Friday, 2 July 2010

Jewish Reflections on War and Peace

It's a week when we read of Pinhas' great blessing for what amounts to a bloody act of violence.
In this article, published recently, I try and set out a Jewish attitude towards violence, war and peace.

Shabbat shalom

Jewish Reflections on War and Peace[1]

Jeremy Gordon


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’.[2] 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.[3] Judaism believes in peace.


But the Hebrew Bible also knows violence. The commandment lo tirzah (Exodus 20:13) 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’.[4] 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 Israel’s contemporary engagement will be treated more extensively later in this paper, but it’s important to understand that for close to two thousand years Maimonides’ demands were of no practical import whatsoever. The dominant norm governing Judaism’s engagement with violence was not that of a military power, squaring military necessity and morality, but that of a wandering, stateless, army-less people subject to the attitudes to violence of other nations and nationally enshrined faiths. In 70CE the Romans destroyed the Israelite State based around Jerusalem, in the years before and after this all the other vestiges of Jewish national and military presence were also erased. Judaism became a people with no physical border to protect, no army and no possibility of waging war. From Seleucids to Romans to Christians to Muslims, across time and place Jews have been persecuted, beaten, burnt, and, in a period as dark as humanity has experienced, been subject to a level of genocidal brutality beyond decent humans’ ability to imagine. Throughout almost two millennia of Diaspora existence Jews were forbidden from bearing arms and, by and large, accepted this and other externally imposed regulations as the cost of survival, of ‘doing business’, in a world governed by foreign might. Jews became pacifists by circumstance. Any drive to conquer territory was sublimated into mercantile endeavour or the exegetical engagement characteristic of Rabbinic Judaism. In place of soldiers Judaism valorised scholars. The Rabbis even turned the soldiers of the Bible into intellectuals. The Book of Samuel refers to David, slayer of Goliath, as ‘a brave fighter and man of war’.  The Talmud explains this means he knew how argue his point in ‘the war of Torah.’[5] Offered only the opportunity of military surrender, Jews and Judaism waged war on the entire notion of military bravado and, playing by rules they themselves constructed, declared themselves victorious without recourse to sword or bullet.


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’.[6] 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’.[7] 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 Israel found itself with an army, a state and, arrayed around and even inside its borders, armed aggressors. Now what? Certainly ethical and religious factors have always been central to the vision of the defence of the Israeli State. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have an ethics code, drafted by religious leaders, professors, lawyers and generals and drummed into soldiers during training. The code articulates the values of ‘Human Dignity’, ‘Responsibility’, and ‘Purity of Arms’ – ‘IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity even during combat. IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property’. [8] When soldiers fail to live up to values espoused in the code they can expect investigation and reprimand. But the challenges faced by the Israeli State do not fit easily into categories outlined in a document written in ivory towers. Terrorist aggressors, usually dressed as civilians, tend to launch attacks from and/or into densely populated areas full of civilians; both Arabs and Jews are liable to suffer the consequences of terrorist actions. In the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead, December 2008, the philosopher Moshe Halbertal, a member of the team who drafted the IDF Code, expressed his empathy for Israeli soldiers confronted by recognisable military violence, but no recognisable army. ‘By disguising themselves as civilians and by attacking civilians with no uniforms and with no front’, he wrote, ‘paramilitary terrorist organizations attempt nothing less than to erase the distinction between combatants and noncombatants on both sides of the struggle’.[9] Israel faces what Halbertal calls acts of ‘assymetrical warfare’. It’s hard to balance out risks of loss and risks of collateral damage even in moments of security, let alone in the heat of incoming mortars and katyusha rockets.


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 Israel from Kibiya, a village on the then Jordanian-controlled West Bank. The Israeli military responded ferociously. The village was all but destroyed; many villagers were killed. It was an action with uncanny echoes for our times. Some religious leaders expressed no compunction in accepting the validity of violence in the face of terrorist attack on Jewish lives. Rav Shaul Yisraeli, who went on to become one of the heads of Yeshivat Mercaz Harav Kook justified the use of force as follows: ‘There is a place for acts of retribution and revenge against the oppressors of Israel. … They are responsible for any damage that comes to them, their sympathizers, or their children. They must bear their sin.  There is no obligation to refrain from reprisal for fear that it might harm innocent people, for we did not cause it.  They are the cause and we are innocent’.[10] This is the tough uncompromising perspective of a hawkish politician, but Yisraeli justified the attack on Kibiya with reference to a classic Rabbinic concept. The community of nations, he claimed, believed these kinds of military actions were permissible, therefore Israel could avail herself of this international consensus in an application of a classic Rabbinic principle dina d’malkhuta dina – the law of the land is the law.[11] ‘The foundation of dina d’malkhutah dina relates not only to what transpires within a state, but also to international matters as is the accepted custom’, claimed Yisraeli. Putting aside the issue of whether the international community would have accepted the legality of actions taken in Kibiyah, Yisraeli’s claim is that Israel should be judged by the standard of the ethics of nations at large. If the British bomb Dresden and the Americans lay waste to Hiroshima (both examples cited in support of his position), the Israelis can lay waste to Kibiya not only as a matter of military expediency, but also without religious qualm.


