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Rabbi Goldie Milgram
Rabbi David Straus teaches about the Halacha of War at Kaiserman JCC

Living Judaism

Jewish-American Civics 101
American issues through a Jewish lens

-- Dr. Daniel E. Loeb

Kehilat Lower Merion's second annual Summer Learning Series: Jewish-American Civics 101 is underway at the Kaiserman Jewish Community Center covering a wide of topics making political news today, exploring those issues from a distinctly Jewish point of view. KLM is an umbrella organization uniting a variety of congregations in the Lower Merion area: Beth David Reform Congregation, Main Line Reform Temple-Beth Elohim, Adath Israel, Beth Am Israel, Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, Beth T'fillah of Overbrook Park, Har Zion Temple, and Suburban Jewish Community Center-B'nai Aaron. 

"American Issues Through A Jewish Lens" is a series of six lectures Tuesdays, July 11 to August 15 taught by the Rabbis of Kehilat Lower Merion. 
  • July 11 - Rabbi David Straus (Main Line Reform Temple)
    The Halacha of War
  • July 18 - Rabbi Michael Bernstein (Beth Am Israel)
    How Should Israel Defend Herself: The responsibilities of waging war.
  • July 25 - Rabbi Steve Wernick (Adath Israel) with Steve Harvey, one of the attorneys arguing the Dover case about Intelligent Design
  • August 1 - Rabbi Robert Rubin (Beth T'fillah)
    Human Rights
  • August 8 - Rabbi Lisa Malik (SJCC Bnai Aaron)
  • August 15 - Rabbi Jay Stein (Har Zion Temple)
    Protecting the Environment

Lectures are 7:30 to 9:00 in the evening, no pre-registration or fees required.

The Halacha of War

Special Dossier: War on Hezbollah.

Rabbi Straus discussed Jewish thought on the necessity and permissibility of war to a standing room only crowd to inaugurate "Jewish-American Civics 101". Rabbi Bernstein reviewed and debated Jewish literature on war ranging from the Torah, through talmudic sources, Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, and recent teshuvot from the Reform movement.

It is hard to make the case that Judaism is a pacifistic religion. The weekly portion of the Torah, Pinchas, was an excellent introduction to the subject. In the midst of an awesome, virulent plague (possibly a terrible, endemic sexually-transmitted disease found among the Midianites), Pinchas grandson of the Aaron the High Priest reacted rashly to the public display of Midianite princess Cosbi and her lover Zimri, a leader of the tribe of Simeon, and simultaneously impaled them both with his spear. 

Pinchas acted as police, judge and jury, executing swift judgment. To modern sensibilities this appears to be holy war in the best or rather the worst sense. Yet, the Lord goes on not only to approve but to commend Pinchas for his actions. "Pinchas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned my wrath away from the children of Israel in that he was zealous for my sake among them, so I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, "Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace: And it shall be to him, and to his descendants after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel."

Clearly some commentators were bothered by God's brit shalom (covenant of peace) being discerned on the basis of such a violent action. Traditionally, the vav in the word shalom and the yod in Pinchas is written in the Torah smaller than usual or with a broken stem perhaps to signify that Pinchas and his "peace" were both imperfect and diminished. From this we learn that there is something fundamentally wrong with war even if we occasionally must engage in it.

Later in the Bible, in recounting the history of Israel's wilderness journey, Psalms 106 makes special mention of Pinchas: "They joined themselves also to Baalpeor, and ate the sacrifices of the dead. Thus they provoked him to anger with their inventions: and the plague broke in upon them. Then stood up Pinchas, and executed judgment: and so the plague was stayed. And that was counted to him for righteousness to all generations for evermore."

Maimonides in Chapter 5 and 6 of Mishneh Torah on "Kings and Wars" distinguishes between two kinds of permissible war:

  • Melchemat Mitzvah. Literally, a command war or in other words a "holy war". This is a required war ordered by God. The king is commanded to "deliver Israel from the enemy attacking him." The Hebrews were commanded to exterminate Amalek and to liberate the holy land from the seven nations who lived there, and everyone is commanded to fight. One might be relieved to know that the Hebrew army was to offer peace to these nations before attacking them. However, this peace was an unconditional surrender where the residents accept the seven Noahide laws, submit to servitude and pay a tribute to the Hebrews. 
  • Melchemat Reshut. Literally, a permitted war. A Jewish king could engage in a war to "extend the borders of Israel and to enhance his greatness and prestige". Hebrews were exempt from military service if they had recently built a house, planted a vineyard, or were betrothed but had not yet enjoyed the fruits of their labor (Deuteronomy 20).

In the first case, the King "need not obtain the sanction of the court. He may at any time go forth of his own accord and compel the people to go with him." However, an optional war required the approval of the Sanhedrin ("the court of seventy-one"). This is analogous to the situation in the United States, as commander-in-chief the President is expected to take the necessary steps to defend our country when it is under attack, but an optional war requires approval of the people via a declaration of war made by Congress.

