Omaha, Nebraska
Spring 1991
Volume 2, Number 2

Just War: Jews Find Some Justifications for a War

Yoram Lubling
Philosophy Department

Central to the understanding of Jewish thought is the recognition of its realistic, empirical, and naturalistic assumptions and practice. Judaism's fundamental concern for the empirical life was instrumental in shaping a realistic view of war. The foundation for this view rests on the naturalistic necessity of self-preservation. This activity implies a corresponding moral right for individuals or nations to defend against unprovoked aggression (Exodus 17:14). War was viewed in the biblical period as an inevitable part of life and an accepted result of living in an imperfect world. This can be seen in the very word used in the Bible for war, i.e., milchama, which is linguistically derived from the root le-ch-m, from which the word lecham (bread) is also derived. Conceptually, then, as bread historically symbolized the very basic necessity of life, so does the activity of war. The Jewish view of the necessity of war can also be seen in the fact that they were never commanded not to kill. The language of the Hebrew Bible commands against taking the life of another person only in cold blood and for unjustified reasons. "Lo Tirzach" translates into "Thou shall not Murder," and not "Thou shall not Kill" as it was later translated or interpreted. The extensive discussion of the rules of war in Deuteronomy (20-23) clearly documents this inevitability. Furthermore, the activity of war was viewed as a noble undertaking in which God himself bore the distinguished title "A Man of War." (Bt. Av. Zar 2b). Thus, a just war was one fought either to deliver or to protect the Jews from hardship and evil. Therefore, God's war against the Egyptians (i.e., one of deliverance from hardship) or Joshua's wars against the population of Canaan (i.e., for fulfillment of the deliverance) were never subject to moral scrutiny.

In later commentary (Mishnah Sotah 8: 7, second Century C.E) the subject of a just war was treated more carefully and several interesting distinctions were introduced. However, the text seems to reveal a dispute over the nature of the authority for justification, i.e., divine only or human as well. One commentator argued that war was justified if a reshut (human authorization) has been given. The other commentator did not recognize human authority and argued that an offensive war was justified only if it was a mitzvah (divinely commanded) such as Joshua's wars of liberating the promised land or David's wars to expand it.

Finally, war was justified in the case of self-defense, when fought under a hovah (obligation). Obviously the hovah is a paradigmatic case of defensive war. While offensive and defensive wars were both justified, participation in the former was usually optional while in the latter it was required. For example, in a war of hovah, as one of the commentators noted, "all must go, even the bridegroom and the bride" (Sotah 8:7). However, in even later commentary (12th Century) the Talmud collapsed the distinctions into that of reshut and mitzvah only, conceptually covering both offensive and defensive wars respectively.

The naturalistic necessity for an individual's self-defense, epitomized in the Talmudic phrase "If a man comes to kill you, rise early and kill him first," can be extended to provide justification for defensive wars. Clearly pre-emptive wars such as those undertaken by the State of Israel since its independence in 1948, come under such justification. As defensive wars, furthermore, they can be viewed as wars of mitzvah (a divine commandment).

Historically, however, for nearly two thousand years the Jewish community lost political power and found itself under foreign rule. The resulting Rabbinical scholarship regarding war was transformed from a normative involvement in the practical flow of experience into one which was highly spiritualistic and voyeuristic. During much of this period other nations and religions waged war, and the Jews lived ideally rather than empirically. Examples of this spiritualization abound: the "sword and bow" became "prayer and beseeching," while the "soldier and warrior" became "those who know how to dispute in the battle of the Torah." In short, the Biblical military personnel and leaders became the scholars and spiritual community leaders.

However, Jewish discussion regarding the nature of a just war was forced to become normative again as a result of the Holocaust experience and the later establishment of the state of Israel. Although a secular state, Israel embodies the basic historical hopes and visions of the Jewish people. The realistic view of the modern state of Israel is that as a 20th Century democracy it cannot justify waging an offensive war in order to re-establish its ancient and "complete" promised land (a war of reshut). However, as a modern nation, Israel maintains that a war is just, as well as obligatory, if fought for self-defense (a war of hovah or mitzvah).

From this brief discussion we can conclude that the Jewish view of a justified war must be qualified. It is one which holds war to be the embodiment of evil and hopes for a peaceful world as expressed in Isaiah's utopian vision. However, it also recognizes the naturalistic necessity of the empirical world and confronts it realistically.