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.[12] 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 Israel] on the foundation of the curse of our father Jacob!’[13]


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 Israel. Much of his vast scholarly output concerned military matters. His formally collected Responsa on Matters of the Military, War, and Security[14] alone run to four volumes and cover a vast range of issues, theoretical and practical, as applied to Generals and to Privates. Goren was no apologist. In a radical and broad application of principles learnt from an obscure law in Deuteronomy[15] he deems Israelis responsible for any death that occurs anywhere in the occupied territories.[16] In 1982 Goren was Chief Rabbi of Israel and used his position to insist that an escape path be left open during the siege of Beirut, (in accordance with Maimonides’ demand as discussed above).[17] Responsa literature is technical, and there are many competing factors to be balanced as religious aspiration and ugly brutality come into conflict. It also requires deep scholarship and understanding of religious sensitivity and of military necessity. Goren’s approach is untidy, often unpopular and even occasionally unsafe. But it is, I argue, the truest reflection of a Jewish tradition torn between dreams of peace and harsh political and historical realities. Those who wish to speak on the validity, or otherwise, of various acts of military violence need to study much, speak carefully and know that the safety of certainty is not given to human beings. ‘Who knows if your blood is redder’, asks the Talmud, ‘perhaps their blood is redder’.[18]


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’.[19] 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’.[20] It is, of course, an articulation that Muslim scholars will recognise from their own scriptures.[21] 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.[22]


Jeremy Gordon is Rabbi of New London Synagogue.

[1] An earlier version of this paper appeared in Arches Quarterly (3:5, 2010), an interfaith journal aimed, in particular, at an Islamic audience.

[2] BMidbar Rabba 11.

[3] Ritba Megilla 18a d.v. U-Mah C14.

[4] Hil Melakhim 6:11. See Sifrei Bmidbar Mattot 157 beshem Rebbi Natan.

[5] Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 93b.

[6] 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. 

[7] Published in The Letters of Martin Buber: A Life of Dialogue By Martin Buber, Nahum N. Glatzer, Paul Mendes-Flohr (Syracuse University Press, 1996). The full exchange may be found in A Land of Two Peoples: Martin Buber on Jews and Arabs ed. P. Mendes-Flohr (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1983) pp. 106-126.

[9] Writing in the New Republic November 6th, 2009, available at

[10] See Edrei, Arye (2006) "Divine Spirit and Physical Power: Rabbi Shlomo Goren and the Military Ethic of the Israel Defense Forces," Theoretical Inquiries in Law: Vol. 7 : No. 1, Article 11.
Available at: at p. 70. I am indebted to Prof Edrei for his original research.

[11] 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.

[12] Genesis 34.

[13] Y. Leibowitz, “After Kibiyeh,” in Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State (Eliezer

Goldman ed., Eliezer Goldman et al. trans., 1992).

[14] Meshiv Milhama: She’elot U-teshuvot Be-inyene Tsava Milhamah U-vitahon (1983-1992).

[15] 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.

[16] See Edrie A. loc cit at p. 286.

[17] Rav Goren’s letter on the subject appeared in Hatzofeh 6th August 1982.

[18] Sanhedrin 74a.

[19] Leviticus 17:14.

[20] 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).

[21] Kuran 5:32.

[22] Micah 4:4.

1 comment:

Ben E said...

I've always found it interesting that the Torah balances the practical need for conscription against the reality of a person's courage (and the recognition of shellshock). Also that an enemy should be given the opportunity for surrender or redemtpion - something which, in of all places, happens also in Doctor Who!

Thank you for providing a precis of the broad range of texts and pertinent passages of scripture relating to war. Violence is a reality of the human condition that we cannot simply close our eyes to - certainly not if we wish to overcome its prevalence.

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