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The Jewish Way to Wage War - War and Peace in Judaism

Humans are Godlike, according to Judaism.

And God created a human [being] in [God’s] image. In the divine image God created the human… And God saw all that [God] had made, and found it very good. Genesis 1:27, 31

Judaism expects humans to continue the creative process begun by God. While God created the world, humans are expected to maintain and repair the world.

Humans are also expected to emulate God by seeking justice and righteousness.

The Value of Human Life

If humans are Godlike, then taking a human life is to diminish God in the world.

Whoever sheds the blood of a human being by human beings shall his blood be shed, for in the divine image did God make humanity Genesis 9:6

The rabbis elaborated on this point and claimed:

When one destroys a single individual, it is as if that person destroyed the whole world (Sanhedrin 4:5).

According to Judaism, a part of each human being is Godlike and to murder one human being is to diminish God and destroy the world.

War and Peace in Judaism

Given the exceptionally high value Judaism places on each individual human life, one would think that Judaism would oppose war, where loss of life is inevitable.

It is true that the pursuit of peace is one of the highest Jewish values. It is also true that Judaism abhors wars. However, Judaism does not forbid war. Some wars are legitimate, according to Judaism.

The rabbis defined two types of legitimate wars.

Obligatory War (Milhemet Mitzvah) is a war in which Jews are commanded to fight. God commanded the Israelites to fight wars in Biblical times. Obligatory wars also include defensive wars. When the Jewish nation is threatened, Judaism permits a war to be fought in self defense. Self-defense can include a making a pre-emptive attack when anticipating an upcoming attack by an enemy. Some Biblical commentaries state that any capture of the land of Israel is reason to wage an obligatory war.

Discretionary war (Milhemet Reshut) is a war fought to enlarge the borders of Israel beyond those designated in the Bible. According to the rabbis, the Sanhedrin, the High Court of seventy-one judges, must debate and approve this type of war. Thus, no Jewish leader can fight this type of war on his own.
Thus, some wars are legitimate and even obligatory. And Jews should be able to know when it is the appropriate time to wage a war and when it is time to pursue peace. As written in Ecclesiastics, there is “a time for war” and “a time for peace.”

Guidelines from the Torah

The Jewish Way to Fight a War

When the time for war has arrived, Jewish soldiers are expected to abide by specific laws and values when fighting.

Jewish war ethics attempts to balance the value of maintaining human life with the necessity of fighting a war.

Judaism is somewhat unique in that it demands adherence to Jewish values even while fighting a war.

The Torah provides the following rules for how to fight a war.

Pursue Peace Before Waging War

Prior to any military action against an army, Jews must pursue peace. When God commanded the Israelites to fight a war, conquer a nation, in ancient times, the Torah instructed the Jewish people to first ask for and offer peace prior to attacking. If the other nation agreed to peace under Jewish rule, then it was forbidden for the Israelites to attack the nation.

When you approach a city to do battle with it you should call to it in peace. And if they respond in peace and they open the city to you, all the people in the city shall pay taxes to you and be subservient. And if they do not make peace with you, you shall wage war with them and you may besiege them. Deuteronomy 20:10-12

Where a civilian population is involved, Jews must do more than just pursue peace. They must allow civilians who are not interested in fighting to flee.

Joshua, before he entered the Land of Israel, sent three letters to its inhabitants. The first one said that those that wish to flee should flee. The second one said that those that wish to make peace should make peace. The third letter said that those who want a war should prepare to fight a war. Maimonides, Kingship 6:5

Furthermore, if Jews sign a peace treaty with another nation, then they must honor the treaty. The treaty can not be broken, even if, after the treaty is signed, the other nation is suspected of wrongdoing or waging war would be beneficial for the Jews.

Preserve the Ecological Needs of the Environment

The Torah instructs soldiers to preserve the environment’s ecological needs even when waging war.

Jewish soldiers are commanded to avoid destroying trees when besieging a city.

When in your war against a city, you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into a besieged city? Deuteronomy 20:19.

When using a battering ram to break down the walls to a city, a Jewish army should use wood from a non fruit-bearing tree to build the battering ram. Since only wood is needed (not fruit) to build the battering ram, it is wasteful to destroy a fruit-bearing tree.

Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siege works against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced. Deuteronomy 20:20

Maintain Sensitivity to Human Life

Judaism codifies laws that demand sensitivity to human life during war.

When in battle, a Jewish army must not completely surround the enemy on all four sides. The army must leave one side open in order to allow non-combatants to flee and needless bloodshed to be avoided.

When a Jewish army is victorious, soldiers are not permitted to rejoice. Jewish soldiers can be happy that the war is over and they have not lost their lives, but they are not allowed to celebrate the deaths of other human beings. Even if the enemy was completely despicable, they were still creations of God and their death can not be celebrated.

The Goal is Peace

Today, for the first time in almost two thousand years, the ethics of warfare is a relevant topic for Jews. While the Israelites of the Biblical period fought many wars, the Jews of the last centuries lived primarily as oppressed and powerless minorities in the Diaspora. With the rebirth of a Jewish nation in the 20th century, Jews are again in a position to and are required to find the balance between the need to wage war and the obligation to value to human life.

While the Torah provides guiding principles about how to wage war, there is great debate today about how to apply those principles to today's complicated reality.

Terrorism threatens the security of Jews today both in Israel and in the Diaspora. Should Israel pursue peace by disarming its enemies or by meeting their demands? At what point has Israel exhausted all options to pursue peace and is waging war necessary to defend Israeli citizens? How should Israel wage war against terrorists?

Nuclear proliferation is also a serious threat today. What would Jewish Law say about the Bush administration's decision to wage war in Iraq? How would Judaism view the way that coalition soldiers are conducting war in Iraq?

While Jews today have a great variety of opinions about how to apply the Torah's guidelines concerning war to today's wars, the great majority agree that peace is the the ultimate objective. Ideally, the goal of military power – wielded by Israel, United States and every nation – should be to achieve peace.

Jews worldwide, those who support and those who protest the war with Iraq, should be able to agree on one thing – that a minimum of human loss will occur in the war and that the result of the war will be a more secure world for all.


Love and War, by Rabbi Shraga Simmons
War and Peace in Jewish Tradition, by David M. Elcott
Traditional Jewish Attitude to War, by Nachum Amsel

~ Lisa Katz

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