly unravel and we would be left with no agreement, no inspections, no restrictions, and no sanctions. At that point, there would be intense pressures for war, on the grounds that there would then be no other way to ensure that Iran could not change its mind and proceed to acquire nuclear weapons.
War would begin with what its proponents would advertise as a one-shot military attack on Iran. Such an attack might well win a momentary victory, though Iran could respond in low-level ways that would have huge effects -- like disrupting oil traffic in the Straits of Hormuz. But even an immediate military victory would not end there, any more than did the initial victorious invasion of Iraq.
Far likelier that any surviving Iranian government would then with absolute determination seek nuclear weaponry, in order to deter future attacks. To prevent that effort from succeeding, the attacking government would find itself hooked into a continuing, probably permanent, occupation. Its forces would be constantly harassed by guerrilla warfare from a furious and united Iranian people.
Such a war would be far worse for the US, Israel, and the whole Middle East than the Iraq War was: A foreign-policy disaster for the US; a domestic American disaster in failing to meet crucial civilian needs; worsening of the growing international hostility to Israeli policy that is already becoming hostility to all of Israeli society; disastrous deaths and maimings for soldiers and civilians in many nations; an ethical and moral disaster.
But what about the hostility that the Prime Minister of Israel has vehemently expressed to the proposed nuclear-control agreement?
There are two factors at work here. One is that there are many in the Israeli Jewish community, and much in the predominant Israeli Jewish culture, for whom and for which the Holocaust is a constant nightmare in the constant present, stoking fear that any agreement with a hostile power will endanger the Jewish people -- which their fear still defines as a powerless victim.
Yet the military/security leadership in Israel has over and over spoken out in opposition to Mr. Netanyahu's go-for-broke insistence on continuing the siege of Iran, refusing any agreement.
Why is the Prime Minister rejecting the advice of the security leadership? What is the second factor that can stoke the ever-present embers of fear into an all-consuming fire?
It is all too possible that an increasingly right-wing government is appealing to this ever-present fear in order to increase its own power -- just as Prime Minister Netanyahu did just before the election. But neither Israel nor the world-wide Jewish people is powerless, a helpless victim, in this generation. The world's alertness to the Iranian issue is already evidence of that.
Yet "alertness" does not require us to support obediently whatever an Israeli Prime Minister demands. It is the task of the American Jewish community to make up our own minds about this decision, drawing on our own Jewish values and our understanding of the broader consequences of the two choices, both in America and in the Middle East.
Here too we must take seriously the Torah's teachings. The Torah counsels respect but not automatic obeisance to rulers. Instead it places strong limits on the power of kings - including the kings of ancient Israel. The passage (Deuteronomy 17:16) especially warns against the frequent inclination of many kings to pursue military power, as in "multiplying horses" for a horse-chariot army when cavalry was the aggressive weaponry of an imperious pharaoh.
That injunction applies to any secret nuclear-weaponry ambitions of Iran; to unwarranted militarism of any Israeli government; and to those who thirst for US military adventures now as they did twelve years ago when they targeted Iraq.
Indeed, we might assess whether Prime Minister Netanyahu has a predilection for military solutions by remembering his own advice about invading Iraq: "If you take out Saddam, Saddam's regime, I guarantee you that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region." (Sept. 12, 2002).
It will do Israel no good to curdle our love for it into idolatry toward some of its leaders. It will do America great harm for us to pursue war with Iran instead of a vigorously safeguarded shalom. For as Torah also teaches (Psalms 115 and 135), those who worship idols -- erect dead objects and deadly ideas into their gods -- will become like them -was- dead. It is celebration of the ever-changing, ever-growing Breath of Life that gives life to ourselves and all our neighbors.