Sermons and Parsha'iot                    Thinking About War                                                 

Now that the High Holy Days are over, it is time to turn our attention to secular matters. And this year no matter is of more vital concern than is the possibility of war. In this vein, I would like to share with you some of what Judaism teaches about war. Jewish rules of war fall into two categories: (1) the different kinds of war and the justification and authority to wage them; and (2) how warfare should be fought. Together, these two categories of rules comprise what in Christian and secular terms is called "just-war theory." It is not my intention to dictate what you should think about such an important subject (as if any rabbi at Mishkan Torah could get away with such chutzpah!). Rather, I seek to offer a Jewish vocabulary that can help each of us come to his or her own decision.

Jewish tradition does not glorify war or extol the war-maker. Our heroes are sages and saints, rarely warriors. The historian Josephus reminds us of Jewish nonviolent resistance to the bloody Caligula. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, for example, is revered for his nonviolent triumph over Roman might. King David himself was not permitted to build the Temple because his hands had spilled blood in battle. A talmudic story depicts God rebuking the angels of heaven for bursting into songs of joy when the Sea of Reeds closed on the drowning Egyptian pursuers: "My creatures are perishing and you want to sing praises!" (Megillah 10b). Likewise, Chanukah, because it originally celebrated a military victory, was virtually ignored by Jews until it was transformed into a holiday commemorating the rededication of the Temple. It is no accident that on the Sabbath during Chanukah, we recite the passage "Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, says Adonai" (Zechariah 4:6).

Nonetheless, because we exist in an imperfect world, Judaism recognizes war as a fact of human life. After all, Jewish religious law (halakhah) relates to the world as it is and not as it should be. The Israeli scholar Yeshayahu Leibowitz argues that war "belongs to the level of the collective filth of human existence." Accordingly, he draws an analogy from Judaism's attitude toward the problems of the filth of individual human existence. He points out that the largest of the six orders of the Mishnah is Tohorot (Purities). The various tractates of Tohorot deal with such matters as amniotic fluid and umbilical cords; the blood of childbirth and the blood of menstruation; diseases, discharges, and the impurity of the dead body. To be sure, there are higher levels in life than this, but the one beginning with the umbilical cord and ending with the corpse is one which we cannot avoid. Accordingly, the halakhah, which encompasses all of human existence within the framework of divine worship, deals at length – and matter-of-factly – with this level.

With respect to war, the halakhah distinguishes between obligatory war ("milkhemet mitzvah," or "milkhemet hovah") and optional war ("milkhemet ha-reshut"). The former category comprised the campaigns against the seven nations who inhabited the land of Israel at the time of Joshua, the battles against Amalek, as well as wars of self-defense. An optional war is one waged for reasons of national glory. So our first task is to determine into which of these categories we should place a potential war against Iraq. This has practical implications since in the case of an obligatory war, the king was not required to ask the permission of the Sanhedrin to levy troops  he could compel the people to take the field. Voluntary war, on the other hand, could be declared only by the Great Sanhedrin of seventy-one members. Similarly, although Deuteronomy 22:5 allows certain people to leave the field before a battle began, this was allowed, according to rabbinical opinion, only in case of a voluntary war. In an obligatory war even a bridegroom and bride were obliged to leave their nuptial chamber and join the army (Sotah 44b; Sanhedrin 2a, 20b; Maimonides, YadMelakhim, v. 1-2).

In addition, the Torah requires us to seek peace prior to starting a war. Deuteronomy 20:10 states:

    When you approach a city to do battle with it you shall offer it terms of peace. And if they respond in peace and they open the city to you, then all the people in the city shall pay taxes to you and be subservient. But if they do not make peace with you, but choose to make war, you may besiege them.

The Rabbis differed greatly on the question of whether terms of peace must also be offered in the case of obligatory wars. However, it would appear from Leviticus Rabbah 17:6 and Deuteronomy Rabbah 5:13, that peace might be offered even in an obligatory war, and this was established as a law by Maimonides. In addition, Leviticus Rabbah 9:9 quotes Rabbi Yossi ha-Galili as stating "How meritorious is peace? Even in a time of war one must initiate all activities with a request for peace." Such a requirement can sometimes prevent the escalation of hostilities, and allow both sides to rationally plan the cost of war and the virtues of peace.

Judaism further insists that even in the most clear cut case of self-defense against a precisely identified assailant, the use of excessive violence is not to be sanctioned:

    It has been taught by Rabbi Jonathan b. Saul: If one was pursuing his fellow to slay him, and the pursued could have saved himself by maiming a limb of the pursuer but instead killed his pursuer, the pursued is subject to execution on that account. (Sanhedrin 74a)

Even in a war that would be considered justified by the Jewish tradition, Jewish law considers killing another person an offense before God, and every soldier was required to bring a sin offering to the Temple.

It is interesting to note both the similarities and contrasts between Christian and Jewish just-war theory. One relevant contrast between the two traditions emerges on the issue of who is qualified to declare war. Christianity presumes that competent authority to declare war can vest in the executive (king, president, prime minister, etc.) of the polity alone. Judaism requires that in an offensive war, there must be some check on the prerogative of the military or executive authority to wage war. In the case of the Gulf War, such approval was forthcoming in the "use of force" debate and vote of Congress in December 1990.

Second, there are also several interesting contrasts between the various traditions on when and how to wage war. Christian tradition advocates the use of force only as a last resort. By contrast, Judaism maintains a less stringent standard: only that a good-faith effort must be made to avoid war. Some strands of the halakhah interpret this as requiring an effort for a peaceful resolution of at least three days before an attack; others maintain a requirement to sue for peace on three consecutive days. According to Maimonides, if the enemy responds favorably and agrees to abide by the seven Noahide commandments that govern all members of the world and form the basic groundwork for moral behavior, one may not go to war against them. These commandments are: acknowledging God; prohibiting idol worship; prohibition of murder; prohibition of theft; prohibition of incest and adultery; prohibition of eating the flesh of still living animals; and the obligation to establish the rule of law. Our second task, then, must be to determine what ethical values we would demand of the Iraqis to forestall our going to war.

Third, Christianity requires a test of proportionality: only the force necessary to achieve a military objective is permissible. Although some strands of Jewish thought seem congenial to this idea, the Jewish tradition is less concerned about proportion than it is with deciding which categories of targets are subject to attack and which are not. No force should be used against certain targets (such as innocent civilians and fruit-bearing trees) except in specified exceptional circumstances. Conversely, Judaism sets no limitation on force for appropriate targets. In this sense, the saturation bombings of military targets that some Christian thinkers described as disproportionately excessive might well be permitted by the halakhah.

Fourth, Judaism is unique in its concern for non-human targets. In Deuteronomy 20:19, we are told to spare the enemy city's fruit trees for "are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?" This important law is called bal tashkhit, or "do not destroy." (The Talmud extends bal tashkhit to a wide range of activities in civilian life, reasoning that if we can't destroy in war, how much more should we not destroy in peacetime.) In the military context, bal tashkhit forbids destroying anything indispensable to the renewal of civilian life. In the late 1960s, Jewish peace activists cited this law as they decried "deforestation," the destruction of Vietnam's wilderness along with its people. Bal tashkhit can also be applied to the Gulf War: Saddam Hussein's wanton destruction of the environment through oil spills and fires was a gross and flagrant violation of Jewish law. Accordingly, we must decide whether the pulverizing bombing of civilian targets aimed at crippling the economic, health, housing, electrical, and water infrastructure of Iraqi society might also be inconsistent with Jewish tradition.