War in Jewish Tradition

Yitzchak Blau Tradition Online | October 19, 2023

TRADITION’s Winter 2006 issue (39:4) dedicated to questions of warfare is especially pertinent to the conflict launched on Simhat Torah and our current moment.

Read the entire issue in our open access archives.

Guest editor Marc Stern sharply outlines the problem in his introduction. Lacking a sovereign state and a standing army for centuries, rabbinical authorities have not developed a Jewish ethic of warfare that takes into consideration new scenarios and dilemmas. For years, the questions related to Jews serving in gentile armies but we now have a Jewish army needing to make difficult decisions. How do we deal with a situation in which armies no longer meet on the battlefield but are mixed up among civilian populations? What role should women play in a modern army?

In the current situation, the question of enemy civilians takes center stage. Stern notes two extreme positions, some Yesha rabbis who see it as a non-issue and more leftist thinkers who would not allow any strike that might harm civilians. Stern correctly notes that neither of these extreme views is satisfactory.

In an essay I contributed, “Biblical Narratives and the Status of Enemy Civilians in Wartime,” I attempt to show that a consistent strand in our tradition indicates concern for enemy civilians. I utilize rabbinic commentary on Abraham’s battle with the four kings, Jacob’s encounter with Esau’s four hundred men, Levi and Shimon’s annihilation of Shekhem, and the Purim story, along with other halakhic and aggadic texts, to illustrate this line of thought. For example, some authorities think we leave an opening for escape during a siege out of compassion for those who wish to flee. In one midrash (Tanhuma Tzav 3), Moses refrains from fulfilling a divine command to go to war since war involves the death of innocents.

At the same time, I do not adopt the extreme left-wing position. When modern terrorists use civilian shields, it becomes impossible to fight our enemies and defend our own civilians. Disallowing tragic but sometimes necessary “collateral damage” cannot be the case in every circumstance. Furthermore, I endorse an argument of philosopher John Kekes that we all accept, to some degree, a notion of collective responsibility. Otherwise, for example, it would make no sense for liberals to feel guilty about American slavery.

A year later (Winter 2007), Dr. Maier Becker wrote a letter challenging my essay and I responded. In the exchange, Dr. Becker draws different conclusions from some of the very biblical stories I analyzed and introduces new sources into the discussion.

A number of other worthwhile articles relate less to our present problems. Dr. Judith Bleich writes about rabbinic responses to Jewish soldiers in non-Jewish armies. R. Shalom Carmy confronts the thorny theological and moral questions regarding the command to wipe out Amalek and the Canaanite nations. Today, we are neither serving in the English military nor are we battling Amalek. (As often as comparisons between today’s enemy and that dastardly biblical nation may be invoked, the halakhic framework differs.)

R.J. David Bleich’s essay may be of greater relevance. He addresses the permissibility of torturing prisoners in the case of a ticking bomb, an immediate threat that demands attention. He allows it based on the principle of rodef. R. Bleich adds that this applies to Gentiles as well and he adds the Noahide commandment to set up a court system and the ability to make a hora’at sha’ah, an emergency measure to save Am Yisrael. One can quibble with aspects of his analysis but it is a good starting point for the discussion.

This collection of essays from nearly two decades ago remains sadly appropriate to the current moment. We hope it will help frame your thinking about the traumas we have experienced these past two weeks as we pray that the IDF proves successful in defeating Hamas and that all the captives as well as the fighting soldiers return home safely.

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