In this article, published recently, I try and set out a Jewish attitude towards violence, war and peace.
Jewish Reflections on War and Peace
Judaism believes in peace, loves peace and prays and works towards peace. The greatest visions of the Bible are of the wolf lying down with lamb (Isaiah 11) and of swords being beaten into ploughshares (Isaiah 2). Beyond the Bible the Rabbis, in their codification of Jewish life, infused every major prayer experience of the Jew with the yearning for peace. The second century sage Rav Shimon son of Halafta, says ‘a blessing is useless unless it comes with peace’. The great Medieval commentator Rabbi Yom Tov Isbili, known as the Ritba (Spain d. 1330) collated a list of codified Jewish prayers that have as their conclusion the plea for peace; it includes the grace after meals, the principal doxology (Kaddish), the central prayer of evening, morning and afternoon services (Amidah), the priestly blessing (Numbers 6) and others. Judaism believes in peace.
But the Hebrew Bible also knows violence. The commandment lo tirzah (Exodus ) is inaccurately translated in the King James Bible as ‘thou shall not kill’. The correct rendition of the original Hebrew is ‘thou shall not murder’. The Bible justifies and even demands violence, even unto killing, on too many occasions to list. That said there is a noteworthy attitude towards violence that suffuses not only the Bible, but also the project of Rabbinic Judaism. Time and time again in the Bible and Rabbinic texts one can see the impulse to violence and war subjected to controls designed to ameliorate the destructive potential of military brutality.
The Bible mandates (Deut 20 & 21) that an invading army should offer peace to a city before waging war against it. It demands that fruit trees, around an ancient city, are not destroyed by siege warfare, asking rhetorically ‘is a tree a person, to be besieged by you?’ It insists that any beautiful woman captured in combat is not to be treated as chattel to be ‘used’ and/or abandoned at will … and the list goes on.
One can see the same tendency in Rabbinic texts. Maimonides, (d. 1204) the greatest of medieval Jewish sages, set out precise Laws of War in his code the Mishneh Torah. One mandate demands that ‘when besieging a city in order to capture it, you should not surround it on all four sides, but only on three sides, allowing an escape path for anyone who wishes to save his life’. Aside from noting the seeming military lunacy of a three-sided siege there are two other points to note when considering the significance of this kind of religious engagement with war. Firstly, while Maimonides is able to produce a Biblical verse to justify his codification (Numbers 31:7), on the face of it the verse mandates no such behaviour; Maimonides need not have included this mandate, he’s willing the mandate into existence driven by a greater sense and understanding of what Judaism must stand for. Secondly this militarily self-defeating mandate has had practical impact for the contemporary Israeli army, as will be discussed below.
The messy business of
But by the beginning of the twentieth century Jews were growing weary of this purely exegetical triumph. The pacifism was being beaten out of them. By the dark years of the ’30s and ’40s the suggestion that Jews could respond to antisemitic violence with words alone seemed more than vapid, it bordered on the offensive. The great pacifist, Mahatma Ghandi wrote, in 1938, that the Jews of Germany should protest against Hitler only using non-violent means. ‘I am as certain as I am dictating these words that the stoniest German heart will melt [if only the Jews], adopt active nonviolence… I do not despair of his [Hitler's] responding to human suffering even though caused by him’. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (hardly known as a militarist!) took Ghandi to task. The Jews of Germany, as Buber knew from personal experience, were dealing with a genocidal mania that would not respond to non-violence. Non-violent resistance in the face of utter brutality was capitulation. Of course, said Buber, the violent response was one that could only be employed with ‘fear and trembling’ but ‘[I]f there is no other way of preventing the evil destroying the good, I trust I shall use force and give myself up into God's hands’. Alongside its abnegation of violence and love of peace Judaism began to place increasing weight on the value of self-defence.