We would like to believe that the notion of holy war or Jihad is alien to our religion. However, that is not historically accurate. The Torah talks about absolute right and wrong, good and evil, and commands us to war war on absolute evil. Nevertheless, most Jewish commentators limit the applicability of holy war (Melchemat Mitzvah) to biblical times, since the ancient inhabitants of the Holy Land which predated the Hebrews no longer exist, and although all the villains in Jewish history are said to be descended from Amalek, it is no longer possible to identify any Amalekites. 

It should be noted that from the time the Talmud was codified until 1948, Jews did not have their own state. It is one thing to write the laws of war when you have power and quite another thing to write the laws when you are subject to the will of your oppressors.

Rabbi Straus told a story of two Jews in Russia who befriended a non-Jew and asked him why the non-Jews hate the Jews. He said it is because you Jews think you are better than us. The Jews surprised by their friend's frankness reply, "but we are better than you because you hunt, and Jews do not hunt." The non-Jew laughed, Jews do not hunt because we do not let you have guns. At that, the Jews decided their friend might be right, and to prove him wrong they would emigrate to the holy land, and create a Jewish state where Jews could own guns but they would not hunt. 

The Reform Movement wrote a responsa entitled "Preventive War" in response to the following She'elah:

Does our tradition countenance preemptive military action when there is suspicion, but no prima facie evidence exists, that a perceived enemy will attack? My question presupposes that innocent lives will be lost in the event of such action. I would also note that Israel engaged in such an action when it bombed the Iraqi Osirak nuclear facilities in 1981. (Rabbi Benno M. Wallach, Houston, TX)

The responsa limited the justification of a permitted war to self-defense: that is a "defensive war" (where you are under attack) or a "preventive war" (where the enemy will attack you if you do not attack him), but not a "pre-emptive war" (where there is only a suspicion that you may be attacked at some point) or a purely "aggressive war" (made for material gain). Limitations to this principle of self-defense can be found in Exodus: "If a thief is seized while tunneling and he is beaten to death, there is no blood guilt in this case. If the sun has risen on him, there is blood guilt."

The difficult question and the one which will continue to be a source of debate is what is self-defense? 

The war against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was an obvious case of self-defense. The war against Iraq was marketed as self-defense, but in light of lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, was it really self-defense. Is "probable cause" adequate justification for war? An even more extreme case is the despicable assassination of Prime Minister Yizchak Rabin which Yigal Amir attempted to defend "halachically" claiming that Rabin was a rodef (pursuer) and this was an act of self-defense. 

The current conflict in Gaza and Lebanon against Hamas and Hezbollah started after Rabbi Bernstein's lecture. However, the implications seem clear. Israel seeks not to increase in size or glory, but rather seeks peace and the welfare of its citizens. That is why they left Lebanon decades ago, why Rabin offered Arafat most of the West Bank, and why Olmert withdrew from the Gaza strip last year.

However, when Iraq built a nuclear reactor 25 years ago, when PLO controlled Gaza became a base for terrorist operations against Israel, and when the Galilee was struck by missiles launched by Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon, Israel needed to defend itself and had the right to do so.

The final question of the night dealt with the American War of Independence and the Civil War. It is uncertain if Jewish standards of War can or should apply to Tories and Patriots, or Greys and Blues, but there is certainly some doubt whether "taxation without representation" and the existence of slavery (but of which are not forbidden halachically) are ground for a melchemet reshut.

The responsa concludes: 

An attack may be morally justifiable, but the government bears the responsibility to do all that it can to make the case that it is in the right.

It also bears a heavy responsibility for its conduct of the war, no matter how justified that war may be. In the words of a former chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces: "Even though the mitzvah to fight wars is laid down in the Torah, we are commanded to show mercy to the enemy. Even during wartime, we are permitted to kill only in self-defense or in pursuit of legitimate military objectives. We are forbidden to harm a non-combatant population, and we are surely prohibited from striking at women and children who take no part in battle."[30] We know that civilian deaths are inevitable in war, no matter how carefully it is waged. That inevitability, however, does not exempt those who prosecute war from the task of keeping its collateral damage to the absolute minimum.

May the One Who makes peace in the highest heavens grant peace to us, to all Israel, and to all the world.

-- Dr. Daniel E. Loeb, inspired in part by Rabbi Straus's lecture. All credit is due to the Rabbi. All errors are the author's alone.

Previous Features

The Living Judaism feature in each issue focuses on Jewish spirituality, meaning and activism with invited columns written by rabbis belonging to the various movements of Judaism. Jewish clergy interested in writing for Living Judaism are invited to make contact with Rabbi Goldie Milgram at judaism @ pjvoice.com