click here to jump to start of article
  • Torah Reading: Naso
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

The Jewish Ethicist: Not All's Fair in War - Part 2

The Jewish Ethicist: Not All's Fair in War - Part 2

Guidelines for conducting a just war.


Q. What are some concrete guidelines from Jewish tradition for conducting a just war?

A. Last week we established the overall approach to war: war is not glorious or desirable, and Judaism is founded on a vision of brotherhood among all peoples. Yet in an imperfect world, war is sometimes a necessary means to realize this vision. The challenge is to carry out the means without losing sight of the ends.

In order to obtain more detailed insights, we need to go back to a principle we have mentioned a number of times: Our law often provides both a minimal, "lowest common denominator" ethical standard which we can never fall below, and also an ambitious ethical ideal which we strive to attain.

One prominent example is capital punishment. Jewish law legitimates capital punishment in a secular state, accepting that this drastic punishment may be necessary to establish law and order. But in an ideal Torah state, capital punishment is virtually non-existent. When Rav Moshe Feinstein was asked by the governor of New York for the Torah's approach to capital punishment, he began by describing the innumerable strictures which apply in the ideal situation, and only at the end added that if circumstances dictate then we may introduce a regime which is stricter, though still civilized. (1)

In war, as in capital punishment, the minimal standard is carefully elaborated in Maimonides code in the Laws of Kings. Some rules of just war are universal: presenting terms of peace before attacking, avoiding total war by creating a partially protected status for non-combatants, and so on. (2) Indeed, the very idea that there are laws of warfare, limitations on the freedom of military commanders and conquerors, bears a very important ethical message.

The ideal situation is obviously to avoid war altogether, but a more realistic objective for a war conducted with humane norms is the civil war between Judah (the southern kingdom) and Israel (the northern kingdom) recounted in II Chronicles chapter 28. We find that abominations committed by Ahaz, the king of Judah, led to an attack by the kingdom of Israel. The justification for the attack was to restore Judah to a civilized way of life, yet the victorious northern army treated the captives in a less-than-civilized way. For this they were rebuked by a prophet, and repaired their ways: "And the designated men rose up and took the captives. They clothed all the naked from the spoil, giving them clothes and shoes, and they fed them and gave them to drink and anointed them, and they led the weak on asses, and brought them to Jericho the city of palms, to their brethren, and they returned to Samaria."

This is civil behavior in a civil war. Should we then act this way to our enemies? It depends. The mishnah tells us that prior to going to war, the Jewish army is lectured by a specially appointed priest. He quotes the Biblical verse, "Hear, oh Israel, you go out today to war against your enemies." He then explains: "They are your enemies, and not your brothers ... who, if you fall into their hands, will have mercy on you" as we find in the above quote from the book of Chronicles. (3)

When we are facing a ruthless enemy who will have no mercy on us, we must do whatever is necessary to overcome them - exactly in order to bring about an end to ruthlessness and cruelty. But if we are facing an enemy who also adheres to basic rules of humane conduct in war, such as the Geneva convention, then the priest's admonition would have to be modified; since we are facing an enemy who will have a degree of mercy towards us if we are captured or defeated, we also should adopt accepted norms of conflict with them.

The idea that even something as inhumane as war can be conducted with some basic standards of humane consideration is well established in Jewish tradition. Modern agreements such as the Geneva convention mean both sides can refrain from unnecessary cruelty.

But to the extent that we face enemies who don't play by the rules, we must remember the priest's original admonition: to keep in mind that we are fighting enemies, and not brothers, and that these individuals will not display any mercy towards us. In this case we may have to adjust our norms in order to overcome the forces of cruelty and inhumanity. Yet even in this case, we have to keep in mind that the conflict of war is only a means to bringing about a peaceful future world where conflict is obsolete.

SOURCES: (1) Igrot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat II number 68 (2) Maimonides, Laws of Kings, chapter 6. (3) Mishnah Sotah 8:1.

Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to

To sponsor a column of the Jewish Ethicist, please click here.

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 11, 2006

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.
The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 2

(2) Joe, February 14, 2006 12:00 AM

A disturbing view...

