Ask the Rabbis | Does Jewish Law Offer Guidance on How to Fight a War?

INDEPENDENT

Before engaging an enemy in combat, we must offer to negotiate a peace (Deuteronomy 20:10). Next, we announce to them: “Anyone who wishes to leave may leave; anyone who wishes to make peace, come and negotiate; those preferring war, come and meet us in battle” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Shevi’it 6:1). Traditionally, those who chose to join us were accepted as ger toshav, or “the stranger who dwells among us,” with whom the Torah warned us 36 times to deal justly and compassionately (Talmud Bav’li, Baba Metzia 59b; Leviticus 19:34). Even in wartime, the Israelite warrior was exempted from combat if he (1) just got married, (2) just completed building his home, (3) just finished planting his first vineyard but had not eaten of its first yield or (4) was plain scared (Deuteronomy 20:5-8). And no pillaging was permitted in wars such as the retaking of Canaan (Joshua 6:18)—only in wars of self-defense. Even during wartime, the Israelites were considered by their enemies as a compassionate folk to reckon with (First Kings 20:31). In the words of Hebrew University Professor Emeritus Ira Sharansky: “From the generals to the lowliest soldiers, [the Israeli] military has been infused with the conviction that it is simply wrong to kill innocents. What a tragedy our enemies don’t feel the same way” (Jerusalem Post, May 12, 2006).
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Monument, CO

HUMANIST

The rabbis of the Talmud, living at a time when Jews had no armies, looked to biblical tales for guidance. There they identified two basic kinds of warfare: optional (or discretionary), such as Joshua’s conquest or David’s expansionism; and dutiful (or obligatory), impelled by self-defense, like the conflict with Amalek in the wilderness. The duty to fight such a war is found in the Talmud: “If someone comes to kill you, kill him first” (Sanhedrin 72:1). It’s difficult to argue with this idea, which explains why even some of the most ardent opponents of war accept the morality of a war of self-defense.

Warmongers know and exploit this. It’s why they tend to frame almost every aggressive war as self-defense. George W. Bush used claims of weapons of mass destruction. Vladimir Putin contends he’s battling Nazis. But whether justified or cynically employed, declaring a war to be self-defense generates much-needed support, with songs and flags hiding the real horrors that lie ahead. I look to a slightly more secular Jewish source, Rav Melvin (Kaminsky) Brooks.

Speaking as the “2,000-Year-Old Man”—who fought in every war!—he asks the profound question, “Do you know what the real song should be for war? ‘Let’s go out and lose an eye, let’s lose a foot. Let’s go to war and lose our brains.’ That should be the real song.” To which I can only reply, “Amen.”
Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick
Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Metro Detroit
Birmingham Hills, MI

RENEWAL

Jewish spirituality yearns for a war-free future, when nations “beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks… and won’t raise sword against nation” (Isaiah 2:3-4). Until then, Judaism’s calling in a troubled world holds the core value of shalom (peace, wholeness) alongside the realpolitik of survival and security. This axiom of the human condition explains why Jewish tradition accepts but limits war. Endlessly seek peace even amid battle, and don’t destroy gratuitously (Deuteronomy 20). Don’t plunder just for wealth (Pesahim 50a). Don’t launch an offensive war without the consent of diverse leaders, both sovereign and military (Mishneh Torah, Melakhim 5:2). To this day, Israel’s tihur ha-neshek (purity of arms) oath affirms the primacy of military self-defense with ethical restraint—an exacting and difficult standard.

