Friday, August 1, 2014

War and Peace in Jewish Tradition - Shabbat Hazon, 5774

My older son flew back to Israel on Thursday evening. After I dropped him at the airport, I received news of the 72-hour cease-fire, and you can imagine how relieved I was. That is, until yesterday morning, when we heard that the cease-fire lasted all of 2 hours before being broken by mortar fire from Gaza into Israel, and then there was the news of the captured IDF soldier, Hadar Goldin.

This is also Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat right before Tish’ah Be’av, the saddest day of the Jewish year, when we commemorate all of the greatest losses that we have suffered as a people. As Israelis and Gazans mourn their dead, I think we can safely say that everybody in the world would agree that 72 hours of quiet would have been a good start, but that we need something longer, and ideally something permanent. And, of course, as we look backward over the arc of Jewish history, we may agree that there have been far more military losses and destructions and dispersions than any nation should be subjected to.

But the point on which the world disagrees is the why, the what, the when, and basically everything else. I must confess that it is very hard for me to be objective about this entire situation, with Hamas in control of Gaza and pouring all of its resources, its Israeli-made cement, its Israeli-supplied electricity and water, into building tunnels and terrorist infrastructure to destroy Israel. They could have been building greenhouses, or a nice waterfront park, or new residential buildings, or schools, or hospitals, or really anything positive. But no, they put their money on their primary objective, which is to wipe the Jewish state off the map.

So I must admit that I have a hard time seeing the other side, the side that only points to Israel’s destruction in Gaza and says, Israel is the aggressor, Israel is the sole guilty party, Israel is the murderous Zionist entity, Israel is the occupier (even though Israel has not occupied Gaza since they pulled out in 2005). And it really hurts to see that there are many people around the world who not only believe this, but chant it into microphones along with anti-Semitic epithets. That hurts. We, the Jews, deserve a land of our own, a nation that came from 2,000 years of hope and yearning, and that land deserves quiet, deserves freedom from rocket fire, freedom from enemies bent on its destruction.

While we all agree that peace should come soon, we may all not agree on Israel’s approach, even among Jews, even among Israelis. So I thought that it would be a good idea to take a look at some Jewish sources on warfare and peace, so that we can view this current conflict through the long-range scope of our ancient wisdom.

As a postulate, it must be acknowledged that Jewish tradition, as is always the case, never speaks with a single voice. So there is disagreement to be found even within these sources.

Rabbinic tradition separates wars into a couple of different kinds: mandatory and discretionary (source 2). Among the mandatory wars in the Torah are those against the seven Canaanite nations and against the Amalekites. These are called “hovah,” meaning obligatory. Maimonides tells us that these particular obligations no longer apply, because none of these people exist any more. (Even though every year Purim comes around, rabbis magically locate the spirit of Amaleq, for homiletical purposes.)

But also among the mandatory wars are those that are defensive, that is, responding to attack (source 1, below). These are in the category of milhemot mitzvah, commanded wars. The current Operation Protective Edge of course falls into this category. (There are disagreements between commentators on the Talmud about the pre-emptive strike; Rashi sides with the majority of commentators who agree that a pre-emptive strike is discretionary.)

The Sanhedrin (i.e. the representatives of the people) have the right to declare war, but they must consider the ramifications, including loss of soldiers’ lives. In the Talmud, Shemuel (source 3) condones the loss of up to one-sixth of the fighting force before charging a government with misconduct.

Philo of Alexandria (source 4), noted Jewish philosopher who lived in Egypt late into the Second Temple period, and Maimonides (source 5) as well as others were concerned for the welfare non-combatants, with the latter insisting that a siege must not prevent innocents from leaving the city.

Destruction is always a part of war, but it must be limited. See Deuteronomy 20:19-20, and Maimonides’ elaboration (sources 6 & 7). Why is this a concern? Because war has the tendency to allow for military excess (sources 8-10). See Ramban, comment to Deuteronomy 23:10 below, and also that the Torah “wants the soldier to learn to act compassionately with our enemies even during wartime.” (Ramban’s addendum to Sefer HaMitzvot).

Philo (sources 11), sees the Jewish military as being held to a higher standard, that we seek peace first, and do not slaughter indiscriminately during war.

We might conclude by noting that our inclinations to war and peace should be guided by the general principle, expressed so beautifully in Qohelet Rabbah (the standard midrash on Ecclesiastes, source 12), that this is the only world we have been given, and therefore we should do our best to minimize the damage that we cause. It is a reminder that in war, there are no winners.


And as we draw near to Tish’ah Be’av, we should remember that while the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians due to our having committed the greatest sins (idolatry, sexual impropriety, and murder), the Second Temple was lost to the Romans due to sin’at hinnam, baseless hatred.

There are many lenses here through which to view the current conflict; I leave that to you.

Shabbat shalom. Let us hope and pray that next Shabbat will truly be a Shabbat of peace.



1. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berakhot 58a
והתורה אמרה: אם בא להרגך ־ השכם להרגו, מחייה בקולפא וקטליה.
If a man comes to kill you, rise early and kill him first.

2. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah 44b
א״ר יוחנן: רשות דרבנן זו היא מצוה דרבי יהודה, מצוה דרבנן זו היא חובה דרבי יהודה. אמר רבא: מלחמות יהושע לכבש ־ דברי הכל חובה, מלחמות בית דוד לרווחה ־ דברי הכל רשות, כי פליגי ־ למעוטי עובדי כוכבים דלא ליתי עלייהו
R. Johanan said: A war which is discretionary according to the Rabbis is mandatory according to R. Judah, and a war which is mandatory according to the Rabbis is obligatory according to R. Judah.
Raba said: The wars waged by Joshua to conquer Canaan were obligatory in the opinion of all; the wars waged by the House of David for territorial expansion were voluntary in the opinion of all; where they differ is with regard to wars against heathens so that these should not march against them.

3. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shevuot 35b
דאמר שמואל: מלכותא דקטלא חד משיתא בעלמא לא מיענשא, שנאמר: כרמי שלי לפני האלף לך שלמה למלכותא דרקיעא, ומאתים לנוטרים את פריו למלכותא דארעא,
Shemuel said: A government which kills only one out of six is not punished; for it is said: “I have my very own vineyard: You may have the thousand, O Solomon” - for the Kingdom of Heaven; “And the guards of the fruit two hundred”— - for the kingdom on earth. (quoted verse is Song of Songs 8:12)

4. Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE - 50 CE), The Special Laws, IV, 224-5
The Jewish nation, when it takes up arms, distinguishes between those whose life is one of hostility, and the reverse. For to breathe slaughter against all, even those who have done very little or nothing amiss, shows what I should call a savage and brutal soul.

5. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim Umilhemoteihem, 6:7
כשצרין על עיר לתפשה, אין מקיפין אותה מארבע רוחותיה אלא משלש רוחותיה, ומניחין מקום לבורח ולכל מי שירצה להמלט על נפשו, שנאמר ויצבאו על מדין כאשר צוה ה׳ את משה מפי השמועה למדו שבכך צוהו.
When siege is laid to a city for the purpose of capture, it may not be surrounded on all four sides, but only on three, to give an opportunity for those who would avoid capture to escape.

6. Deuteronomy 20:19-20
יט כִּי-תָצוּר אֶל-עִיר יָמִים רַבִּים לְהִלָּחֵם עָלֶיהָ לְתָפְשָׂהּ, לֹא-תַשְׁחִית אֶת-עֵצָהּ לִנְדֹּחַ עָלָיו גַּרְזֶן--כִּי מִמֶּנּוּ תֹאכֵל, וְאֹתוֹ לֹא תִכְרֹת:  כִּי הָאָדָם עֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה, לָבֹא מִפָּנֶיךָ בַּמָּצוֹר.  כ רַק עֵץ אֲשֶׁר-תֵּדַע, כִּי-לֹא-עֵץ מַאֲכָל הוּא--אֹתוֹ תַשְׁחִית, וְכָרָתָּ; וּבָנִיתָ מָצוֹר...
When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks...

7. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim Umilhemoteihem, 6:10
ולא האילנות בלבד, אלא כל המשבר כלים, וקורע בגדים, והורס בנין, וסותם מעין, ומאבד מאכלות דרך השחתה, עובר בלא תשחית
And not only the trees, but also one who smashes household goods, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a spring, or destroys articles of food with destructive intent, transgresses the commandment of bal tashhit (i.e. “Do not destroy”).

8. Deuteronomy 23:10
כִּי-תֵצֵא מַחֲנֶה, עַל-אֹיְבֶיךָ,  וְנִשְׁמַרְתָּ מִכֹּל דָּבָר רָע.
When you go out as a troop against your enemies, be on your guard against anything untoward.

9. Nahmanides, comment to Deut. 23:10
The most refined of people become possessed with ferocity and cruelty when advancing upon the enemy.

10. Rabbi Reuven Kimelman, “War,” chapter in Frontiers of Jewish Thought, Steven Katz, ed., B’nai B’rith Books, 1992, p. 319
These concerns for the moral quotient of the soldier and the life of the enemy inform the “purity of arms” [tohorat nesheq] doctrine of the modern Israel Defense Forces. The doctrine of purity of arms, an expression apparently coined by the Labor-Zionist idealogue Berl Katznelson, limits killing to necessary and unavoidable situations.

11. Philo, The Special Laws, IV, 224
All this shows clearly that the Jewish nation is ready for agreement and friendship with all like-minded nations whose intentions are peaceful, yet is not of the contemptible kind which surrenders through cowardice to wrongful aggression.

12. Qohelet Rabbah, Parashah 7, Siman 19
בשעה שברא הקב״ה את אדם הראשון נטלו והחזירו על כל אילני גן עדן ואמר לו ראה מעשי כמה נאים ומשובחין הן וכל מה שבראתי בשבילך בראתי, תן דעתך שלא תקלקל ותחריב את עולמי, שאם קלקלת אין מי שיתקן אחריך…
At the moment that the Holy One, Blessed be God created the first human, he took him and made him pass before all of the trees in the Garden of Eden. God said to him, “See how fine and praiseworthy My creations are! And everything that I have created, I have created for you. Consider this, so that you will not spoil and destroy my world, for if you do so, there will be nobody who will repair it after you.”

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally presented and discussed at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 8/2/2014.)

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