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The Jewish Ethicist: All's Fair in War?

The Jewish Ethicist: All's Fair in War?

The ethics of war.


Q. Right now there is much controversy over the ethical way to fight the many determined enemies of our way of life. What does Jewish tradition tell us about this?

A. Our relationship to war in Judaism starts with a paradox. Judaism is the source of one of the earliest and most majestic visions of a society of friendship among nations, where war is obsolete. The very foundation of our nation, and its eternal mission, is found in God's blessing to the patriarch Abraham, "in you shall be blessed all the families of the earth" (Genesis 12:3; this blessing is repeated another three times: in Genesis 18:18, 22:18, and 26:4.) Indeed, one of the monuments most closely identified with the United Nations is the "Isaiah wall" at an adjacent park, inscribed with a quote from the prophet Isaiah (2:4): "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

Yet Judaism is certainly not a pacifistic religion, and we find in Scriptures that the Jewish prophets often inform us that we are obligated to go to war and fight resolutely.

The resolution of these conflicting prophecies is very simple. In our current, imperfect stage of history, our own willingness to engage in conflict is sometimes an essential step in bringing about a future where all people can live in harmony.

This approach, however, implies that while armed conflict is frequently legitimate and even obligatory, we must never lose sight of the fact that war in itself is a curse. Indeed, the mishnah tells us that fundamentally, war is a disgrace. (1) War is sanctioned only as a means to an end, and that means that its conduct must always be guided with those ends in mind. In the past I have described this principle as follows: War must be conducted with a vision of the day after the war.

Maimonides begins his section on the laws of war in the Laws of Kings by stating: "War can never be waged against anyone before a call to peace. This applies equally to a discretionary war [meant to further some policy objective] and to an obligatory one [generally one waged in self-defense]. As it is written, 'When you approach a city to war against it, call them to peace'. If they agree to make peace and accept the seven commandments of Noah [a minimal framework for civilized existence], not one soul may be killed."

In other words, war must begin with a vision of the kind of society we are trying to create after the war -- in this case, a situation of peace and the basis for civilized life.

Clausewitz is famous for stating "War is nothing but a continuation of politics by other means". We could modify this to state that "war is nothing but a continuation of education by other means." Indeed, politics itself is an educational instrument, whereby each individual or group tries to persuade others of the righteousness of his point of view.

A succinct expression of this idea is brought in the name of Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook. A student cited another scholar who claimed that Israel doesn't have authority to wage war against her enemies, so that our response to terror should be explanation and persuasion. Rav Zvi Yehuda replied: "When they come to attack us, we have to persuade them with tanks!" (2)

This approach doesn't dictate precisely which types of warfare are proper and which are unethical. But it does give a general framework for defining the problems. In this spirit, Andrei Sakharov stated, "A thermonuclear war cannot be considered a continuation of politics by other means. It would be a means to universal suicide." Others may disagree with Sakharov about this particular application, but the principle is widely accepted.

The very idea of warfare acknowledges that to a certain extent the ends (a future of peaceful human coexistence) does justify the means (armed conflict). But at the same time, it limits us to those means which actually promote and express the values of the society we strive to defend and promote.

Next week we will provide some more detailed insights from Jewish tradition on this critical issue.

SOURCES: (1) Mishnah Shabbat 6:4 (2) Rabbi David Samson, Torat Eretz Yisrael, p. 288

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem at

February 4, 2006

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Visitor Comments: 3

(3) Michael Makovi, February 7, 2006 12:00 AM

Re: Obligatory war

However, we shouldn't simply invade those countries that attack Israel. The major reason is that suicide is forbidden and we shouldn't rely on miracles - defending Israel from attack and actually conquering those attackers are two VERY different things in terms of likelihood of success; it is always easier to defend than to attack. Of course we must defend ourselves when attacked, and of course we must do whatever we can to further the cause of justice. But that doesn't mean wholesale invasion of our enemies.

(2) Michael Makovi, February 5, 2006 12:00 AM

Some interesting quotes...

Isaiah 2:4 says "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks..."

But Joel 4:9-10 tells us "...Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears..."

What do we learn? We must "...burn the evil out from...[our]...midst" (Deuteronomy 19:19 and 24:7) and know that "If someone comes to kill you, kill him first" (Sanhedrin 72a, see also Mishneh Torah, Laws of Murder and Preservation of Life 1:6-9; presumably this statement's logic extends to "If a nation comes to kill you...").

But we must remember that the ultimate goal is that "Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." (Isaiah 2:4) and that the whole world will be brought to righteousness and justice.

In short, there is "A time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace" (Ecclesiastes 3:8).

Quotes from Judaica Press Complete Tanach, and Jewish Wisdom by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

(1) Joe, February 5, 2006 12:00 AM

An obligatory war is one in which the land is attacked.

Every Jew must fight in an obligatory war. I mean the word 'obligatory' is a bit of a clue... but I digress.

By now, no reasonable person can believe that the majority of Palestinians want peace, desire peace, or even think that peace is worth seeking. Historically, they never fail to fail. Hamas is now, and has been, for some time, clear about its vile intentions.

How long must we hear the blood curdling cries to murder us all before we wake up and take serious action? How many more of us must die before we take action?

What I am saying, simply and plainly, is THAT WE ARE ALREADY AT WAR! Why, my dear fellow Jews do we not see this? Why do we not fight this war to win?

What is winning?

I will take a simple American definition here. Winning a war means that one has removed the capacity and the will of the enemy to fight. I will be real. That means killing lots more of them then they kill of us.

The other choice is losing the war.

I will take the Muslim definition here. All the "descendants of apes and pigs (that's us BTW) are slaughtered, and the land from sea to river belongs to the faithful."

Let's be honest. They see it as us or them. Hamas wants to kill you, your wife and your kids and your mom and your little dog too. The Palestinians know what they voted for. We are at war already. We should read what the Torah says about obligatory wars.

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