All's Fair in 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 about this?

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is the source of one of the earliest and most majestic visions of a society of friendship among nations, where war is obsolete.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 God'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.) Indeed, one 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 fight resolutely.

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 Shabbat 6:4 (2) Rabbi David Samson, Torat Eretz Yisrael, p. 288