Q. What kind of wars does Judaism permit?
A. The Jewish greeting is shalom and the Jewish ideal is peace. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger of good tidings who announces peace” (Isaiah 52:7)… “The result of righteousness shall be peace” (Isaiah 43:17)… “Peace be within your walls, prosperity within your palaces” (Psalm 122:7). In the end of days “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3).
But believing in peace does not require us to be pacifist. We must speak peace (Psalm 28:3), seek peace and pursue it (Psalm 34:15), but an unredeemed world sometimes needs the interim ethic of war. If peace talk is not achieving peace and indeed is seen as a sign of weakness, there can be a case for resorting, with immense reluctance and responsibility, for considering war.
But any war must be controlled, contained and constrained. The offer of peace must be tried again. But if war becomes necessary its objectives and methods must be limited, the human dignity of the enemy must be respected, the environment must not be wilfully devastated, the morale of the troops must be protected and the awfulness of killing must be acknowledged.
By the time of the Talmud, the Biblical wars were long since over, as were the struggles of the Maccabean warriors and the Jews who defied the Roman might. War was now a matter of academic analysis more than a question of practical policy. But the rabbis made the seminal distinction between milchemet mitzvah, a “commanded” or defensive war, and milchemet reshut, a “permitted” or voluntary war, which requires the approval of the Sanhedrin.
For most of Diaspora history, these principles were probably unknown to Jews involved in military activity in the armies of other nations, though they sometimes reached high rank and contributed to the history of warfare. But Eastern European Jews were more traditional, and for them the Chafetz Chayyim wrote in 1881 a book of halachic principles to guide Jewish soldiers who were anxious to remain loyal to Judaism. Another interesting work was produced during the Second World War by the Jewish Welfare Board of America, setting out detailed answers to servicemen’s questions as agreed by Orthodox, Conservative and Reform chaplains. It is not known how far the defence groups created by the pre-State yishuv, and the famous Jewish Legion in the first World War and the Jewish Brigade in the Second, sought to fight according to the Jewish ethic of warfare.
Later, Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren and others produced guidelines for the Israeli military. Even those who are not personally observant agree on the ethic of military service that has come to be known as “purity of arms”, and any proven infractions are subject to severe discipline.
Despite all this, the Jewish ideal remains the elimination of war and the transformation of weapons into implements of peaceful constructiveness. Though we recognise what distance we still have to go to achieve this utopia, we possess the secret of how to get there. The sages say in Pirkei Avot 1:18, “The world rests on three things – on justice, peace and truth”. The Jerusalem Talmud adds (Ta’anit 4:2), “All three are one, for where there is justice, there is also truth and there is peace”.
Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk said, “Peace without truth is a false peace”. He would have said the same thing about peace without justice. The way to peace is through justice and truth. Find the way to justice and truth and you will know peace.