I recently had a conversation with a two rabbaim for whom I have the greatest respect. They told me that they do not believe that Hashem would allow Israel to be destroyed after everything that has happened in history.
I am not a big rabbi like they are. I would desperately like to believe that they are right; that they have a closer connection to Hashem and know better.
I can not. I can not believe that we can say anything about how far Hashem will or will not go after 1939. Are we more righteous than the generations that faced Assyria or Bavil or Rome? Are we more righteous then the thousands of scholars who were burnt by the Germans?
What is the level of our baseless hatred when we look at common Israeli political discourse? Are we really so strong and loving of each other that we can take needed actions in the face of our enemies.
Without even looking at the spiritual dimension, every second that goes by, Iran gets some more Uranium 235. What are we doing? Every second that goes by, Hamas and Syria and Iran get more guns and bombs to the hands of those who would hunt us. What are we doing?
Do you really think that it would take more than one atomic (Hashem forbid) on Tel-Aviv or Haifa to end our dreams in the land for another 2000 years?
I have the sense that G-d's mercy and G-d's judgement works something like this. It is not that Hashem sends a lightening bolt to zap you when you sin. It is more that He removes His mercy and stops trying to intervene for you. When we do something stupid, his mercy keeps us alive. Don't think that you don't have it coming otherwise. Think more that it is a gift that you are still here. Think of all the ways you could have bought it today - but didn't. That's Hashem's mercy. He interferes for your sake.
Justice is when He lets physics take over. Let me talk a little bit as a physicist now. I really am one, what I am about to relate is true.

When an atomic bomb goes off, the first thing that you have to worry about is the electromagnetic pulse (photons). Close in to the burst, it is sufficient to kill (by cooking)almost instantly. Then comes the shockwave and the superheated air.
Pictures from Hiroshima show lots of peoples' shadows on the ground and no obvious bodies. In actuality, the shadows are the peoples' remains. They were vaporized and the shockwave baked their ashes into the cement.
Actually, those people had what is possibly one of the most easy deaths imaginable. Their brains were burnt to carbon faster than the impulses to process the pain of burning could travel.
Assuming a Hiroshima sized device, and it was very small by modern standards this fate awaits those between 1/2 mile to one mile of the epicenter of the burst. How big is Haifa?
After that there are burns, terrible burns, firestorms and havoc caused by debris flying at bullet like velocities. This is out to two to three and a half miles. Terrain matters in this question. Unless people are in a deep bunker, everyone dies in these regions. How big is Tel-Aviv? Remember, I am talking about a small bomb, not a modern one. To fit in a missile it would have to be a more modern bomb.
Assuming we are still talking a fission bomb, not a fusion device, it could be as much as five times as big as Hiroshima.
For a much larger radius, we can talk about fallout and radiation sickness.
Let me tell you what radiation sickness is. Your cells have DNA in them. They are constantly referring to the DNA as a blue-print to make protiens. The protiens are made for any number of reasons, but most importantly to maintain the cell against normal wear and tear and to allow it to split and replicate.
Radiation has a number of mechanisms that chop up the DNA. With a massive dose of radiation, the cell will begin to fail very quicky because it can no longer make what it needs to maintain itself. A big enough dose, that doesn't kill by cooking (think microwave here), will kill an individual in hours as the cells in the body cease to work and hence dissolve.
For a smaller dose, the problem comes when the cell tries to replicate and can't. This effects the cells that divide most rapidly first because there is not time for DNA repair mechanisim to work. This is the idea behind radiation therapy. Cancer cells divide most rapidly. Of course, a large enough dose will render genetic repairs impossible.
So the damged cell goes to split and can't do it. Both it and it's daughter cell die and disolve. The cells that divide most rapidly are in the stomach, mouth, skin and hair. This is why the classic symptoms of radiation poisoning are hair loss, bleeding from the pores and vomiting blood. Since nerve cells replicate very slowly, one will get to feel the whole process.
The eventual cause of death is either exsanguination or organ failure.

So let's say (Hashem forbid) Iran drops one on Haifa and Tel-Aviv. In the first several seconds, Israel looses about a third of the population. Some other large portion will be irradiated sufficiently that they will die in hours or weeks. In the mean time, the Arabs, poisoned themselves (but does Iran really care if the Palestinians get irradiated) rise up all over the place in unorganized, but ubiquitous, attacks whilst our military is still even trying to find out what is left.
At best, we would be able to evacuate 100,000 Jews. Game over. Come back in another thousand years. Yes, we could launch our missiles from the grave. It is only a threat to leaders who love their people and to people who are afraid to die.
This is what the laws of physics have in store for us if Hashem removes His mercy. Stop arguing. Look at the facts. If we stand together and act now, the situation can still be saved. Ben Franklin once said "If we do not hang together, we will surely hang seperately." Love your fellow Jew. Think very hard every day what can I do to save him or her? Is what I am doing now helping or not? We must focus as our people has never been focused.

(1) Merlock, February 12, 2006 12:00 AM


What you're saying is correct. While we have to keep in mind that all human lives are sacred, we must also remember (and so many forget!) that a war is a war; this isn't a child's war game without any stakes. While I don't really advocate torture or anything like that, people need to remember that when enemies won't listen to reason, they must be dealt with harshly. God bless!

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment