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Jewish World Review
Feb. 15, 2006
/ 17 Shevat, 5766
Not all's fair in war, Part II
Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir
Guidelines for conducting a just war
Q: What are some concrete guidelines from Jewish
tradition for conducting a just war?
A: Last week we established the overall
approach to war: war is not glorious or desirable, and
Judaism is founded on a vision of brotherhood among
all peoples. Yet in an imperfect world, war is
sometimes a necessary means to realize this vision.
The challenge is to carry out the means without losing
sight of the ends.
In order to obtain more detailed insights, we need to
go back to a principle we have mentioned a number of
times: Our law
often provides both a minimal, "lowest common
denominator" ethical standard which we can never fall
below, and also an ambitious ethical ideal which we
strive to attain.
One prominent example is capital punishment. Jewish
law legitimates capital punishment in a secular state,
accepting that this drastic punishment may be
necessary to establish law and order. But in an ideal
Torah state, capital punishment is virtually
non-existent. When Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was asked by
the governor of New York for the Torah's approach to
capital punishment, he began by describing the
innumerable strictures which apply in the ideal
situation, and only at the end added that if
circumstances dictate then we may introduce a regime
which is stricter, though still civilized. (1)
In war, as in capital punishment, the minimal standard
is carefully elaborated in Maimonides code in the Laws
of Kings. Some rules of just war are universal:
presenting terms of peace before attacking, avoiding
total war by creating a partially protected status for
non-combatants, and so on. (2) Indeed, the very idea
that there are laws of warfare, limitations on the
freedom of military commanders and conquerors, bears a
very important ethical message.
The ideal situation is obviously to avoid war
altogether, but a more realistic objective for a war
conducted with humane norms is the civil war between
Judah (the southern kingdom) and Israel (the northern
kingdom) recounted in II Chronicles chapter 28. We
find that abominations committed by Ahaz, the king of
Judah, led to an attack by the kingdom of Israel. The
justification for the attack was to restore Judah to a
civilized way of life, yet the victorious northern
army treated the captives in a less-than-civilized
way. For this they were rebuked by a prophet, and
repaired their ways: "And the designated men rose up
and took the captives. They clothed all the naked from
the spoil, giving them clothes and shoes, and they fed
them and gave them to drink and anointed them, and
they led the weak on asses, and brought them to
Jericho the city of palms, to their brethren, and they
returned to Samaria."
This is civil behavior in a civil war. Should we then
act this way to our enemies? It depends. The mishnah
tells us that prior to going to war, the Jewish army
is lectured by a specially appointed priest. He quotes
the Biblical verse, "Hear, oh Israel, you go out today
to war against your enemies." He then explains: "They
are your enemies, and not your brothers … who, if you
fall into their hands, will have mercy on you" as we
find in the above quote from the book of Chronicles.
When we are facing a ruthless enemy who will have no
mercy on us, we must do whatever is necessary to
overcome them – exactly in order to bring about an end
to ruthlessness and cruelty. But if we are facing an
enemy who also adheres to basic rules of humane
conduct in war, such as the Geneva convention, then
the priest's admonition would have to be modified;
since we are facing an enemy who will have a degree of
mercy towards us if we are captured or defeated, we
also should adopt accepted norms of conflict with
The idea that even something as inhumane as war can be
conducted with some basic standards of humane
consideration is well established in Jewish tradition.
Modern agreements such as the Geneva convention mean
both sides can refrain from unnecessary cruelty.
But to the extent that we face enemies who don't play
by the rules, we must remember the priest's original
admonition: to keep in mind that we are fighting
enemies, and not brothers, and that these individuals
will not display any mercy towards us. In this case we
may have to adjust our norms in order to overcome the
forces of cruelty and inhumanity. Yet even in this
case, we have to keep in mind that the conflict of war
is only a means to bringing about a peaceful future
world where conflict is obsolete.
SOURCES: (1) Igros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat II number 68
(2) Maimonides, Laws of Kings, chapter 6. (3) Mishnah
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JWR contributor Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, formerly of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Reagan
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