Jewish Warfare: A Traditional Perspective
In the timely hour of battle between Israel and its neighbors, it is helpful to recall the timeless principles of warfare set out in the Torah, Talmud, and rabbinic commentaries that touch upon a variety of combat-related issues still pertinent today.
Canadian scholar Aaron J. Sarna (Boycott and Blacklist: A History of Arab Economic Warfare Against Israel), former chairman of both the yeshiva Ottawa Torah Institute and the Orthodox Jewish women’s high school Machon Sarah, recently took the time to encapsulate some of the voluminous Judaic teachings on conduct during wartime:
What are the main lessons in the Torah regarding going to war?
The Torah’s ideal is peace, but unfortunately war is a necessary evil. Therefore, there is a time for war and a time for peace (Ecclesiastes 3:8). War is armed conflict, either mandatory (divinely commanded) or constitutionally authorized through the judicial authorities at the ruler’s request. War is not fought for its own sake; Jews do not glorify it or call it holy. However, it is a holy duty to wage war when necessary.
In ancient times, wars against the seven Canaanite nations and Amalekites fell into the category of divinely-commanded wars. These wars were history-specific occurrences; those nations today no longer exist because of assimilation into surrounding peoples, or destruction. The only operative part today of this category of war that is divinely-commanded is a war of self-defense.
Some wars of King David, in contrast, were discretionary, at his initiative, to expand the borders or to enhance Israel’s reputation among the nations.
The Book of Esther (9:5) contains an example of a preemptive war waged against Haman’s followers, such war being deemed a defensive one.
Rabbinical commentaries on scripture that touch upon the topic of warfare include:
- Whoever attacks Israel, it is as if he attacked G-d (Rashi on Numbers Mattot 31:3).
- Victory in battle should be the goal; if not, Jewish leaders must not expose the nation to danger (Ralbag on Judges 6:15, regarding Gideon seeking a sign from G-d that he would be victorious against Midian).
- An individual and a nation cannot stand idly by while its citizens’ blood is being shed (“lo ta’amod b’dam rey’echa”) (Leviticus 19:16).
Overall, from the Torah’s perspective, a satisfactory peace can only be concluded from a position of overpowering strength—”G-d will grant His people strength, G-d will bless His people with peace”—where the idea of strength precedes peace (Psalms 29:11).
In addition, before embarking on war, an offer of peace must be made entailing the enemy laying down its arms and accepting the Seven Noahide Laws (Numbers 21, where Moses first offers peace to Sichon, king of the Amorites).
Furthermore, during the conduct of war, the enemy must be defeated. As King David said, “I have pursued my enemies and destroyed them. I did not turn back till they were wiped out. And I have consumed them and struck them down and they cannot arise, they have fallen under my feet” (II Samuel 22:38).
Notably, failure to drive out enemies from the land if they do not accept a peace offer will be disastrous, a desecration of the divine name: “Then shall those that remain be as pricks in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They shall distress you in the land in which you dwell. And it shall come to pass that what I planned to do to them, so will I do to you” i.e., G-d will drive us out of the land (Numbers 33:55).
Finally, Jews cannot go berserk in the midst of war, but must maintain their humanity because, “Your camp shall be holy” (Deuteronomy 23:14) and because man was created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). Morality in combat, known as “tohar ha-neshek”, is required, entailing: no looting, no raping, no harming innocent civilians especially women, children, and other non-combatants, no destruction of crops, no destruction of fruit trees (there are exceptions), no wanton killing (massacres), no scorched-earth policy, no destruction of water supply, no spreading of disease, no destruction of clothing, no killing of POWs, and no torture of captives (unless vitally necessary to prevent a disaster).
What does the Talmud add on the topic of warfare?
Both the Mishna and Gemara elaborate on the aforementioned teachings. Key points in the Talmud on the subject of warfare include the following:
- All citizens are obliged to join the war effort in case of a “milhemet mitzvah” or defensive war, even a bride and groom under the chuppah (Talmud Bavli/TB Tractate Sotah 44b).
- An optional or discretionary war must receive prior authorization from the Sanhedrin when requested by the monarch to wage a preventive war or war of deterrence to degrade the capabilities of potential enemies or to expand Israel’s borders as per King David, etc. Such wars are no longer possible in the absence of an active Sanhedrin and functioning Urim and Thummim oracles for consultation.
- The ruler of the nation during wartime must have a Torah with him at all times for guidance and inspiration (Tractate Sanhedrin 21b).
- Most of our patriarchs and some Tannaitic rabbis such as Rabbi Akiva waged war. Abraham to rescue Lot, Jacob vs. Esau, Moses against the Amorites and Amalek, etc. King David, the sweet singer of Israel, was a warrior and was not permitted to build the First Temple himself because his life was one of war while the Temple was dedicated to peace. Another view in the Talmud is that David was so righteous that, had he built the Temple, it never would have been destroyed, thwarting G-d’s plan to chastise the Jewish people.
- When besieging a city which is surrounded on three sides, an escape route must be opened on the fourth side for the sake of mercy or to avoid stiffening the enemy’s will to fight when its back is to the wall.
- There are wars that are prohibited or illegitimate, namely wars of aggression, wars to convert to Judaism the rest of the world, wars to accumulate wealth and power, wars against Canaanites living outside Israel, etc.
- King David delayed the conquest of all of the Land of Israel and Jerusalem by waging a war to expand its borders to Aram Zova and Aram Naharayim. As a result, the merit of building the first Temple fell to his son, King Solomon. Other opinions are that his hands were blood-stained fighting too many wars while the Temple was to be a place of peace, and that he did indeed merit to build the Temple but the Almighty said that his righteousness would have meant the Temple would never be destroyed, thus thwarting a key part of the divine plan to chastize Israel for its sins.