War’s power and passion challenge our humanity—and should. After all, one who takes a life is as one who destroys an entire world (Sanhedrin 4:5). So if we must fight, we also must mourn (lest we dehumanize ourselves or others), while ensuring courage and capacity (lest we hobble defense). Jewish law alone can’t achieve this twofold goal for any person, much less for a nation. That’s the project of Jewish spirituality—until, at last, we needn’t learn war anymore.
Rabbi David Evan Markus
Temple Beth El of City Island
City Island, NY

RECONSTRUCTIONIST 

Rabbinic Judaism separates required from optional wars (milchemet mitzvah / reshut). Truly defensive military actions are sometimes necessary, as with World War II, or Ukraine this very year. Yet all optional attacks, even ostensibly preventive ones, risk a world of hurt. Beyond credible defensive/deterrent capacities, feeding the military-industrial complex costs us dearly in misplaced priorities, missed opportunities and pollution both physical and spiritual. Not by coincidence does bal tashchit, Judaism’s conservation ethic, emerge from Deuteronomy 20’s limits on military devastation.

From 70 CE until 1948, our people wielded little hard power. To some, this made us meek, even weak. Yet Jewish ethics sees strength in restraint more than in force: “Who is mighty? Whoever controls their impulses” (Avot 4:1). That includes the impulse to exercise power over another. Do U.S., Israeli, or other armies consistently avoid reducing humans—each created in the divine image—to “collateral damage”? Lord Acton warned that even enlightened power corrupts; the Lord of Hosts agrees, “Not by might, not by power, but by Divine Spirit” (Zechariah 4:6). Rabbi Al Axelrod aptly labeled our tradition “pacifoid”—deeply committed to nonviolent options and actions, almost all the time. Peace equals wholeness: To be shalem, whole,
pursue shalom.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
Bethesda, MD

REFORM

The question presupposes that war is inevitable. Our biblical texts validate that this is the case. The Torah dedicates approximately 1,000 verses to rules and descriptions of war. Ecclesiastes 3:8, popularized by the Byrds, proclaims that there is a “time for war and a time for peace.” This reality of war is held in balance with a constant longing for peace, as exemplified in the hope of Isaiah 2:4, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares.” Some might say that war was (still is?) a way of life. For such a common state of affairs, Jewish law legislates how to fight war morally and ethically.

“Truly defensive military actions can be necessary, as with Ukraine this very year.”

One such law that speaks to today’s events, Deuteronomy 20:10, instructs that before one can declare war, there must first be an attempt to make peace. Jewish law does not permit one country to invade another, whether in defense of itself, because of a God-given obligation—which Reform Judaism would argue no longer applies in our time—or for another reasonable justification, without first, at the very least, seeking the means for peace. War should only be embarked upon as a very last resort.
Rabbi Dr. Laura Novak Winer
Hebrew Union College-Institute of Religion
Fresno, CA

CONSERVATIVE

Jewish approaches to the conduct of war are addressed by Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah, his halachic law code. Maimonides calls his volume on this subject “Laws of Kings and Their Wars,” which indicates the context: a Jewish king-messiah who will reign over the Land of Israel. Maimonides discusses the circumstances under which both commanded and discretionary wars can be undertaken. A commanded war is defense, saving the nation from the hand of the enemy that has come upon it. An optional war is driven by the need to ensure the future safety and prosperity of the country. In addition, Maimonides describes the permissions and restrictions on a Jewish army once war is undertaken.

While the modern State of Israel is not ruled by a king-messiah, some of the provisions in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah have been used by some advocates in the State of Israel to justify certain policies, such as the permission to go to war to enlarge the state’s borders. This is not how Jewish sources should offer guidance on how to fight a war. Thankfully, the official code of conduct of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) makes reference both to the tradition of the Jewish people throughout their history and also to universal moral principles based on the value and dignity of human life.
Rabbi Amy S. Wallk
Temple Beth El
Springfield, MA

MODERN ORTHODOX

The real question is: Can Jewish law guide us to fight a war that is morally or ethically legitimate? It depends on whom you ask. Some rabbis draw upon Jewish law to “authorize” inhumane and morally offensive behavior in wartime. A decade ago, Rabbis Yitzhak Shapiro and Yosef Elitzur of the Od Yosef Hai Yeshiva in Yizhar on the West Bank—a hotbed of extremist, Kahanist settlers who have frequently clashed with the IDF—wrote a book, Torat HaMelech, in which they collected marginal, frightful sources from the tradition to argue that in a war between Jews and gentiles (that is, Israelis vs. Arabs), the lives of gentiles are of lesser value. They even legitimized killing civilian Arab children on the grounds that when they grew up, they would be possible murderers of Jews.