Then the wheels of history turned and
The aftermath of an incident now fifty years old will serve as a test case from which to consider more contemporary religious responses. In 1953 Palestinian terrorists launched attacks on
More critical positions also crystallised in the aftermath of the attack on Kibiyah. The philosopher and commentator Yeshayhu Leibowitz acknowledged the attack could be defended with reference to Rabbinic tradition or the standards of other nations, ‘but let us not try to do so. Let us rather recognize its distressing nature’. Leibowitz compared Kibiya’s destruction to the Biblical tale of Dinah. Dinah, daughter of Jacob, was kidnapped, taken to Shechem and raped, an action that resulted in her brothers destroying the town and its male inhabitants. Leibowitz claimed the brothers ‘had a decisive justification [for launching the all-out raid]. Nevertheless, because of this action, their father Jacob cursed the two tribes for generations…Let us not establish [the modern State of
Both these responses – the hawkish and the cursing – can be observed in contemporary Jewish and Israeli discourse responding to contemporary acts of Israeli military violence, but there is a third way which, I argue is truer to Jewish discourse and analysis. Rav Shlomo Goren (d. 1994) founded the Israel Defence Forces Rabbinate and served as its first Chief Rabbi for about two decades, subsequently serving as Chief Rabbi of
Ethics and war make for uncomfortable bed-fellows. Military ethicists, particularly those who speak in the name of a religious tradition, should be troubled sleepers, uneasy and unsure, afraid that their pronouncements could condone the spillage of a single drop of blood. No matter whose blood may be shed, every drop is sacred, ‘for the soul of all flesh is in its blood’. At the heart of Judaism lies an extraordinary articulation of the value of human life. All humans, the book of Genesis tells us, are created from one original template – Adam. This is so, state the Rabbis, in order to teach us that ‘whoever destroys a single soul, is considered as though they had destroyed an entire world; and whoever saves a single soul is considered as though they had saved an entire world’. It is, of course, an articulation that Muslim scholars will recognise from their own scriptures. The demand of the One God shared by both Jews and Muslims is that this message be taught and taught again and again until the day when swords can indeed be turned into ploughshares, nations and individuals will cease lifting up swords against one another and none shall learn war any more. And then every person, Jew and Palestinian, shall be able to sit under their vine and under their fig tree and none shall make them afraid.
Jeremy Gordon is Rabbi of New London Synagogue.
 An earlier version of this paper appeared in Arches Quarterly (3:5, 2010), an interfaith journal aimed, in particular, at an Islamic audience.
 BMidbar Rabba 11.
 Ritba Megilla 18a d.v. U-Mah C14.
 Hil Melakhim 6:11. See Sifrei Bmidbar Mattot 157 beshem Rebbi Natan.
 Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 93b.
 The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India) v. 68, p. 189, Cf loc cit, pp. 191-92 & 205.
 Published in The Letters of Martin Buber: A Life of Dialogue By Martin Buber, Nahum
 Available at http://dover.idf.il/IDF/English/about/doctrine/ethics.htm.
 Writing in the
 See Edrei, Arye (2006) "Divine Spirit and Physical Power: Rabbi Shlomo Goren and the Military Ethic of the
Available at: http://www.bepress.com/til/default/vol7/iss1/art11 at p. 70. I am indebted to Prof Edrei for his original research.
 Talmud Bavli, Ned. 28a; Git. 10b; BK 113a; BB 54b and 55a. There is an irony, of course, in the notion that dina d’malkhuta, by its very nation a diasporic invention, is turned here into a staging post for bullish nationalism.
 Genesis 34.
 Y. Leibowitz, “After Kibiyeh,” in Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State (Eliezer
Goldman ed., Eliezer Goldman et al. trans., 1992).
 Meshiv Milhama: She’elot U-teshuvot Be-inyene Tsava Milhamah U-vitahon (1983-1992).
 Deuteronomy 21:1-9, if a dead body is found between two Israelite towns the Priests of the town nearest must accept responsibility for the blood shed and seek forgiveness.
 See Edrie A. loc cit at p. 286.
 Rav Goren’s letter on the subject appeared in Hatzofeh 6th August 1982.
 Sanhedrin 74a.
 Leviticus 17:14.
 Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, dated to the second century. The text has been cited according to the Kauffman manuscript, acknowledged as bearing the correct original version of this text. See Eprhaim Elimelech Urbach, "Kol Hamekayem Nefesh Achat ..." Gilgulav Shel Nusach [Whoever Saves One Soul ... The Evolution of a Text], 40 Tarbitz 268 (1971).
 Kuran .
 Micah 4:4.