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Jewish World Review
Feb. 6, 2006
/ 8 Shevat, 5766
All's fair in war?
Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir
The ethics of war
Q: Right now there is much controversy over the
ethical way to fight the many determined enemies of
our way of life. What does Jewish tradition tell us
A: Our relationship to war in Judaism starts with a
paradox. Judaism is the source of one of the earliest
and most majestic visions of a society of friendship
among nations, where war is obsolete. The very
foundation of our nation, and its eternal mission, is
found in G-d's blessing to the patriarch Abraham, "in
you shall be blessed all the families of the earth"
(Genesis 12:3; this blessing is repeated another three
times: in Genesis 18:18, 22:18, and 26:4.)
of the monuments most closely identified with the
United Nations is the "Isaiah wall" at an adjacent
park, inscribed with a quote from the prophet Isaiah
(2:4): "They shall beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not
lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn
war any more."
Yet Judaism is certainly not a pacifistic religion,
and we find in Scriptures that the Jewish prophets
often inform us that we are obligated to go to war and
The resolution of these conflicting prophecies is very
simple. In our current, imperfect stage of history,
our own willingness to engage in conflict is sometimes
an essential step in bringing about a future where all
people can live in harmony.
This approach, however, implies that while armed
conflict is frequently legitimate and even obligatory,
we must never lose sight of the fact that war in
itself is a curse. Indeed, the Mishnah tells us that
fundamentally, war is a disgrace. (1) War is
sanctioned only as a means to an end, and that means
that its conduct must always be guided with those ends
in mind. In the past I have described this principle
as follows: War must be conducted with a vision of the
day after the war.
Maimonides begins his section on the laws of war in
the Laws of Kings by stating: "War can never be waged
against anyone before a call to peace. This applies
equally to a discretionary war [meant to further some
policy objective] and to an obligatory one [generally
one waged in self-defense]. As it is written, 'When
you approach a city to war against it, call them to
peace'. If they agree to make peace and accept the
seven commandments of Noah [a minimal framework for
civilized existence], not one soul may be killed."
In other words, war must begin with a vision of the
kind of society we are trying to create after the war
in this case, a situation of peace and the basis
for civilized life.
Clausewitz is famous for stating "War is nothing but a
continuation of politics by other means". We could
modify this to state that "war is nothing but a
continuation of education by other means." Indeed,
politics itself is an educational instrument, whereby
each individual or group tries to persuade others of
the righteousness of his point of view.
A succinct expression of this idea is brought in the
name of Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook. A student cited another
scholar who claimed that Israel doesn't have authority
to wage war against her enemies, so that our response
to terror should be explanation and persuasion. Rav
Zvi Yehuda replied: "When they come to attack us, we
have to persuade them with tanks!" (2)
This approach doesn't dictate precisely which types of
warfare are proper and which are unethical. But it
does give a general framework for defining the
problems. In this spirit, Andrei Sakharov stated, "A
thermonuclear war cannot be considered a continuation
of politics by other means. It would be a means to
universal suicide." Others may disagree with Sakharov
about this particular application, but the principle
is widely accepted.
The very idea of warfare acknowledges that to a
certain extent the ends (a future of peaceful human
coexistence) does justify the means (armed conflict).
But at the same time, it limits us to those means
which actually promote and express the values of the
society we strive to defend and promote.
Next week we will provide some more detailed insights
from Jewish tradition on this critical issue.
SOURCES: (1) Mishnah Shabbas 6:4 (2) Rabbi David
Samson, Toras Eretz Yisrael, p. 288
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JWR contributor Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, formerly of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Reagan
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