A far more restrained series of rulings on battlefield ethics by Rabbi Michael Broyde, professor of law at Emory University and a Modern Orthodox decisor of stature, distinguishes between a mitzvah or “commanded” (i.e., obligatory) war, e.g. of defense, and an authorized/permissible war (milchemet reshut), such as a preemptive war. The latter does not allow a draft and restricts the tactics that can be used. Nevertheless, Broyde’s code would allow more infliction of casualties on civilians than the present IDF code of military ethics, which makes clear that killing in war is strictly reserved for defense of human lives when there is no other option besides fighting.

War on civilians is never justified. Israel faces many cases where the enemy embeds fighters and military posts amidst the civilian population, making it almost impossible to avoid causing civilian casualties. In such cases, firing is permitted but must be as restricted and focused on fighters as possible. If the attack will harm more civilians than enemy fighters, it is not executed. In virtually every war, there are many more civilian casualties than military; the IDF, despite Hamas embedding its military deeply in the civilian sector, has brought the ratio of civilian to enemy fighter deaths down to 1:1. This is a historically unprecedented ethical achievement.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
J.J. Greenberg Institute for the
Advancement of Jewish Life/Hadar
Riverdale, NY

ORTHODOX

The Torah’s references to the conduct of war are among those clues that point to the divinity of Torah, because they go so far afield of what people expected or practiced at the time. For instance, when you surround or lay siege to a city, you must leave a point of egress for people to flee if they want. The rule against cutting down fruit trees in war counters the scorched-earth approach, a reminder that all war is justified only as a means of bringing peace and that those trees will need to be part of the infrastructure after the war settles down.

The puzzling reference in the Torah to the gear that you supply the infantry—the spade you give him to cover his tracks, so to speak, after certain biological functions—is a reminder that it’s easy for men in particular to see war as permission to revert to the primitive animal in them. The Torah insists that even while you’re conducting a war, you have to keep focused on the idea of kedusha, holiness, in yourself and in your camp.

Finally, there’s the elaborate section on statutory exemptions from the battle: the person who has worked hard to build a house and not lived in it, or betrothed a woman and not brought her to the chuppah, or planted a vineyard and not tasted the fruit. Samson Raphael Hirsch, the seminal 19th-century commentator and voice for the timelessness of Torah, says the common denominator in all these exemptions is the idea that war in the end must serve the interests of the common man.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Cross-Currents
Los Angeles, CA

NEO-SEPHARDIC

There are war-related instructions in the Torah that are hard to understand, specifically the call for total annihilation of nations such as Amalek and the people of Canaan. In Deuteronomy 21:10-14, the Torah instructs Israelite soldiers how to treat women captured in war. The man is told that the woman is not his to be taken by force; he must bring her to his house, let her mourn her parents and marry her as an equal member of his nation, in stark contradiction to the norms of the time.

Obviously, this manual for treating a captive woman does not apply in modern times, but it may have been the first step toward humane treatment of enemy captives in a barbarian world. War is the upheaval of normal life and of peace. People lose their land, home and family. Conquerors and conquered alike risk losing their human dignity and sensitivity. The conqueror becomes insensitive to the suffering of others; the conquered is in a position of extreme vulnerability. The Torah steps in between captor and captive to serve as a protective shield, seeking to alter the mentality and perception of the strong toward the weak, of the conqueror toward the conquered.

Most of us are not conquerors or conquered in the literal sense. But if we find ourselves in a relationship where we have the upper hand, with family, acquaintances or strangers, we must remember the concern of the Torah and search for humanity and equality in others.

Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Torah VeAhava
Potomac, MD

Opening picture: Illustration of the Bar Kokhba revolt 

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