The following article refers to situations in Jewish history when Jews chose death and martyrdom instead of conversion to another faith. It should be noted that this is not necessarily endorsed in Jewish tradition. Judaism recognizes three acts that require martyrdom instead of transgression: incest, murder, and idolatry. According to most authorities, Christianity and Islam are not idolatrous religions. Excerpted and reprinted with permission from “Fighting the War and the Peace: Battlefield Ethics, Peace Talks, Treaties, and Pacifism in the Jewish Tradition,” originally published on jlaw.com.
Difficult as it is in our current society to take a stand against pacifism as a societal or individual moral philosophy, it is clear that the Jewish tradition does not favor pacifism as a value superior to all other values or incorporate it as a basic moral doctrine within Judaism.
Pacifism is Recommended–Sometimes
Judaism clearly has accepted a practical form of pacifism as appropriate in the “right” circumstances. For example, the Talmud (Ketubot 111a) recounts that in response to the persecutions of the second century (CE), the Jewish people agreed (literally: took an oath) that mandated pacifism in the process of seeking political independence or autonomy for the Jewish state. This action is explained by noting that frequently pacifism is the best response to total political defeat; only through the complete abjuring of the right to use force can survival be ensured.
So too, the phenomenon of martyrdom, with even the extreme example of killing one’s own children rather than allowing them to be converted out of the faith, represents a form of pacifism in the face of violence. However, it is impossible to assert that a pacifistic tradition is based on a deeply rooted Jewish tradition to abstain from violence even in response to violence. It is true that there was a tradition rejecting the violent response to antisemitism and pogrom. Yet it is clear that that tradition was based on the futility of such a response, rather than on the moral impropriety of such a response.
Even a casual survey of Jewish law on the appropriateness of a violent response to violence leads one to conclude that neither Jewish law nor rabbinic ethics frowned on violence in all circumstances as a response to violence.
At Other Points, the Law Demands Force
Three examples prove this point. Jewish law commands (compels) one to save the life of one who is being murdered even if it is necessary to do so at the expense of the life of the murderer. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 72a) commands that one should have no mercy on the murderer and take his life if needed. Indeed, this is true even if the murderer could not be punished by a court for his crime after the fact (for example, if the murderer were a minor).
So too, Jewish law recounts that if one sees two individuals fighting in a circumstance where one could hurt the other, Jewish law allows the use of force to separate the two combatants. In a circumstance where force is the only means to separate the combatants, force is mandatory.
As is noted by Rabbi Joshua Falk-Cohen (Sema) [1555-1614] and others, this rule encompasses two different moral duties. The first is to help one who is being attacked, the second is separating a person from sin. The use of force to hurt a person is wrong but Jewish law sanctions the use of force to prevent another from using force improperly.
A clearer rejection of the philosophy of pacifism is not possible. Indeed, one who examines even the ritual area of the law discovers that the use of violence in the service of that which is right is sanctioned as permissible. Thus, the Shulkhan Arukh [the medieval, authoritative work of Jewish law] (Orakh Chaim 329:6) mandates the use of force on the Sabbath in response to the threat of invasion of the Jewish community. It is simply untenable to claim that, as a matter of theoretical ethical duty, Jewish law perceives pacifism as the ideal response to evil in all circumstances.
Thus it is crucial to emphasize that the Jewish tradition does not reject pacifism as a practical response to immorality or evil. Rather, tactical pacifism has a place as the clearly superior alternative to either co-operating with evil or actively trying to separate one from evil and failing.
But the Least Violent Means Must Be Used
There is one element of pacifism that is clearly found in the Jewish tradition: the minimization of violence. In nearly all situations where Jewish law allows violence to prevent an evil from occurring, it mandates that the minimal amount of violence be used to accomplish one’s goal. Thus, if one can stop a murderer from committing the crime without the use of deadly force, deadly force is prohibited (Tur, Hoshen Mishpat 425. Maimonides, Murder 1:13). If one can separate combatants without using physical force, non-violent means are certainly preferred (Shulkhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat 421:11).
Judaism accepted that it is best not to use violence and violence was the last resort, but when no other action would suffice, violence was morally acceptable and typically mandatory.
Societal Pacifism is Not Simple
The question of societal, rather than individual, pacifism, is a much more complex topic in Jewish law. Judaism does not require that society go to war in every circumstance in which war is permissible. The decision as to whether or not to wage war is a societal burden, one made by those who are part of the society that will suffer the consequences of waging the war.
In response to a belligerent action, in situations where war is authorized rather than obligatory, society has the right to adopt a pacifistic stance and decline to wage war (or to wage some kind of limited war). In that sense, a society could adopt a generally pacifistic response to aggression and decline to exercise its right to respond to every aggression. That form of societal pacifism is permitted according to Jewish law. Even in that situation, these considerations are limited to cases of authorized war.
Rabbi Maurice Lamm, in his excellent seminal essay on pacifism and selective conscientious objection in the Jewish tradition (Maurice Lamm, “After the War–Another look at Pacifism and Selective Conscientious Objection,” in M. Kellner, ed. Contemporary Jewish Ethics, pp. 221-238), concludes by stating, “It must be affirmed that Judaism rejected total pacifism, but that it believed strongly in pragmatic pacifism as a higher morally more noteworthy religious position. Nonetheless, this selective pacifism is only a public, national decision, and not a personal one.”
Rabbi Lamm’s essay demonstrates what is obvious to all students of Jewish law and ethics: theological pacifism has no place in the Jewish tradition.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.