- Israel is not obligated to fight a losing battle or a battle for a lost cause as evinced by the prophetic warnings of Isaiah against fighting Assyria, Jeremiah’s pleas against fighting Babylonia, and Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai’s momentous decision to escape the Zealot war against the Romans. These are cases where it was clear G-d would not be with us (TB Tractate Gittin).
Additionally, on battlefield ethics, the Talmud speaks against enslaving captives, the need to bury the dead, the requirement to release a beautiful captive woman within 30 days if the soldier does not wish to marry her, and so forth.
What are some of the key contributions of extra-Talmudic or post-Talmudic commentators concerning the issue?
Midrashic statements on warfare include the notion that if a peace offer is rejected by the enemy, a blockade can be mounted even if it causes hunger, thirst and disease (Sifrei).
Also, “the wise ones among the Egyptians pursuing the Israelites at the Reed Sea exclaimed, ‘Let us flee from the face of Israel for the Eternal fights for them against the Egyptians.’ Read not against the Egyptians alone but against all those who oppress Israel in every generation” (Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael to Exodus 14:25). The moral is that when the fear of G-d is upon our enemies, as in the 1967 Six-Day War, they are covered with dread and their will to fight is gone. For this to happen, Jews must uphold Torah values and be strengthened by them.
Much of the above is codified by Rabbi Moses Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah, in the section Laws of Kings and Their Wars.
In the Shulchan Arukh or Code of Jewish Law of Rabbi Joseph Karo, dealing with Sabbath observance, the TB Tractate Eruvin 45a is cited, to wit, that the Sabbath must be desecrated by taking up arms against an enemy approaching border cities, even if it is only to gather straw and stubble. Adds the Rema: “We profane the Sabbath even if the enemy hasn’t come yet but intends to do so” (SA, Orach Chaim 329:6).
In general, there is a plethora of commentaries and writings on war, especially by Israeli rabbis, since 1948. A few are given here:
- Entering into a truce with an enemy is to be avoided because it will allow it to strengthen itself. Can only be justified if Israel is weak or forced against its will by the larger world powers.
- The targeting of Jews by terrorists is a desecration of G-d’s name and they must be wiped out (R. Zvi Yehuda Kook).
- Surrendering territory in the Land of Israel won in a defensive war is forbidden (supra and late Chief Rabbi of Montreal Pinchas Hirschprung).
- Surrendering such territory for a genuine peace is permitted (Rav Ovadiah Yosef).
- Jewish law requires adherence to international law since it could be considered to fall under the category of “dina de-malchuta dina” (the law of the land is the law) which Jews have always observed in their Dispersion. If the international community, representing the nations of the world, apply such laws to Israel, Israel must observe them or face isolation, sanctions and threats to its security (arms supply). However, Israel should not accept such diktats if they are applied in a discriminatory manner (a rabbi at Yeshiva University).
- When war is fought not on a battlefield with soldiers but in civilian areas, civilians aiding the enemy are considered “rodefs” or combatants too. Unavoidable and unintentional killing of innocent civilians has always been a byproduct of war. Protecting the lives of Israeli soldiers and civilians is the highest moral duty of the government, taking precedence over all other obligations (Rabbi Michael Broyde).
What does Jewish tradition say, if anything, regarding women serving in combat roles (with models such as Deborah, Yael, Judith, The Kahina, etc.)?
Jewish law leans toward women supporting the war effort in auxiliary roles, mainly because of the fear of them falling into enemy hands and being raped and the fear of being sexual prey to fellow male soldiers (viz. examples recently in Canadian army and navy, in American forces in Iraq, etc.). However, women being trained to handle weapons would be acceptable.
What is the Jewish law perspective on redeeming captives from the enemy?
Jewish law traditionally saw this as a pre-state issue. Everything should be done by families and communities to ransom captives although Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg warned against redeeming him from a German Elector. The fear was that other Jewish notables would be imprisoned and kidnapped and communities would become impoverished. The operative principle here was “pikuach nefesh” or saving a life.
At the national level of Israel as state, the issue is one of protecting the entire population against terrorism. So, the 1976 rescue of hostages at Entebbe, Uganda was the right response. Hostage-takers demanded the release of Arab terrorists in Israeli prisons. The Israeli government under Yitzchak Rabin acted otherwise. Again, the “pikuach nefesh” principle was operative. When terrorist prisoners are released as ransom for kidnapped Israelis, alive or dead, this endangers the entire population of Israel since these released murderers continue to create terror. It used to be the Israeli policy not to release prisoners “with blood on their hands.” This has fallen by the wayside. Some Israeli rabbis feel that these terrorist prisoners are such ‘lowlifes’ that it is worth exchanging them for even one Jew. Yet, the greater danger to society they still pose means the government must not take this path.
According to Jewish tradition, are ceasefires recommended or required before the enemy surrenders in defeat?
It will all depend on the circumstances—whether Israel is strong or weak, whether its military gains and positions are safeguarded or eroded, etc. An inducement for Israel would be the disarming of the enemy and demilitarization of its territory, as was the case in the Sinai but not with Hezbollah in Lebanon. This would have to be backed up by a non-UN international force such as NATO with peace-enforcing, not peace-keeping, capability. Ceasefire/armistice arrangements of 1949 with Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan held up until 1967 with only UN observer forces, whereas Sinai is under a non-UN multilateral force of Americans, Europeans, Scandinavians and Australians.
A retired federal negotiator for the Canadian government, Aaron J. Sarna is presently composing a major work on Torah and foreign policy.